Rufus Wainwright Bookends An Era With ‘Unfollow the Rules’

Unfollow the Rules, Rufus Wainwright’s first album of new pop songs in eight years, begins with an unaccompanied garage-rock stomp from drummer Matt Chamberlain. Soon that rough sound is joined by Wainwright’s honeyed high tenor, and that establishes the album’s yin-yang dynamic of trashy, messy problems juxtaposed against elegant, comfortable pleasure. When the singer gets to the chorus, he makes this explicit: “There’s always trouble in paradise, don’t matter if you’re good or bad or mean or awfully nice.”

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“Trouble in Paradise” is the title of the song and also of Randy Newman’s classic 1983 album. Newman sang “I Love L.A.” on that record, and Wainwright likes the town, too. He and his husband, German arts administrator Jörn Weisbrodt, spend most of their time in the city, though they also have homes in Montauk and Berlin. (“I also own a section of the family home in Montreal,” Wainwright says. Which section? “Certainly not the kitchen, maybe the piano room.”)

Wainwright recorded Unfollow the Rules in Los Angeles in some of the same studios that he used on his 1998 debut album, Rufus Wainwright. The singer-songwriter sees the two albums as “bookends” to the first part of his professional life. That career has seemed paradisiacal — he was allowed to write and record several operas, to adapt the songs of Judy Garland and Leonard Cohen as well as William Shakespeare, and to release eight albums of his own songs — but there was often trouble along the way.

“I do see this as the end of an era,” Wainwright says over the phone from Berlin. “I’m 46, and I have all the trappings of life — wonderful daughter, amazing husband, successful career. I’ve been able to write operas; I’ve been able to tour the world. But when you look around and see the other side of the hill, it’s daunting. … I now want to create something completely new and unprecedented.” 

In just three minutes, the song “Trouble in Paradise” goes from a bare-bones dialogue between the drummer and singer to lush layers of harmony vocals (all multi-tracked by Wainwright himself) and strings that seem to swallow up the unsettling beginning. But Wainwright’s lyrics remind us to not be fooled by appearances: “You see me here in my dress all in order,” he warbles. “You see me there, my hair a solid steel bob. But all you see is, in fact, just the armor.” You never see, he adds, “the occasional sob.”

“I want to believe that this record has some of my best lyrics on it,” he says. “I’ve always said that the words are the most important part of a record. I can come up with gorgeous melodies till the cows come home, but I have to really sit down and work with the text. When Leonard (Cohen) died, I thought a lot about this. I’m afraid that lyrics are under threat in pop, hip-hop, rock ‘n’ roll. Hip-hop has a history of being profound, but not at the moment. We’re not in a golden age of lyrics, but that’s OK, because it makes my job easier.”

“If that opening track was all pretty,” says Mitchell Froom, the album’s producer, “it wouldn’t be as interesting, as edgy as it is. Rufus had that particular beat in mind, but I didn’t know he was going to add such an elaborate vocal arrangement on top. My first instinct was to get rid of things, but his singing was so on point that everything had a musical place and couldn’t be taken away.”

The lead track’s tension between “trouble” and “paradise” is echoed throughout the album. The title track, for example, begins with just a piano and a melancholy vocal lamenting, “Sometimes I feel like my heart turns to dust.” Gradually, however, that loneliness is assuaged by a tonic of strings and woodwinds and by the arrival of someone willing to provide not “what I want” but “what I’m needing.” 

“This One’s for the Ladies (That Lunge),” inspired by the Stephen Sondheim song “The Ladies Who Lunch,” toggles between a vertigo-inducing chorus about ladies who leave their “children hanging, dangling” and a soaring bridge that invites those same ladies to a “wondrous place where no one stares past your face.” 

“Early Morning Madness” evokes its titular state with (Tom) Waitsian percussion and an overwrought echo with the vocal barely clinging to sanity as it declares, “Don’t want to ride that ship no more, but the Flying Dutchman’s calling.”

