Lockdown Lunacy: David Tennant and Michael Sheen are Going a Bit Mad in ‘Staged’




There’s a scene early on in the first episode of the slyly trenchant new BBC series Staged (now streaming on Hulu), where during an awkward, semi-bored Zoom call, actors David Tennant and Michael Sheen, playing themselves, share this exchange:

Sheen: “I worry that I’m in a Hitchcock film.”

Tennant: “What do you mean?”

Sheen: “The birds are coming back to Port Talbot.”

Tennant: “That’s nice.”

Sheen: “And that large blue finch is the leader, it seems.”

Tennant: “You alright?”

Sheen: “Just adjusting. You alright?”

Tennant: “Yeaaahhh…not bad.”

Sheen: “Started spelling words backwards in your head yet?”

Tennant: “I have a bit, yeah.”

Sheen: “Have you tried Finsbury Park?”

Tennant: (Thinking)

Sheen: “It’s Krappy Rubsnif!”

Tennant: “I almost had it.”

It could not more incisively capture the crushing banality of two celebrities at an arguably creative peak attempting to brainstorm their way around the dilemma of their pandemic-cancelled play…and ending up not really saying or doing much of anything. There’s a bit of Waiting For Godot existentialism about it, and a whiff of Waiting For Guffman absurdity.



The play in question is Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is a classic of metatheater (if there is such a thing as a classic of metatheater), in that it’s a play about how plays are made. Its incorporation into the “plot” of Staged means there is probably now something called metametatheater—or maybe metametametatheater…it’s hard to say, since it’s only just been invented.

The episode fittingly opens with a debate about Dylan Thomas, and the Welsh language—”just all consonants and phlegm”—with both Sheen (a Welshman) and Tennant sardonically but quite lethargically reciting the famous line, “Do not go gentle into that good night.” (Surely a perfect sentiment during a deadly pandemic.) It ends with them intentionally botching the pronunciation of Cachu hwch, which translates to “mad shit” in English (and “merde folle” in French, because we felt like bringing that up for no reason)—which is precisely what follows…some pretty mad, if also rather mundane, shit.

Soon into it comes real life theater director Simon Evans, who is attempting to get said play made, starring the two marquee actors. When all three of them get on a Zoom together, the absurdity factor indeed goes up by just about 66%.



Sheen asks ostensibly earnestly, “Is there a version of this lockdown where we carry on with rehearsals?”

We then see shots of the very empty streets of London, and rolls of toilet paper “rolling” down the assembly line—surely emphasizing how unlikely it is for their play to get made any time soon.

In perhaps a snark at reality shows, Tennant’s real life wife Georgia, and Sheen’s partner Anna Lundberg both also play themselves, and only serve to ratchet up the sly/dry humor factor. The latter pops onto the screen, and worriedly queries Tennant: “Has he told you about the birds?” It’s a pithy little commentary on the creeping madness of seemingly sane people, as quarantine drags on (and on and on).

Then another priceless exchange:

Tennant: “Most writers were fairly dubious people. I mean, look at the Marquis de Sade.”

Sheen: “Look at Nabokov.”

Tennant: “Hemingway.”

Sheen: “Orwell.”

Tennant: “Dickens.”

Sheen: (animatedly) “Louis-Ferdinand Céline.”

Tennant: “Victor Hugo.”

Sheen: “Malcolm Lowry.”

Tennant: “Adolph Hitler.”

Sheen: “Shakespeare.”

Tennant: “Shakespeare?”

Sheen: “Yeah, he was a rapacious, litigious landlord.”



Sheen, possibly trying to impress, then re-makes the point that playwright Pirandello was a (capital F) Fascist…only to be corrected by Anna, who embarrasses him slightly by pointing out that Six Characters… was written in 1921, and Mussolini didn’t come to power until 1922. Zing.

Finally off Zoom, Tennant’s eyes seem to grow a bit crazy. He says to Georgia, “I thought Michael would be a bit more discombobulated.” “Why?,” she asks. “Because I’m a bit more discombobulated.”

And there you have it. Staged is essentially about how so many—restaurateurs, travel tour guides…actors—left unfulfilled throughout the long lockdown are in danger of going a bit bonkers because of it. It’s something of a mini-treatise on the teetering of our mental health during this harrowing new reality.

