LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
Interview by Jason Gross (February 1998)
"I hate some of these songs," Loudon said at a recent live show, going through his set list. "They've shaved years off my life!" While singer-songwriters are known for baring their souls (and inspiring much wretching), Loudon Wainwright III does so in a painful, honest, funny way. "We were trying to figure you out," Syd Straw told him after joining for a song that night. Not an easy task as he's really one of a kind- there are not other Loudon's running around doing that which is good because who wants imitators but it's bad too because we could use more wise-guys like him. That night at the Bottom Line (his favorite New York stomping ground), he plugged away at Little Ship (Virgin), his latest release, singing a number of songs from it as well as his vast catalog of songs: that's the great thing about someone who's made making music for 25 years plus (frustrating too as you don't get to hear ALL of your favorites).
Still, a Loudon show is something that MUST be witnessed: his smiles, facial expressions, bursts of energy, witty banter and endless answers for fans and hecklers should be the envy of any rock band you know. "I started out getting 18-year-old girls when I started," he told a bunch of guys yelling for requests. "Now I got you guys! It's not supposed to work that way!" Despite such professional and private mishaps (that he airs in public and in song), Loudon is still one of the best singer-songwriter types around and if it means that he has to keep falling on his face, at least he can make great music out of it.
PSF: Little Ship is your 16th release? How does it feel to have such longetivity?
I'm pleased to have to been able to continue to work for all this time. I'm not really thinking about it. I'm always trying to write songs. I've been working on this batch of songs for a couple of years. To me, it's a very natural process. It's like I... don't use birth control so it doesn't surprise me that I have 16 records after all this time.
PSF: How does this fit into the what you've done before and what you'd like to be doing in the future?
I don't really compare the records. With the last couple of records though, there seems to be... you know I've focused on themes. This is a record that focuses primarily on the theme of a relationship. In terms of the other records, I don't know how or why I would place it somewhere except that it's the newest.
PSF: Do you think it's hard sometimes to delve into really intense person matters in such a public way (with your records)?
Yeah but that's the way that I write. I do have a tendancy to write about my own life and explore some of the difficulties and painful aspect of it. But it's not necessarily painful to do it- it's natural to do it, for me anyway.
PSF: Do you see it as catharsis sometimes for you?
No, I don't. It doesn't solve the problems. These things about relationships and families and existential problems are interesting to me. Catharsis? It's a release of something so... It doesn't solve any problems but maybe something is released. God knows what...
PSF: Do you distance yourself at all from your writing?
There's certain things I don't write about. I write from my point of view. I try to be as honest as I can about it. It's the way I see things- it's my version. I'm constantly reviewing the songs to see that they're the way that I feel.
PSF: Since your songs have dealt a lot with your family, how do they feel about your work?
You'd have to ask them. My feeling is that, and I've been writing about my family over the years, although it might make them feel uncomfortable, people generally like to be written about. If I've written a song about the family, they enjoy being mentioned in the songs. Nobody's confronted me and said 'don't write any songs about me.'
PSF: You've talked about how you have a knack for unrequited love songs. Any reason for that? Do you see love in a cynical way?
It's certainly not all bliss- I don't think anybody would say that, even Burt Bacharach. I have tended to write about the negative side maybe because it's easier for me to do that. Or I'm more drawn to it- I find it more dramatic. Maybe I wouldn't write positive uplifting love songs though there are a lot of great songs like that. Maybe I've just never been in love in that way. I don't know. You develop a style over the years and you write about what you write about. It's like why would a painter want to paint a bowl of fruit. Just because it's there.
PSF: What led you to come back to live in the States again?
I lived in London for eleven years. I just decided to come back. I felt it was time to come home again. I'm living in a town that's five miles from where I grew up in. Call it mid-life homing instinct.
PSF: You have acting as part of your background. How has that effected your musical career?
I studied acting and there's certainly an element of performance. I think that the songs are in many ways written to be performed. I think about what it's going to be like to sing them on stage rather than what it's going to be like to have someone at home listening to them on a CD. I guess in that way there's a connection between my acting experience and the songwriting and the way the songs are written.
PSF: I'm a big M.A.S.H. fan and I know you were on the show a few times. Could you talk about that?
