It’s been said that timing is everything, and in the case of gay singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright, the saying holds true. In July of 2020, at least seven months into the COVID-19 pandemic, he released his eighth pop music studio album Unfollow the Rules. It was significant because it was his first in 12 years. Full of drama, hopefulness, and humor, it was among his best work, and even earned a Grammy nomination.
In the past, Wainwright would have embarked on a multi-city (and continent) concert tour, but that was not possible now. As inventive as ever, Wainwright began presenting a regular series of intimate, live-streamed performances. Additionally, he recorded stripped-down versions of the album’s songs (and a few others), accompanied by guitar, piano, and string quartet, at the Paramour Mansion in L.A. That recording, now known as Unfollow the Rules (The Paramour Session) (BMG), is now being released as an album, just in time for Wainwright to finally embark on his long-awaited concert tour. Rufus was kind enough to make time for an interview in advance of the tour and the album’s release.
GS: I’d like to begin by wishing you a belated happy ninth wedding anniversary. Did you and Jörn do anything special to celebrate the occasion?
Rufus Wainwright: Thank you! I think we’re saving it for out 10th. We had a nice evening with our daughter and kept it lowkey.
GS: You were one of the artists who make good use of the virtual performance world with your live-streamed “robe recitals” and such. What did being able to do that mean to you as a performer?
RW: I think the main thing it meant to me was sort of a newfound respect for social media. Before (that) I was incredibly snobbish about it all [laughs]. Generational; I poo-pooed Instagram and Facebook and so forth. I didn’t really feel like participating. But now, arguably, thanks to those outlets, I was able to maintain my career and keep the connection to my fans. I have a more realistic approach now to social media. I still don’t think it’s the greatest thing in the world, but it doesn’t have to be your enemy, either.
GS: Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios, your Judy Garland 99th birthday tribute is another good example of the power of live-streaming. How is it that Renée Zellweger, who won an Oscar for portraying Garland in the movie Judy, was selected as the only member of the audience in the studio?
RW: We’ve crossed paths for many years. We have a lot of friends in common. When it came time for her to do the Judy movie, she reached out to me when they were putting the finishing touches on the soundtrack and asked if I’d sing with her on one of the songs, which I subsequently did. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” When I finally met her, we were able to finally unpack all these parallel situations that we lived through. It was like we had been friends all along. That dovetailed into the Judy tribute. Working at Capitol Records Studios, we had to be cognizant of COVID protocol and couldn’t allow that many people in. Who better than Renée? That’s how it happened.
GS: Your new LP Unfollow the Rules (The Paramour Session) features re-recordings of a few of the songs from 2020’s Unfollow the Rules album. Was the genesis of the project related to being isolated and COVID?
RW: I think basically what that whole album is about is celebrating a kind of event that occurs during a very intense period in history. Especially in Los Angeles. It was at the height of the pandemic and then also Black Lives Matter protests were occurring. We were also on the cusp of having all these fires. So L.A., in particular, was a really vibey place. We did the concert around the original (2020) release of the album. I wanted to do something to somehow capture some of that ethos and intensity. Thankfully, we recorded it really nicely. I wanted to share that. I also think it’s a nice way of reacquainting people with the album that I’m now finally going out to tour [laughs].
GS: I’m glad you mentioned the ethos of the time and everything that was taking place. One of the catalog songs you recorded for Unfollow the Rules (The Paramour Session) is “Going To A Town” which, when it was first released in 2007, was already a powerful song. Now, having lived through the four disastrous years of President Biden’s predecessor, it takes on even greater meaning. Does that have anything to do with why you chose to include this new version?
RW: Definitely. At the moment that this concert was happening, we were still in the Trump years, and it was necessary to broadcast the potential disaster at hand. So we sang that song. I’m a big supporter of Biden, and I actually think he’s doing an incredible job in a lot of ways. That being said, America doesn’t just turn over a new leaf every time a new president comes into office. There’s a lot to contend with. Certainly, what’s going on now with Afghanistan. We need to learn from these lessons. The song is really about how America just doesn’t. It’s a warning for that, which sadly is an ever-present danger.
GS: Unfollow the Rules (The Paramour Session) includes two previously unreleased songs – “How to Treat a Lady” and “Happy Easter.” “How to Treat a Lady” contains the line “does it take a queen to make it seem so easy?” addressed to an unchivalrous “downtown hipster.”
GS: Is the song aimed at a specific someone or is it more of a composite?
RW: It’s somebody specific, but I’m going to be a gentleman and not reveal it at the moment. If you do a little research, you can discover who I’m speaking of it. Tthere are certain lines in the song that directly pertain to that individual. That’s a fun thing that you can do [laughs]. (Writer’s note: Research done. It’s Conor Oberst.)
GS: In addition to Unfollow the Rules (The Paramour Session), you can also be heard on the new Ampersounds (Fred Falke & Zen Freeman) EP on West End Records, one of the most legendary gay disco labels. How did this collaboration come to pass?
RW: That was more of a neighborly act. I was hanging out in Hollywood, and I received a message on Instagram from Zen Freeman. He mentioned that he’d love to do something dance-related with me. We realized that we live a few blocks from each other. One day, I walked over and we hung out. One thing led to another, and he brought in Fred Falke, and then we had this material. It’s funny, even though this wasn’t necessarily during the pandemic, it was before, but it does somehow relate to I think the idea of working with people in your area, If you can’t tour the world, you might as well tour the block [laughs]. This was a nice example of that. In fact, we did a video with my friend Glass Battles for the song. That was very much within the realm of the pandemic. I wanted a video and he shot things in his apartment a few blocks away in Hollywood. That’s how we did that. I think we’ve got to maintain this local sensibility in order to move forward in a holistic way.
GS: One of the dates on your upcoming tour includes a show with Aimee Mann. Please something about sharing the bill with Aimee.
RW: I’ve known Aimee since I began my career. We both worked a lot with Jon Brion. She used to come see me, I used to go see her. There was a legendary place called the Largo, which still exists, but it was in another location on Fairfax. It was a real scene, and we were both privileged to be part of that period. I’m happy that we’re both around and still working and that there’s still interest.
GS: Aimee’s new album Queens of the Summer Hotel consists of songs she wrote for a musical theater piece, which made me wonder if you’re able to tell the readers about the musical theater projects on which you are working?
RW: I have several irons in the fire, as they say. It’s sort of a necessity to do that in the theater world because lightning strikes rarely [laughs]. But there’s nothing I can really advertise right away. All I can say is that I’m facing it with my full force and dedication. Since my career began, people have always asked me when I was going to write a musical. That question is answered now. I am going to do a musical. That’s all I can say.
GS: Gay filmmaker Todd Haynes documentary about The Velvet Underground is being released in October. If there was to be a documentary made about you, whom would you want to direct it?
RW: Oh, good Lord! Fellini [laughs]? Maybe Billy Wilder? I’m going to go with the dead ones.
Gregg Shapiro is the author of Fifty Degrees (Seven Kitchens, 2016), selected by Ching-In Chen as co-winner of the Robin Becker Chapbook Prize. Other books by Shapiro include the short story collections How to Whistle (Lethe Press, 2016) and Lincoln Avenue (Squares and Rebels Press, 2014), the chapbook GREGG SHAPIRO: 77 (Souvenir Spoon Press, 2012), and the poetry collection Protection (Gival Press, 2008).
He has work forthcoming in the anthology Reading Queer: Poetry in a Time of Chaos (Anhinga Press, 2018). An entertainment journalist, whose interviews and reviews run in a variety of regional LGBT and mainstream publications and websites, Shapiro lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida with his husband Rick and their dog Coco.
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