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Rufus Wainwright: Unmaking Unfollow the Rules

This documentary goes into the studio as Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright creates his latest album Unfollow the Rules. Watch as producers, musicians and Rufus discuss the three-year process of making this record, with intimate glimpses of his life and extended clips from the new songs.

AIRED: July 10, 2020 | 0:33:01
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TRANSCRIPT

♪♪

♪♪

I'm Rufus Wainwright, and this is a journey

into the making of "Unfollow the Rules"

♪ I was going 'round from the town to the country ♪

It's really a fantastic album I made with David Boucher

and the great Mitchell Froom.

♪ Ooh

Lost my train of thought. [ Laughs ]

[ Speaks indistinctly ]

Okay ere we go.

♪ You ain't big unless you're big in Alabama ♪

About seven years ago,

I released my last sort of "pop record,"

and it was called "Out of the Game,"

and I made it with with Mark Ronson.

♪ Doesn't really matter at all ♪

I think I was a little overly enthusiastic about it.

I love the album,

but I did think, probably because of Mark Ronson,

that I was going to suddenly be, you know, Adele.

[ Laughs ]

And, God, that didn't happen. That would've been weird.

So I went off, and I worked on my opera stuff for a few years.

♪♪

Because of my great love of opera,

I really wanted to immerse myself fully in that universe,

and in order to do so, I had to kind of totally

disappear into it, which is what happened.

I'd wrote two operas, "Prima Donna" and "Hadrian."

So it was a successful venture.

It was worth the trip.

But I started to miss where I'd come from

as a singer-songwriter.

I started to really appreciate where I came from.

So writing songs became a kind of protective layer

that I could really escape into that.

I think I was sort of reignited

in terms of my passion for for songwriting.

And then my husband and I decided to move to California.

We got a place in Laurel Canyon,

and we started to look for producers

for this group of songs that I'd written.

I would, like, send out the whole batch of material,

which was over 30 songs, I think,

and I got a lot of positive responses from a lot of people,

but it was really when I sat down with Mitchell in his studio

in the back of his house when it just happened.

In the first two minutes of sitting down,

he immediately had a game plan,

and he'd immediately picked out songs that he liked.

And he kind of had this vision for the record.

♪ This one's for the ladies

Froom: They were all good songs.

Out of respect for his musicianship

and his knowledge and just how great he is,

I tried to develop a bunch of ideas.

It wasn't at all about ego or anything,

and Rufus was very open to some suggestions.

Just forget about it and do it.

More romantically or something. Just -- Okay.

Just so you know, I was humoring you at that point.

Oh, of course. [ Both laugh ]

Sounds great.

I'm so excited for this record.

[ Laughs ]

Sweeping strings.

There you go. Mm-hmm.

♪ Sometimes I feel like my heart turns to dust ♪

What I heard was kind of astonishing.

I just looked at it in terms of which ones might resonate

in a way that seemed simple somehow.

♪ Sometimes I feel like my brain... ♪

But forever reason,

they just seemed like they hooked you in the most.

I'm just open to this just to see what happens.

Wainwright: I'd worked with a lot of other fruit producers over the years,

and there was certainly, like, for most of my career,

this kind of edge that I occasionally, you know,

take out of its sheath and, really, you know,

fight for what I thought should be on my record.

Strings will bring the brand back in. Okay.

With this record, I was ready [chuckles]

to just surrender, in a lot of ways.

It didn't feel like you were relinquishing anything,

to be honest. [ Both laugh ]

I know. [ Laughs ]

I think there was something with this record

where there's a maturity, I guess,

that I was kind of really utilizing finally. [ Chuckles ]

I was like, "Let's just make a really great record

and have fun with this."

When we went to Sound City, that was sort of the baptism.

Welcome to the studio.

♪ I was going 'round from the town to the country ♪

Well, now that I got that drum sound...

There was always an idea of this return to California.

That was always there when Mitchell and I

started making the record.

There was definitely this concept

that I was coming back to L.A.

to claim my legacy, my deserved legacy

as a survivor [chuckles] of the music business.

♪ To the back of my crown

♪ There's always trouble in paradise ♪

I think at the point when I'd left,

I was definitely in this pattern of, like, going into studio,

making a record, touring, getting disappointed [chuckles]

going into studio, making a record, touring.

I wasn't always disappointed, but it was always, you know --

it's a rocky road, shall we say?

