An exclusive interview with the master singer-songwriter and humorist
Loudon Wainwright III rode the “folk wave” of the late 60s and early 70s to become one of America’s best-known folksingers and songwriters.
In the 50 years since, he’s released more than 30 albums, including the Grammy-winning High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project; written “Dead Skunk,” a Top 20 pop hit, and had his songs covered by everyone from Johnny Cash to his son Rufus. He’s created topical songs for NPR, acted on Broadway and appeared in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and television shows, including M*A*S*H and Parks and Recreation.
Never one to rest on his laurels, Wainwright is currently promoting three projects. Years in the Making, is a two CD collection of rare recordings that span his entire career. Surviving Twin is a Judd Apatow-directed one-man stage show about his relationship with his father, Loudon Wainwright, Jr. (The show is currently airing on Netflix.) And his autobiography, Liner Notes: On Parents & Children, Exes & Excess, Death & Decay, and a Few of My Other Favorite Things, published last year to favorable reviews. He spoke to The Globe from his car, as it sat on a New Jersey turnpike, unable to move because of a blinding snowstorm.
Can you tell us about Surviving Twin? What was the evolution of the piece?
My dad was a well-known journalist and had a column called “A View From Here” in LIFE magazine. Everyone read LIFE in the 60s and 70s, so he was widely known. He died in 1988. About eight years ago, I was doing a gig in Maine. I was put up in a cabin with that had an old-fashioned magazine rack. I found a copy of LIFE with Trisha Nixon on the cover. My favorite column my father ever wrote was in it. It was called “Another Sort Of Love Story.” The movie, Love Story, was out at that time. It was about having to put down our dog, John Henry. It’s a beautiful 1,200 word essay. I reread all his columns, over 200 of them, and had the idea of combining his words and my songs in a kind of tribute to him and our relationship. I put together a theater piece. I memorized the columns – I don’t read ‘em on stage, I perform them. The first time I did it, was at his alma mater, the University of North Carolina. I’ve done it in New York, London and LA. Christopher Guest, who created the Spinal Tap movie, and director and Judd Apatow, saw it in LA. Chris thought it should be filmed, as is, nothing added. With Judd’s help, they got money from Netfix and we filmed it at a club in North Hollywood called El Portal. It came out on Netflix a couple of days ago.
You were an original member of the Spinal Tap band, is that right?
Yes, before the movie was made. I went to college with Christopher Guest, Michael McKean (David St. Hubbins in Spinal Tap), Albert Brooks and other aspiring actors. Later on, Rob Reiner did a TV special that included a sketch about a heavy metal band. That was the first incarnation of Spinal Tap. I was the keyboard player and had a bottle broken over my head. Sadly, I didn’t make the cut for the movie, but I was there from day one – ground zero.
Years in the Making is your second retrospective. How does it differ from 40-Odd-Years, your first boxed set?
On 40-Odd-Years, I just picked the tracks I liked best from all my albums. There were a few unreleased things, but it was basically a retrospective of my recording career. This new one is more of a rarities collection. It’s demos, live tracks, reel-to-reel oddities, basically things no one has heard but me.
It’s not a boxed set, just a two-disc collection.
I’ve been doing this for 50 years, so there are plenty of things on hard drives, old cassettes and reel-to-reel tape. Dick (Connette, my co-producer) and I listened to the stuff for a long period of time, whittling it down to 42 tracks that cover 45 years. We put ‘em together in chapters – Folk, Rocking Out, Love Hurts – with a 30 page booklet. There are plenty of new songs, by which I mean unheard, even though they were written in 1993, or 2004.
There’s a good balance of humor and poignant tracks.
I write humorous, novelty songs and more serious things. I didn’t think of balancing them. They’re just good songs. We programed it so there would be some comic relief. I hope people will sit down and listen to it, one disc at a time – the way we used to listen to albums and go on a little sonic journey. The fact that I listened to albums lets you know how long I’ve been at this.
Your songs tend to the autobiographical. Any advantage or disadvantage to mining your life for material?
It’s something I’ve always done. The first line of the first song (“School Days”), on my first record was, “In Delaware, when I was younger….” I started off with autobiography. My life is a rich subject to me; the trick is to make my life match up to your life, be it on the subject of fear of air travel, or the loss of a loved one. People often ask why I’m so personal; it surprises me that more people aren’t.
Did you tweak the tracks or do they appear they way you originally recorded them?
The record is very lo-fi. We didn’t try to match up the sound quality of the songs. When you hear something that sounds like a scratchy vinyl record, or the popping of an old cassette, or the lo-fi quality of a bootleg, it gives the record an interesting kind of variety. We worked with Oscar Zambrano, who mixed and mastered it. He cleared things up as well as they could be cleaned, but we didn’t worry about it being pristine.
Do you tour solo or with backing musicians these days? Is it easier or harder as the years roll on?
I’m mostly by myself. Occasionally, I have Chaim Tannenbaum and David Mansfield with me as a trio, but mostly it’s just the guitar and me. I still enjoy the playing. It’s great to have a job I like doing at my age. The hardest thing is the physical aspect of getting from place to place – navigating the airports and lifting the CDs out of the back of the rent-a-car. I wrote a song called “Road Ode” in 1993, comparing myself to Willy Loman (the lead character in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman), so you can imagine how it feels now.