Loudon Wainwright III -- The Interview

Asking personal questions of Loudon Wainwright III almost feels redundant. The 65-five-year old singer-songwriter and folk provocateur has, over a four-decade career, made a habit of putting the events of his life and family irrevocably on record, to the amusement of many and the consternation of more than a few. In the immediate years following his debut in the early ‘70s, this pattern manifested in caustic but measured re-tellings of brash youth, marriage, child-rearing, divorce, and the fringes of a comic but fraught personality. A more wizened but still skeptical Wainwright emerged in the 1980’s, as his voice deepened and his temper eased.

Many of Wainwright’s fans cite his 1992 album History as a career high mark, a point worth noting because it emerged after the death of his father, a former Life magazine journalist, and feasted on the sudden appearance of a real terminus in his distant view. Twenty years past that masterwork Wainwright’s issued Older Than My Old Man Now, a full meditation on “death and decay.” It’s not a wholly funereal piece, though, because it’s a Loudon Wainwright album, where the fine line between comedy and pathos is needle-thin. Stark end-of-life meditations like “In C” and “The Days That We Die” exist alongside romps about the hardship of just being plain old, such as “My Meds” and “I Remember Sex.”

Older Than My Old Man Now features contributions from Wainwright’s friends and practically all his family, surviving or otherwise. Wainwright’s avowed hero Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, guitarist John Scofield and folksinger Chris Smither add counterpoint and compliment at the album’s signpost songs. Wainwright’s children – three of whom, Rufus, Martha and Lucy, are established musicians on their own – and his second ex-wife Suzzy Roche make meaningful appearances. In a great conceptual move, Wainwright’s duet partner on “I Remember Sex” is Dame Edna Everage, Australia’s queen of frump and the just-retired alter ego of comedian Barry Humphries.

But two tacit, departed contributors loom over the album: Loudon Wainwright, Jr., the artist’s father and the author of the profound narration that starts off “The Days That We Die,” and folk legend Kate McGarrigle, the mother of Rufus and Martha and the co-writer of “Over The Hill.” Wainwright sang and recorded the song with McGarrigle nearly 40 years ago. In the modern update, Martha takes on McGarrigle’s role. It’s one of the most bracing moments on the recording, and a strong reminder that as checkered and chaotic a man’s history may be, his family supports and survives him.

I spoke with Loudon Wainwright III on the phone on May 1, coincidentally the day his son Rufus released his new solo album.

My first thoughts while hearing your new album were about Warren Zevon and Lee Hazlewood, two songwriters who knowingly wrote their own epitaph albums before they died. So my initial reaction to Older Than My Old Man Now was one of fleeting worry – “Oh, no, what’s wrong with Loudon?” Can you tell me where this album came from?

LW3: Well, mortality and the passage of time, death and decay – I’ve been writing about this stuff for quite a while. I’m 65 now. When I turned 64 and, in a sense, outlived my father – only in a sense, really – I wrote the song “Older Than My Old Man Now.” I decided to gather together and write some material that would just focus on this deal. Nothing’s wrong with me, as far as I can tell. I’m not terminally ill, except in the fact that I happen to be alive. I will die. I think my audience understands that’s going to happen to them too.

So it’s just an interesting topic, and we – the producer, Dick Connette, and I – said, “Well, how are we gonna do this and not completely bum people out?” The trick was to get some other singers involved, and also to have some sort of silly songs about death and decay, like “My Meds” and “I Remember Sex.” We’d hopefully make it 50 minutes, and enjoyable and interesting. Hopefully we accomplished that.

There’s a line in “In C,” where you say you were “fending off the great unknown.” Were you fending off the great unknown in your songs, or acknowledging it was there?

LW3: You can fend off the great unknown, but eventually you’re going to rub up against it. That goes for people of all ages and situations. But – I’m not sure what your question is.

Have the songs that you’ve written helped lessen your fear?

LW3: Ah, okay, are they therapeutic in any way? (chuckles) The answer is probably no. Writing songs doesn’t solve anything, really. It doesn’t fix up family problems or fend death off, or fear of anything. But it’s what’s going on, what’s rattling around in my brain. So it’s my source material. I suppose to try and encapsulate some of these feelings in a three-minute song is an interesting and fun exercise, and that’s what I do for a living. I do it for practical reasons, too. But it doesn’t settle any of these issues or solve any of these problems, I don’t think.

When fans use your songs for therapeutic reasons, as you say, is that okay with you?

LW3: Oh, it’s very okay! I’m delighted when someone comes up to me at this CD table, or in a restaurant, and says my songs mean something to them or helped them through a period. Then I get all gooey and think that’s great. I think I do provide a service, for which I’m well-paid. The service is to affect people with the songs, to amuse them and maybe even move them in some way. So they can experience their own feelings about the issues that I’m writing about, which are the issues that are happening to my audience. To everybody, pretty much. There’s nothing arcane about the subject matter. It’s people’s lives, what happens to them.