“That tension is an homage to the West Coast, where I made this album,” Wainwright says. “On the plane over here, I saw this amazing documentary about Charles Manson and Dennis Wilson, so fascinating and frightening. Having made this album in some of the same rooms that the Beach Boys made records at that time, there’s an eerie quality that you can’t ignore. California as a whole is like that.”

On seven of the dozen songs, Wainwright does all the lead and background vocals himself, layering the parts in what he calls “a nod to Brian Wilson.” Froom acknowledges that the vocal arrangements have a Wilson flavor, especially in the “dreamy” passages. On “Alone Time,” Froom adds, “You can definitely hear a Rufus version of a Beach Boys harmony, but there are a few moments Brian would never do in a thousand years — a dissonance that shouldn’t work, but it does.”

The irony is that Wainwright grew up far from Southern California, mostly in the wintry climes of Montreal, where he lived with his mother Kate McGarrigle (separated from his father Loudon Wainwright) but close to her sister and singing partner Anna McGarrigle. The sisters and the estranged husband were all successful folk singers who recorded for major labels and made some of the finest singer-songwriter albums of the 1970s. 

“There’s no way to divorce the fact that I’m a musician from the fact that my parents were musicians,” Wainwright admits. “I was immediately enraptured by that world, and fortunately it was right there at my feet. If I’d come from a different background, it might have been harder. At the same time, the bar was set pretty high for me; I couldn’t just mess around. Some of my friends — such as Sean Lennon, Chris Stills and Aaron Cohen — had parents who were wildly more popular than mine and immensely wealthier. My parents didn’t have to deal with that. They would have liked to, but they didn’t.”

But he didn’t follow his parents and aunt into the world of folk music. Wainwright knew from an early age that he was gay, and there weren’t many gay male role models in the folk world. It wasn’t that they were homophobic; it was that all the men were very heterosexual. So he was looking for a realm where he could be a musician as a gay man.

“Like most people my age,” he recalls, “even people my parents’ age, I thought opera was kind of weird, kind of boring. But one day, when I was 13, my mother brought home this album of Verdi’s Requiem. I listened to it all the way through, all two hours, and I was hooked, infected by the virus. 

“There were so many reasons I was ripe for conversion. I was already very aware of my sexuality, and I’d had some dark experiences with men. My father was distant at that time; my mother was overbearing. Opera focused all the intensity I was feeling. I don’t want to say anything bad about Huey Lewis or Bon Jovi, but in the ’80s, rock lacked a certain edge, so most people went to Nirvana. Instead, I went to opera; it was my Nirvana.” 

Opera unlocked songwriting for Wainwright. He quickly realized that his knowledge of Verdi and Puccini gave him access to tonal colors and structural devices that his competition in the singer-songwriter world wouldn’t be using.

“I used them right away,” he says, “and I knew it was a way to set me apart from everyone else. The introduction to ‘In Love,’ for example, is almost a Brahmsian lieder piece; ‘Vibrate’ is a habanera that could have fit in Carmen. But from the beginning, I knew it couldn’t be obvious. Neither party — neither the opera fan nor the rock fan — could know what was going on.”

In the summer of 1995, Wainwright played the Café Sarajevo in Montreal every week to get some buzz going in hopes of catapulting his career. It worked. Two months later, he had a contract with Warner Bros. Records. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his father knew Van Dyke Parks in LA and could send him Wainwright’s demo tape. Parks passed the tape along to Warner Bros.’s Lenny Waronker, who’d worked with the McGarrigle sisters. But none of that would have mattered if the demos hadn’t been so good and so different.

“No matter what the circumstances,” he now says, “I would have found a way to make it. I had that hunger, that kind of mental illness that a lot of younger artists are plagued by. Some are able to work with it and make it work for them, and some are destroyed by it. Eighty percent of the time, you know a person’s going to make it; you can see it in their eyes even before you hear their song. Talent is part of it, but mostly it’s work. My eyes were steaming when I entered a room ready to take it over, but that was only because I’d spent hours and hours alone, nitpicking things that weren’t right.”

And so it was that Wainwright landed in southern California at the tail end of the city’s golden era of singer-songwriter records. Like Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Tom Waits before him, the young Wainwright had a chance to take his time to craft an album, even a career, that framed literary lyrics in an almost cinematic musical setting. 

