Virtual Session: Rufus Wainwright

From his home in Laurel Canyon, Rufus Wainwright joins Jill Riley for a virtual session. (MPR)

Interview Transcription

Jill Riley: Hey it's Jill Riley from The Current's Morning Show on Minnesota Public Radio and I'm really excited to be talking to another guest for these live virtual sessions that we've been bringing you from The Current and today I'm talking to singer, songwriter, and composer Rufus Wainwright. Hi Rufus, how are you?

Rufus Wainwright: Hello! I'm very good, I'm very good.

Alright so behind you this is of course for anyone who can't see this on the radio we are talking on video right now and, are you in some kind of library right now? Where are you?

Ha! Yeah well you know we had this odd room in our has that was kind of, it was like, an octagonal room, 'cause our house is from 1927. It just wasn't getting used for much and so yes, we turned it into a library which has been fantastic for this period we're in now because you know I'm certainly doing a lot of reading. [laughs]

Yeah I hear you. It almost looks like you need one of those ladders like those old school library ladders. Well Rufus, you mentioned that you're at home and where is home now?

Home now is in Los Angeles. I live in - my husband and I, and our daughter Viva - live in Laurel Canyon, so Hollywood area. Yeah we've been here for about five years now and it's uh, you know, it's seems to be working. There's tricky stuff out here with the environment and also Covid hasn't been stellar, shall we say? The process but you know, all in all it's a fantastic place to live.

Well Rufus let's talk more about that kind of, the path that led you to California and where you're living now. We'll talk more about that coming up but you have recorded some songs for us here at The Current and the new record is called Unfollow The Rules and so we want to get you to play a couple of those songs in a row before we talk more.

So Unfollow The Rules, if you could just help me set up the record and this first song, Peaceful Afternoon. It had been what, about eight years since Out Of The Game and then you went on to really pursue a type of music that you're passionate about and now kind of coming back to your roots.

Yeah I definitely took a hiatus in the opera world mainly. I composed two operas in that space of time and also worked on some other projects as well, like the Shakespeare Sonnets album. Anyways, but yeah, I guess I felt the need to just, I don't know, really explore the far nether regions of my creativity. So I always intended to come back and I think my audience was very excited to return. They were very patience and I think they enjoyed the trip as well but they wanted to get home too.

So this first song that you've made a video for The Current audience, it's called "Peaceful Afternoon," can you tell me a little bit about the song?

Yeah I wrote it for my husband Jorn who, we've been together for, well we just celebrated our eighth wedding anniversary and we've actually been together for fifteen years so in gay years it's like a million. [laughs]

Well happy anniversary!

Yeah! So we're having, we're still going and yeah, I liked to write a song about him on all my records, one of my records, and he pops up in certain verses and stuff. He's such a big part of my life obviously and I felt it necessary to celebrate that. The world needs more love songs so I wrote this one.

Do you feel like there's a lot of pressure when you write a love song for your husband? I mean, I would feel some pressure like I had to be really sweet. Do you ever write --

Yeah, no, there is total pressure but you know I think on the other hand it really makes you have to search and really kind of work at it a little bit and really think about why this person is in your life and how things are going and really start to celebrate the victories, you know? Along the way. So I think it is pressure, but as, for anybody who has been in a long term relationship, I mean it's, there's ups and down ands you have to work at it sometimes and certainly writing a song about it gets to the crux of the matter. And I have to say the song mentions all that stuff it's not an easygoing song when you really listen to the lyrics. So, enjoy.

Well let's take a listen to it, so we're going to get a couple of new songs from the record Unfollow The Rules starting with this one it's really pretty. It's called Peaceful Afternoon and I'm with Rufus Wainwright here on The Current.

