Honesty is key
Loudon Wainwright on decades of not holding back
When the name Loudon Wainwright III is mentioned, the many associations that come to mind can be a little dizzying. He sang that song “Daughter” from the Knocked Up soundtrack, right? But wait, didn’t he play the doctor in that movie as well? Wasn’t he in MASH? Isn’t he Rufus Wainwright’s dad?
In a career spanning more than 46 years, he’s managed to be all those things, and what makes that astounding is, he hasn’t stopped. The Grammy Award winner has made 26 albums, with his most recent being 2014’s Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet). He also released a single last spring called “I Had a Dream,” a satirical and sobering take on what life would be like if Donald Trump won the presidency. His range is impressive, but for Wainwright, it’s all in a day’s work.
“My job is to write songs, and occasionally I get an acting job.” Wainwright said in a phone interview. “[I’m] just getting up and thinking about what I want to work on and then being lucky enough to have people that want to work on it with me.”
Wainwright has a knack for simplifying seemingly anything into a concise folk song, whether it be the mundane task of trying to find parking in New York City (“Spaced”), or explaining the early years of a relationship with his ex-wife to their child (“I Knew Your Mother”).
“I have a tendency to be an open book,” Wainwright said. “Maybe I’m an exhibitionist, or a psychic flasher. Certainly the people in my family, whether they’re my kids, my parents or ex-wives, they’re kind of the big characters in the play that is my life. It’s not all note-for-note verbatim truth, but basically it comes from true experience, and I fashion these three-minute songs from those experiences.”
Though it’s often told through the filter of campy folk sincerity, the content itself is quite raw, the kind of soul-baring not everyone could easily handle.
“When someone gets up on a stage and sings a song about something that’s deeply personal, some people think, ‘Gosh, how could that person do that? It’s so personal.’ But I’ve always maintained there’s a safety in that, so I’ve never hesitated to do that,” Wainwright said. “Certainly, I censor myself, but the general rule is: If I’ve written a song I think is good, then I’ll put it out there.”
That self-revealing nature seems to run in the family. Wainwright’s kids, Rufus and Martha, have become widely successful musicians, and have also been open with specific songs (“Dinner at Eight” by Rufus and “B.M.F.A.” by Martha) centering around a trying relationship with their father. Even Wainwright’s own father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., was best known for his column in Life Magazine, “The View From Here,” which was both informative and highly revealing on a personal level. Recently, Wainwright has created a one-man show titled Surviving Twin during which he reads his father’s columns and pairs them with his own songs.
“It’s very gratifying for me to do it,” Wainwright said. “My father’s been dead since 1988, but as I’ve been telling people, I’m getting along with him great now. It’s a real pleasure to share his work with my audience, to collaborate in a posthumous way,” he said.
Wainwright will be performing some of that material as part of a co-headlining evening with Iris Dement at Paradise Performing Arts Center this Saturday (Sept. 24).
Having recently turned 70, one might think Wainwright’s career would be winding down,, but he seems far from retiring.
“It’s a physically draining job—hauling your ass through an airport, to a rental car, to a hotel. As long as I’m physically able to pull it off and people want to see it, I’ll keep going. I like the work.”