It’s day 46 of lockdown for Rufus Wainwright and he’s deciding what to play for his 50th quarantine session.
“I think I'm going to do a guitar song - ‘Jericho’, from the album I did with Mark Ronson a few years ago,” he tells me from his Laurel Canyon home.
Since the start of lockdown Wainwright has been performing songs each day - kicking off with “Grey Gardens” - and cherry picking across a vast, almost thirty-year career, with the odd cover thrown in for good measure. “We’ve also done a thing called Theatrical Thursdays ,” he explains, “ I just recently did a duet with a (American mezzo-soprano) Stephanie Blythe on zoom and I think I'm going to premiere that this weekend.“
“Quarantunes” project ended up stretching across three months - a mammoth eight hours of music in all. Wainwright concluded its 60-day unbroken run with a grand finale in mid-May, bringing together the whole McGarrigle family for a take on the mid-19th century folk song “"Hard Times Come Again No More” by American songwriter Stephen Foster.
It’s eight years since his last full-length pop record; Take All My Loves from 2016 and Prima Donna, released a year earlier showcased Shakespeare’s sonnets, and opera, respectively. His latest record, Unfollow the Rules, is a celebratory collection of songs that finds the 47-year old Canadian-born musician settling comfortably into artistic middle-age.
When I talk to him, the release of Unfollow the Rules is still a couple of months away and he’s at the piano in his bathrobe contemplating what to eat.
BEST FIT: What's the situation like in America right now?
WAINWRIGHT: There's such a lack of unity in this country in terms of what the game plan is. We're in California which has a more kind of sensible governor in Gavin Newsom; easy on the eyes too which is nice! So California has, over the last four years, felt more like its own country in terms of what's going on in the middle of America. [But] I think the US - even if you do live in California or New York - is starting to fray around the edges and there's a lack of a united front which is starting to wear on the psyche of this country. So it's not a great period.
When you talk about lack of unity, do you think this experience has the potential to eventually be unifying?
It's really hard to say because - especially here in LA - there's such a disparity between what’s going on up in the hills and down in the valley. We have a house in Laurel Canyon which is a fairly affluent area, but you can just drive down the street into the heart of Hollywood and even down to Hollywood Boulevard and see the incredible homelessness problem and all the businesses that are shut down and the real desperation on the street from this.
It's been interesting up here in the hills where I am - you can pretend this is sort of a monastic exercise and stare at the flowers. The other day I went for a drive into town and it's going to get scary I think. Without real leadership, I'm bracing for when the economic situation starts to really unravel, and that's going to be the toughest point for those of us who aren't sick.
On a positive note, we didn't really have a moment to reflect before this; it's been a needed period. And certainly when you look at the way the environment is reacting in terms of air pollution and water and tourism there are great lessons we can learn on that front as well. But once again now all the problems have been revealed and subsequently we have to deal with them. Economic inequality is also one of them. More work!
The album's called Unfollow the Rules but as an artist you've also embraced a lot of art forms that have rules really at their core
Well it's funny because the term “unfollow the rules” personally has two very distinct and opposite meanings. One being a reflective turning around and following the path that brought you where you are today. Really examining the rules and trying to figure out why they exist and how it is that they are in your life now, going back to the source and deciding whether the rules should be there or not. It's a very tentative exercise that I think about.
The flip side of that is “unfollow” as a very 21st century term that pertains to unfollowing people on Facebook or Instagram and this strange concept that we have now of pushing a button and erasing everything which of course we all know is not what happens. There's really no way to divorce yourself from the world around you. That is a mirage offered to us by technology, it’s a tricky concept!
So I guess I'll go more with the former, in terms of my interpretation. I think we're at a period right now where the fundamentals of society are just being tested. There are things that we'll have to keep and things that we'll have to discard.
For me musically it's always been the same situation I've always loved. One of the main reasons I adore opera is that there are certain facts about it that don't change over the years: musical ideas and dramatic situations and tricks that just keep working, and I admire that and I emulate that. But on the other hand there's a lot about opera that is very archaic and kind of old fashioned and that should be thrown in the bin occasionally. I think a lot of it's about not throwing the baby out with the bath water, whether it's in society or in art.
So when you talk about how in culture we now have this illusion that we can disinherit ourselves - with this album you've gone in a totally opposite direction where you're embracing the injuries.
Well I'm at this very specific moment now in my life. I'm in my mid-forties and there's a strange kind of plateau that one hits presumably if they're in good health and they've been successful in their working and personal life and there's this moment where you kind of realise, ‘Oh my god this is it!’ You know I have a career, I have a beautiful marriage, I have a wonderful child, I still look fairly decent. And I feel well and I really have to kind of celebrate this and accept all the different aspects of my life in terms of making me who I am today because certainly if I was destitute and had never written my opera and was lonely and stuff it would be a different story. But I've managed to sort of get somewhere and part of that has been my ability to accept the darker things and the more negative aspects. A lot of the struggles that I've gone through has also been what has brought me all the good things that I have in my life today so I have a certain moment of contentment right now which is due to the fact that I've accepted the sadder side as well.
There’s a level of wisdom coming through many of the songs on the record.
