Rufus Wainwright on Surviving Quarantine and the “Trump Clown Show”

The piano man has dropped a new single, aptly titled “Alone Time.”

Every day since quarantining, showman Rufus Wainwright has sat as his piano to serenade his followers with songs from his vast catalog, with his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, manning the camera.

Wainwright is one of the numerous artists offering musical respite to those in state-mandated isolation with at-home performances; cleverly, his is titled “Quarantunes.”

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On April 24, Wainwright was set to add his ninth studio album, Unfollow the Rules, to his two-decade-long discography. But given the ongoing coronavirus crisis, the singer-songwriter ultimately decided to delay its release until July 10. “There was a real debate over whether it was better to encourage people or to do it with all cylinders running,” he tells NewNowNext. “We chose the latter.”

Still, Wainwright will drop a new single from the album, the aptly titled “Alone Time,” on the day the album was originally scheduled to be released because, he says, “I want to give something back to everybody who’s been so patient.”

The day after kicking off Royal Albert Hall’s new at-home concert series, Wainwright spoke to NewNowNext about his pandemic-era performance robes influencing Zoom WFH style, being less cynical about technology, and finding coronavirus catharsis in, yes, Russian opera tragedies.

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How are you doing, Rufus?

I’m good. I’m just doing what we’re all doing here—which is nothing. [Laughs]

In solidarity with your #RobeRecitals, I’ve decided to don my own robe for this chat.

Thank you. Just to let you know my husband makes me take my robe off immediately after I finish my song and wear day clothes. Because there was a weekend where I was suddenly watching Rachel Maddow in my robe at 9 o’clock at night! Someone told me the other day in Australia that she was having some Zoom meeting with her colleagues and there was a presentation on how to present yourself these days with examples of the new normal. A picture of me in a robe was one of the examples. [Laughs]

I mean, what a compliment.

I was touched. Or shall I say, in this day and age, I was not touched. [Laughs]

It was a nice change to see you in real clothes for your Royal Albert Hall at-home performance.

That would’ve been a little cheeky if I hadn’t done it that way!

How was it decided that robes would be your at-home ensemble?

That started way before the coronavirus situation, because when I was younger—when there wasn’t a 9-year-old child [their daughter, Viva] around—I would practice piano naked. But things did change. So the robe kind of became the uniform. So we started posting those on Instagram and they became the #RobeRecitals. Then coronavirus happened and it just made a lot of sense to continue that in a more informal way.

How have you been going about choosing the songs you play for the #RobeRecitals?

The only distinction I make so far is that I’ve instituted this thing called #TheatricalThursdays where I do something that really hasn’t been released before. But aside from that, I’m just going down the catalog. I’ve managed to do something every day, a song that means something to somebody.
 

You did your song “Going to a Town,” and I don’t know if we want that to be your most timeless song, but given our current situation, it just might be.

Yeah, I know. It seems to have a recurring kind of position in the dialogue here with this country that we love so much but get so frustrated with. It has gotten so out of control up until now with 24-hour news and the Trump clown show. Someone said this is the “great equalizer,” which is so untrue because not everyone is affected by this in the same way. It’s bringing out a lot of the fault lines once again in this country, and this is the last nail in the coffin.

What music are you turning to now turning this current crisis?

I’m always in opera-land, and I’ve been listening to Boris Godunov, this great Russian opera by Modest Mussorgsky. There’s something about the chilling quality of that music and the deep Russian sorrow and tragedy and drama.

You just announced U.K. dates for October and November. Are you optimistic you’ll be able to play those shows?

We’re essentially playing it by ear. We’ve booked them, we’ve scheduled them. We’ll see how it goes. There’s certainly a lot of factors that could derail the situation, but you gotta keep going at some point. Not now. But I think October is appropriate to at least think about it.

Looking ahead to Unfollow the Rules, what was it like to record the album in the same studio in L.A. that you recorded your debut?

It’s been a glorious fairy tale in a lot of ways. Because it started off in this beautiful room, and then to return to it and have some of the same musicians and not spend a million dollars [like I did on the debut]—the happy ending of the tale!

One song from the album, “Peaceful Afternoon,” honors your enduring relationship with your husband Jörn. Why did now seem like a good time for this song?

My husband demands—he’s German and they can be a little demanding at times [laughs]—that on every record there’s a song about him. And at first it’s like, “Oh boy. What’s gonna happen?” But each time it ends up being a love song, and that’s very reassuring.

I understand that your daughter, Viva, named the album.

Yeah, she came up with that term. One day Jörn and I were just sitting in the living room and she walked downstairs and dramatically announced that she would like to “unfollow the rules.” I wrote it down immediately and thought it was a great title for something. Then we made the album and I just kept coming back to that line. So she’s very excited about that. And you know, she’ll get paid. Not right now, but at some point. [Laughs]

How are you feeling about the music community’s response to the pandemic?

I mourn the period before when people actually read more books and spent more time writing letters, but that being said, this period now has definitely garnered a lot of glory for technology. I guess it’s somewhat encouraging in a sense that this stuff is bringing joy to people on a very fundamental level. It makes me a little less cynical seeing so many musicians express themselves and reach out as part of that process.

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Some artists are finding this time at home to be fruitful, while others can’t even fathom being creative right now. Do you look at this time off as a creative opportunity?

Oh, I’m being incredibly creative. And I don’t say that in a kind of vain, glorious way [laughs]. It’s really my coping mechanism to lose myself in my art, whether it’s writing songs or drawing. I actually do a lot of visual arts now. I am saved by that in very many ways. Once again this is why the pandemic is not an equalizer: because there are people who still have to work, who can’t just sit around reading books. But that being said, there’s a lesson here in just stopping and doing what you need to do at that moment for yourself. That is hopefully something that will resonant and outlast this pandemic, and something we can refer to in these next few years.

You’ve done your Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall show during other tumultuous times in our history: First, to express your feelings on the Iraq War and George W. Bush, in 2006. Then again as a response to Trump being elected. Now seems like a good time to revisit Judy, wouldn’t you say?

The only problem with doing the Judy is I would need a pianist for that because I don’t really do those songs solo. As the restrictions are lifted, Judy could definitely crawl out of the woodwork.

Are you tuning into anyone else’s at-home sessions?

Yeah. I see the stuff that Brandi Carlile does, and Randy Newman. And my friend Stephanie Blythe, who’s a great opera singer from the Metropolitan Opera. There’s a bunch of people. My sister Martha Wainwright has been doing a lot. So it’s a gift.

Detroit-ish based writer-editor, Meryl Streep stan. Thought I'd retire after Mariah Carey called me a "dahhling," but here I am.
@chrisazzopardi