Even the pandemic couldn’t slow down Rufus Wainwright. “I’ve been raring to go early on and took every opportunity I could to get out there and do shows,” says the Grammy-nominated Canadian-American singer, songwriter, and composer. “I’m doing my job no matter what.”
Wainwright’s 10th studio album, Unfollow the Rules, was released four years after his previous record and just before the coronavirus forever changed the world. “I hadn’t made an album for a long time before Unfollow the Rules, but that doesn’t mean I had stopped writing songs,” shares Wainwright, the winner of two Juno Awards. “I was spending years just testing out the material and seeing what lasted and what stayed with me. So, I knew instinctively that it was really solid material. Thankfully, that was the case, because the pandemic kind of came up and wiped out a lot my early tour, but somehow, because the music was so well built and weathered, people were still attracted to it and wanted to hear it.”
Wainwright’s October 2 show at Tarrytown Music Hall — an extension of his Unfollow the Rules tour — is a testament to this. It also gives Wainwright, who was born in Rhinebeck, an opportunity to return to his home state. “I seem to be navigating my way back here, which is very important because New York is where it all started for me, and a lot of my family are still there,” he says. “I miss it very much, actually.”
Yet, that isn’t the only reason Wainwright has been racking up frequent-flier miles. This summer, Wainwright staged his second opera, Hadrian, in Madrid. “It’s the [Spanish] premiere of a production that my husband actually directed. It’s a huge, four-act, mammoth of an opera with choruses, dances, murder, and sex scenes — all that I love about the form,” Wainwright says with a laugh. “But really, it’s so exciting that it has a life.” Wainwright’s first opera, Prima Donna, originally premiered in 2009 at the Manchester Film Festival and was subsequently performed in London, Toronto, and Brooklyn.
Yet no matter the medium, Wainwright’s creative energy remains his guiding force. “I’ve always relied on my creative powers to operate in general, whether it’s writing a song instead of cleaning my room or playing a piano piece so that I didn’t have to do my homework,” says Wainwright. “It’s something I’ve gravitated to for all sorts of reasons, both good and bad.”
Wainwright is also guided by his family, including his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, and daughter, Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen. “My daughter is now both one of my greatest fans and one of my greatest critics,” says Wainwright. “She will tell me precisely what she thinks. She has no fear in that regard. And that’s always a good thing to have as an artist, especially in show business and especially in Los Angeles, actually, where you can get a lot of fluffy friends who don’t want to get down to business.”
Ahead, Wainwright plans to continue his stage work, through opera or perhaps an original play. “A lot of my focus is starting to revolve around theater in general, whether it’s opera or Broadway,” he says. “So I am homing my vision on Broadway, and I’ve been working on a lot of shows. I can’t mention anything specific, but there are moving parts at this point, and it’s very exciting.”
According to Wainwright, one reason for this shift toward drama lies in the emotional release of writing. “I am married, and we have an 11-year-old daughter, so most of the time we are going to bed at 10 o’clock and waking up at 6:30 to do our chores,” he says. “So, some of that more rotten, rebellious, and decadent behavior I can filter into the characters who are in my ideas for plays. I think it’s a way to live vicariously through other beings without having to nurse a hangover.”
Environmentalism also remains central to Wainwright, who in 2008 originated the concept of Blackoutsabbath, a designated period during which participants are encouraged to decrease energy usage while brainstorming ways to heal the earth. Wainwright views the problems facing our society and planet as cause for both great concern and tremendous hope.
“We were in France yesterday, during what I think was the hottest day ever in the country. I worry a lot, but I also feel that the cat is out of the bag in the sense that things are already happening, and we have to deal with them. There’s no way to pussyfoot around the issue anymore,” says Wainwright. “Whether it’s the environment, or civil rights, or women’s rights, or politics, we are in a stage now when what needs to happen needs to be fought for. I think that this can be a positive period, in general, because it’s about truth and about making the world a better place. We just actually have to do it.”