“When you step onto the good ship Rufus, you sail into a timeless world, a wondrous land full of mysterious melodies. Those stretched-out notes and quirky changes take you on a beautifully-crafted journey through the past and the present, through loneliness and love, to reveal a little harbour fiercely guarded by a sharp and cynical intelligence. But when you disembark, surrender, and fully enter his world, the drawbridge is lowered and opens to a garden, a walled garden full of scented flowers.” – Peter Gabriel
In the lead-up to the release of Unfollow The Rules , Rufus Wainwright counted down to release day by sharing snippets from, and walk-throughs of, each track alongside his own hand-drawn artwork, plus testimonials from famous friends (including Sting, Cyndi Lauper, Renée Zellweger and Anohni) on his socials (Lauper labelling Unfollow The Rules “Rufus’ Pet Sounds”).
And as for Gabriel’s quote (above)! If we were Wainwright we’d print off multiple copies, in giant font, to plaster all over the walls of every room in our house! Wainwright laughs at the idea. “I’m a lucky man, yeah!” he says. “I mean, I’m very honoured, and I think if I got too wrapped up in it or something it would be a little bit – I dunno, it’d be somewhat distracting. I feel privileged and then, you know, I’ve gotta move onto my job,” he concludes matter-of-factly, and we suspect Wainwright is blushing – bless.
Once the songs on Unfollow The Rules were completed, Wainwright noticed they naturally fell into three acts (or sides of a record, if you will): Act I presents “a mix of present and past, lessons learnt, finally dealing with what’s been buried”; Act II houses “the whimsical, psychedelic side… about letting go in order to begin a new journey”; and Act III navigates “complete darkness.”
This scribe’s (and Sting’s!) favourite album track is Act III’s Early Morning Madness, during which instrumentation sounds like the machinations of a troubled mind. This song is essentially about addiction and its arrangement evokes Tom Waits. “That’s very understandable,” Wainwright allows. “He’s a big influence, in terms of that song. I mean, that song – for me – is very much the kind of dark sister of Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk; it’s sort of the after-effects, 20 years later,” he laughs. So it’s a companion piece in a way? “Yeah, yeah, very much so.”
A wondrous song from Act I, Damsel In Distress, is part-Joni Mitchell homage. Wainwright has previously confessed he was tardy to join the Mitchell Appreciation Society, stating that it was his husband Jörn sharing his obsession with her that awakened his own admiration for the legendary Canadian singer-songwriter-producer.
In Wainwright’s words, Damsel In Distress is mostly about his “Mitchell virginity being broken.” So was it a particular song that broke his Joni Mitchell virginity? He laughs heartily. “Well, I mean, I sang A Case Of You, and All I Want, and Blue [Wainwright performed the latter two songs for Joni 75: A Birthday Celebration, a live concert/tribute album released in 2019 to commemorate Mitchell’s 75th birthday]. I’ve sung a lot of her work and that’s really implanted a deep appreciation for her over the last couple of years. I would say that, with Damsel In Distress, you can definitely hear that it has a relationship to Free Man In Paris; I think that’s the vibe that I’m kind of echoing in my song. I would say, though, that the song that never ceases to amaze me is Both Sides Now. It’s one of those perfect songs with this melody that you just want to sing over and over again, and the message, of course, is so profound. So I have to go with Both Sides Now.”
Wainwright has actually hung out with Mitchell, and we can’t help but wonder whether they discussed songwriting. “It’s funny, you know, I know her, I knew Leonard [Cohen, Wainwright’s daughter Viva’s grandfather] very well. I’ve hung out a bit with Randy Newman – a lot of people! Jackson Browne… I never talked about songwriting! We never really get to that. I dunno, it’s strange. I mean, obviously I try to go to their concerts, and they very graciously come to mine, and there’s a kind of pat-on-the-back thing, obviously, and I’m thrilled to have these legends in my presence. But we don’t really get into the nitty-gritty of [discussing] songwriting. I probably do that more with opera composers; I’m more willing to give away my secrets there, yes,” Wainwright chuckles.
