The past few years have been busy for prolific songwriter Loudon Wainwright III: he revisited his early records with Recovery, a full-band effort produced by Joe Henry; won a Grammy for his High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project , a tribute to the American banjo player; and released a topical collection called, boasting his trademark deprecation, Songs for the New Depression.
This year, 40 Odd Years, a career-spanning collection produced by filmmaker Judd Apatow, was released, displaying the man's canny wordplay and dry wit. It was issued the same day as Tell My Sister, a career retrospective featuring his ex-wife, Kate McGarrigle and her sister, Anna.
I phoned Wainwright while he was driving in Colorado. He wasn't sure if he was breaking any laws speaking on the cell phone (he wasn't), but was more concerned with cutting out due to tunnel interference (it only happened once). We spoke about his storied career, acting, his children Rufus and Martha, and his forthcoming album, Older Than My Old Man, Now.
Loudon Wainwright III is scheduled to perform with John Prine on Saturday, November 19, at The Orpheum Theatre in Phoenix.
Up on the Sun: First and foremost, the 40 Odd Years set is your most recent release, and I'm curious as I look it over: do you listen to much of your work once you're done with it, and if so, what was it like listening to it chronologically laid out in that way? Loudon Wainwright III: The answer to that first question is no. Once a record is done, I pretty much never listen to it. I mean, you listen to it hundreds of times when you're making it, but when it's done, and you can't change anything, what's the point, really? When we did the box set, I kind of had to go back and listen to everything I'd ever done, which was a harrowing experience. But an interesting one, too. I mean, a bunch of good songs in there, but it also struck me that despite the fact that more than 40 years have gone by, in terms of my recording career, and my voice certainly has changed a great deal, the things that I write about and they way that I write about them, I don't think has changed that much. So...that surprised me a little bit, although, I don't think people change that much. Except you know, obviously physically. Anyway, that was the kind of observation I came to. That's what I realized when I listened to everything all over again.
I read an interview with you were you stated that you kind of staked out your "beat" as a songwriter, that there were these things you always kind of touched on, and your work has continued to do that throughout the years. Always observing things. The last full length, Songs for the New Depression definitely had that feel. Is it difficult to balance the more personal stuff with the topical stuff?
No. It's a good thing; it's not difficult. It's kind of a release, to get off my the topic of me. I've just finished making a record, which is pretty much all about me again [laughs]. It was great to, you know, jump into some social commentary, write some topical songs, which I've done from time to time. And, I still bring the same toolkit, to use that horrible expression [laughs]. But the focus is off me for a change. That's kind of a relief, probably for me and the listening public.
I like hearing you sing about both. But you mentioned the same toolkit. You're pretty plainspoken about both. When you write about yourself, you don't spare yourself, and are just as blunt as the topical songs. You don't pretty it up. You're not always the hero in your songs.
I guess I don't. I wouldn't disagree with that. I think that if you do something for a long time, despite the fact that I was saying I do it the same way since the beginning. I just have a style of writing and a way of doing it. I suppose that seems redundant. It's funny, I was driving this morning, listening to you know, Sirius Radio, and flipping back and forth between the bluegrass station and Willie's Roadhouse, and all those great old country songs, which I grew up as a teenager listening to bluegrass, country, and folk music. I was struck that I got so much from listening to that, but I don't really write that way. That generic way...I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad thing. That's just how it turned out. It's the same three chords, five chords at the most, but there is...well, anyway.
You've touched on this with your song about "Talking Bob Dylan Blues", but you got the "new Bob Dylan" tag early on. I always got the vibe that you were more transparent than him. More willing to bear yourself, or paint a picture in a way that, I don't know whether it's 100% accurate, but listening to your records, I get a sense that I know something about you, and that's partially the goal.
Yeah, I mean, it's not 100 % accurate. I cover up some things. I open up my raincoat, but I'm wearing my boxer shorts underneath.
