The cover of Rufus Wainwright’s new record, Unfollow the Rules, may be a shock for some fans. For years, starting with his 1998 self-titled debut, the singer-songwriter’s album artwork has been graced by his angelic, childlike countenance — clean-shaven and too beautiful for words. But on Unfollow the Rules, which is his first pop album in eight years, we are greeted by a middle-aged man sporting a gray, full beard and a pensive posture. He remains handsome and boyish, but while we weren’t looking, a bit of maturity seeped in, too.
It’s an apt metaphor for the 12 songs contained on Unfollow the Rules. Still bursting with style and indelible melodies, Wainwright’s compositions have lost none of their luster or wit, and his voice remains a remarkable instrument — full of tenderness, humor or melancholy, depending on the situation. But although his material has always been suffused with bittersweet longing, on the new album there’s added depth and temperance. On July 22nd, he’ll be 47. He’s the father of a 9-year-old, Viva, with whom he shares custody with her mother, Lorca Cohen, daughter of the late Leonard Cohen. Plus, he’s been in a relationship with husband Jörn Weisbrodt for about 13 years. (Weisbrodt has been cheekily referred to as Viva’s “deputy dad.”) And so the Wainwright we hear on Unfollow the Rules is older and wiser than the young man battling addiction while singing lovelorn tunes on Poses and the Want records. It’s still him, but a happier him.
When I called Wainwright last week at his home in Laurel Canyon, he was eager to discuss this transformation, although he cautioned that there’s no such thing as everlasting bliss. (“It’s not like I’m up there purring about how fantastic everything is,” he says of the record. “There’s a certain amount of pain that I’ve had to go through to get to this happiness.”) Long sober and excited to finally release Unfollow the Rules after COVID-related delays, he came across as exceedingly thoughtful and funny. The last decade has seen him move away from pop — redoing a famous Judy Garland live album, trying his hand at opera and also adapting Shakespeare sonnets — and so understandably he sees the new album as a bookend to his first album, which like this one was recorded in L.A. What comes next, he couldn’t say.
We covered a lot of ground, including his sexual assault when he was 14, and his continuing complicated relationship with his songwriter parents, Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, who divorced when he was a boy. (McGarrigle died in 2010 at the age of 63, and her passing, as he’ll explain, forever changed Rufus’ relationship to death.) The perpetual uncertainty of the pandemic also entered into the conversation, especially in terms of being a father — a role he never thought he’d take on when he was young. Now, he can’t imagine his life without Viva. In fact, it was her spontaneous announcement one day that she wanted to “unfollow the rules” that inspired the album’s name. When he tells me about her, his always lively voice gets even brighter: “I see so much of my mother, so much of her mother, so much of myself — all of these other ghosts from the past and the present — but, essentially, she is her own person.”
Over the next hour, we talked about everything — love, death, opera, addiction — but we kept returning to this idea of what it means to find happiness. Several times, Wainwright described himself as an optimistic person. Contentment has been the ruin of many great artists. But Rufus Wainwright wears it well — like that fantastic beard of his, which also came up in our chat.
In the press notes, you talk about how with Unfollow the Rules, you wanted to emulate artists like Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon and Frank Sinatra, who were all doing interesting, different work in their 40s. Was that a conscious decision? Or did you just notice that while writing the songs?
Since I’m a man, I was focusing on that aspect of humanity, but male artists oftentimes — or, hopefully, shall we say — in their late 30s and 40s blossom in this interesting way. They lose a bit of that inspiration, I guess, of trying to stay young or trying to seem more smart than they really are. They relax, and just through experience and a little bit of wisdom, they can forge this path for their career.
If anything, I’m still very much connected to where I began my career with this album since I worked with some of the same musicians in some of the same rooms. But nonetheless, it’s this relaxed quality — or less-aggressive quality, but strong still — [that I wanted to] inhabit.
I know what you mean about “less aggressive.” While I was listening to the album, I thought, “This is someone who’s found some peace of mind, who’s in a loving long-term relationship and a contented father.” You’ve done something really difficult with Unfollow the Rules, which is make a good album about being happy.