That was quite a while ago, around 1975. It was very exciting. A huge thing. Certainly millions of people saw me on TV being Capt. Calvin Spalding, the singing surgeon as I was called. A lot of fun to do. I did three (episodes) all told and wrote a bunch of songs for them. Just got a big check actually for songwriting royalties. It was a great thing. I wish I had done thirty instead of three. They just used me three times and... I don't know, you'd have to ask Gene Reynolds and Larry Gelbart (show's producers) why I wasn't on again.
PSF: Are there any fiction writers that you think have had some bearing on your work?
I had to read the same books that everybody had to read. I mean, there are writers I like a lot. I guess they've influenced my songwriting. The first one I'd have to mention would be my father. He was a journalist and I think that my songs have a journalist quality as I use descriptions a lot and specificity. That's something I may have genetically inherited. I like Ernest Hemmingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and Bruce J. Friedman.
PSF: So you think that had a lot of bearing on your work?
I doubt it to tell you the truth. The musical influences had more to do with what I did. I was influenced by a lot of the same people that everyone else was. Bob Dylan certainly, for singer-songwriters. The Beatles, the Rolling Stones. In my case, also Stan Freberg, Louis Prima, Frank Loesser, Rodgers and Hammerstein. That kind of lyric writing of the musical theatre, you can see that in my songs. They're not particularly MELODIC in the way that those great songs were. Usually you had one guy writing the melodies and one guy writing the lyrics. I think that's the writing I was most influenced by in the songs, not really the books I had to read.
PSF: Listening to a lot of your songs, they seem to cross between comedy, pathos and confessional.
I'm aware of that. I sing the songs and often people will laugh or not laugh or both even in one song. I think that's a good thing. People will ask 'why did you write that funny song' or 'why did you put that joke in that song- I was really digging it until then.' If you get people laughing, they're disarmed to a certain degree and they're listening and really engaging and you can slip one past them too (laughs).
PSF: How would you compare the climate when you started in the music business to today?
I'm not really involved in the scene of the new and upcoming musicians. I know that they're out there and a lot of them are good. I imagine that they're doing a lot of the same things that we were doing except that we wore stupider clothes. There's a lot of hanging out and it's really exciting when you start.
PSF: A lot of singer-songwriters and folk musicians seem to have a lot of left-wing bias to their work but you never have.
I was never much interested in the agit-prop political aspect of folk music. I never found it as compelling as the love ballads, murder ballads and novelty songs. Allan Sherman was more interesting to me in a way than Phil Ochs. It's just my taste.
On the other hand, in the last few years, I've written some songs for NPR, which kind of lampoons and satirizes certain political figures and institutions but on my records, the songs aren't overtly political in the conventional sense... unless you want to talk about the politics of relationships or family dysfunction.
PSF: What do you mean?
There's a certain politic to a marriage or any personal relationship. It's about struggle and power, a winner and a loser, fighting and waring, harmony and peace agreements, boycotts. It's got all your political stuff there.
PSF: For the time you spent in England and worked with Richard Thompson for a while, how did you think the folk scene there compared with the folk scene here?
I don't really know much about what's going on in the folk scene here or there. My impression is that there's always been a folk music scene in England. I guess there's always been a scene here too. I'm categorized as a folk singer and my records can often be found (when they can be found) in the folk section. I like enough of folk music but I don't think of it as folk music.
PSF: What do you think of Richard's work in particular?
I think his songs are great- I don't think of them as folk songs. They have a folk feeling and some of mine do also I guess. He certainly is authentic- he can play traditional guitar or English folk guitar or two-steps or jigs and reels. I find him to be an entertaining, funny, moving, terrific songwriter.
PSF: During the '80s, two of your albums became Grammy nominated. After being a musician for a while, how did that feel?
It felt good. It felt like shit when I didn't win (laughs). I'd like to win a Grammy one day but... we'll just have to see how it goes.
PSF: Ron Mura runs a web page about you and your work. He thought it would be interesting to know what you thought about the Internet.
I'm not online and I don't have a computer. I know how it's become a big thing and I appreciate that it 'couldn't hurt' my carreer. It's probably been helpful with people finding out about me and my work. Obviously, it's a very useful tool. I wrote a topical song called 'Skies, Eyes and Faces' about people staring into computers. There's something about it that bothers me. People are looking more and more at the screens and less and less at each other and clouds. I'm grumpy in that way and a bit of a luddite. For me personally though, the Internet hasn't been a bad thing SO I'M ALL FOR IT!!
See Loudon's favorite music
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