Sheen and Tennant, of course, had just come off the brilliant series Good Omens, in which they played righthanders to God and Satan respectively, who were attempting to stave off the Apocalypse. So what greater irony than ending up with a real world that seems to be tilting towards possible extinction, with nearly a million people already dead from coronavirus?

Oh, and there’s a good running bit about Hamlet.


Interview – L7’s Donita Sparks: ‘We Kicked Off the Feminist Era in Music’



It’s a little disconcerting to realize that the halcyon days of grunge are three-decades-plus behind us; but rather fascinating that some of the bands that defined the scene and sound circa 1990 (it was primarily a West Coast movement, initially), are still relevant enough today to be deserving of re-releases.

Certainly the big boys, Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains, have continued to be revered, long after their expiration dates (tragically, the lead singers of all three have died of suicide or overdose); but admittedly the memories have started to fade a bit, especially when it comes to bands with girls. After all, in all its maleness, grunge absolutely had a female problem. (The more sensitive Kurt Cobain famously remarked of the scene, “Because I couldn’t find any male friends I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with girls a lot.” But that was Kurt.)



Luckily there was L7, a loudmouthed, all XX chromosome quartet (Donita Sparks, Jennifer Finch, Suzi Gardner, Dee Plakas) from LA who built a Puget Sound sized bridge between punk, metal, and…well, more punk. And metal. They tore it up at Lollapalooza. They had a legit hit with “Pretend We’re Dead.”

The Seattle boys, and everyone else, stood up and paid attention.

L7 survived better than most, and 35 years since their first gig they’re back together with a newish album (2019’s Scatter the Rats, via Blackheart Records), and a remastered 30th anniversary re-release of their 1990 classic Smell The Magic, via (of course) Sub Pop, out September 18.

We caught up with lead hellraiser Sparks to chat about junkies, hair bands…the usual.


I guess the reason we’re talking is that it’s been 30 years since this record first came out. It went by pretty quickly.

I don’t know. I don’t think it went pretty quickly. It’s just amazing that it’s…

Been 30 years.

Yeah, it just sounds ridiculous. I remember my mom would have, like, high school reunions and it was like, “It’s my twentieth year!” And I’m like…20?? So now I’m a person who starts to say, “I’ve known him for 20 years!” I’m one of those people now. Just throwing the decades, the multi-decades around.

It was interesting to be reminded that Smell The Magic actually came out before (Nirvana’s) Nevermind, right? It was a year before.

Our first album came out in ’87, but this one had more momentum. The underground scene was very strong, very independent, and all over the country there were different scenes with corresponding labels that were regionally based. It was an exciting time, it was like…post-post-punk, or something that was sort of…very strong in its DIY-ness.

You were an LA band on the ultimate Seattle label.

Yeah, I thought it was cool about Sub Pop that they had a visual aesthetic, they had a musical aesthetic, they had a sense of humor…and we sort of fit right in, even though we were an LA band. I think we were a little more punk in our aesthetic, our clothes were a little more punk; but yeah, it was a good place to be. 

And listening back to this record I was reminded of how, while punk in attitude, it was really very heavy hard rock. 

Yeah, we were basically…Suzi (Gardner) and I were sort of from the art punk scene, and we were punk rockers who were trying to do…who were doing heavy rock. Our ability to play came out sounding kind of like…we came up with this weird, deconstructed metal performed by punk rockers. We were also hanging out with weird junkie artists, you know, in LA. Speed freaks and stuff like that.



They were just regular junkies in Seattle.

And I think maybe that came into their scene a little bit later. We were kind of a little bit more in an urban kind of mix, where Seattle was a bit less urbanized than certainly it is now.

I’m guessing that X, The Germs, all that early LA punk was an influence on you?

Yeah, certainly, and that was before the really hardcore bands came in and it got very sort of…sucked some of the fun out of it, in my opinion.

I want to ask about a word that has been used in your press release, and that’s ‘feminist,’ or ‘feminism.’ But I’m wondering if when you were in the middle of it in 1990 and 1991, was that a conscious effort to promote feminism and to call yourselves feminists?

I think we always led by example. Our agenda was to be a really good rock band, regardless of our gender. We chose a genderless name. We refused to do “women in rock” issues of anything.

That’s a good answer.

