‘I WOULDN’T hold my breath,’ says flamboyant singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright, 46, of his two scheduled gigs at the London Palladium in October. ‘It’s not looking great but who knows?’ The two concerts were due to promote Rufus’s eighth album, Unfollow The Rules, which was originally scheduled for an April release but, due to Covid, only came out last week.
Wainwright is happy with the delay, however, as now that lockdown-related distribution problems have been dealt with, fans can also buy the album on vinyl. ‘This album is a bookend to my first,’ he says. ‘It represents the end of an era for me and a return to an old-fashioned songwriting sensibility, which is a lot to do with vinyl. The vinyl concept is integral to this.’
Rufus has done illustrations to accompany each of the 12 songs, and these will come with vinyl copies of the album. ‘There is a resurgence of that sensibility where a physical record is a tool to escape. It’s a pleasant prospect at this time.’
But aside from postponed albums and cancelled gigs, this time of Covid-related chaos hasn’t gone too badly for Rufus. ‘Despite the world collapsing around us, this has been one of the brighter spots in my life in terms of my career. I love all the albums I’ve made, they’re like my children, but I don’t have to worry about this one. It’s pretty stable.’
Lockdown has also seen Rufus take to his Instagram to treat fans to a morning piano recital of one of his songs, delivered in his bathrobe. He did it for 60 days. ‘By the end, I was reaching the bottom of the barrel, which is when I knew I had to shut up shop,’ he says.
He’s also taken his nine-year-old daughter, Viva, whom he shares custody of with her mother Lorca Cohen (daughter of late legend Leonard), to a couple of peaceful Black Lives Matter protests following the death of George Floyd. And when the lockdown restrictions ease in California, where he currently lives, he plans to take a camping trip along the coast with Viva and his German husband, Jörn Weisbrodt.
It’s a surprisingly domesticated scene when contrasted to his bohemian past. In 2002, he went on a five-day drug-taking extravaganza, becoming temporarily blind and mute on a cocktail of cocaine, ecstasy and ketamine, and was sent to rehab by his pal Elton John.
He’s also found that middle-age has benefited his professional life. ‘My voice is better than it’s ever been,’ he says. ‘I’m a big opera fan, and in the classical world singers really hit their stride in their forties. I’ve worked hard to fashion this instrument. I’m trying to emulate the transformation a lot of male artists go through — when you think of people like Frank Sinatra or John Lennon, in their late thirties or mid-forties, they transformed into the man they think they want to be.’
The London Palladium is an important venue for Rufus as it’s where he performed his acclaimed Judy Garland tribute shows. The live recording was nominated for a Grammy in 2009. But the American-Canadian pianist is spoilt for choice when it comes to reeling off noteworthy British gigs.
He says: ‘There are countless memorable gigs I’ve done in the UK, whether it’s the Royal Albert Hall, the Royal Opera House or the tribute shows to my mother [the late, acclaimed folk singer Kate McGarrigle]. I grew up singing at the Cambridge Folk Festival in the 1980s. I have been all over the UK, playing at some of the greatest rooms possible.’
The last gig he did before lockdown struck was at the Hastings Piano Festival in February. And an unexpected UK venue inspired a track on Unfollow The Rules. This One’s For The Ladies (That Lunge) is about some over-enthusiastic fans who came to see him at the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea.
‘A large proportion of fans in the UK are women of a certain age who are wholly dedicated to me and follow me around the country and are very enthusiastic,’ explains Rufus.
‘The Bexhill gig was at the end of a two-month run; I was exhausted. They were all waiting for me at the stage door. I wrote this tongue-in-cheek love song dedicated to them. Their attitude can be invigorating but if I’m exhausted at the end of a tour I don’t want to see anybody.’
Who knows when he will be able to tour again, but fans can content themselves with the new album in the meantime, and Rufus isn’t short of plans.
‘We’re hoping to do everything we were going to do this year next year instead.’ he says, ‘Hopefully, I’ll do Glastonbury. Maybe I’ll make another record. I have a classical career as well that takes a lot of time. I have lots of options — I’m very fortunate that way.’
■ Unfollow The Rules is out now, rufuswainwright.com