“When I started,” he remembers, “working in studios with session players and having big budgets was the norm. That’s what happened when you got signed to a major label. There was attention to telling a story and creating a world. You had the chance to go on a very unusual journey. It wasn’t about radio hits or the sound of the record; each individual moment got a lot of attention. Luckily, I made a good album, because a lot of sessions with great players get buried in the graveyard of mediocre records.”

He had the advantage of not being a big fan of California rock ‘n’ roll. And because he didn’t know who Newman, Wilson and Parks were when he arrived, he never acted like a fanboy and could more easily befriend them. Rufus Wainwright didn’t chart and the long recording process left Wainwright deeply in debt to Warner Bros., but the record got enthusiastic reviews, and that was enough to give him the freedom to tour and make more albums — even operas and a recreation of Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall. 

Last year, Wainwright wanted to go back to where it all began, back to L.A. and a time of making ambitious, thematic albums in big studios with top players. To do that, he picked Froom, the Hollywood stalwart who had produced nine albums for Newman, four for Lindsey Buckingham and three for Bonnie Raitt. But it was no longer 1998.

“In the old days, you could cut a song and later decide to add a bridge,” Froom recalls. “Now you have the songs together before you start. I can’t spend two or three days to get a track with the band; we need to get two tracks every day. You can’t spend a whole day getting a drum sound; you have to be organized. But you also have to be willing to go for things. Fortunately, Rufus has more experience now, and so do I.”

“We’re better off without the financial banality of it all,” adds Wainwright, “because the artist ends up paying for it at very unfair percentages. I was totally unaware of that the first time, and I had to pay for it out of publishing and touring for years, a trap that many musicians of my generation fell into. But I still have faith in that process: a great record is a great record. I’m sensing a need in listeners to go on that journey again.”

The finished tracks cover a wide sonic spectrum from very sparse to very full, but the climaxes never sound gratuitous; they’re always the payoff to the musical and lyrical build-up that the songwriter has prepared. This is not a Phil Spector Wall of Sound approach, where instruments are doubled and tripled to achieve a critical mass — though that can be thrilling in its own way. This is more like the pop version of an opera orchestra, where each instrument has a distinct job to do in supporting the vocals.

“Rob Moose did most of the string arrangements,” Froom points out, “and we let Rob do his thing, but when Rufus had a comment about the arrangements, it was always to the point and in an arranger’s language. That’s where his opera background was most obvious.”

“Mitchell was incredibly concise and exacting,” Wainwright continues. “He was relentless in his search for clarity. There’s not one superfluous gesture. Even though it’s lush and has that Rufus sensibility, there’s nothing hiding behind the parts. What was played is what you hear; everything is well placed. Mitchell did not let me get away with my usual shenanigans. But I love the harmonies on this record, especially on ‘Alone Time,’ and Mitchell helped me realize them.”

The clarity of the sound on Unfollow the Sound is crucial not only to the album’s evocation of paradise but also to it its suggestion of dangerous rot beneath the glossy floors. Problems can pop up in anyone’s life at any time, Wainwright suggests, but the warning signs in modern life seem more urgent than ever now.

“We’re living in dangerous times in the West,” he declares. “The pendulum is swinging. My husband’s mother grew up in a German refugee camp, so she has memories of Europe completely flattened. This is a time when we have to come to terms with a lot of reality; there has to be a reexamination of what it means to be a Western person. A lot of it will depend on what happens in the 2020 election.”

In times of political crisis, people suddenly remember how important folk music can be. Although he thought he was distancing himself from his parents’ music when he embraced opera and Southern California pop, Wainwright now realizes that the influence of his early immersion in folk music has never worn off. There’s something about the directness and rootedness of traditional ballads and blues that give his songs an earthier feel than most opera and cabaret.

“I was incredibly lucky to have a folk upbringing,” he confesses. “To this day I consider it the bedrock of my music-making. As I get older, it resonates even more with me. I hope someday to make a folk album.”

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