Yeah, and we just…I think that we were an inspiration for Riot grrrl, but we do not consider ourselves Riot grrrl. However, I do think that era was really, really important to young women, and also very, very important to gay kids and trans kids, and so I think it may be appropriate that that word is attached—even though this record is pretty universal. We bitch about things equally.
People assume that Riot grrrl kicked off that feminist era in music; but we kind of kicked it off. We started Rock for Choice; and we loved Riot grrrl, but we weren’t having meetings—like, Riot grrrl, they [literally] started bands to deliver their political message. We started a band because we wanted to be a good band. We were in LA; they were on college campuses. It’s a very different thing. But more of the same team, you know what I mean?



And at the same time there were many more macho bands around. So the point was you helped other young girls see an option that they could embrace.

But I think the fact that we weren’t hitting people over the heads with it constantly—I think the dudes just like the rock and they don’t really care. I think we deliver the rock and they know it, and that’s why they’re fans of ours. 

Were you involved in this remastering of Smell the Magic?

Yes, I was involved, and part of the remastering happened because—first, Smell the Magic was an EP, and it was on vinyl. Then CDs came out the same year. It was like, new technology! So all of a sudden, Sub Pop wanted a CD, but asked if we had more songs. So we had an extra three or four songs or something. But those songs were never on vinyl, so this record was re-cut, and mastered to have all songs available on the vinyl edition for the first time.

It sounds really great.

It does sound great. It sounded great when I played it out of my computer with headphones on, and through a system. It sounded loud, it sounded energetic, and lively. So that was good enough for me.

Are there plans to do another one? Maybe Bricks Are Heavy?

It’s weird, when we signed to Slash, that was also with Reprise/Warner Brothers, and they sent our catalogue to Rhino. Rhino’s been, like, licensing it out to anybody who wants to license our stuff, and I find it hard to believe they’re cutting them from the master. You’ve got to go into the vault and actually find the physical masters to work off of.


Image by Charles Peterson


So you had more control over Smell the Magic, in a way.

No, we had complete control at Slash. Nobody ever tried to fuck with us, you know what I mean? They knew better. That was also at a time where if you had some momentum and you had a legitimate audience, it was harder to get fucked with than if you were a band that just got signed and somebody was rolling the dice and taking a chance on you. We had lines around the block. It would be been really bad if someone tried to fuck with us, because we had a legit audience. Nobody fucked with us until later.

One of my favorite lines of Kurt Cobain’s was, if he could, he would’ve been in a new band every two to three years, because those first few years of playing all the shitty clubs are the best time of being in a band.

Ours were incredibly, incredibly difficult years. It took us over five years in complete oblivion. Even though we had a record on Epitaph, it went nowhere, and we had no following. We were just floating it out in the clubs. We were spending money we didn’t have to rehearse. It’s a big money investment when you’re working shitty jobs.

And in LA there was still Poison and Ratt around, the hair bands.

Yeah, but they were playing on Sunset Strip, and we were more sort of Hollywood and Silver Lake and downtown LA. Listen, I got a kick out of those bands. But it was very much like, there’s us and them. And those guys were very accepting of L7. Even though we never played with them, they liked our raunchy t-shirt, and they liked that we were chicks that weren’t wearing bustiers. They kind of accepted us—not all of them, I guess, but the ones who had something going on were not threatened by us.

You’re a real success story surviving more than 30 years in the music business.

Yeah, well, you know, we got our asses kicked there, and we broke up for awhile, and that was really tough. But we’re having a really good time, and hopefully next year…it’s so weird, all of our shows that were scheduled for 2020, we have the exact dates in 2021, so it’s like…it’s just very fucking weird.


BlackBook Premiere: Juanita Stein’s Video for ‘L.O.T.F.’ is a Ghostly Meditation on Memory




Amidst the din of intensified pontification around the economic and socio-political fallout of the coronavirus crisis, we seem to have curiously detached from the actual matter of death, except as a statistical tally.

Howling Bells singer-guitarist Juanita Stein had actually lost her father (also a musician) before the world went into this fatal period of lockdown; and so as the many and sundry pandemic anxieties were creeping into our existence, she had already been put in the position of having to confront a very personal grief. But as artists are wont to do, she had channeled it into a catharsis of a solo album—her third—the pithily titled Snapshot (with Blur/Doves producer Ben Hillier at the helm.)