Well, a lot of the happiness that I’ve garnered over the years has come at a price, in the sense I had to wrestle with my demons for a long time. I still do. I’ve also [got to think about] our daughter’s needs — I can’t just run off and be this rock ‘n’ roll star all the time. And that’s not an easy thing to do, especially when you’re a quasi-celebrity or something. [Laughs]
So there’s a sense of sadness — or, shall I say, emotion — within the work. It’s not like I’m up there purring about how fantastic everything is. There’s a certain amount of pain that I’ve had to go through to get to this happiness. And that makes it more resonant, hopefully.
“Early Morning Madness” is all about the fact that addiction is a constant battle — you’re never out of the woods.
Yeah, I wrote it a while ago, and it was about, basically, being hungover. But oddly enough, I have to say, I was mixing the album and then getting ready to release it — and then, of course, the pandemic hit — and I was kind of shocked at how the song about being hungover was the one that I related to most [right now], even though I wasn’t hungover.
I was having these early morning panic attacks [because of the pandemic]. I’d say, for the first two or three weeks, there was a lot of fear. There’s something very surreal about Los Angeles — it can be this pretty, flowery, tree-lined thing, but you’re two minutes away from Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard, and there’s some really angry, really desperate people out there. I’m talking about the pandemic and about the people who’ve lost their jobs — it’s going to be difficult. So, it was a very intense time, and I was like, “Oh my god, I’m thinking of that song ‘Early Morning Madness’ more than any of the others.”
With everyone I know, there’s been waves. Some people had that panic at the start, while others tried to embrace the novelty of this new situation and then, later, panic set in.
There was a mixture of both — there was panic, but also incredible relief. My husband and I had been traveling like maniacs for about two years. I’d been around the world twice each year. I’d been spending most of my time in airports. I was actually suffering from some exhaustion from all of the travel that I’ve done. And so, when we got back home — and everything shut down — I was kind of relieved. I could finally exhale and just be at home and enjoy all the trappings that I’d fought so hard to earn.
But that being said, then you turn on the news and would wake up in the morning really dealing with the subconscious fear that was burrowing in. I feel now that there’s a similar phenomenon occurring. On one hand, “Yeah, I want to go on with my life. I miss touring. I want to get back to the airport.” But there’s another side of me that’s like, “This is bigger than you’ll ever dream of.” That’s the fear that I have right now.
The idea of life just… stopping. We’re all housebound after usually being busy running around — it’s still hard to absorb.
Also, I haven’t seen my sisters in months — or my aunts and uncles, or my dad. It’s just been all centered around the general vicinity of my home. So it’s a little bit odd, but I’m a real optimist. I do tend to focus on the positive side of things. I’m happy for the record to come now — I think it’s a good time, actually, to release music at this period when people are in need of diversion.
Your daughter inspired the album title. When you were young, did you think, “I want to be a dad someday”?
I never thought about it. I mean, occasionally I had these sort of dynastic visions. I’d fantasize about being a member of a royal family or something silly like that, that I had a title somehow, which I don’t think would have been possible anyways. But, yeah, I’d have those silly fantasies and, arguably, that’s a little bit [what] Lorca and I did, Leonard’s daughter. We’re two kind of prominent Montreal artistic families, and we kind of joined. So I think that might’ve been a little bit in the ingredients.
But once the reality of everything really sets in and you have a child — or the person you’re doing this with is pregnant — it all gets very real very fast. I had no wish for that before — or I wasn’t fulfilling any kind of fantasy in terms of having a child — but it’s been amazing so far. It’s worked out well.
During the pandemic, my friends who are parents are enjoying this extra time with their kids. But on the other hand, they have a lot of extra time with their kids.
It’s a real double-edged sword. I use that term a lot, but this is the perfect analogy, this situation. On one hand, you spend so much more time with your child, and you really become entwined in each other’s lives in a very profound way. But then by the same token, the child needs to experience all that life has to offer around them. And they can’t [because of the pandemic], and it’s incredibly frustrating. So, it really is the best of times and the worst of times on such a fundamental level with children right now.
She’s old enough to be aware of what’s going on. But do you have conversations with her about why this is all happening?
We have them with her. She knows — she’s a very precocious, very intelligent child. She’s quite developed for her age — she’s 9 — and I think a lot of her friends are the same way.
