Last time we spoke, Loudon Wainwright was at The Source, a health food restaurant that was on the Sunset Strip, famous for being where Woody Allen went to meet Annie Hall in L.A. The day we were there Fabio was sitting next to us. He was there every day.
But on this day Loudon Wainwright was in Scotland, and still somewhat frazzled by the monumental task of going through all his recorded music over the last four decades. Rather than allow someone else to do it, he did it himself. To decide what would go on the boxed set, he listened to all the tracks, plus the demos, outtakes and more. All for Loudon Wainwright III, 40 Odd Years, a five-disc boxed set with more than 80 tracks, as well as a DVD of live performances and a documentary.
Suddenly he found himself listening to songs he hadn’t heard in ages. It was a good time to catch up with this songwriter, who’s one of the greatest at expressing the reality of the emotional human interior in his songs, with all its tragic and comic colors precisely painted. Rather than drive down cryptic canyons like Dylan, one of his first idols, he’s always gone in the other direction – writing lucid songs. Sometimes sad, sometimes funny, sometimes both, they are songs which are “straight-forward and understandable,” as he put it.
It’s there our conversation began.
AMERICAN SONGWRITER How did it feel to listen to all your work since the start?
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: It was quite a job. But interesting. I found some songs I had forgotten about. And I had to whittle down a lot. I wish I had another disc.
From the first songs through the current work, it’s all consistent. There wasn’t one period where you seemed to have lost your way.
That’s good. I write the same way I always have written, and the songs are all connected. My voice certainly has changed, but my writing style is very much in place.
The boxed set starts with “School Days,” as did your first album. Was that your first song?
No, I wrote some crappy songs before that one [laughs]. My first song was about a lobster fisherman called Edgar, and that was the name of the song.
You’re famous for writing about yourself, yet your first song was a story song about a character?
Yeah. It took awhile to find my beat, as it were. What part of the waterfront I would cover, as it were.
You wrote an essay called “My Cool Life” in the CD Booklet. And you say how when Dylan went from writing about Hattie Carroll to writing “You’ve got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend” you felt he went from good to better.
Yeah. I loved it when he just shifted gears and plugged in and started to get angry [laughs]. And sing about himself – I think it was himself – it was a great period, and those songs were great. I loved the fact that he left everybody else in the dust. And I liked the honesty of that. I’m not completely honest in my songs, but there are elements of honesty in my songs, certainly. Sometimes I leave out stuff. A song is crafted and it’s three minutes or four minutes, a short amount of time, so I try to get to the essence of something. I don’t include everything, all the details.
Do you still write an entire lyric before writing the music?
Yes, usually. I write a lyric, and then I go to the same six chords I’ve always gone to, and fashion some tracks for the train to run on, as it were. I try to find a musical format for it, whether it’s a straight-ahead country style – 3 chords and the truth – or blues or folk. I just discovered a kind of samba-feel for a new song. So I find a style depending on what the song’s about, whether the song is serious or silly or a little bit of both. It’s kind of like going through a closet and finding the right jacket to put on.
Many songwriters describe their process as mostly unconscious, following what comes. But your songs seem quite conscious and lucid.
Well, I work on them a lot. But when the original materials start coming through, it can feel like automatic writing, almost, from the unconscious or from the muse – whatever you want to call that – and it’s quite mysterious to me, and it’s a powerful feeling when something comes up on the radar. Then you mix and match and change and whittle and throw things out, and those are very conscious decisions which are informed by your style as a songwriter.
But that initial stuff, I don’t know where that comes from. I find thanking whoever sent it to me sometimes, so I could be thanking myself, I’m not sure. It depends on whether you believe in a higher power or not. I haven’t made up my mind on that one yet, but I often raise my eyes and say “Thanks for that one.”
You’ve been doing this for four decades now – does songwriting get any easier?
It’s a bit like fishing, in that there’s a lot of waiting around. And sometimes you just have to write a bad song. But that can sometimes get things moving. I’ve often written songs to order a lot, whether for the M.A.S.H. or the movie Knocked Up, or NPR – I seem to have inherited, perhaps from my father who was a journalist, the ability to write to order on deadline. It’s a kick in the ass that you’re happy to get. I mentioned fishing. The other thing I compare it to is sex; I don’t have it as much, but when it happens, it’s great [laughter].
But unlike sex, when you go fishing, sometimes nothing happens at all.
Well, actually, that’s kind of a description of my sex life [laughter]. But, sure, with songwriting sometimes you try and you get nothing. So you go to the market and buy something, or have a hamburger. Sometimes you get ideas when you’re not working, that’s part of the mystery of it. It can come from anywhere. There’s a lot out there, a lot going on.
You included a live version of “Rufus Is A Tit Man” here, written when your son Rufus Wainwright was a breast-feeding baby. How does it feel to do that song now that he’s an adult?
Well, I always start by explaining that Rufus isn’t a tit man anymore. Nowadays he’s more into pecs.