“It feels fundamental to understanding the devastation and eerie silence thrust upon us after his sudden death,” she explains. “It was a daunting task to sum up the life of one man such as my father. He was endlessly inspiring, charming, deeply talented and passionately spiritual. He admirably, and at times frustratingly, carried the torch for his own musical career until the very end.”

The Aussie songstress has also taken advantage of the quarantine isolation by making a series of lockdown videos, the third of which, for new Snapshot single “L.O.T.F.,” BlackBook premieres here. The track itself is a languid bit of haunted blues rock, with distortion heavy, echo-laden guitars, shuffling/thudding drums, and Stein’s spectral but self-possessed vocal performance. Lyrically, it’s a meditation on leaving behind the carefree idyll of youth, to wander out into the world.



“Something else called deep within me / I was looking for disharmony / A place where I could scream and be left alone / A place where buildings felt cold to the bone.”

The video is fittingly stark and primal, filmed in a rather eerie looking field, in front of the blinding blare of truck headlights. Stein is depicted as something of a ghostly presence.

“A few of us headed out to a deserted stretch of road nearby,” she recalls. “The headlights of the truck, the misty night air, the insects flying in and out of frame, projected the right energy for the track. L.O.T.F is me reflecting on a sun kissed childhood growing up in Australia. The endless starry skies, vast coastline, the distance between us and the rest of the world. All of this is tinged with a deep melancholy as I recall these years in my rearview mirror.”

Snapshot will be released October 23 via Handwritten Records.


Galerie Ropac London’s New Exhibit ‘A Focus on Painting’ Captures a Moment For the Medium

Mandy El-Sayegh



Having headed up London’s Serpentine Gallery for 25 years, curator Julia Peyton-Jones found herself suddenly under the glare of a much larger spotlight in 2017, when she became a mother for the first time at 64 years of age. Just eight years earlier, Britain was startled to learn that Suffolk’s Elizabeth Adeney had given birth at 66, after IVF treatments in the Ukraine. Both children are doing well, by the way.

This fascination, admittedly, has little to do with the indisputable fact that Peyton-Jones remains one of the most influential figures in the London art world—or perhaps anywhere. And so a new show under her direction at the Galerie Thaddeus Ropac (an outpost of the Paris and Salzburg galleries of the same name) certainly commands rapt attention. The focus of the exhibition is painting, and it thus carries the certainly pithy title of…A Focus on Painting.


Alvaro Barrington


Featured are four artists whose work binds them together mostly via their dedication to the medium. Argentine-Caribe Alvaro Barrington (now living in New York) was called a “rising star” by ArtNet earlier this year, and his recent series Garvey dealt with how migration impacts identity and artistic direction; while Philadelphia-based Dona Nelson‘s materials-centric abstractions have been dazzling critics since the late ’60s, with The New Yorker recently gushing that, “she gives notice that she will do anything, short of burning down her house to bully painting into freshly spluttering eloquence.”

Also featured is Londoner Rachel Jones, who at just 29 may have invented “neo-formism” (we just coined that, btw), with her ability to reimagine human forms into the fantastical and seemingly metaphorical; and finally, 35-year-old, Malaysian-born Mandy El-Sayegh is very much emerging as a deft collagist, who can also effortlessly employ sculpture, silkscreen and installation into her work.


Rachel Jones


“It is very exciting to look at the work of four painters, from the established to the emerging, and to see how each engages with the medium in widely different ways,” Peyton-Jones enthuses. “Alvaro Barrington has created two new pieces comprising thread, paint and burlap—one of which is made up of numerous parts; Mandy El-Sayegh has conceived an all-embracing installation across the gallery’s walls and floor; Dona Nelson blurs the lines between painting and sculpture; while at the core of Rachel Jones’ seemingly abstract work, the representation of the body is explored through exuberant colors and the textured surface.”

It should be noted that the Mayfair based gallery—just blocks from the Royal Academy—is actually open for physical visits, a hopeful sign for the London cultural community. A Focus on Painting opens today, September 11, at Galerie Ropac London.


Dona Nelson

Watch: Is iDKHOW’s ‘Leave Me Alone’ the First Truly PPE Music Video?