Our plan was to introduce computers in a gradual way into her life, and have rules, and go in certain steps. But, of course, once this hit, our daughter was just thrust into the internet world, because you had to [deal] with schooling and stuff. Then that translates into messaging and chat — she’s not on Facebook at the moment, but she’s [online] and there’s no getting her out. The genie is [out of] the bottle, as they say. And they learn a lot, and they hear a lot. You try to monitor it as best as you can. But it’s just… kids grow up very fast because of that now.
I think of your career as phases: your pop albums, your Judy Garland record, your opera work. Does Unfollow the Rules feel like a new phase? Or do you even think in those terms?
I very much think of this album as the end of the first act of my career, in the sense that it’s a bookend to my first record, which I made in L.A. over 20 years ago. There’s this trajectory that one can follow through various avenues, whether it’s going to Opera World or going to Judy Garland World. It’s a lovely voyage from my first album to this one.
What I would love to do for the next record is to really do something completely off the wall and kind of European. [Laughs] Something in French, maybe, that’s totally unrelated to my trajectory so far. Maybe even something with only young people — people who don’t like opera — and just to see what that’s like. We’ll see. I still need to write some more opera stuff. I, of course, would love to embark into more of the Broadway world once that gets back on its feet. Then there’s movies, film and television, which is right at my doorstep here.
You use that word “bookends,” which can suggest closing the door on something.
It depends because, look, if this record goes through the roof and it garners a lot of desire and people want more, then maybe it’s a winning combination I can ride out for a while. I’m very happy with it, and I’m ready to move on to other projects if it is the end of sort of a [phase]. We’re in a time now when albums aren’t at the fore and people are more single-based. But who knows what will happen?
The idea that you made Unfollow the Rules where you made your first album, you’ve talked about the demons you faced when you were younger. Coming back to L.A., was it a relief to be in a different headspace than you were back then?
What’s nice is that I’m in a better place emotionally and personally and health-wise, but I can still look around the corner and see the old ghosts down the street. One thing that I’ve always loved about L.A. is this juxtaposition of it being so pretty and sort of idyllic and sunny, and also really trashy at the same time. I like having both of those right up against each other, which is exactly what Laurel Canyon is like. It’s all pretty with trees and stuff up here, but when you walk down to Sunset and Laurel, it’s kind of a war zone right now with the homeless situation.
That’s sad, but I also like seeing… I don’t know, it’s part of life, too. Whereas New York has lost its soul, I believe, sadly. It’s so commercialized — it’s like this fortress for the wealthy. I haven’t been back to New York, obviously, since everything has happened there — it’ll be interesting to see how New York does.
The album’s final song, “Alone Time,” talks about sometimes needing solitude even from the people you love the most.
That’s a fundamental need of all artists, I think, to disappear within their creative consciousness and travel through different worlds and different feelings just in order to mine the material for what’s up next. Certainly, there was a time when I was able to do that more adventurously — go clubbing or go get on a plane and fly to Berlin or something and be crazy. I used to have that whole thing down. Now it’s like, “Okay, well, maybe I’ll get to go for a walk up the hill or take a drive to some odd neighborhood.” But, oddly enough, that’s just as powerful — I don’t need to go out and lose myself in the jungle anymore. But I do need to walk and look at the jungle, for sure — it’s all in there.
And, sometimes, “alone time” is when I’m alone in my house and my husband isn’t around, and I can just get really messy for a good three or four days. [Laughs]
Just not worrying about hanging everything up and having everything be so neat?
Yeah, my husband’s German, and he’s very attentive. We have a spotless, gorgeous, beautifully decorated, very pristine living environment, which I adore. But, of course, I love it also when he goes away for a couple of days and I can just leave my clothes on the floor.
It’s amazing how liberating that can feel.
It’s fantastic. I’d say it’s even better than getting high, just being able to leave your clothes on the floor.
When did you first realize you had an amazing singing voice?
Oddly enough, I don’t even know if I had a great singing voice. Sometimes, I wonder if, in fact, I did or not, because I think when I was a little kid, it was quite beautiful. Then, when I hit puberty, it went through some serious shifts. I would say, even in my early albums, I was still battling with aspects of my voice.