For this album, we didn't have any ax to grind, I guess.

I looked at you as someone that you just knew

what you were doing,

you kind of knew what you wanted,

and then it was just like, what ideas can I bring?

Which ones do you like? Which ones don't?

What ideas can musicians bring?

Which ones do you like? Which ones you don't?

That's what it felt like.

♪ You see me there

You know, maybe in the past,

if you're making a record, there's this pressure

that the producer feels to deliver for the label,

and then there's this --

We've never labeled. [ Laughs ]

Yeah, there's that. Duh-duh!

[ Laughs ] But that was helpful

because we just found the way that seemed best.

Yeah.

So we tried to bring all this different color

and attitude to some different songs.

There was a few songs where we'd use two guitars

like "Damsel in Distress."

Play a little harder.

The big guitar opening with those two guys,

one on nylon and one on steel,

it makes this really big sound.

♪ Will you forever be a damsel in distress? ♪

"Damsel in Distress" is the song I wrote

because my mother was jealous. [ Chuckles ]

Okay, I'll just explain it now.

We weren't allowed to listen to Joni Mitchell in the house.

[ Chuckles ] It was it was verboten

because my mother, Kate McGarrigle,

who was an incredible singer-songwriter.

She was from a very intense kind of folkocracy.

that had very stern kind of beliefs

in terms of what folk music was

and who should be singing it and, somehow for her,

Joni Mitchell was this kind of --

was a fraud, in her mind.

So that's one side.

The other side, though, is that I think

my mother was incredibly jealous of Joni Mitchell.

You know, my mother, who had been signed

to Warner Bros. many, many years ago,

didn't kind of have this swagger

that some of her contemporaries did,

and she always felt -- I don't know.

She felt like she hadn't made it in the music business

and had to kind of return back to Montreal defeated.

So I think Joni Mitchell, for her,

was sort of this -- I don't know.

It was this double-edged sword.

♪ But what the hell is that?

So there was like a strange vibe around her,

needless to say.

And then years later, Joern, my husband,

who didn't know anything about her

'cause he grew up in Germany,

he became familiar with her music

and subsequently became a massive Joni Mitchell fanatic.

I then went through his discovery of her music

and was, of course, you know, blown away

and got, like, her importance.

So I then wrote this song, "Damsel in Distress,"

and then my sister, Martha, who, on hearing it, said,

"Oh, you just wrote -- that's a Joni Mitchell song."

[ Laughs ]

So I kind of consider it my Joni Mitchell acceptance speech.

[ Laughs ]

♪ You got exactly that

I have to say, and this is a testament to you.

Mitchell, is that that song could have inhabited,

like, a real solid, you know, homage to,

you know, Laurel Canyon vibe,

which there's a part of it that is that,

but it's really the stuff that you added,

like with the clapping,

which made it, you know, in its certain ways

and some of the sounds that you came up with, you know,

making it more interesting in that way.

Yeah, well, I mean, I think we feel the same.

I mean, it seems like the best music,

often you can find the roots of where it comes from,

but you don't want to go back

and make something sound like 1970.

What's the point? It's just lack of creativity.

Yeah, I mean, it's possible we just like this. Okay.

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

Wainwright: My first album,

that record took about three years to make.

This record also took about three years, technically.

We first got together and we did "Alone Time,"

and then I think we spent -- it was, like, three months,

four months to just finalize the songs.

We had a lot of discussion of who was going to plan what.

Then trying to arrange everybody's time,

it was not easy.

We didn't have the luxury of the old days... Yeah.

...where we had an endless budget

where we could just go in with musicians,

spend a few days even trying to get a track.

So we had to come in with very strong starting-place ideas.

♪♪

What's fascinating about any work of any kind

is that even the moments that you're not there, you know,

slugging it out in the studio or writing the songs,

even when you're in a whole other universe

or doing a whole other thing,

there's still this little engine in the back of your head

[chuckles] that's doing push-ups

and thinking about, you know, the next move subconsciously.

And I think this record has that added kind of -- I don't know.

It's like almost a subconscious element

where even though, you know, I didn't work on it,

you know, hand over fist for three years,

it was nonetheless always thought about

and always really, really thought out.

Finally got the guys together,

then we recorded two songs a day,

at Sound City, and they're not easy songs.

♪ Only the people that love ♪

♪ May dream

Jim Keltner, he was the first sort of major,

classic session player that I'd ever worked with

when I made my first record.