The question of “Too soon to joke about the pandemic?” has never really been allowed a true gestation period, perhaps a byproduct of the speed of life in 2020. Indeed, the world went into lockdown in early March, and by April, the gallows-humored memes were already propagating in untold numbers.

Six months later, and we have what is likely the first full-on PPE video, courtesy of SLC nu-new-wavers I Don’t Know How But They Found Me—mercifully shortened to iDKHOW for journalistic pragmatism. This probably wouldn’t have been a good idea when personal protective equipment was in such short supply back in the spring, and was certainly no laughing matter. But the video for their new single “Leave Me Alone” (accidentally ironically titled?) finds them surrounded by a lot of retro looking hospital gear, while playing inside of plastic tents and bubbles—and, to be honest, it seems like a perfectly reasonable—and zeitgeisty—concept.



Frontman Dallon Weekes, formerly of Panic! at the Disco, is quick to point out its metaphorical intent.

“Most art is made to reflect the time,” he observes. “We had to make a video in the midst of a pandemic, so we incorporated the ideas of quarantining and sterile isolation into the video. Not just as a way of keeping everyone involved safe, but it also fit the themes of the song as well: quarantining yourself from toxic people and situations. Wanting to be left alone.”

The immediate success of the single, with more than a million streams already on Spotify, means they probably won’t have much luck in their quest to be left alone. And with its nearly spot on replication of the indelible aesthetics of mid-’80s Duran Duran (white boy funk riffs, squelchy synth blasts, fatted up bass), it hints that screaming female fans may just be in their future.

Oh, and please wear your mask.


BlackBook Premiere: Golden Aquarians’ ‘High Enough’ is the Quarantine Hymn We’ve All Been Waiting For

Image by Dani Okon 



BlackBook has made no secret of our endless appreciation for the inimitable charms of one Sarah Jaffe. It helps that the Texas songstress always seems to have something particularly clever rattling around in her head, waiting to pop out and make the world just that little bit more fascinating.

And so she at last emerges from our universal pandemic condition with her latest project, Golden Aquarians, a musical partnership with multi-instrumentalist/composer Roberto Sanchez. And their debut single “High Enough” (which BlackBook premieres here, along with its accompanying video) is truly the isolation meditation we’ve all been waiting for. The track feels somehow languidly cool and anthemic at once, with its trip-hoppy grooves, and chill-inducing choruses—which find Ms. Jaffe confronting these months-long lockdown conditions with lyrical optimism, proclaiming, “I really wanna see the other side / I know we’ll make it out alive”

“The song is a product of our time,” explains Sanchez, “written in isolation, and recorded using remote technology.”



The video is a charmingly peculiar bit of 8-bit nostalgia, whose engagingly equivocal narrative can leave one guessing at interpretations for hours on end—but also simply offers a quick, adventurous little escape from our especially ominous new reality. It’s directed by Dani Okon, who admits that, “The visual worlds of 8-bit and 16-bit video games have always entranced me.”

Jaffe herself enthuses, “Dani does a supreme job of bringing the heart of a song’s meaning to life visually. With ‘High Enough’ in particular, she did it by creating a world that takes us out of our own. That felt so necessary, and I didn’t even know it until she showed us the first cut.“

All proceeds from the sale of “High Enough” will be donated to The Loveland Foundation.


Interview: Rising UK Songstress Gracey Shrugs Off ‘Imposter Syndrome,’ Rockets During Lockdown

Image by Aidan Zamiri



While most of us have spent 2020 binge-watching, binge-baking, and generally under-achieving, UK-based wunder-babe Gracey (born Grace Barker) has decisively exploded onto the alt-pop scene there. Discovered at 16 by production powerhouse Xenomania (Kylie Minogue, Pet Shop boys, Cher, Sugarcubes), her writing credits already include tracks for Jonas Blue, RAYE (the platinum-selling “By Your Side”) and Olly Murs (“Feel The Same,” “Excuses”).  

Inspired by badass babes like Blondie and Gwen Stefani, the 22-year old Brighton native morphed from a preternaturally gifted songwriter extraordinaire into stupendous alt-pop frontwoman in 2019, when she took the leap to releasing her debut EP Imposter Syndrome, notably featuring the ethereal gem “Different Things.” Despite the raging pandemic sidelining her debut headlining tour, she has otherwise lent her shimmery vocals and lyrical chops to a number of notable collaborations: 220 Kid, Ruel, the Top 10 UK single “Don’t Need Love,” and the dreamy “Empty Love,” remixed by A-Trak, Cureton and Kelvin Wood.

