Loudon Wainwright III talks death, fatherhood and working with Judd Apatow
Over 45 years, Loudon Wainwright III’s career has comprised everything from New York folkster to novelty singer-songwriter to a favorite of comedy’s premier tastemaker.
The musician started in 1968, receiving the oft-used label of the “new Bob Dylan.” Then he continued playing for four decades, scoring perhaps his biggest hit with the 1972 novelty song Dead Skunk.
Yet he’s still putting out albums, including his newest Older Than My Old Man Now, which deals with his father, a Life magazine journalist, and death. The subject is a familiar one for Wainwright, having written about his father’s death before on History and his mother’s on Last Man on Earth.
He’ll be stopping by the Capitol Theatre on Feb. 28 in a tour promoting the album (click here for ticket details). In an interview, Wainwright talks death, family and Judd Apatow. Here are excerpts.
When you were making Older Than My Old Man Now, did you start off knowing you were going to make an album about death and aging, or did you write the songs and that’s what they ended up being about?
Well, some of the songs are older songs. For instance, the song Over the Hill is a song that I wrote in 1975 with my then-wife Kate McGarrigle. So it was a song that I kind of remembered I had or actually a friend of mine reminded me was there. Another song, I Remember Sex, was probably written 10 years ago and I’d never put it on an album before. So when it came time to make the record and I decided that I wanted to do — for want of a better term —a death and decay album, I remembered those songs and excavated them.
As I approached the age my father died — I’m 66 now — but as I got closer to becoming 64, it struck me as an interesting idea. I’ve written songs about my father ever since he died, which was in ’88, 25 years ago. What I’ve been doing with records for the last 20 years is just finding a group of songs and putting them together to create some mood or tone or theme. So that’s what I did with this one, using some old songs that I remembered I had and some more recent material.
How did making this album about death, family and aging differ from an album like Last Man on Earth, which was similar subject matter but more painful and serious?
The guy who produced the record is a friend of mine that I’ve worked with on a couple of occasions. We had discussions about how we were going to tackle this subject. It became clear that the biggest problem would be that we didn’t want to bum the audience out at the end of 50 minutes. So there’s a lighter tone to Older Than My Old Man Now, somewhat because we had funny songs like My Meds and I Remember Sex. But again, we wanted to avoid the pitfall of making a downer of a record. As I recall, Last Man on Earth, these things take on their own existence — a personality emerges. And with this more recent one, there are very serious moments in the record, but we also wanted it to be light too.
Your father weighs heavily on this album. What influence did his personality and writing have on your own personality and writing?
Of course, you always want to break away from your parents, and you always think, “I’m never going to be like that guy.” What I’ve discovered is you kind of wind up becoming your parents, which is also a cliché in itself. My father, despite the fact that he’s been dead for over 25 years, he’s been a huge influence on me. I’m still, as we’ve determined, writing about him. I think just by virtue of the fact that he was my parent, he was a big influence, but he was a very distinctive writer. He was a journalist primarily and he wrote in a clear, concise, beginning-middle-and-end way, and that’s kind of the way I write my songs. With a few exceptions, there’s nothing opaque or cryptic about my songs.
Quite the contrary.
Yeah, they’re very clear. And I think that style of writing I probably got from my dad.
Do you think that the confessional label you’ve gotten over the years may have come from your father?
Yeah. I think I maybe have a bit more of a wider confessional streak than he had. (laughs) But that could be generational — in his time, you didn’t expose yourself maybe as much. And I’m a performer, too, I write my songs to perform. So I have to get up and jump up and down on stage for 75 minutes. So there’s a kind of a guy in a raincoat thing to begin with if you’re on stage. I suppose that’s the difference between me and my father; I’m a bit more confessional. Although his best work I think was when he talked about the personal things, whether it was putting the dog down or his difficulties with Christmastime or problems with his kids. So again, we are very much similar.
All your children appear on this album. Was that a conscious decision because of the subject matter or because you’d think, “You know who would be a good singer? My daughter.”
Both, actually. Martha sings a beautiful part on Over the Hill, a song that I co-wrote with her mother. In the case of Rufus and Lucy, there were duet opportunities with those kids. Of course I say kids, but I have to remember these people are in their 30s and have been singers for some time. They also happen to be very good singers and my kids, so it just seemed like a no-brainer to have them on the record.
How did they feel when you told them they’d be singing on their father’s album about death and decay?
(laughs) They said, “Great. When are we going to get paid?”
You’ve worked with Judd Apatow as an actor and a musician on a lot of things, starting with Undeclared. How did you two first meet?
We came in contact because my manager said there was a guy doing a television show who was interested in auditioning me for a part and that he was a fan of mine and his name was Judd Apatow. I said, “Well, I don’t know who that is.” Then they sent me — this is how long ago it was — videocassettes of Freaks and Geeks, which I hadn’t seen. And I put it in the VCR and was immediately knocked out. The writing was good and there was no laugh track and the characters were interesting. So I said, “Yeah, I’d be happy to meet him.” I auditioned and then met him and Jake Kasdan, who directed the pilot, and got the part. And then Judd told me that he’d been a fan of mine as a teenager, he saw me on the first Letterman show and was into the music.
And he’s continued to use you, including using The Days That We Die in This is 40. What’s your relationship with him like?
It’s been a very happy collaborative thing. I was on Undeclared and he used me in a couple other acting jobs in his movies. Joe Henry and I did the music for Knocked Up, and then you mentioned the This is 40 thing, which was great. He also was very important in the box set which came out in 2010 called 40 Odd Years. Judd kept saying to me, “You need a box set, you need a box set.” And I said, “Yeah, I know, but who’s going to do it?” And it was through his good offices that it happened, because he went to the people at Shout! Factory, who put out his TV shows, and nudged them. I’m sure I wouldn’t have a box set if it hadn’t been for Judd. So I’m very happy Judd’s a fan of my work and I’m grateful he’s been on this team for me.
The album encompasses a lot of the various musical styles of your career, from confessional to comedy to ballads. Looking back, what about your career has surprised you?
It’s always surprising that it’s lasted as long as it has. I started to get paid to be a singer and songwriter in 1968. That I still have the career — hope to hold onto it for a few more years. The most exciting aspect of it is when a song comes, that hasn’t changed in 45 years. When a song comes — I use that expression because it almost seems something outside of myself. That’s a very powerful thing for, I would imagine, all songwriters and certainly for me. And it’s surprising, you don’t really understand it if it’s a good one. For instance, on the album a song I’d consider a good song is In C, a piano song. That was a big surprise — a happy surprise.
-- Jimmy Geurts, tbt*