Unfollow The Rules finds Rufus Wainwright at the peak of his powers, entering artistic maturity with passion, honesty and a new-found fearlessness, while remaining as mischievous as ever. Recorded in the same legendary Los Angeles studios as his landmark debut, his ninth album is both a bookend to Act 1 of an extraordinary career and a distillation of 21 years of experience at pop’s most flamboyant coal face. Inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and Laurel Canyon, Unfollow The Rules captures Rufus at a crossroads. Ready to tackle new challenges, yet compelled to confront his past, he’s taking stock of two decades of running riot with rules, making sense of how he has matured as a musician and celebrating the contented family man he has become.
“At my age – 40s, we’ll say – you start to re-evaluate the past you’ve been shackled to for so long,” says Rufus. “You can’t walk away from it, discard everything and create a new life. You’re now too old to skip town.” “Instead you have to go back and examine the forces that brought you here. In my case, that meant crawling through a minefield of drama, regret, wounds and so forth. To move forward required embracing those injuries, knowing that I’m in a good place now because of them, not despite them.”
That wisdom is reflected in twelve, spectacular songs, all classics from first listen which couldn’t have been written in any previous period of Rufus’s life. His years spent composing operas and classical music, his swerve into singing Shakespeare sonnets, his hundreds of jaw-dropping concerts, his drive to persistently push the definition of pop to its limits and his happiness at home with his husband, Jorn, and his near eight year old daughter (the bright mind responsible for the album’s title) are among the experiences instrumental to the music.
“What I would like this album to symbolise is a coming together of all the aspects of my life which have made me a seasoned male artist,” says Rufus. “My aim is to emulate the greats of yore whose second acts produced their finest work – Leonard Cohen when he made The Future, when Sinatra became Sinatra in his 40s, when Paul Simon put out Graceland.”
“Pop music isn’t always about your waistline. Many songwriters improve with age. I’m flying the flag for staying alive!” The twelve songs, in fact, began as life lines. Written during a six-year, self-imposed exile from pop when Rufus was immersed in other projects, in particular his 2018 opera Hadrian, he retreated to songwriting to save his sanity and remind himself that making music should be fun. “Songwriting became a real need,” says Rufus. “The classical world can be cold and stiff. It’s hard work, but also incredibly fulfilling. I wrote songs in order to stay alive artistically and saw the tricks I’d learnt from taking off on these major theatrical tangents seeping into the songs. It was a fortunate trade-off I hadn’t foreseen.”
The results of that trade-off are exquisite, yet unexpected. Unfollow The Rules may be a bookend to 1998’s Rufus Wainwright – which saw the musician hailed Best New Artist by Rolling Stone – recorded in historic studios with strings, woodwind and some of the world’s greatest session musicians, but sonically it’s Rufus at his most focussed and distilled. Much of the album was recorded live, often in one take. There is no instrumental excess baggage. Rufus’ resplendent vocals are at both their soaring best and most exposed, throwing the focus on to his phrasing and allowing the melodies to unfold and take flight.
“For that I am indebted to the genius of my producer Mitchell Froom,” says Rufus. “He managed to execute this very rich, luscious, grand sound with sparsity and an incredibly light hand. I can’t thank him enough for giving me that gift – the gift of nothing! Hahaha. “Mitchell opened my ears to what was really needed in terms of recording. My previous method was to throw everything at a piece and see what sticks. Do as many takes as you want and wait for happy accidents. “I still love that way of working, but I’ve learnt that less can be best.
Mitchell was parsimonious. One take would do. I’d ask for trombone and he’d wave me away.” Largely recorded at Sound City Studios with a cast which included veterans from Rufus’s debut (notably drummer Jim Ketner), guitarist Blake Mills and pianist Randy Kerber, the sessions were unusually swift. “I always intended to close this phase of my career as it began – making great songs with great musicians in great L.A. studios,” says Rufus. “That was the norm 20 years ago. Now the studios are temples on the verge of being destroyed.”
“Their richness and their warmth was what I wanted, not least now that I live in Laurel Canyon – I’ll happily suck up some of that glory! But being back was a reminder of the naïve youngster I once was. I spent three years in Ocean Way studios making my debut, burning through what I foolishly assumed was someone else’s money. This time we were there for one day and, arguably, got the same results.”
“What I love about this album is its intimacy. There aren’t 8000 orchestras, yet I’m excited. I’m longing to take it on tour. It’s my mantle – my coming out as a seasoned songwriter.” “Others will be gone soon, so space is opening up for artists who have lasted in this business. Of course, I’m not the only one but I should be one of them.”
“Already I’m looking ahead, to the end of this era and the start of something completely different and really out there. More out there than before? You’ll have to wait and see.” Career Highlights: Praised by the New York Times for his “genuine originality,” Rufus Wainwright has established himself as one of the great male vocalists, songwriters and composers of his generation. The New York-born, Montreal-raised singer- songwriter has released seven studio albums to date with, three DVDs, and three live albums, including the fantastic Grammy nominated Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall. Musically, Rufus has collaborated with artists including Elton John, Burt Bacharach, Robert Wilson, David Byrne, Boy George, Joni Mitchell, Pet Shop Boys, Heart, Robbie Williams, Jessye Norman, Billy Joel, Paul Simon, Sting and producer Mark Ronson among many others. Rufus has made a name for himself in the classical music world. His much acclaimed first opera, titled Prima Donna, premiered at the Manchester International Festival in July 2009 and was performed in London, New York, Paris, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong among others.
Rufus’s second opera based on the story of the Roman Emperor, Hadrian and Antinous, premiered in October 2018 at the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto and won a Dora Award for Outstanding New Opera. Rufus has also distinguished himself by playing original orchestrated pop songs, his orchestral settings of 5 Shakespeare Sonnets and pieces from an extensive classical repertoire with orchestras around the world such as the Chicago Symphony, Toronto Symphony, Residentie Orchestra, Orchestre National d’Île-de-France, the orchestra of the Teatro Real. Rufus has appeared at many of the world’s greatest concert halls and festivals including Royal Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, Sydney Opera, Teatro Colon, Hollywood Bowl, the Elbphilharmonie, the Olympia, Glastonbury, Roskilde, and the Kennedy Honors. Rufus has written and recorded songs for a wide variety of movies and TV shows including Brokeback Mountain, Shrek, Judy, Meet the Robinsons, The Aviator, Moulin Rouge and Boardwalk Empire. Rufus and his sister Martha Wainwright continue the legacy of their mother, Canadian folk icon Kate McGarrigle, and raise funds for the Kate McGarrigle Fund funding sarcoma research and a music therapy program. He is working on a number of film, podcast and musical projects and lives in Los Angeles with husband Jorn Weisbrodt and shares custody for his daughter Viva with her mother Lorca Cohen.