“I am an optimist, for better or worse,” Rufus Wainwright tells NME of his mindset after four months in lockdown. “I seem to keep either encouraging myself or deluding myself that this is all part of the parcel of a brand new scheme of things – whether that’s the world or my career. I’m both plagued and blessed by this.”
It’s been an eventful period, to say the least. On a lesser scale, it forced the acclaimed singer-songwriter to push back the release of ‘Unfollow The Rules’ – his ninth album and first record in the ‘pop’ realm in eight years. It’s that typical Rufus blend of personal reflection, flamboyance, with a touch of the political. Weighing up his place and role in the world like the rest of us have been, it’s an album that’s taken on new prescience in light of everything – but one that serves a pretty essential function. “I think that people are generally in need of distraction and meaningful moments right now,” says Wainwright. “I think my music offers both.”
NME gave Wainwright a Zoom call to discuss quarantine, maturity, dethroning Donald Trump, and his future in left-field foreign language dark electro.
How would you say that your relationship with ‘Unfollow The Rules’ has changed in recent months?
“When it was first due out in April, I was concerned that the title ‘Unfollow The Rules’ was slightly inappropriate – concerning what was going on with COVID and the need to follow the rules. Now there’s the Black Lives Matter protests and the re-evaluation of society and history. There’s a reckoning of sorts, especially in America where it’s an election year. I think that unfollowing the rules is now appropriate again. I’m not an iconoclast. It’s not about doing away with the rules, but more about turning around, going back, observing them, and examining whether you should go down another path.”
Can you see America going down another path?
“You know, it’s funny. I was at a socially-distanced Fourth Of July thing the other day and speaking to an older French gentleman and lives in California. I asked him if he’d move back to Europe if Trump wins and the pandemic gets worse, and he said, ‘No, I love America. This is where my life is’. I was reminded of the fact that this is a great country and there are so many things about this place that are still very unique and special. Being that this is an election year and we need to go out and fight for this democracy, I feel that there’s something to fight for.”
With lockdown mentality and the Black Lives Matter protests, would you say there’s been a spike in empathy in America?
“There has, but I must say that it’s impossible to minimise the ineptitude and pure evil of this administration – in terms of just not caring about anybody’s lives. At first they said it was only the old, the sick and the dying who were at risk. Now they’re saying, ‘Well, if young people get it then they won’t die’. These kids are going to have scarred lungs. The amount of what I can’t describe as anything other than evil in our government is pretty breathtaking.”
The track ‘Hatred’ from your new album is pretty on-the-nose about dethroning Trump. Will you be playing that with a renewed passion when you tour again?
“Yes. There will be a residual trauma from this. However I’m in good health, everyone I know is, I live in sunny California, I have an album coming out, people interested in my work, there are projects on the horizon, so I feel very fortunate.”
It’s been eight years since ‘Out Of The Game’. What gave you the compulsion to make another pop record?
“I adore my last pop record, ‘Out Of The Game’ which I made with Mark Ronson. I do however feel that it was a little premature for me to expect to burst on to the pop scene back then – especially after what had happened to me in that period around the time of the death of my mother [Canadian folk legend Kate McGarrigle]. I was stalked by the outcome of the lack of trajectory of that record, so I retreated back to the opera world and finished what I had started there. I had the chance to remove myself. With ‘Unfollow The Rules’, I’m just genuinely excited to be making pop music again. I’ve got nothing to prove, I’m not here to say I’m young and hip – I’m here because I missed singing songs about my life to a wider audience.”
And you had something you could only say through pop?
“The subject matter of the songs is very prescient, more introspective and honouring this funny thing called middle age. The pattern that I’m most hoping to knit is one that has happened a few times with middle-aged male artists – like Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon or Frank Sinatra who suddenly turned into who they really are. They inhabit their persona fully at that point.”
Would you describe this as a ‘mature’ record, or are you afraid of that word?
“I’m not afraid of that world at all. I hope I don’t sound sexist and weird, but I have always sensed that there’s a kind of pattern when you look at female artists as opposed to male artists where it’s really hard for them in their 30s and 40s, but then when they hit their 50s they bloom into this grand dame. With men, it’s in their 40s where they become who they are then it’s just a steady degrade until they fade away! This is my triumphant moment. I need to take as much advantage of it as I can, virus or not, and make my mark.”
You’ve described this as a ‘bookend’ to your 1998 self-titled debut album. How would you explain that connection?
“If anything, I would say that it’s the same record but older – in the sense that when I made my first album years ago I was really given the keys to the castle; whether it was budgetary, living at The Chateau Marmont, working in these incredible rooms, renting a car for three years, it was pretty lavish and outrageous. Both albums took about three years to make, but this one had months between working on it because I couldn’t afford to be in the studio for months. I don’t live in that world anymore, but both records sound pretty well-made. ‘Unfollow The Rules’ has a leaner quality to it, it’s clearer and has less distractions.”
How would you describe the energy of the album?
“There’s a toughness to this album that certain of my records have. With ‘Out Of The Game’, there was a certain swagger and dreamy, whimsical quality – but I wouldn’t say that I was so secure up there in my party hat. With this one, I feel very rooted and there’s a clarity to it.”
After this ‘bookend’, have you thought about where you’ll go next musically?
“I’ve thought a lot about it. I was brought up in Montreal and went to French schools for years. I’d been spending a lot of time in France and hanging out with a lot of young, hip Parisians like my friend Woodkid [director of Lana Del Rey’s ‘Born To Die’ and maker of acclaimed art-pop]. I’m itching at some point to make a French record – but one that’s very avant-garde and a total left-turn from this American, Anglo-Saxon songwriting. It would be very dark and something that the kids might get lost in. That’ll be a good ode to the virus! Let’s get really negative!”
Rufus Wainwright releases ‘Unfollow The Rules’ on Friday July 10.