And tapping the corona zeitgeist, she also managed to pen and record the lockdown anthem “Alone In My Room (Gone),” a TikTok hit and Radio 1 Track of the Week.

We somehow slowed her down enough for a chat on the eve of the release of her newest single, “Like That,” a dancey pop-rocket featuring Chicago-based Alexander 23…which, we must admit, we have also been bingeing.


It’s been a really crazy year for everyone, obviously. Where have you been and what have you been doing during quarantine?

I went back down to Brighton, which was wicked, because I got to spend time with my family again. I spent most of my time either sleeping or in my room writing and producing tunes, mostly based off random Netflix shows I’d watched, so who knows, maybe I’ll be dropping a Tiger King themed album sometime soon!

While many people, especially high-achieving women, suffer from imposter syndrome, most don’t admit they feel this way. You did the exact opposite—although you were anxious about releasing the record, you titled your debut EP Imposter Syndrome. What pushed you to that level of honesty for your “coming out,” if you will.

It was such a whirlwind of emotions going from songwriting for other people to being the artist myself—I definitely felt like an imposter, especially when it came to things like recording music videos or doing photo shoots. I found myself completely out of my depth at first and feeling like everyone knew I was as well.  What I’ve now come to learn is that you need to be outside of your comfort zone to grow, and that’s really what I feel I’ve done in the past year since releasing the EP. I was actually on a panel about imposter syndrome held at a women’s club in London last November.
A wonderful group of women and I got together to chat about imposter syndrome in working environments. It was amazing to hear all of these inspirational women talk about how they handled and overcame their feelings. If you ever feel this way, just know you are always where you are supposed to be and that you got this!



Speaking of high-achieving, you were a student at The Brit School when you were discovered by Xenomania. When you were uploading songs to Soundcloud were you doing it in the hopes of getting discovered, or was it more for fun?

It was definitely more for fun. To be honest, I was shocked when I got an email from Xenomania asking me to come in to write for the first time. I didn’t even record complete songs on Soundcloud because I had to record them on my phone, and I didn’t have enough storage space. I probably would have deleted some more apps if I had known who would be listening to the songs! But I’m very grateful for the people who believed in me at that point, regardless of the lack of phone storage.

Your songwriting credits are impressive. Did you set out to be a songwriter, or had you always wanted to be a pop artist in your own right?

I have always loved songwriting and, when I was younger, I would spend my spare time making up my own songs over instrumentals of my favorite tracks on YouTube. But, I always dreamed of being an artist and telling my own stories. I just think that when I started off writing, I wasn’t ready to begin that journey. Writing for other artists really gave me the confidence and time to develop and figure out what I wanted to say. I’m really glad I waited because “Different Things” felt like the perfect song to start with.

What drove you to step out from behind the songwriting curtain?

“Different Things” was one of the first songs I wrote that I knew I didn’t want to give away. It was so personal and special to me that the thought of someone else singing it didn’t quite sit right with me. There are also a few other songs I haven’t released yet that also helped me make the decision to release my own music. I’m so excited to drop them too.



Is it different when you are writing songs for yourself as opposed to other artists?

Definitely. When you’re writing for yourself you’re in charge and you can say whatever you want; but when you’re writing for someone else it’s all about putting yourself in their shoes and articulating their thoughts as best you can. When I’m writing with other people for the first time, we usually spend hours chatting, drinking way too much coffee, and laughing and/or crying before any of us even picks up a guitar. Rock and roll, baby.

You’ve been busy with collaborations this year. Do you think that starting out as part of a production team has influenced an affinity towards collabs?

I love when artists collaborate and I love collaborating with others. It’s really fun to share the experience and find other artists who can complement and bring new colors to your work—it’s so special. Also, with touring and many of the opportunities that a new artist would normally have taken off the table at the moment, it’s been wicked to have the chance to collaborate with lovely new people. Releasing music with other artists that inspire me is an all-round 10 out of 10 in my eyes!

Will these singles find their way to another EP or full-length release?

