Rufus Wainwright continues to ‘unfollow’ rules

Musician makes waves with opera, poetry and new folk pop effort

At the beginning of 2020, Rufus Wainwright was looking forward to one of his busiest years ever. He made a splash in the classical world with two operas, “Prima Donna” and “Hadrian,” and also proved himself Bard-worthy by setting nine Shakespearean sonnets to music for a Robert Wilson theater production. He also was happy to return to the whimsical, oblique-chorded folk-pop of his 2001 sophomore breakthrough “Poses” with a then-new “Unfollow the Rules,” his ninth effort. But when COVID struck, he slowed to a lockdown crawl as the album’s release date shifted from April to July, and tour dates were canceled. At first, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. But the unflappable artist got back on track by making a video of a crowd-free concert at L.A.’s eerie Paramour Mansion, now being issued as “Rufus Wainwright: Unfollow the Rules — The Paramour Sessions,” accompanied by a guitarist, a pianist and a string quartet. Now he’s happy to be out on a tour that hits Saratoga’s Mountain Winery this weekend.

When we talked last year, you dryly observed that, “The world is a Rottweiler, and it’s difficult to get this dog to learn how to sit.” And now?

Well, I think we’ve all sort of done the opposite, and become Rottweilers instead. And we’re now running wild through the forest. But I don’t know. At the end of the day, I can’t complain too much. We (his German husband Jorn Weisbrodt and their 10-year-old daughter Viva, with birth mom Lorca Cohen) have all kept our health, and I’m not in Afghanistan — I’m on the road again, so I’m counting my blessings, for sure.

Last year, you had just purchased an Airstream trailer. Did you drive cross-country?

No, but we were up in Northern California, in Mendocino, Tahoe, and we also went to Yellowstone, so we made it as far as Wyoming. We had a lot of fun, and it pertained more to my husband’s upbringing than mine — because he’s from Germany, he always went camping as a kid, in caravans all throughout Europe. So he kind of fetishizes the whole process, of setting up the Airstream, putting out the little tables and Tupperware, and cooking on a little stove. And our daughter loved being able to play outside, which you just couldn’t do in the city. America is a big, beautiful country when you get there!

How and why did you choose the Paramour?

Well, I’ve known about the place for years. I did a benefit there in the ‘90s, and ever since then, I’ve visited there a lot and hung out at the Paramour. And it belonged to an heiress who was married to a silent movie star, who I think died in a really terrible car accident, so it’s definitely part of the whole “Hollywood Babylon” mythology. So when COVID hit, we wanted to do something basically to occupy our time, but it was pretty spooky, the whole thing, because we were right in the middle of the pandemic, and at the same time, down in the valley below the estate, were the Black Lives Matter protests, going full-steam ahead. So there was all of this turmoil, and then you add Trump and all the fires coming? It was scary, but I really strongly feel that the album reflects that intensity, in a very good way. There’s a certain desperate quality to the record, and desperation is always wonderful in music. So there was no audience, but I think the ghosts of Hollywood were there instead.

And outside Laurel Canyon, you live right across from Louise Brooks’ old house, you’ve said.

Yes! And that was one of the summits of my excitement, realizing that the house I look at every day when I get up in the morning — because our window faces the house — was once Louise Brooks’ place! I’ve been a longtime admirer of hers, and “Pandora’s Box” was just amazing.

As any pandemic day spent watching the Turner Classic Movies channel proved, there was a lot of wisdom in old films like “Sunset Boulevard” and “All About Eve.”

Oh, totally! There’s one that I saw recently, “Flying Down to Rio,” and it was the first time Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers ever made a movie together. And it’s a ridiculous romp, so silly and so crazy, but I will say that — just with the insanity of this world we live in now — those old movies, even the silly ones, mirror the kind of chaos that we’re experiencing more than any rom-com or Judd Apatow offering. There’s a surreal quality to those films, so I constantly return to them as a source. A source of understanding.


Rufus Wainwright, Aimee Mann

Where: Mountain Winery, 14831 Pierce Road, Saratoga

When: 7:30 p.m. Sept. 12

Tickets: $39 to $400


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