When he came into the studio,

that was my first-ever introduction to this sort of,

you know, really majestic, legendary legacy that he had,

and we immediately bonded.

I've had a tremendous career playing on records

with some of the greatest artists in the world,

Rufus being one of them.

He is such a fantastic performer.

♪ And got to love me

I was so young at the time.

I was, you know, in my early 20s,

and a lot of people around me were a little bit put off

occasionally or overly, you know, interested,

but when Jim talked to me, he was the first person

of that stature who I felt was actually,

you know, I don't know, just giving me

some real encouragement that kept me going.

So then to have him come in again years later

was very meaningful, and he played on two songs.

♪ Everyone else oughta just... ♪

Back in 1973, I played on his dad's record.

Then years later, I get a call to go record

with this kid named Rufus Wainwright.

"Oh, this is Loudon's son."

Went into the studio and met him,

and we proceeded to play on some songs together.

It was fantastic. Great feel he has.

A great way of phrasing on the piano and singing.

That's real fun for a drummer to grab hold of.

His version of time isn't a metronome.

His version of time is,

does it have its own deep feeling to it?

And I think, you know, particularly

"Only the People that Love," you hear him play drums on it.

It's immediately him.

He can do it in a way

that you feel it more than any drummer I know.

And all the guys, they were all great.

We got David Piltch, incredible bass player,

upright bass player.

Blake Mills, who, of course,

he's a really fantastic guitarist.

I thought, particularly with you, he did a fantastic job.

Wainwright: ♪ Only the people that love

His knowledge of music is such that it wasn't a stretch for him

to go wherever your music went, and he could do it on the spot.

So we got a lot of tracks

that were just kind of spectacular.

What was great and also, I think really important

with Blake was that he's the linchpin,

you know, between, you know, this generation and Jim's.

They felt like they could communicate through my music.

[ Chuckles ]

See, he mesmerized me.

They're of the highest level

in terms of being able to make recordings,

you know, particularly backing someone like you.

It was a nice feeling in the room

because everyone was very happy to be there

and very happy to play your music, too.

They all called me separately afterwards.

Where he comes in with the snare on the one,

that's pretty nice, right?

It seemed like the right crew for what we were trying to do.

That reminds me. You always like the weird -- Yeah.

Wainwright: What's nice about being a dad and writing

and making albums is that, in the end of the day,

you have to accept that you don't matter anymore.

[ Chuckles ]

And it allows you to let go, I guess.

♪ Sometimes I feel like my heart turns to dust ♪

♪ Unfollow the rules

♪ And swallow the...

One day, our daughter, Viva,

she walked into the living room and exclaimed very dramatically,

she said, "Daddy, just sometimes I want to unfollow the rules."

♪ Unfollow the rules

Immediately, I knew that, you know, there was something

in that term that I had to write a song about.

♪♪

Music is hard to talk about.

And once in a while, there's a song that's just so good.

I would just really encourage people to just hear it.

Wainwright: ♪ Don't give me what I want

Froom: It's deeply emotional.

The melody is beautiful, and it goes unexpected places.

It shows off like almost in a Roy Orbison way

what Rufus can do vocally.

It's a really good song.

♪♪

Arguably, one could spend quite a long time

analyzing that song in terms of what happened during it

and what it's about, you know,

'because it's sort of, you know, it's not about Viva,

but at the time she was watching a lot of Disney animated things,

and one of them was "Hercules."

And then also a friend of mine had a nervous breakdown...

...and she as having to go through heavy-duty therapy,

and so that started to, like, permeate into the song.

♪ Just give me...

Joern I had gone to see these incredible totem poles,

the most famous totem poles in the world

in northern British Columbia, kind of near Alaska,

and we were kind of racing along for eight hours on this boat,

and I was kind of looking, you know, at the coastline,

this incredible Canadian wilderness,

and that's when I finished the song.

♪ What I want

Took a long time to write that song,

and then finally I finished it.

And to this day, I don't think I'll ever know

quite what it's about or what it means

or who it's even addressed to.

I think, in the end, it's just about, you know,

reexamining the paths

that brought us to where we are today,

and we're just trying to figure out the way forward from there.

♪♪

♪♪

Rufus is a genius. He's a genius.

He has, I think, one of the greatest voices

of all time, and just getting to hear him sing

is the ultimate magical moment for me.

