"Daughter" is a Wainwright anomaly: a wistful song about being wrapped around the finger of your little girl. Loudon didn't write it (more on that below), but his children are often the subjects of his songs. His kids are kinda famous - Rufus, Martha and Lucy are all singers and have shared the stage with their dad (his youngest child, Alexandra, has thus far stayed out of the family business). They're not exactly the von Trapps, however. More like a brood of passive-aggressive troubadours sending messages to each other in their songs (including one from Martha that's not subtle: "Bloody Mother F--king A--hole").
Loudon has been laying it bare since his 1970 eponymous debut, which Mojo deemed one of the greatest albums of all time. 21 studio albums and one peculiar hit single later, Wainwright is on tour and preparing number 22. His new songs include "Man With A Dog In The City," which is a reverie on following his pooch with a plastic bag, and "I Knew Your Mother," a message to Rufus.
Loudon Wainwright III: I don't think so. I think I'm pretty clear about what I'm doing. Occasionally I can get sarcastic and ironic, but I don't think I'm planting anything mysterious to be discovered by the listener. I try to make things clear and simple, and aside from sarcasm and irony, I just lay it out pretty much the way it is, nothing hidden.
Songfacts: So no little Easter eggs that only a certain person would understand the reference to?
Loudon: Well, I suppose there are some references that are arcane or out of use or are a little obscure, but that's for my own amusement. I suspect there's a few examples of that.
Songfacts: How do you choose what songs you perform?
Loudon: Well, I've been doing some shows recently, so I quite often have a couple of songs that just before I go on, I decide that I'm going to start with, and certain songs work in combination well with other songs. But a lot of it is just more or less freeform - there's no particular set list.
I have incorporated a new aspect to the show that I'm doing as recitations - I'm doing columns and selections of columns that my father wrote for Life magazine. He was a pretty well-known journalist back in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, and for the last year or so I've been incorporating his work into the show.
But I just move it around: sing old songs, new songs, and then... oh dear, it looks I'm going to have to move my car now. I'm in New York City. I have to do a parking maneuver now...
In fact, one of the songs on my new album is about this problem of moving your car. Do you know what alternate-side-of-the-street parking is?
Songfacts: I do, yes.
Loudon: Well, today's the day that I have to move the car, so I was down on the street jockeying for a position. I was double parked and then a truck just came up behind me and forced me to move.
All right. So let's pick up where we left off from.
Songfacts: You were explaining how you choose your set list.
Loudon: Yeah. I just kind of wing it mostly. But I'll be singing new songs and some old songs. There's not a lot of planning.
Songfacts: I imagine that over the years you've heard from people who have very personal connections to your songs. Maybe they've used them at weddings or other very personal events. Has there ever been one in particular that has stood out, somebody's story?
Loudon: Well, I recorded a song a few years back that I did not write. A great song by a friend of mine, a songwriter named Peter Blegvad. The name of the song is "Daughter." I don't know if you're familiar with this song?
Songfacts: Yeah, and I connected to it instantly.
Loudon: Right. Well, it's a song that's on a record called Strange Weirdos that came out a few years ago. At any rate, practically every show that I do now, fathers come up to me and say that they danced to that song at their daughter's wedding. The song has had a big impact to a lot of people. I did not write it. I did record it though and somehow people associate it with me. I quite often sing it in the show.
Peter told us the story of "Daughter":
As everyone knows, a parent's love for their child is partly narcissism. My daughter, Kaye, was 3 when I wrote the song - long enough for me to have recognized this fact in myself and seen it manifested in the behavior of other parents. It's natural, maybe even a crucial element, but the narcissism has to be watched, obviously. (Think of Dr. Evil and Mini-Me in Austin Powers). The comedy of all that amused me, and I didn't think anyone had treated that in a song before. I was vaguely thinking of Stevie Wonder singing "Isn't She Lovely" and Frank Sinatra singing "Nancy (With the Laughing Face)" and I wanted to write something that would express that kind of love honestly but also hint at the complexities which come with that role and responsibility.
The chord sequence is uplifting, but "Daughter" is maybe more sardonic than I think some people realize. It's about unconditional commitment to the task of raising a child, but it's also about the vanity and narcissism of the parent.
Loudon: Well, I'm a friend of Peter's and we've toured together. I'm a fan of his work in general and I always liked that song, so I learned it and then we cut it on a record. Actually it was used in a movie, a Judd Apatow movie called Knocked Up. I think that's probably why a lot of people heard it, because that was a big movie when it came out.
Songfacts: Well, this is interesting, because so many of your songs are very personal but when you did work on the Apatow project, you were essentially writing on spec. A song like "Grey in LA" for instance [also used in the movie], can you explain what it was like stepping into that type of writing?
