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Rufus Wainwright Returns To Pop Roots In New Album

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Rufus Wainwright has come home - home to pop music, home to Los Angeles where, 20 years ago, he feels like he found himself as an artist.

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: I was always a little too much of a dandy, a little too psychedelic (laughter), a little too cinematic, shall we say? So when I came to Hollywood, it just made a lot more sense.

GREENE: Wainwright spent the first part of his career reviving the lush cabaret style of pop music that had all but gone out of fashion. He left those roots over the last decade, satisfying a curiosity for the opera and the classical world. But now he is back in LA, back to pop and a new album that's called "Unfollow The Rules."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROMANTICAL MAN")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) But I don't think I can hide my ecstasy thinking of you up on Belsize Park, thinking of us. 'Cause I want a man, romantical man...

I started to miss pop again, and I started to kind of re-appreciate my - where I came from initially in the music world. So I was...

GREENE: Re-appreciate it. I love...

WAINWRIGHT: Re-appreciate - yes.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: But, I mean, though, you've talked about the classical music world as not so pleasant at times...

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GREENE: I mean, you've called it brutal, you've called it demanding...

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

GREENE: You've called it poisonous...

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GREENE: What - why such strong words?

WAINWRIGHT: Well, I think, you know - I mean, I had - I've had a very interesting run. When I started out, I was pretty naive around the classic music world. I had this romantic or idealistic view of it being this, you know, creative, welcoming, you know, musical wonderland. But then, immediately when I started working in that world and - it was very apparent very soon that it's, you know, that it's just - it's tough going.

GREENE: As much as he loves opera, Wainwright describes its rules as rigid and archaic. So for his return to pop, he wanted to let go creatively, and he had a little bit of help. His daughter, Viva, one day declared that she wanted to unfollow the rules. Wainwright jotted that down. It became a chorus and then a song and then the title of the record - a title that Wainwright says resonates today, mostly.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFOLLOW THE RULES")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Unfollow the rules - uncover the thieves of the games.

I was a little concerned when the album was going to come out in April that it would be viewed as slightly cavalier concerning what's going on with COVID.

GREENE: Oh, I didn't even think about that...

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, so I was a little...

GREENE: Not the perfect message.

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, I was a little worried about that. But then, of course, recently, we've had all the protests and the Black Lives Matter. This is an election year and so we have a kind of - I think there is an evaluation of the rules and of how we've gotten to where we are. And that is the idea of unfollowing the rules. It's not about - I'm not an iconoclast. It's not about breaking the rules. It's about just kind of turning around and just looking at the path that brought us where we are and deciding, in the end, whether to continue that or forge a new one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNFOLLOW THE RULES")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) But I'm no Hercules and this is Herculean (ph).

GREENE: You get personal at times on this album. I mean, "Early Morning Madness" is this very melancholy, hazy trip through addiction. I know that's something you struggled with some years ago. It's striking because I - you know, the song really seems to speak to isolation, which a lot of people are feeling in this pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EARLY MORNING MADNESS")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) In the early morning, longing will be gone. That's the thing - just in time for the chime of the dinner gong.

GREENE: Is it hard to be quarantined like this for a recovering addict?

WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, there's a few moments when you just want to throw up your hands and let go and go nuts and stuff. But it was - it's so inappropriate (laughter) at the moment. Part of that is also just being more mature now and so forth. I feel a lot for the younger people right now. I remember being young and having this beautiful sense of abandon and really not knowing what the day would hold. And they're really being robbed of that at the moment, and I hate to say it. I understand why they blow off steam sometime. I mean, it's unfortunate and - that it has consequences. But I also - I feel for them because it's - the youth is sort of imbued with that recklessness, and that's one of the beautiful things about youth.

GREENE: You have a song on the album called "Only The People That Love" and you've said that it's directed to the outside world - you know, a message of love conquering all. And with everything that we're experiencing right now, can love help us heal in all this?

WAINWRIGHT: You know, I think it's all that we have to go on at this point. And though it is intense now, and it seems somewhat nihilistic, we might just also be coming to the center of what needs to happen, which is, you know, a kind of - a surrender to love.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY THE PEOPLE THAT LOVE")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Only the people that love - man gotta love man 'cause (ph)...

GREENE: I mean, you sing about love but, you know, a few songs after the song I mentioned, there's this intense battle cry in your song "Hatred." And you describe hatred as something that is needed but not always negative. Like, are you saying to get to surrendering to love, you also need to feel angry?

WAINWRIGHT: I think that we are in a state - you know, there is a war being waged on many fronts in both America and the world. Whether it's, you know, for human rights, whether it's for the environment, whether it's for, you know, women's rights - people are now taking their places in what will be a real showdown. And that is just a fact. I mean, there's no, you know, that's not a good thing or a bad thing. It's just what's occurring.

GREENE: It's amazing. I mean, you want us to surrender to love, but you're saying that we've got to be angry at times, too.

WAINWRIGHT: I think you've got to fight for love a little bit right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HATRED")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing) Devils - devils and angels. I'm gonna get myself away. I'm gonna get myself away...

GREENE: Rufus Wainwright, a real pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much.

WAINWRIGHT: Thank you. Thank you so much.

GREENE: Rufus Wainwright's new album is "Unfollow The Rules."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HATRED")

WAINWRIGHT: (Singing, unintelligible). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 9, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous headline misspelled Rufus Wainwright's last name as Wrainwright.
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