Yes—keep your eyes peeled, there’s lots on the way.


Image by Bella Howard



Interview: Rufus Wainwright Grows Up – ‘I’m Just Translating My Human Experience’




Rufus Wainwright is a either a musical contradiction or a true Renaissance man (probably both). He has received critical acclaim as a classical musician; he is (was?) a man about town who cut his teeth in the New York social and party scene in the ’90s and early 2000s, becoming known for his particularly decadent behaviors; and he is a pop artist who is nevertheless venerated for his unabashedly intense, emotionally raw lyrical musings.

Over time, he went from being a fixture of New York City nightlife, to performing sold out shows at Carnegie Hall. Eight years ago he took a break from pop, but he never went away. He actually wrote two groundbreaking operas, including Prima Donna, which had its opening at the prestigious Manchester International Festival.

To date, he’s released seven critically acclaimed albums across an unimaginable range of genres.



Today, a “40-something-year-old” Rufus is returning to his pop roots with new album Unfollow the Rules (out via BMG), which features lush symphonic soundscapes accompanied by that ever ethereally melancholic voice. He lyrically considers life’s lessons to date, as he prepares to embark on the next phase of this thing we call adulthood.

He currently resides in Laurel Canyon, Los Angeles with his husband, German art director Jörn Weisbrodt and shares the custody of his daughter, Viva, with her mother Lorca Cohen. Inspired by middle age, married life, fatherhood, friends, loss, London and the musically inspirational place he calls home, Unfollow The Rules captures him at a true crossroads. Ready to tackle new challenges, yet compelled to confront his past, he’s taking stock of two decades of running riot with rules, making sense of how he has matured as a musician, and celebrating the contented family man he has become. In fact, the album is a near perfect expression of the uncertain times we are now going through.

We caught up for a chat with him, to try to better understand what it all means.



Your new album is called Unfollow The Rules. Was the title inspired by the events of 2020?

I stole it from my daughter, who is nine years old. One day she just asked me if I could unfollow the rules. I knew immediately that it would make a great song title. And then later, people thought it sounded good for the name of the record. It was a very organic process. Ironically, it does fit with a lot with what’s going on today, especially in terms of the civil disobedience in the United States, which revolves around police brutality and racial issues. So yeah, it’s all meant to be.

There are illustrations for every song, which are drawn by you. Given that most people consume music through digital platforms, how integral is the artwork to the album, and how does it effect the listener experience?

I went to art school briefly after music school, both of which I never finished. And even though I’m mostly known for music, art remained a hobby that I was drawn to—literally. A little bit of thanks to COVID-19 for this album, I’ve really been allowed to express that side of my creative being fully, and it seems to have had a good effect on both my life and the eyes of others. I’m just kind of going with it at the moment—I don’t know what it means, but there seems to be some sort of correlation. I still don’t want to define it too much.

Your lyrics take the listener into deep reflection, and there are clearly elements that are autobiographical. How do you feel these struggles relate to your audience?

I always write about exactly what’s going on in my life. Every single one of my songs, except maybe a couple, are literally referring to events that have occurred. So I’m just translating my human experience, and I don’t consider myself any better or worse than anybody else. So, maybe I’m just able to be a kind of mirror to what everybody goes through, since most people don’t have that ability to express themselves as much as they’d probably like to.

The album is split into three acts: 1) a mix of your present and past, 2) a psychedelic narrative about vulnerability, letting go in order to begin a new journey,  and 3) ending with a bit of anger—a dark and somber finale. Can you take us through the acts and their meaning?

Presently, my husband and I and our daughter live in Laurel Canyon, in LA. This is a place that I spent much time in many years ago when I started my career. So, in a lot of ways, I’ve come full circle. I think the concept is that I’ve come back to California, there’s a beautiful romance to that, it’s very idyllic, very seductive, very warm and welcoming. Then you scratch the surface and things get a little weirder and more complicated, as life does, and there’s a sort of psychedelic quality that begins to arise. You get a little lost in the maze. Then finally, the 3rd act comes and it’s completely dark. And no matter what, you’ve ended up in the subterranean department and you have to go through pain. And right at the end, there’s a little bit of light at the end of the tunnel, and you make it out—barely alive.