Yeah I mean I'm fairly wise! Part of that is really tempered with an appreciation and love and knowledge that the little boy Rufus is very much alive and well within me. I'm always on the precipice of descending back into the shenanigans that I once revelled in. For me to pretend that I'm grown up now and an adult is really futile. But that being said, I have to nonetheless be responsible and be willing to be of service to the people I love in my life.
So it's a balance really. I have faced a lot of my demons over the years, whether it's addiction or you know the cost of fame or the loss of my mother especially and I've kind of run into those fires wholeheartedly and seem to have come out the other end transformed. So part of it is really about facing your fears which right now is something that we're all having to do whether you like it or not. So I think there is hope once you come out the other end.
What kind of things keep you from the precipice?
Well I mean there are certain things that I can't do. I don't drink anymore and certainly with showbusiness I have to be mindful of how my attitude comes off when I'm in the thrall of performance, and being the centre of attention if I don't let that run away so much - which I can. And I think also especially having a daughter (Viva) who's nine years old you immediately realise how much power you have over that individual. It's so easy to slip into this distant paradigm of the aloof touring musician who's never really around, only because that's kind of what I grew up with.
There's a song on the record (“Damsel in Distress”) which has a connection to Joni Mitchell
The song’s not about her per say, it's more the style that the song was written in. I was brought up in Canada where obviously Joni Mitchell was a huge figure but at the same time Martha and I were not allowed to listen to her at the house because our mother, Kate McGarrigle who was a great singer/songwriter in her own right, she didn't like Joni Mitchell! She was anti-Joni Mitchell on the one hand because she felt because Joni wasn't pure enough in terms of her folk sensibilities. My mother was a real staunch traditionalist in terms of folk music and was very weary of pop music and stuff. I also think she was a bit jealous of Joni Mitchell to tell you the truth, of all her success.
Nonetheless we didn't really listen to her at all and it was really only years later that my husband became a huge fan. He had grown up in Germany and didn't really know her music because it wasn't really popular there when he was a kid. Then he discovered her later in life and became a rabid Joni Mitchell fanatic and I went with him on that journey and ended up singing a lot of her material and ended meeting her and becoming a friend of hers. It was actually Martha who pointed out to me that “Damsel in Distress” was really written in the style that she helped pioneer so it is a homage to her in a lot of ways.
What is it about spaces where you’ve lived that have this musical and artistic legacy - like Laurel Canyon and the Chelsea Hotel - that feels important to you?
I have always gravitated towards these temples of sound… even in London for a while I spent a lot of time in Notting Hill and I was down the street from Annie Lennox which was one of my great thrills - she was a huge musical icon of mine. I've always gone to the source... I like to be inspired on all cylinders - visual or geographical or sonic echoes. Laurel Canyon fits the bill.
Isolation has been a time when so many people are turning to your music for comfort but what’s kept you buoyant through this time?
My husband and I saw every possible mini series. Netflix offering or Hulu...we’re really enjoying Mrs America with Cate Blanchett. We kind of overdosed on western offerings so we had to go a little bit deeper. We subscribed to the Criterion Collection and it’s been really fantastic to kind of go back to school in a lot of ways in terms of great cinema; it's like reading the classics without having to read them. Going back to all the great French films and all the important milestone moments in cinema has made watching movies more into an educational experience.
We've also gotten into this great Austrian writer Stefan Zweig. I adore his biographies; he did two very famous books about queens - one is Marie Antoinette and one is Mary, Queen of Scots. So now I'm Mary, Queen of Scots and I'm realising that to be doomed is really relative [laughs]. Thinking of her life you know I think we're going to be okay. I haven't gotten to the point where I'm blowing up my husband yet!
Are you staying connected with your family during lockdown?
Most of them are on the East Coast or in Canada and we will be releasing a track that we've done together (link) and I was just looking at some early edits today and it's very moving - it's us all singing together and even though we're not in contact all the time there is something about us united as a family which I think people will find very touching. Oddly enough, even though technology is great, and it's been very helpful and in a lot of ways we can't survive without it now, there's still this deep subconscious more mystical link that I think we go through; music can really help bring out that magic.
I guess that connection must be particularly strong considering your family’s shared musical language
It's interesting because over the past two nights, I was just haunted all evening by my mother; She was in my dreams and there was definitely something of her coming back to check in on things. And then last night I had all these dreams about Leonard Cohen and he was visiting me. I'm definitely being visited by my ancestors for sure!
Have you ever felt pressure from that legacy?
My way out of that personally has been thankfully due to my love of opera. I mean I love opera so much and whenever I get into that mode, what really gets me is that I'm profoundly aware that I'll never reach the heights of a lot of those great composers. When I listen to Wagner or Verdi or Puccini, some of those moments that I just so adore… I try for it and maybe I scratch the surface and maybe in some people’s eyes I have reached that. But classical music for me is so grand and so huge that I've always found that very comforting because it's like a drop in the bucket compared to what I'm doing artistically. I'm just adding to this incredible legacy and canon that's been around a thousand years before my existence.
Viva loves music. She loves to sing; she's very precocious, she will definitely make her mark on this world. I don't know what area that will be in and I don't really want to push her. What's been nice with the pandemic is that my husband and I have got to spend a lot more time with her. I would have been out of the road now for months promoting a new album so things have changed and now we're really spending time with her and we're getting to know what she wants to do and what she's interested in and how she wants to navigate this. Really, every individual has to navigate it themselves.
Just to be present now so much has been really great!