But my mother was so emphatic and proactive in her encouragement of my singing. She often would whisper into my ear, “You’re such an incredible artist. You’re such a great singer. You’re better than everybody else.” She really did that with me and viewed me with this concept that I was a great singer, which as I said before, I’m not even sure if I was. But I thought I was. And maybe that’s a portion of the battle right there — that was something that was given to me by my mother.
As you get older, do you notice you’re becoming more like your mom or your dad? Or does it shift back and forth?
I have to say, I’m really different from both my parents. With my mother — and I don’t really fault her for this, because I don’t think she was even aware of it, but alcohol was a big part of her life. I wouldn’t say she was… Well, no, she was an alcoholic. She was a functioning alcoholic, in a sense — it was a very big part of her life, and it was really something that I had to maneuver around, both my sister and I, and it was very difficult. She was an amazing mother — she was a great mother — but when booze came in, it was pretty treacherous for a long time. And that’s not really in my life now, so it makes it very different.
Whereas my father, I feel like I’m really paying attention to moments when I act like my dad and trying to do the opposite. [Laughs] It’s not that he did a terrible job — he did good in certain ways and not good in others. I used to see my dad maybe two or three times a year, for a few days or maybe a couple of weeks. I see my child half the month now. So, it’s so different. It’s so different.
I think everybody struggles with the idea of turning into their parents, but I can imagine it’s more complicated for you because your parents are artists, like you.
There are moments when I totally feel like I’m being my parents, which I’m not sure how I feel about that. I had good parents. It’s just… I don’t know. It’s hard. I think because my parents were so powerful and so strong that I don’t want to… It’s something that’s hard for me to toy with, that situation. [Laughs] If anything, I just try to avert it and do it my own way or do it with the help of people around me now. But, yeah, their influence shines through no matter what.
Your earlier records were so emotional and autobiographical — songs like “Want” and “Dinner at Eight” talk explicitly about your parents — that I wonder what it’s like to sing those songs now.
I’m very proud of those songs. I haven’t revisited Want One and Want Two recently, but I did revisit my first two albums because it was the 20th anniversary and I did the All These Poses Tour. I knew going in — or I assumed going in — that I’d be fairly satisfied with the work, only because I have so many memories of working so hard on that material. Singing that early work, I was reminded and I felt secure in what I’d accomplished many years ago.
When I get to Want One and Want Two — because we’re actually planning on maybe doing some little shows around the 20th anniversary of those records, too — I think it’s going to be a fun experience. A lot of those times with Want One and Want Two and the earlier material, I don’t think my voice was necessarily at its best. It was good in the studio, but I was still learning how to sing properly. It’s fun now in my 40s, where I feel like I’m at my best, to re-investigate those songs and reexamine them. I spent so much time working on those songs that I sacrificed everything else for the sake of them.
The Want albums was also around the time that you went public with the fact that you were sexually assaulted as a teenager. That was years before #MeToo — how did that recent movement affect you?
It’s funny you bring that up, because I haven’t thought about that since when I spoke about my being raped years ago. My first two albums, it had started to trickle out, and it was really around Want One that I had to come to terms with it. That was way before #MeToo. I was very vocal about that stuff and, frankly, in terms of a male talking about being raped by another man — and child abuse — it was pretty heavy and full-on at a very early time. I hadn’t really thought about that, actually.
There’s a lot of attention now when survivors come forward. How did it feel back then when you told the press?
I really experienced this black hole. [The sexual assault happened] to me when I was very young, and then I realized, “Oh my God, this happened.” I’d sort of forgotten about it, and then it took another five or six years to process it, really, with therapists and through getting sober and stuff. I thought that was just sort of a fascinating biological event that I’d been through, and I wanted to tell people about it, because it just blew my mind how it was both physical and mental. It had this whole other process of its own, and it affected me so deeply on so many levels. The assault and forgetting about it and then going back to it and then realizing that so much of my behavior was centered around that event — it was just crazy. Society wasn’t talking about that, for men or women, to that degree or that much.
In the album’s liner notes, your friend Linda Thompson sings your praises, but one of the things that really struck me is that she said you’re the least ageist person she knows. That’s really lovely but also very specific.
Well, I mean, look, I love young people. I feel actually very sorry for them at the moment because, with the COVID thing, I can’t imagine how hard it must be to just be embarking on their journeys and wanting to be carefree and wanting to be reckless and wanting to be crazy — and suddenly you’re killing your grandparents. I mean, it’s really tough for them — and I forgive them, actually, at the end of the day, because youth should be reckless. I mean, they should take care [during the pandemic].