In the song “Peaceful Afternoon” you clearly address your husband. The lyric goes, “Between sex and death and trying to keep the kitchen clean.” What are you wanting to say there?

My husband and I are celebrating our eight wedding anniversary, and we’ve been together for about fifteen years. This is definitely a long-term relationship and anybody knows who’s in one of those that it’s a wonderful experience, but can also be very difficult. Acknowledging that fact—like anything beautiful and interesting, you have to work at it.

Referring to the second act of the album, psychedelic drugs were long stigmatized and dismissed by the mainstream medical community, but are now being studied as potentially effective therapies for people suffering from PTSD. Have you had a psychedelic journey and do you believe that there could be benefits to targeted use?

I had many psychedelic experiences when I was younger, and I cherish them to this day. I think with certain people, psychedelics could be the answer. Personally, I don’t see myself going down that path at the moment. Drugs are drugs—they can either help or hurt you. So just be careful.

You’ve been open about your past and your addiction to crystal meth, which is a significant recreational drug among young gay men. As a gay man myself, I see what it has done to friends of mine. What helped you overcome this and did you have a support system?

As I said before, drugs are drugs and just be careful. I must say that, categorically, crystal meth is completely bad. There’s no positive side to it. It’s a terrible, terrible substance and has ruined so many people’s lives. My suggestion with that is to not try it and to not go there. That being said, if someone is trapped in that world, there are people that can help. There’s the program, religion, family and friends who love you. But my main lesson is to stay as far away from crystal meth as possible. It’s not worth it.

Coming back to the music, you’ve written operas, but also produced pop albums. What do you think about the evolution of pop music to what it is today? Do you listen to Billie Eilish, Charlie XCX, Selena Gomez…

I always say I’m a pop artist, but in truth I’m the furthest thing away from being a pop artist. I was very fortunate in my early career to have a big record company behind me and that did a lot for me. But when you really stand back and look at what I do, it’s miles away from what’s on the radio. I admire a lot of what’s going on today, and what has [gone on] in the past in the pop world. But I kind of look at it like I might look at a toy in a store that I’m a little too old for.



One To Watch: bloody white’s Raw, Stark Confessionals Are a Catharsis for Our Pent Up Times



Considering our ominous reality of rampant wildfires, successive hurricanes, a deadly pandemic with no end in sight, and a presidential election that will likely trigger an all out civil war, you’d be forgiven for wanting to binge on Spongebob or Hallmark Channel movies, as a means of maintaining some measure of sanity.

But it’s also important to occasionally stare down all the tragedy, as only through confronting and assessing our anxieties, can we properly sort them. Which is exactly what bloody white has done with his unflinching new EP, the starkly titled you’d walk right over me. Released this week, it is replete with viscerally crafted soundscapes, languorous trip-hop beats, and intensely soul-baring lyrical meditations dealing with addiction, loss and suicidal musings.



Indeed, one track is starkly titled “overdosing,” and it’s pensive, haunted atmospherics provide the backdrop to such unflinching self-flagellation as, “I done a lot of bad shit / Caused a lot of fucking madness / Now I think I’m fucked in the head / ‘Cause I ain’t never seen this much red.” Another bears the unvarnished title “funeral,” and is hardly surprisingly a raw, gothic confessional that finds him metaphorically reckoning, “The only way that you can move forward is if you bury your past.”

“I made this EP as a means of venting,” he explains. “Falling in and out of love, mistrust, suicidal thoughts and addiction are all things that I, like many other kids, dealt with during my high school experience. I found catharsis writing about my struggles. My primary hope is that anyone who listens and relates to the message can rest a little easier knowing they aren’t as alone as they thought.”



At just 20 years of age, he is indeed making cathartic music at a time when not only does the global coronavirus crisis have humanity in its lethal grip, but his home state, California, is in literal flames. But, as the EP bears out, the act of creating and emotionally purging  has been healing, at least in some ways.

“Since the conception of the EP,” he offers, “I’ve been in a much better mental space, thankfully. I’m also currently experimenting with different production and songwriting techniques to allow myself a wider range of sonic possibilities. I’m in the process of writing a followup LP that will have an even deeper, and more personal feel.”

For someone so young, such emotional maturity is certainly eye-opening.

But as he puts it, “I’m simply trying to create art that conveys a potent and honest representation of who I am…and who I wish to be.”