Loudon Wainwright III talks family, folk music, and the art of being funny
Aside from being a talented singer/songwriter, Loudon Wainwright III has become a household name for his sense of humor. From the road in the Northeast, where Wainwright is beginning a tour that runs through the fall, he confesses, “I’ve always liked making people laugh, if possible. I have friends that are comics and I certainly have watched a lot of stand up. When I perform, I have a guitar that acts as a fig-leaf and as a shield for protection—so I’m relaxed.”
With 22 albums under his belt, appearances on TV—including M.A.S.H and Judd Apatow’s underrated Undeclared—and a hilarious role as an irreverent gynecologist in Apatow’s big-screen hit, Knocked Up, Wainwright is now facing the inevitable task of aging with grace.
On his latest achievement, Older Than My Old Man Now, the silver-haired fox digs deep into his familial relationships, featuring duets with his kids, ex-wife, and special guest appearances from Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Dame Edna Everage. “I had other people on the record so people wouldn’t get completely bummed out by one voice,” says Wainwright. “That was the concept.”
Like the Kennedys, several generations of Wainwrights have mass appeal and are fascinating branches on the family tree. For one, Wainwright shares a grandchild with Leonard Cohen through his son Rufus. Rufus is the living definition of a cult singer/songwriter, Wainwright’s daughter Martha has gained a wide following for her work with everyone from Nelson Mandela to Hole, and his youngest daughter Lucy is tearing up Brooklyn’s folk scene.
Wainwright understands the benefits of working with his infamous relatives. “I’ve worked with my family before, certainly my kids—a lot of the songs have family aspects.” He is practical, but also knows talent when he hears it. “My kids are pretty good singers and have interesting, distinctive voices, so it seemed like a logical choice to bring in the progeny. It was also a good way to sell records.”
His ex-wife, Suzzy Roche—a former member of the successful all-girl, all-family band, The Roches—explains what its like to collaborate with Wainwright. “Loudon is great to work with because he knows what he likes, respects what other artists bring to the table, but is fiercely committed to staying true to his own vision,” says Roche. “You ask: Is he hilarious? The word I’d use is authentic.”
Although Wainwright’s songs have been compared to humorists Tom Lehrer and Stan Freberg, he insists that his songwriting process is not focused on writing wacky tunes, but on writing well-structured ones. “I don’t think quirky when I write a song—I think beginning, middle and end,” he says. Wainwright does not mnd the comparison, however, seeing as Lehrer is one of his heroes. “I really wanted Tom Lehrer to sing on this album, and if he’s reading this, please come to the show, you’re on the guest list.”
With more than 40 years of touring experience, Wainwright understands the importance of getting the audience to identify with the performer. “The trick is to get a group of people together in a room or a cow pasture, or wherever it is, and do a show for them,” he says. “Audiences are much the same after a while, and they’re either good or bad—they’re either laughing or they’re not. The trick, or the goal, is to turn them into a good audience, to the best of your ability.”
But humor took a backseat to substance on one of Wainwright’s most recent projects, a contribution to Occupy This Album, a compilation of songs performed by artists that were inspired by the Occupy movement. “The song that I contributed to the record is a song I didn’t write,” he says. “It was written by a great singer/songwriter, Hezekiah Jenkins, who wrote it for the first Depression. I was happy to make that kind of historical contribution—it’s a great song called, ‘The Panic is On.’”
The Occupy movement has gotten Wainwright thinking a lot lately about the state of the world, and his feeling of helplessness regarding the direction in which society is heading. “I don’t know what to do about damn near anything,” he admits. “But things are f*cked up, and it’s good to remind people—because it’s incredible how it’s possible to forget that.” Photo: Ross Halfi
Loudon Wainwright III will play at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, June 29 at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25/adv, $25/door. For more information, call 427-2227.