[music: "Peaceful Afternoon" by Rufus Wainwright]

[music: "Only The People That Love" by Rufus Wainwright]

The new record from Rufus Wainwright is called Unfollow The Rules and that song right there called "Only The People That Love" and another song that you heard before that called "Peaceful Afternoon" and I'm joined by Rufus Wainwright as I'm in Minneapolis St. Paul and Rufus is Los Angeles the Laurel Canyon area and it, you know, we talked a little bit before the music Rufus about the last sort of more pop-oriented singer-songwriter record, it was about eight years ago, and then you went to just an exploration into opera. Although I kind of feel like pop and opera have always complimented themselves really well in your songwriting and your composing and here you are you're back with Unfollow The Rules and it's the new record and you are now in California, so what sort of push you back in that direction?

Well I mean I feel, look recently before Covid I celebrated the twentieth anniversary of my first album, Rufus Wainwright, and we did a magnificent tour all over the world I mean not a hundred dates but we did hit all the major spots and where I did my first two albums Rufus Wainwright and Poses. And so I had a chance to kind of re-immerse myself in that era, and really when I began my career it was, you know, I'd started out in Montreal where I was brought up and I had some success there and then I went to New York and kind of failed miserably for a couple of years. It just didn't work out for me, downtown Manhattan, as much as I wanted it to.

Anyways, but eventually I ended up going to California and going to L.A. and getting a record deal there and that's where it all started, that where it all happened. That's where my career was launched, and really it made a lot of sense because my music is actually more suited for this sort of West Coast, shall we say singer, songwriter, also piano-based person. Something like Randy Newman or Harry Nilsson, I mean I fall into that tradition. So anyways, so it worked out really well for me in California. I subsequently went back to New York and conquered it and so New York was mine eventually. But now I'm kind of going back to my roots and back to really the city and also the studios and the kind of essence that really accepted me off the bat, and therefor I feel like I sort of belong to, at my core. So that's kind of what's going on.

Well Rufus I've never visited that part of the Los Angeles area, Laurel Canyon, I just know it for it's musical legacy. You got your Joni Mitchell, and The Birds, and the Beach Boys, and The Mamas and The Papas, and do you feel that spirit sort of hanging in the air?

Well very much. Mainly because I know a lot of those people who are still around and we were very close to Joni Mitchell, we know - I talk to Jackson Browne every once in a while. My friend Beverly D'Angelo, the actress, she lives in Mama Cass' old house.


Yeah where a lot of that took place, up in the hills. So it's all around still, I mean, I don't think it is... obviously it's not what it used to be but there are remnants of it and you know at a certain time of day when the sun is setting and the smog is lifting [laughs] You know you can still kind of, I don't know, get a whack of that, a whiff! A whack, a whiff, and a fuzzy feeling.

So Rufus when it was time to get into the studio to make Unfollow The Rules, can you talk a little bit about that process, and who did you work with? And where did you record the record?

Well we recorded in -- mainly in the studio but mainly, I worked with this amazing producer Mitchell Froom who also has worked a lot, he used to be in this band Crowded House originally and then he worked a lot with Randy Newman and Suzanne Vega and lots of people. Anyway, so we started working together and it was just a real -- it was a match made in heaven. I mean I just adored that process with him and we knew immediately that we wanted to kind of inhabit this L.A. ethos. So we went to a lot of the old studios that some of which I had [phone ringing] oops! Sorry real life time here, let me just turn off the phone.

That's alright.

Oh somebody answered it.

Ok, perfect.

So we wanted to recapture some of that magic and mainly we worked in his backyard because he has a little studio and that's where we did a majority of the grunt work and we would spend, you know, a week somewhere. Or a couple of days somewhere else in these big grand rooms like Ocean Way and East West and Sound City and really cut the tracks and get that sound. That warmth that you can get in the studios out here. It was -- we were very very precise and very very parsimonious and I think it -- it still sounds like a big old fat juicy expensive record but we didn't have the money to really afford that so it's a bit of smoke and mirrors but I think we did well.

Yeah I love -- there's this documentary that I watched on YouTube -- The Unmaking of Unfollow The Rules. There's a lot of footage of you and the musicians you worked with and the producer that you worked with in the studio and you know, I watched that Dave Grohl documentary about Sound City and I just think it's pretty incredible that place is still around and in operation with that history.