But myself and Joe Henry, we wrote songs for the movie, some of which were used and some weren't. I've been able to write to order; writing to order is something that I can do. I've written songs for National Public Radio, kind of topical songs. And in fact, there are a couple of songs on my new album that were actually written for other purposes and then were not used and wound up on the record.
Songfacts: What's an example of one of those?
Loudon: Well, there's a song on my new record which is coming out in September, there's a song on it called "Harlan County." A few years ago the people at the television show Justified put the word out for songwriters to try to come up with a theme song for the show. So I went online and googled Harlan County, which is where the television show takes place. Then I wrote a song which I thought was terrific. They didn't choose it, and now it's on my record. So it all worked out.
Songfacts: Have you ever tried to write a hit song?
Loudon: Not too hard. I've kind of half-heartedly tried and with no result. The only hit song I ever had was the aforementioned "Skunk" song which was just a goofy thing that I wrote in twelve minutes. I was just trying to amuse myself, but sure enough, that was the one.
But I don't sit around and try to write hit songs, that's something I don't really have any skill at.
Songfacts: Did you have a desire to be famous at any point?
Loudon: Well, yes, certainly. I think anybody who gets into show business or business in general wants to be known and famous to a degree. I have a certain amount of ambivalence about it and fortunately I have a manageable modicum of fame: I'm not worried about being bothered or recognized too much. But occasionally somebody figures out who I am and says, "Hello," or says they like something. That's nice too.
Loudon tamps this ground on his song "I Knew Your Mother," where he sings:
I knew your mother, let me be clear
We two were lovers before you got here
So don't forget that I knew her when
Love was the means and you were the end
Loudon: Yes, that's a new song. That song was written last summer. It's on my new record. My son Rufus turned 40 last July and I wrote it with that in mind. And yeah, I think it is an interesting song. I think it's good. I like it.
Songfacts: When you wrote the duet you did with Rufus, "The Days That We Die" , did you write his part as well?
Loudon: I had already written that song. But then on that record, which is my previous record, Older Than My Old Man Now, I decided I wanted to have the whole family involved in the record and it struck me that Rufus would be the perfect candidate for that particular song. He actually came up with the arrangement, which is interesting. Usually when you record a song with somebody, a duet, you sing some harmony together or join in on the bridge or whatever, but he thought it might be more interesting to just sing separately in the same song, and I think he was right.
Songfacts: Had you worked with him before in collaboration musically?
Loudon: Yeah. He sang on my Charlie Poole record a few years back [High Wide & Handsome - The Charlie Poole Project, 2009]. We've done lots of shows together. And even when he was a little kid he used to come around and jump up onstage and sing "Dead Skunk" with me.
Songfacts: Something I've always wondered, why did you smash that red guitar? ["Red Guitar" is a song from Loudon's third album, which is called Album III.]
Loudon: Well, I got drunk and that's what it really was. I was frustrated by something that day or night, I don't even know if it was day or night. But yeah, it was a Gibson Hummingbird, a nice guitar.
Songfacts: Did you know you had it in you to haul off and destroy one of your instruments?
Loudon: Well, I was a volcanic young man, and I suppose I might have had a few beers, too. That always helps... or doesn't.
Songfacts: What's it like to hear other people perform your songs?
Loudon: Well, anytime anybody thinks one of your songs is good enough to perform or record, you're delighted as a songwriter.
But, I remember very early in my career there was a singer... I think he's no longer with us, so I can mention his name. A guy called Johnny Maestro, he had a group called The Brooklyn Bridge. This was 40 years ago and he recorded five of my songs on one of his albums. They were all on my first record. I guess he decided that I was gonna be the next somebody.
And I didn't care for any of the versions. I actually went to the recording studio and they played them for me and I remember I had sunglasses on and I just kind of nodded and said, "That's great," and then left. I didn't particularly like what they came up with.
Songfacts: How has your songwriting changed over the years?
Loudon: Well, I don't write as many of them but that's the case with a lot of things. I don't do a lot of things as much as I used to. I don't know how it's changed though. A few years ago I put a boxed set together of my work and I wound up listening to pretty much all of my recorded material, and it seems like it hasn't changed much. I developed a style and then pretty much stuck with it. I don't know how to characterize the style but it's the way I write songs.
Songfacts: When you were listening to all that material, was there one song that jumped out at you as either being something you were shocked at how good it was or meant something different to you?
Loudon: There wasn't one song. I hadn't heard a lot of the material in a long time and I was struck at how a lot of it holds up. Some of it doesn't, but I was delighted to hear that there were a lot of good songs.
Songfacts: You wrote a song on Older Than My Old Man Now called "Double Lifetime." I think you had Jack Elliott on that one.
Songfacts: That's an interesting sentiment because the poetic thought is that life is wonderful because it only comes once. But you took a different approach to that. Can you talk about that?
Loudon: Actually, the expression "double lifetime," I read that in one of my father's notebooks. He said something like, "I want a double lifetime."