But that being said, I’d much rather hang with older people. They’re far more interesting, and I’ve always appreciated the lessons that I can learn from older people. I do feel that I’ve become the person I am today having really focused on those legends, so I appreciate it immensely. And I think, also, being a gay man, the age that I am, 47, a lot of the elders were wiped out when I was hitting puberty and looking for guidance. I think my generation might have a little more sense of just how special an older generation is because so many of them aren’t with us now.
Did you feel like an old soul even as a kid?
I had some sort of connection to the ancients from an early age. [Laughs] What’s odd about it is that, yes, I was always drawn to more complicated, more archaic things — older people and all of that stuff.
I will say that, oddly enough, a lot of people still think I’m very young. I have somehow maintained, thankfully knock on wood, a kind of childlike awe about the world. You know, I’m not jaded. I’ve never been able to be jaded, and that’s probably one of the greatest gifts that I’ve been given is just to maintain the sense of wonder and sense of appreciation of what the world has to offer. So I’m lucky to have that, and that isn’t an “old” thing — that’s more of a young thing.
How does someone hold onto their sense of wonder? How did you keep from getting jaded?
I don’t know. I think it’s something you’re born with, frankly. My sister Martha, I wouldn’t say she’s jaded, but she’s a little more hard about how the world is and a little less gullible. It’s like she was born under that star, and I was born under this star — and, yes, there’s probably socio-issues that have caused it as well. But I also think it’s a mystical thing, too — just what star you’re born under. And I was born under this more positive thing, which can be infuriating to some. [Laughs]
It’s that fear of being a Pollyanna, right?
And thinking you can save everybody’s life and wanting everybody to love you. It has its annoying sides, believe me. [Laughs]
Being optimistic is probably a good quality in a dad, just to convey that attitude around your daughter.
You have to be optimistic, but you also don’t want to spoil the child in the sense of like, “Oh, everything’s going to be fantastic.” That can be a bit dangerous with kids. So, if anything with my daughter, I have to kind of tone down my positive attitude at times. I mean, it’s good that I just have it naturally, but there’s moments when I have to say, “No, life is dangerous, and this behavior you’re exhibiting can bring you some major problems” and lay down the law a little bit. I have a tendency to spoil my daughter, which is good, but I have to be careful about that, too, because that can be detrimental.
It seems like one parent is always the designated spoiler.
I’m more of a spoiler, but then at times I can be really harsh suddenly, and that’s usually when my parents arise in my actions. I could become my father or I could become my mother, for better or for worse, and it’s a much harder line. Look, it got me to where I am today, so I think it arises for a reason.
How are you feeling about America these days?
It’s terrible. I mean, America’s just collapsing. The government and the entire Republican party, it’s like a zombie apocalypse over there in terms of how they’re moving forward, so that’s frightening. I also think that the environment, too, is very worrisome. As you know, we live in California, and I’m just biting my nails about the fire season coming up, and then there’s these floods on the East Coast.
But again, I’m an optimist by nature, and I do think that this is Mother Nature and Fortuna or whatever telling us, “You have to get your house in order now. You have to clean up your room.” So it’s just plain to see that everybody has to do what they can to really save the world at the moment. So, yeah, it’s a traumatic time.
In a 2003 interview, you talked about how drugs helped give you confidence. What gives you confidence now?
Music is paramount for me. The ability and, really, the privilege that I have in terms of being able to lose myself in song and in playing the piano or composing operas is such an amazing tool to just get from Point A to Point B in life — as opposed to people who don’t get that kind of attention, who don’t have that kind of outlet, who aren’t able to really process the pain in their life into a product. I’m very grateful for that.
I would also say that I’ve surrounded myself with amazing people. I’ve always kept the good ones close and been able to discard the superfluous ones. So that’s a good thing.
And I think the other big thing — and maybe this has to do with COVID, too, and the pandemic, obviously — is health. I’m in very good health. I think everything changes so dramatically and so tremendously and intensely that keeping your health good is one of the main objectives.