He’s composed two operas to date: Prima Donna (2009) and Hadrian. The latter premiered as the opening production of the Canadian Opera Company’s 2018 season, and the material for Unfollow The Rules was written while he worked on Hadrian (“in order to stay alive artistically”). As such, Wainwright noticed “major theatrical tangents seeping into these songs.”
“None of that happened on purpose,” Wainwright clarifies. “I have never liked crossover stuff – you know, whether it’s classical or pop, I’m kind of a purist in that way – but I do believe that, in terms of working in both realms, I undeniably bring stuff back and forth without thinking about it.
“I would say that, for this album, probably what I’ve learned most – and this I think I learned from orchestrating a lot and dealing with balance and stuff – is that less is more, and, I don’t know, there should be a kind of equilibrium that is created where the listener is able to focus on the song and not necessarily the production. And that hasn’t always been the case in my music. I mean, I went through some wild periods of throwing everything and the kitchen sink into the mix – I love that period as well, I was more experimental – but I think this one is very precise and very measured, which has sort of come from working in the classical world, too.”
Mitchell Froom, who produced Unfollow The Rules, is also credited for keeping the arrangements lean. The album presser contains this evocative quote from Wainwright: “Mitchell was parsimonious. One take would do. I’d ask for trombone and he’d wave me away.” Was Froom somewhat like a stern headmaster in the studio? “I mean, he wasn’t stern in the sense that he gave me opportunities to try a bunch of things out, and oftentimes there were parts of this that worked, but he was just very direct and I was ready for some criticism at that point. So it was just very fast, you know?
“If something wasn’t working I’d just be like, ‘Let’s move onto something else.’ There wasn’t much of an argument about it so we just kept going, which I have to say took many years for me to be able to do. You know, to let go like that. And for him, I think he was pleasantly surprised that I wasn’t so domineering all the time. Though he has said that I was definitely present, shall we say; I was no wallflower.” Has Wainwright ever been a wallflower, though? “No, no, no, no I haven’t. Wish I could’ve been occasionally, but no.”
As a married father in his 40s, Wainwright says he’s been reminiscing and re-evaluating his past of late. When asked whether there are some parts of his life he wishes he could do over, Wainwright shares: “It’s funny, you know, I’m very enamoured of young Rufus, and I look back fondly on the journey that I’ve been on over the years, especially in terms of being so honest about my sexuality at the outset and also really sticking to my ideals in the studio and trying to make the best records I could, which I think I succeeded in doing. The one little aspect that at times I cringe over is just my singing sometimes – it has improved a lot over the years, especially after the Judy Garland concerts [these 2006 concerts became Wainwright’s first live album: Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall]; like, I really had to focus on my breathing and my pronunciation and how to really interpret a song, whereas before that I was just always kind of out there to express myself. And I do sometimes wish that – like Judy Garland or, I don’t know, Mickey Rooney or something – I had had a serious Hollywood education to start out with, and had really had some things hammered into me by a system of sorts. But I learnt it eventually. Didn’t learn how to tap dance, though!” he laughs.
Given Wainwright’s obsession with all things Garland, we’ve just gotta know what he thought of the award-winning Judy biopic starring his buddy Renée Zellweger (with whom Wainwright performed a duet, Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, for the OST).
“Well I’m very pro-Judy-the-movie,” Wainwright explains. “You know, [Renée’s] a good friend of mine, and it was difficult, because I’m also quite good friends with Lorna Luft, Judy’s daughter, who was not pro-Judy-the-movie. She had a lot of reservations with it – totally understandable, I mean, it’s not her life, but it’s a big part of her life and her mother‘s legacy. So I had every intention of kind of pooh-poohing the film. But then once I saw it, I was really struck by Renée’s performance, and the talent and tenor that she brought forth was very effective. And, no, she doesn’t have Judy Garland’s voice – and nobody does! – [but] for me it really works well.”
Unfollow The Rules by Rufus Wainwright is out Friday July 10 via BMG.