Quite often a song can just start with a sentence. It's a starting place. And that's an example of that. That album is all about mortality and so it just seems like I just developed that idea and then got my hero Jack Elliott to sing it with me.
Songfacts: Are there other songs that have started with sentences that you can think of?
Loudon: That's a good question. I'd have to think. I'm sure there are, but I don't know if I can come up with any. "Dead Skunk In the Middle of The Road." I don't know. There's got to be examples of that, but I can't come up with it.
Songfacts: Is "Dead Skunk in the Middle of the Road" a saying that was floating around out there before you got to it?
Loudon: Well, I can imagine that I ran over a skunk and probably said to myself "dead skunk in the middle of the road." I don't know what I did. We've spent too much time on "Dead Skunk" in this interview I must say.
Songfacts: Hey, you just brought it up.
Loudon: A song that I don't even perform anymore really.
Songfacts: When did you stop performing it?
Loudon: There was a period where I had to perform it for every show and usually at the end of every show, and then I got so tired of doing that, that I stopped. Occasionally I'll do it, but it's not in the set, really.
Songfacts: Some artists can gauge the popularity of their songs by chart positions, but you're not that type of songwriter/singer. But then when the digital age came around you could go on iTunes and see what songs people are downloading the most often. Have you ever done that?
Loudon: I don't, I haven't done it. But have you done it? What are they downloading?
Songfacts: I have. The number one song that people download of yours is fortunately not "Dead Skunk," it is "Daughter."
Loudon: Right. And it's not my song, so there you go.
Songfacts: And then number two is "Dead Skunk." But what's interesting about that is that you don't seem to have much interest in the popularity of the songs that you write.
Loudon: Well, it's not a question of interest, it's a question of the reality of the situation. I have not been a guy who's had a lot of hit records and sold a lot of records. I'm still rather obscure - I'm in the periphery of the music business, let's say. There are some people that know of me from my one hit more than 40 years ago, and my most downloaded song is the song that I didn't even write. So there you go.
What's number three?
Songfacts: Number three is one of the Apatow songs. I think that's a lot of people going to see Knocked Up and then discovering your work.
Loudon: Yeah, that's how it works. If you have a song in a movie, that's how it works now. There was a time at the beginning of my career where there was such a thing as progressive FM radio, but that's been gone for years. So it's a miracle and a mystery that I'm still even making records at this point.
Songfacts: But I think the records that you're making are awfully good. You can listen to the stuff that you did in the '70s and, to my ears anyway, I prefer your newer stuff.
Loudon: Well, that's good to know. Rather that than the other way around.
In the '70s, at the beginning of my career, I felt pressure about getting a song on the radio and having a follow-up hit, so some of those records were compromised to a degree because I was worried about "is this gonna get played on the radio," rather than "is this the right production for this particular song?" As my career progressed and I realized that I was never really going to sell a lot of records - that I wasn't Billy Joel or something like that - then I just focused more on making records that felt right to me and had the correct production values.
So the records that I have been making, there's production on them, but I don't think they're overproduced and I think that they serve the songs more than some of the records I made in the mid-'70s, late '70s.
Songfacts: And you've explained before that there's a bit of a bias, because if you're in your 20s in the heyday of your life and you hear an album, that album tends to be associated with those good times and you tend to dismiss later stuff.
Loudon: Do you mean in terms of people wanting to hear the old stuff?
Songfacts: Yes, and in terms of how people rate your albums.
Loudon: Well, the other thing is that people buy and listen to music more when they're in their 20s. So my demographic - people that are in their 50s and 60s now, or 70s even - they're not going out much.
The whole thing is ridiculous. I really don't know how I lucked into earning a living this long doing this.
Songfacts: Well, you clearly have a talent for it. Do you remember how you even learned how to write a song?
Loudon: I didn't think I was going to be a songwriter. My father was a writer and he seemed to be quite miserable doing that, so writing didn't seem like much fun. But I played the guitar and sang and I just wrote a song one day, just because I knew enough cords. It wasn't very good, but it was enough to get the ball rolling.
Songfacts: Did you write it down?
Loudon: Oh yeah, it's a song. It's an actual song. It was never recorded. It's a song called "Edgar" which was a song I wrote about a lobster fisherman that I met when I was working in a boatyard in the late '60s in Rhode Island.
Songfacts: What part of your job do you most enjoy?
Loudon: Well, they're enjoyable in different ways, but the most mysterious and powerful part of the job is writing a song. When that happens, that's a great day. Performing is my other job. Hauling my ass up to Connecticut and doing a show is my other job. And once I get there, once the drive is over and I'm actually on stage and people are listening and we're all having a good time, that's still a very enjoyable thing to do.
So those are my favorite parts and that's pretty good. You know, I have a very interesting job and have had it for quite a while and I really appreciate that. I got to do what I wanted to do and that's a good deal.
May 21, 2014. Get more at lw3.com.
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