When I play the new album all the way through, I was reminded of the last two songs on the History album, “Sometimes I Forget,” about your father’s death, and “Handful of Dust,” the latter of which had lyrics by your father. On this album you partner with other members of your family, and your ex-wives.

LW3: And my father. He’s back!

Right. It brings out the idea that there are generations behind these songs. What’s the role of family in your overall work?

LW3: Yeah. I’ve been doing that for years and years, writing about people in my family. My kids, from when they were little to right up to the present. My parents, certainly. I’ve written about my grandparents. Sisters and brothers are mentioned. The people in my family, just like in your family, they’re the biggest people in my life. The biggest characters in the play, so to speak, or the drama. Or the soap opera, however you’re feeling about it at the time. These are the people that I have very strong feelings for, so I write about them. They’re in the songs, they always have been, and I suspect they always will be. 

All three of your children helped on this album…

LW3: Actually there’s four of them. Even my 18-year-old daughter, who’s a college student, sings on the first track.

Could you sense any trepidation or sadness from them about working on Dad’s album that’s about death and decay?

LW3: I wasn’t aware of that. They’re used to what I do (laughs). You’ll have to ask them what they feel about it. But everybody was pretty cheerful about coming on and singing on the record. I’ve toured with all my kids – the three that are singers, Rufus, Martha and Lucy – and we’ve done shows together, sung  together on records. So it wasn’t anything particularly out of the ordinary. It felt comfortable to be in the recording studio with them.

Rufus covered “One Man Guy,” a song of yours. I was wondering if you see any qualities of your songwriting or musicianship that you see your children carrying on?

LW3: Well… you know, they’re three very distinctly different performers, I think. Sometimes when I watch Martha perform, and she lifts up her leg and stomps, that reminds me of me (laughs). It’s mostly little stuff. They’re all their own performers, which is a good thing. They have gifts that I don’t have. Rufus writes these beautiful, incredible melodies. I basically use the same guitar chords I learned when I was 15 over and over again. Lucy has a kind of quiet, simplicity which none of us have. It’s quite different and unto itself. When I say “simplicity” I mean her vocal quality – she’s a great songwriter too. Everybody’s different and that’s a good thing. I suppose there are similarities and things you can point out and say, “Oh, I know where that comes from.” I’m probably not objective enough to really know.

There’s a line on the introduction to “The Days That We Die” that your father wrote – “It’s not that I want to set the record straight – that could make matters worse.”

LW3: Yeah. That’s a big thing. I recognize that recitation my father wrote, back in the 1980’s – that actual thing of setting the record straight, that’s related to what Rufus sings in the song, which is “If I have to win, you’re the one that I lose.” Being right, being the person that’s right in any kind of a conflict is always a trap. I have to be right, and you’re wrong. It doesn’t really help things. That goes for global politics too.

When I heard “Ghost Blues,” I thought it was the most joyful song on the album in the way. It’s strange because it’s from the perspective of someone who’s already dead. Once the great unknown is unsuccessfully fended off, does that seem like it’s a release?

LW3: Well, I say in the song that being a ghost is not so great. You’re hungry, you’re tired, you can’t get rest. Then I say, to finish off that couplet, “Oblivion would be best.” I don’t know what being a ghost would be like, I was just imagining it in the song. But yeah, I like to think there will be a release and relief.
Actually an older song of mine that I wrote in the ‘80s called “Out Of This World,” on a record called I’m 
Alright, actually used those words about release and relief. I think. I could be wrong about that. I used it somewhere else. Maybe it’s in a shitty love song, I don’t know (laughs). But I talk about being off the hook, too. In another song on the record, “Somebody Else I Know Just Died,” I write of being released.

You bring up survivor’s guilt as well. Was that something that informed the album all the way through?

LW3: I think people have guilt in general. That’s unfortunately an aspect of being alive. But there’s also this idea of survivor’s guilt, of being the person that doesn’t get hit by the bus. You’re delighted that you’re not that person, but then you feel kind of bad about it. That’s one of the reasons it’s hard to watch the news, seeing other people’s misfortune. Certainly people that you know who have died or preceded you, there’s this guilt. In the case of an ex-wife, that’s an obvious one.

I was thinking about the early ‘70s when you emerged. Singer-songwriters at the time tended to be confessional. It was associated with taking a big risk, like appearing too vulnerable or getting hurt all over again. You’ve been pretty confessional, and mostly literal, for your entire career, but it seems – forgive me for saying this – that it was fairly easy for you to do so. Did you ever have any fears about your approach?

LW3: Well, it’s my beat. It’s my waterfront, so to speak. I started writing about myself right from the get-go, as you say. “In Delaware when I was younger” was the first line on my first record. It just felt that was where my material was going to come from, in terms of my own life. In terms of confessing…?

Not necessarily “confessional” in the Catholic sense, but more direct.