I have a tendency to expose, I suppose. But they are songs. They are crafted and worked on and edited. You know, tricked out a little bit. But the stuff comes from the reality of my existence. Which is fairly mundane. Nothing terribly dramatic has happened to me that hasn't happened to most people, you know? So, that's where the identification comes in, I guess. People can recognize what I'm singing about, despite that fact that I'm singing with me in mind.
Your children also make music, so I feel like we get this whole set of Wainwrights to look at at and listen to. We get this giant story, and you don't necessarily get that with a lot of songwriters. I mean, Jakob Dylan might be singing about his father, but it's not as clear as some of the songs that your kids have written about you, and that you've written about them.
Well, we share that desire to expose and write, and write about the people in our lives. It's not really covered up or cloaked or anything like that. I mean, people are named. I mean, literally they are.
I mean, you play a song like "Daughter" which you wrote for Strange Weirdos: Music From & Inspired By the Film 'Knocked Up', and play that against something Martha wrote, like "Bloody Mother Fucking Asshole" and that's a back-and-forth. It creates a complex, and also more realistic picture. Stuff is complicated.
I have to correct one thing. I certainly love that song, "Daughter," and I sing it and recorded it, but I didn't write it actually.
Oh, I didn't realize that.
A lot of people don't. I wish I could take credit for it, because I think it's a great, great song. And it applies my relationship will all of my daughters. But it was, in fact, written by a friend of mine, a great songwriter, not very well known, named Peter Blegvad. I mean, if you Google him, you'll learn all about him: a songwriter and a cartoonist. A terrific song. People are always coming up to me saying how much they love that song, and I have to explain to them that I didn't write it. But I'm certainly glad they like it,and certainly love it myself.
I feel awful, but if it makes you feel any better I really started exploring your work after hearing your song "Motel Blues" covered by Alex Chilton, with Big Star. It can work both way. I looked at the liner notes and it lead to your work.
Well, Peter Blegvad has written some great, great songs.
I was curious, having brought up Knocked Up. You've done an increasing amount of work with Judd Apatow, and you've acted for pretty much your entire career. Do you look for acting work, or do people approach you? You've done M*A*S*H, Parks and Recreation, Undeclared...all some of my favorite shows.
Well, I'm going into a tunnel - if I lose you that's what happens [we loose signal for a few seconds] Years ago, Larry Gelpbart, creator of the M*A*S*H* TV show, saw me playing in a club. You know, I go out for auditions and things, but I don't get a lot of acting jobs. People will [usually just] ask me, "Hey, do you want to be in my movie?"
Occasionally I'll go out on an audition. I worked on Tim Burton's movie Big Fish, and that was an audition job. I thought I was going to be an actor. I went to drama school in the late sixties. When I get an acting job it's great, and the health insurance is a factor, too. But I'm always waiting for that phone to ring.
I don't want to read too much into it, but in the case of something like M*A*S*H*, or Parks and Recreation, there seems to be a shared sensibility in that they can be very funny films or shows, but also very very sad. I can't help but wonder if the kinds of people who produce those shows just have that's why they ask you to do something.
That's certainly the case with Judd. When he was a 14-year-old kid growing up in Long Island he used to come into New York and see me play at the Bottom Line. And he dug what I did. I think that's why I've got the little acting job, and why he wanted to use our music in the Knocked Up movie.
How is it touring with John Prine?
We've done it a couple of times, and it's a gas. I've known John. We were in the same crop of New bob Dylans. We've done a couple shows now together, and I think people enjoy it, and I know John and I do too.
Are you playing by yourself, or do you have a back up band?
I will be by myself, although we sign "Paradise" together, John and I and his little trio. There will be "jamming," as they say.
What's next? You mentioned a new album.
It's coming out, we're hoping in the spring. The record is pretty much done. I did it with my friend Dick Canette, who did the Charlie Pool record that we did a couple years ago. It's pretty much personal stuff, but I'm looking forward to its escape or release, or whatever.
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What's it going to be called?
Pretty sure it's going to be called Older Than My Old Man, Now, which is a song on there. That refers to the fact that when I turned 64 I beat my old man, he died at 63. That's the title: Older Than My Old Man Now.