Loudon Wainwright III Writes Songs About Death That Will Make You Laugh
Loudon Wainwright III
The Who's Pete Townshend may have famously penned the line "I hope I die before I get old," but in many ways, it seems like Loudon Wainwright III has been singing about aging forever.
His latest, Older Than My Old Man Now, is a reflection on mortality (Wainwright calls it "death and decay"), but it's hardly a stuffy, morose collection of songs. With jazzy motifs, harmonica, and contributions from his children Martha, Rufus, and Lucy Wainwright, his ex-wife Suzzy Roche, John Scofield, Dame Edna Everage, and more, the record is quite simply the funniest meditation on death I can think of.
Wainwright discussed the record with us in advance of his show tonight at the Musical Instrument Museum.
Loudon Wainwright III in the 1970s
Up on the Sun: When I caught you at the Orpheum last fall with John Prine, you really cracked the crowd up with "My Meds," which is featured on the new record. It's a pretty unique take on a "drug song." Folks really seemed to enjoy it.
Loudon Wainwright: Well, that's the idea with that song -- get people laughing. It usually does, unless I screw it up somehow. People are taking medication, and if they're not taking it, they know they will be.
There are some very heavy moments on this record, and some very light ones. Your career has always skirted the lines between those two, but was there an emphasis on making sure the novelty songs -- like "I Remember Sex" or "My Meds" -- more overtly funny? Try and craft them more as zingers and balance out the heavier stuff?
Well, the producer, Dick Connette, and I were aware of the fact that the novelty songs would hopefully leaven the proceedings. I didn't want to make a record that would depress people. Death and decay, those are powerful topics. But there are funny and ridiculous things about them, though. So, yeah, I've always done that. I've always had comedic elements in the work, both on records and during shows. I have no shame about writing a novelty song. I like amusing people and see it as part of my job and the ability to do so part of my arsenal.
Songs like "Double Lifetime" are a good example of you walking that line. It's funny, but there's an element of staring down the end of things. It takes a very unique touch to pull this kind of record off. It might be the funniest album about death I can think of off the top of my head.
Well, that would be good. That would be a good thing.
I think my favorite song is "In C," which features the line "sometimes a fella has to sit down just to sing about the heavy shit." You don't play a lot of piano normally, do you?
[Laughs] No, can't you tell? I hardly play the piano at all, and I reference that in the song itself. I've written a few songs on the piano and they are all in the key of C.
It's a pretty good key. The arrangement is very stark and fits the song. What led you to to the sit at the piano for that song?
It's a very mundane fact. Somebody, a few years ago we were living out here -- I'm in L.A. today, so -- we were here in Los Angeles and a friend moved away and needed a place to store and keep their piano. So their piano was brought over and we kept their piano for the year that they were gone. So all of the sudden there was a piano in the house, and I sat down at it. You start with the first line, "Here's another song in C," and then you know, sometimes, something happens. In that case, something developed. It was going to be a jokey song about not being able to play the piano, but it became something else. The song would probably not have been written if weren't for that piano being there. Songs happen that way. Life intrudes and you get a song out of it if you're lucky.
The song "Older Than My Old Man" starts with you reading your own father's words. That part of the record gives me chills. To hear him speak about his father and you speak of yours.
Right. That collaboration, having my father on the record, is for me the most exciting aspect of the whole record. Purely selfishly, I was happy to include him on the album so to speak.
There's a family tradition to what kind of exploration you folks do. Tell me about "Over the Hill," which was co-written by your late ex-wife Kate McGarrigle.
That was a song that we wrote together. Kate wrote some of the music and the bridge, and I wrote the lyrics. That song was written in 1975, when we were both about 28.
What did it feel like coming back to that song?
Well, it felt like it was the perfect song to put on this record. It was a song I hadn't really performed, it had been a bonus track on a record a few years ago. But I rerecorded it with my daughter Martha, my daughter with Kate, and Chaim Tannenbaum, who used to play a lot with Kate. It was actually his idea to resurrect the song as it were, and put it on the album. And I think it was a good one.
You wrote "Over the Hill" when you were 28, and now you're singing it in your 60s. Do you feel in someways you've always been writing records about getting old?
Well, I've been writing about getting old my whole career. The very first line on my first album is "In Delaware when I was younger." It's interested, or obsessed, or concerned...I don't know what the right verb is...with death and mortality throughout my career.
I read something where you joked about feeling like an old man at 25.
Well, at 25 [laughs] I was taking myself very serious. As one does when they are young and not so sure of things. So I might have said that in an interview. Or I might have been hungover. Because I was hungover a lot of the time when I was 25.
Loudon Wainwright III is scheduled to perform tonight at the MIM.