LW3: Yeah. I think everybody writes a certain way. Sometimes people were irritated that I was spilling the beans, so to speak. Talking about my life over and over again. It’s an acquired taste, you either like it or you don’t. But it’s something that I’ve been doing and will continue to do. It’s just my subject matter. Or as I say in “In C,” “my favorite protagonist: me.”

You’ve always seemed to avoid easy sentiment, even when the song might be justified in having some, like “Five Years Old” or “Your Mother And I.” Was that a conscious avoidance?

LW3: Well, it’s never too late. I could slip into that. I don’t know – you just try to make the best song you can and avoid the pitfalls you can avoid. That’s all I’m trying to do.

I studied to be an actor. I went to acting school before I wrote songs. When they talk about good acting, they talk about “truthful acting.” Something that’s connected to the truth. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do with the songs. Which is not to say that I don’t do things like exaggeration. I gussy things up a little bit, edit things down, leave things out, add a few things there. But I think – I hope, anyway – that the songs are connected to something that’s truthful.

Ironically, the most sentimental song on the album for me might be your duet with Dame Edna, “I Remember Sex.” If think about the other songs you’ve written about sex – “Mine’s Not So Big,” “It’s Love And I Hate It,” or in a way “Motel Blues” – sex wasn’t very romantic in those songs. In this one, at least there’s a more of a sentimental reflection.

LW3: I think that has something to do with my duet partner.

I was wondering if there was any sexual tension in the air.

LW3: Well, we weren’t in the same air! I recorded my part of that song with the piano player in New York, and then we sent it over to London and Barry Humphries did his part. I probably shouldn’t tell you that, but what the hell. But there’s a lot of frisson in the air.

Has your live performing style been the same, or has it changed over the years? It’s one of the more entertaining folk-song evenings one can have.

LW3: That’s my job, you know – I gotta go out there for 75 minutes and get ‘em, entertain ‘em. I’m probably doing certain things slower than I used to. I see myself as an entertainer. I try to make the audience laugh and shut ‘em up and make ‘em scratch their heads or burst into tears in their ginger ale. I just want to take them on a little bit of a trip. That’s my goal. That’s what I get paid for.

How did your duet with Ramblin’ Jack Elliott come together?

LW3: He’s a big hero of mine. He’s one of the reasons I do this. He’s not a songwriter per se, although he’s written a few songs. But as an entertainer, he’s just a wonderful one. He’s my favorite guitar player ever – I get all my guitar playing from Ramblin’ Jack. I used to see him when I was a kid and teenager. Then I met him when I got into this business. I probably met him at a folk festival or something 30 years ago. I’d go to his shows. It’s like a pilgrimage. He went to a few of my shows. He just seemed like a logical choice to do that song with. We had a wonderful afternoon out there in Studio City, California doing it.

I also wanted to talk about the Charlie Poole project, which wasn’t just a traditional tribute album. You also contributed your own thoughts to your covers of Poole’s songs.

LW3: That project, coincidentally, was like this new record, produced by my friend Dick Connette. It was Dick’s idea to do the Charlie Poole project. He knew I was a fan and had been since the early ‘70s when I first heard Poole. Dick thought it would be interesting to record the songs that Poole recorded.

Again, like Jack Elliott, Poole was not a songwriter but a great interpreter. So we’d do those old songs, and then write some new songs that would try to capture the spirit of that performer. Dick and I wrote nine songs. I think there are 35 tracks on the album. So that was his idea, and it turned out to be a great one. Fun record to make. It won a Grammy! I have a lot to thank Dick for. It was wonderful to work with Dick on this record again.

There’s an upcoming album you’re on called “Occupy This Album,” inspired by the Occupy movement. Out of all the folksingers that ever came around, I’d venture you’d be the least likely to play a protest. What was your contribution?

LW3: Well, actually I have put out topical songs over the years. I put out a record in the early ‘90s called Social Studies. The track on the Occupy record was from my last record, a little independent record called 10 Songs For The New Depression. The song they used was not a song that I wrote – it was a great song called “The Panic Is On” by a black singer, Hezekiah Jenkins. I covered it. It seemed like a cool thing to have from that record, a song from the other Depression. The first Depression.

The original!

LW3: Right, the original. The one and only. Well, the one and unfortunately not only. But I do write topical songs. I used to write songs for NPR. It’s fun to get out of the confessional thing and write about other people’s shit, too.

Overall, how have you seen your songwriting change? Can you typify any evolution you’ve gone through as a writer in the last 40 years?

LW3: You know, I don’t think it has changed much. I’ve changed. I’ve gotten older, and my voice has gotten deeper. I’m not out of control as I was when I was 20 and 30 years old. Running around, getting crazy every night. When we put together the box set 40 Odd Years, I had to go back and listen to all my records. The first thing that struck me was that the writer in the song has been the same all the way along, although the voice is different. I don’t know that I’ve changed that much. But I might not be the best one to judge that. 


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