Wainwright: ♪ You ain't big unless you're big in Alabama ♪

What's nice about this album, "Unfollow the Rules" is,

on a pop level, it's my first, you know, real album

with vinyl in the forefront.

It's got a grand sensibility in terms of the visual aspects

of this record.

So the picture is, you know, nice and big,

and this is "Unfollow the Rules."

Our daughter wrote this, "Unfollow the Rules,"

'cause actually came up with the title of the record

we have amazing liner notes by Linda Thompson.

There's these illustrations

and they're all drawings that I've done for every song

that I've been able to incorporate into the packaging.

We were originally gonna release it in April,

but had to move it to July

because of what's going on with the virus.

And because, you know, we really wanted there

to be a physical product that people could touch

and have this kind of tactile experience with.

♪♪

♪♪

♪ This one's for the ladies

Once we produced the songs

and they each took on these very distinct characters,

then it sort of started to fall in terms of the vinyl product,

because with the number of songs that we had,

it fit well on on three sides of a vinyl record.

And then there would be one side with, you know,

an etching or something on that.

And with that three-part concept,

it became like a three-act situation.

You know, the first side.

"Trouble in Paradise" and "Damsel in Distress,"

these were very much a kind of direct reference to, you know,

returning to California and being in Laurel Canyon

and kind of taking on the mantle of the great songwriters

who preceded me and trying to, you know,

keep that tradition going and working in big studios

with famous session players and stuff.

So it kind of has that very old-school approach.

Then when you flip over the side

and get to the second side and it starts

with "Romantical Man," which is a story --

a song about me in London,

kind of my ode to England at that point.

It returns more to the sort of romantic,

psychedelic old-school Rufus.

We're here in Hollywood, Joern and I.

-Oh, beautiful. -Mwah.

♪ Well, it's coming on to 13 years together, babe ♪

"Peaceful Afternoon" is a song that I wrote

for my husband, Joern.

You know, we have a tacit agreement, I should say,

that I write a song about him on every album that I put out.

[ Chuckles ]

I've fulfilled that requirement for a few records now

and it's a great joy to do it, because it is --

it is, actually -- it's good --

it becomes a good old-fashioned love song,

which we need more of in the world.

♪ It's all a part of the symphony ♪

The concept for the accompaniment

is that I had been singing

"So Long, Marianne" by Leonard Cohen a lot

with the guitar,

and there's this kind of jangling,

rousing way that I do it,

but it'd always worked whenever I would do it live.

It's also that, you know, "Let's all sing a song together," vibe

that I don't have a lot of in my shows.

♪ Last you'll see

I really liked the song, and it certainly didn't seem like,

"Oh, Rufus has to do this to keep his marriage together

or just peace in the house or," you know,

because there's really good humor in it.

And I think for these kinds of records that Rufus does,

people want just a glimpse into the character.

♪ Living room

♪♪

♪♪

-Ready? -Yeah.

One, two, three, four.

And then the third act happens...

...and it's just me alone on the piano,

which is bringing it back

to this more essential Rufus element,

which is decidedly darker.

♪ Early morning madness

♪ Everything is wrong

Most of the songs on the third act are very dark...

...and we kind of enter into this, I don't know,

somber finale with things like "Early Morning Madness"

or "Hatred"...

...you know, songs, you know, that are very sad

but also angry and kind of the negative energy.

I had a great time working on this album,

We did strings on eight or nine songs

in the course of like three days,

trying to contribute to help the song flow and grow

and kind of have arrangement payoffs

that were worthy of the original material was a great challenge

and a really fun thing to try to achieve.

Wainwright: For this record and with this more,

how can I say this, a tougher, tougher approach?

It's an indication that I have hardened over the years

in a good way and become, you know, more --

just become stronger, at least artistically.

I'd rather overdo it.

And that kind of translates for me

in terms of certain great artists

that I admire who, at latter parts of their careers,

you know, they experienced this resurgence

and this kind of transformation into who they really were.

♪ The early morning

You know, I don't know if that'll happen.

I don't know if it'll be regarded in that way.

But I am definitely emulating this transformation

that can occur for men in their 40s when they --

I don't know. They just become themselves

in a lot of ways.

♪♪

♪ Early morning madness

♪ Early morning sadness

♪♪

Piltch: I played four songs with Rufus.

The first song that he played when he came in

was "Early Morning Madness,"

and it was a lot like a freight train

coming right through the studio without any notice.

[ Laughs ] It was incredible.