Yeah, and there's a few places like that here. But I don't know how long that's gonna be. You know? Obviously the world is changing so much I mean I don't know what's gonna still exist in the next year once we get out of our homes and walk the street again. So I'm happy I got it in there.

Rufus Wainwright here on The Current. The new record is Unfollow The Rules. You know Rufus I've been trying to think just really in the short term with the pandemic going on, with the unrest happening - I mean I'm in Minneapolis Saint Paul, the site of where George Floyd was murdered at the -- the site at which George Floyd was killed at the hands of Minneapolis Police. This city feels very different right now and I wonder what has it felt like in Los Angeles during this time?

Well I think with L.A. the sense that I'm getting is that there's kind of surreal quality that L.A. has always had, especially Hollywood. The boulevard with the stars and the kind of fake Spidermen and the muscle... bodybuilder, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger wannabes. Like this whole strange surreal quality has gotten considerably darker. You know? And more kind of spooky because everything's closed, a lot of things are closed. Things that look pretty bad. There's so many homeless, I mean the thing with L.A. is that the homeless problem is just... it's just so brutal and so apparent. So that kind of colors it, but yet you're still in Hollywood. You know where everything's gotta be cheery and showbiz and such. It kind of gives it this, it's very Day of the Locust right now. [laughs] Which oddly I have to say it fits the city well. Meaning that it is a side of this town that is real. There's always been a darkness to Hollywood and now it's just very apparent. But it's always been there.

Like that darkness is being amplified and it's being amplified with what, we're two months out from the November election? How are you feeling about it? Are you feeling hopeful or are you feeling really anxious?

You know today I'm feeling hopeful. God I mean, I yes, and then there's tomorrow I'll feel anxious so it's sort of -- I fluctuate.

The only thing people can really do is just get out there and have their voice heard.

Yeah get up there and vote and vote early.

The new record is called Unfollow The Rules, now the third song that you recorded for us, I'm so glad that you brought this one back out because there is such a relevance to this song right now. It's always, I'm not trying to kiss your butt by saying this but it's always been one of my favorites by you because it just makes me feel something so deeply. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd I played this song on the radio and I just was sitting quietly in the studio and just re-listening you know, even just to the opening lines and going, "Wow this is harder now than when it first came out." And I'm talking about the song "Going To A Town". Has that song, even you as the writer of that song and the performer, has that song really changed meaning for you?

Well I've sung it for years obviously. I mean I wrote it after the Iraq War. And it's interesting because when I sang it at that period I would get a lot of boos from Republicans and stuff but then when Obama won all the Republicans were like crazy clapping for it. It became like an anthem for them and now it's back an anthem for the left wing and it's sort of, I don't know. Yeah it's an interesting piece of music because it is sadly it is on one hand, it resonates still but also I'm very fortunate to have that, to just still have that connection as well with my music and with what's going on. So it's a double edged sword for sure.

Yeah I mean there are so many songs that have, anywhere, that have a distinct time stamp but this one feels so timeless and maybe the other side of that is well, I wish that it didn't resonate so much right now.

But I do think that deep down it's a love song. I think one of the things that makes it work is that even though it's very angry and it's very brutal, it's very brutally honest about certain things - there is this sort of silver lining around it where I want to reconnect. I want it to work and I am brokenhearted and I will always love America as we all will. But we've been betrayed.

From his home in Laurel Canyon out in California talking to us this morning about the new record Unfollow The Rules, but also revisiting a song here. Rufus thank you so much for taking the time to check in with The Current and chat this morning. So you take care ok?

My pleasure, okay you take care too.

Songs Played

05:27 Peaceful Afternoon
09:43 Only The People That Love
27:12 Going To A Town

Songs 1 and 2 are from Wainwright's 2020 record Unfollow The Rules. Song 3 is from his 2007 record Release The Stars.


Host - Jade
Technical Director - Erik Stromstad
Producer - Jesse Wiza

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