Music Interviews

Loudon Wainwright III: “I hardly smoke cigarettes now. I’m more sensible than I was” – Interview

Loudon Wainwright III

Loudon Wainwright III

For his 22nd album, Loudon Wainwright III has taken stock of his own mortality, so when we speak to him at his New York home our conversation is not expected to be a lighthearted one. Yet this is a man who has a keen sense of humour, and that emerges in the course of our chat with sudden, witty asides and self deprecating observations. The sense is that, while the songwriter may not always have been at ease with himself, he is a good deal further along the road now that he has achieved the basic goal of living longer than his father.

Older Than My Old Man Now is the title that shouts this from the rooftops – but despite the album’s lingering references to death and decay, its mood is one of underlying positivity. “Erm, good!” is his reaction to this observation. “I think that it was the way I wanted things to go. Most of the songs dealt with that topic in one way or another, and that can be depressing. I think there is some serious stuff on it, and some not so serious stuff, which I put there so as not to turn the experience of it into a complete bummer.”

The Here And Now is one such ‘non serious’ song, where Loudon compresses his entire life in to three and a half minutes of storytelling. A fun challenge, then? “It was. I just got interested in the idea of what am I doing, here, now, so I realised could tell the whole 65 years in a song, moving decade by decade, era by era. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about, the idea of family. My father’s father died at 43, and my memories of my own father were that he was anxious that he himself was going to drop dead at that age. I think there is a certain goal to outlive your parents in that way. I don’t know if everyone feels that way, but 63 is a relatively young age. When I reached it I breathed a sigh of something, I’m not sure what – elation, I think it was!”

The album’s liner notes and photographs reflect its deeply personal musical content, and members of the extended Wainwright family are all in attendance. Daughter Martha Wainwright and son Rufus Wainwright are the most prominent guests, but they are two of many, with granddaughter Lucy Wainwright Roche also in attendance. “I discussed how we would approach it with Dick Connette” (the record’s producer), “and we spoke about the musicians we would use. I wanted to use other singers, as singing about death and decay for 50 minutes can be a bit much! In my family my kids are all good singers, they have their own particular style, and they joined with the other collaborations.”

This implies a need not to single out a particular member of the family, but he notes their contrasting vocal styles. “They’re very different. Lucy sings very differently to Rufus, while Martha has a brassy timbre, if that’s the right word. She certainly has an ethereal quality where we used her voice on the record.”

Also present is a long time friend Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, who appears on Double Lifetime. “I became aware of him in boarding school in the early 1960s,” remembers Wainwright. “My Spanish teacher from England, Mr Madson I think his name was, also played the guitar. He showed me some stuff on the guitar, and told me about Ramblin’ Jack when he and David Adams were busking around England and making records for Topic. He pulled this 78 out, and I was delighted by what he did, I loved how he was so theatrical. I met him 20-30 years ago, and we’ve been on friendly terms for a while. It was an interesting afternoon recording that song, a good feeling.” This comes across in the instinctive and almost improvised nature of the song. “Ideally that’s what should happen,” he agrees, “because if it becomes work you can hear that – it just becomes some guitar chords and melodies, simple melodies.”

The album’s second song is the bittersweet In C, whose story Wainwright is keen to tell. “I’ve only ever written about four songs on the piano,” he says. “This one started out being a joke song about a lazy piano player, but I went off in this direction about autobiography, which is what often occurs. Something mysterious can happen when you’re working like that, and you find yourself writing in a different direction.”

I Remember Sex, a duet with Dame Edna Everage, needed more planning. “That was fun,” he recalls warmly, “but we had to cheat a little because Barry Humphries was in London and I was in New York. I played him the song a while back and he liked it, he wanted it for one of his shows. We recorded it and sent it over to him, and then he did his part and sent it back.”

There are rich pickings on the album for those wanting to learn about the minutiae of Wainwright’s life. My Meds finds him delving in to the many and varied forms of treatment he applies. But surely he’s not on all of these medicines concurrently? He laughs. “Not all of the drugs I’m on, but I have delved in some of those drugs at some time. I am struck by the number of vials in my cabinet; but I also find a lot of people my age have that condition.” Given his appearance on the album’s artwork, though, they are surely having some effect? “We touched up some of the pictures. Actually, we touched up a lot of the pictures; I look nothing like that really!” He laughs again. “I went swimming today though, and I hardly smoke cigarettes now. I’m more sensible than I was when I was a Young Turk. Like a lot of people I used to drink too much, and other things besides. But My Meds looks at the theme of death and decay again, and how this machine we have is breaking down.”

Is this, then, an album he has been working towards for some time? “Well you look at a batch of songs, and you see if there’s a theme, an idea that links them together. It’s a subject I’ve written about in other songs, though – the first song on my very first album starts off ‘in Delaware when I was younger’. Now I’m old – or old enough to see what looms ahead – it seemed like a good time to serve up a nice healthy portion of death and decay. We just went for it, as it were, replete with a picture of my father.”

“I am struck by the number of vials in my cabinet; but I also find a lot of people my age have that condition” – Loudon Wainwright III

For Wainwright’s father is a guest on the album too, from afar. “Speaking of my father in that regard, in a sense I collaborated with him, on Older Than My Old Man Now and The Days That We Die (where he duets with son Rufus). That felt big to me. To include him in the record in a sense was as powerful as anyone else on the record, and I really loved doing that.”

Family – not always an easy subject to discuss with the Wainwrights – clearly holds the gravity here. “It’s been important, and it’s a subject I’ve written about a long time,” he says, understating somewhat. “I’m at a different stage. I have two grandchildren now, and that’s a whole different thing – it’s a much easier job, for one! I’ll be great at that one. When your parents and siblings are involved, it’s strong stuff, and good song fodder, or at least it has been for me. I think the children are picking that up now, certainly in Rufus, Lucy and Martha’s case.”

Was he ever tempted to create a Loudon Wainwright IV? “That wasn’t a hard decision,” he says laughing, “because three was enough! When the late Kate McGarrigle was pregnant with Rufus in 1972, there were discussions with my grandmother about calling the new issue Loudon IV. Kate and I thought about it, and thought three is enough, so we came up with Rufus, and he had this head of red hair, which we also know as Rufus. When we told my grandmother she said ‘that’s a dog’s name!’ I’m pretty sure he’s happy we didn’t call him Loudon IV though; in fact I know he is!”

Returning to the theme of collaboration, we ask about further plans, with the name of Richard Thompson perhaps inevitably coming to mind. “I’ve worked a lot with Richard,” he says warmly, “and he produced a couple of those records in the 1980s. In February we were on the singer-songwriter boat together, doing the Loud and Rich show, and it was great. Any chance I get to work with him I jump at. Jeez. Who else do I want to work with? Well right now I’m getting ready to go on the road, and I go out by myself and there are lots of people I enjoy working with but a lot of my job is solitary. The New York show all my kids will be at, so that’ll be good.” Will he be the compre for that, in effect? “I certainly want to be the centre of attention for that one,” he says dryly, “but I hope to serve as a patriarch or compre also!”

The ambition remains for more acting roles, too. “I would say I dabble in that, but I just finished a play in New York called Hot Lunch Apostles. It was a lot of fun, so from time to time I get an acting job. Right now I’m back to writing songs again though, and every couple of years I gather them together and make some kind of record. So now I’m fishing around for songs, but sometimes I think, ‘God, I’ve written that song three times!’ It’s not like I’m writing about new things that much, and I’m using the same chords, but it’s about making it new somehow.”

Loudon Wainwright III’s Older Than My Old Man Now is out now through Proper Records.

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