Wainwright: It's a bit of a trap, the record, you know?

It kind of kind of welcomes you in this California dream,

and then the second side of the album,

you take acid with me [chuckles]

and we kind of go on these fun little trips

and then, you know, you come down.

♪ Early morning madness

It's not a happy ending, but it's a good ending

in the sense that the listener or me, the performer,

by the end, I have gone through

the whole gamut of every emotion that's available,

and I have decided to accept that and continue.

You know, it's it's not a nihilistic ending.

It's a holistic sort of acceptance

of what the world has to offer.

♪ Hatred on the horizon

♪ Must be assumed for the ascension ♪

♪ Shadow the scepter

♪ Lower the drawbridge

♪ Drain the moat

♪ Empty the catapult

♪ Hatred on the horizon

See, now, when I wrote "Hatred,"

I was in a position of great distress.

It was one of the devastating life moments that everybody has.

And I realized that I had to really go to war

to protect myself

and that this hatred that I was imbued with was --

it's a battle cry, and I'm hoping to imbue

the public with a bit a little bit of wrath,

you know, in November with the election coming,

because we have to get

rid of the current president at all costs.

♪ Devils

♪ Devils and angels

Mills: Working with Rufus, it was a special experience.

I had a lot of respect for Rufus

before working with him on this album,

but once I found myself immersed in the material for this record,

I realized how heavy of a writer he really is.

-That was fun to do. -Yeah.

Who knows what it sounds like? Who knows what it sounds like?

♪♪

♪ I'm neeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeed

♪ A little alone time

And at this point in my life, I am starting to see patterns,

you know, that develop over the years.

And there's a definite kind of magic, I guess,

that happens occasionally

where, you know, you enter into a project

and somehow all the ingredients are there

and all the forces are,

you know, conspiring to help you in that effort.

You know, and I think for this album,

nobody had anything to prove, really.

We just wanted to make the best music possible,

and it's something that you can actually hear in the tracks.

♪ To get you

♪ On the Mists of Avalon

Getting to record someone who can sing like you

is pretty special.

Aww, that's so sweet. Very sweet.

♪ Cliffs of lovers leaping off ♪

Our first two days together,

we basically completed "Alone Time."

It was all basically leaning on you.

Froom: I wasn't prepared for that.

♪ And on and off and on and ♪

I don't remember, but -- I don't know. David would know.

But it's like a hundred vocal tracks. Yeah, yeah.

But the most impressive part of it would be you would sing

for four or five hours,

all these wide range of vocal ideas,

and then you'd be very prepared to erase a lot of that. Yeah.

Now, most people, if they did that much work

and it sounded that cool,

they wouldn't want to erase a note of it. [ Chuckles ]

♪ Neeeeeeeeeeeeed

♪ A little alone time

I think that having, "A," you know, moved back to L.A.

and also, you know, really,

I got so into the Laurel Canyon vibe

and then having the idea of, you know,

working in some of the same studios

at Ocean Way or Sound City

and working with some of the musicians like Jim Keltner,

especially Jim Keltner for me...

♪ Perfect song

...I was really starting to understand that legacy

and that tradition.

♪ From these stings of having to turn off ♪

Certainly, you know, with those harmonies,

you know, I knew if I was gonna try something,

try to compare it to Brian Wilson, you know,

and his work and the harmonies that he did,

and that that requires, you know,

a certain exactitude and no kind of mercy.

If something doesn't work, you know, get rid of it.

♪ A little alone time

So I wanted to sort of have little glimpses of that

in the production as a sort of,

you know, tip of the hat to my genius or something.

[ Laughter ]

And Mitchell was like,

"That doesn't work, Rufus." [ Chuckles ]

You humored me, which was -- it's just important.

♪ A little on-my-own time

[ Bell jingling ]

It's high time we get a bell in here.

[ Laughs ]

I felt that, being this age, really hitting your 40s,

I had a very keen sense that this is the time, you know,

to do what you've always wanted to do,

whether it's write albums or write operas.

You know, I couldn't just walk away from everything

that I had worked so hard to create since I started out.

It was a risky move to walk away from my career the way I did.

Very thankfully, I had a lot of fans who followed me

into where I was going and enjoyed that journey.

I was aware that I was definitely flirting

with disaster,

'cause it's not always easy to come back.

And I think, like any great work,

there has to be a risk involved.

And so this record, I feel for me,

was worth the gamble.

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