“Peaceful Afternoon” is this beautiful song to your husband about how much you cherish your relationship — but, at the same time, it’s about wanting to be the last face he sees before he dies, or vice versa. You’re talking about knowing that, someday, this great love is going to end.
What can I say? I’m a big opera fan, as we all know. [Laughs] And, of course, within opera, there’s always death. That is one of the main themes of opera. And within that, there’s this battle between love and death — and then, in the end, usually, love transcends death, and death is only a portal through which love can finally live properly. So in a lot of ways “Peaceful Afternoon” is an illustration of that concept: We’re only here for a moment, but our love will last for eternity. I guess I’m an old-fashioned pushover.
I love that song specifically for that reason. In the best possible way, it’s corny, because a really great, loving relationship turns you into that type of person.
I’m always amazed by it, just because for years and years and years — up until I was 30 — my issue was that if I was with somebody that I found attractive and we had a little fling, pretty much every time, after about 48 hours, my skin would crawl [around] that person, and they were probably fantastic. But now, Jörn and I, our lives are so enmeshed, and we’re so connected and we know each other so well — and, yet, there’s a whole new journey ahead of other things that life has to offer. I’m a very lucky boy.
I’m always curious what kids teach their parents. It must be strange: “Who is this human being? Where did that part of them come from?”
That is something that I have to constantly remind myself, that she is her own person. I see so much of my mother, so much of her mother, so much of myself — all of these other ghosts from the past and the present — but, essentially, she is her own person. I have to really praise that, and work to refine that view of her that she’s not just my mother reincarnated or something. For a parent, it’s so freaky; you get really lost in the genetics of it. It could be great to see a look that your mother made — or that you make sometimes — but they are their own person. And when that really comes through, it’s the greatest and you’re able to celebrate that.
I want to talk about your terrific beard. We spoke earlier about you being an old soul, but you have this perfect balance right now of youthfulness and this regal beard.
I have to say, I know that they’re pretty hip now, but I think that maybe it’s kind of getting less chic. But certainly for a while, beards were de rigueur, as they say. I think for me personally — especially as an opera composer [laughs] and a big Verdi fan — the beard very much fits my persona as this sort of romantic, old-fashioned, almost 19th-century figure. I think it’s more 19th-century cool than Brooklyn hip.
For a few years, you focused on writing opera. Was it the challenge that excited you: “Let’s see if I can be good at this”?
Opera is a raging flame, and I just was flying toward it like a moth. It was very hard, but I came out the other end, I think, a better composer and a tougher artist. Look, I got a lot of commissions, and they’re doing my opera still in Europe. So I think it was a success in the end.
How did you handle the response you got from the opera world?
I got a bunch of different types of reviews. I got fantastic reviews, I got horrifying reviews. I didn’t in any way conquer the opera world, no. And I don’t think I’ll ever really be able to do that, but there seems to be interest in me returning. And the opera singers loved what I gave them — and the orchestras. It’s just the establishment, they’re very hard to please.
You talk about dying in “Peaceful Afternoon.” Do you ever think about your own passing, or how you’d like it to be?
Not really. Especially after my mother died, I was very intimately acquainted with the process of dying. And the one fundamental aspect that I learned was that you have nothing to do with death. Death will just do it its own way, and it’ll be its own beautiful story. And you just have to sit back and let it happen — and accept it, eventually.
It’s funny, because the moment my mother died, I wasn’t even filled with sadness. I was incredibly sad eventually, but the first thing that hit me was a sense of awe [about] how tremendous death is — how big and how final and how much more power it has over us than us over it.
Like a lot of people, I’m not just a fan of yours but also your parents. And I think a lot of us hope that you and your dad are doing well because it has been so fractious in the past, as you’ve chronicled in your songs. How are things?
Well, we’re doing very well. I think we’re at the point in our lives where we’re just accepting certain hard facts that, essentially, we will always have a relationship that is a certain way. But I think once we’ve accepted that, now we can just really cherish the magical moments that do occur — and that surpass that typical father-son vibe, which we’ve definitely had over the years.
So we’re in a good place, but we’re just also really focusing on our own lives. For me especially, I’m focusing on being a good dad with my child. And a lot of that is thinking about him, just without talking to him about it. [Laughs] Just doing what I have to do, just as a person, as a man. It’s an interesting journey.