Loudon Wainwright III

Loudon Wainwright III
When artists return to earlier material, they usually strip it down, as with that "unplugged” fad a while back. Ever the contrarian, veteran troubadour Wainwright does the opposite on his new disc, Recovery. The songs here that he "recovers” are primarily taken from his first three solo albums, back when hew was a solo folkie being hailed as "the new Dylan.” Loudon sat down for a chat to discuss his legacy and how it's held up over the years and found him a new audience.

Thanks for taking time out to chat, Loudon. You suitably caffeinated at this early hour [9:00 a.m.], I trust?
Oh yes. I have my cup of coffee right here. Good to talk to you.

Grown Man came out. That one was over lunch at a brewpub in Toronto.
Caffeine versus alcohol. Guess it may be a different tone this time.

I gather early reaction to the new album, Recovery, has been unanimously positive?
I haven’t seen a lot of things, but a few reviews and reactions. It seems people are liking it. As you know, the songs were written 35 or more years ago, by an angst-ridden young man. It was an interesting idea, and I think we executed it well. I loved playing with the band and working again with [producer] Joe Henry. So far it has been a happy experience, and I hope the world at large embraces the project.

So no anxiety about a few folkie purists that think you are tampering with the original simplicity of these songs?
Oh no. I suppose there is a possibility of that. This is the second time these songs have been recorded and the versions are so different, for all kinds of reasons. Most of the original versions were just voice and guitar. I’m sure people will enjoy one or the other. There is no accounting for that. That is human nature and you like what you like. I’m not concerned, but I like what we did, and I hope people like it.

I find it interesting that when most artists go back to revisit early work, they tend to strip it down in style. Ever the contrarian, you do the opposite and flesh out the songs.
When I made those first two records, totally voice and guitar, in a sense that was very unfashionable at that time. Everybody had a sort of country rock band. The record company then, Atlantic Records, they originally put me in the studio with Arif Mardin, the great producer. They put me in there with a drummer and a guitarist and it just didn’t work. I remember telling people, "I just want to make a record, as in a sonic document.” They let me have my way for two albums. They were very well received critically, they just didn’t sell anything, so Atlantic dropped me. They were completely stripped-down. I wasn’t trying to be contrary. I had enjoyed working with this group of musicians so much on my previous record, Strange Weirdo: Music From And Inspired By The Film Knocked Up. I felt so comfortable with them. That is what had changed, I finally found a group of musicians I feel very comfortable with. 35 years ago, I was uncomfortable with these ace session guys. I wasn’t ready for that, but I’ve finally found my band.

One that includes a Canadian, right? Your bassist David Piltch.
Yes, he’s from Toronto. I love his work.

Did you find that using a band could add to the dramatic possibilities of these songs?
What happened, we were working on Strange Weirdos, and Joe Henry and I were talking about this idea. The original concept was me going around to see if there were people interested in putting out a box set of my material. The idea was there would be a bonus CD of older songs recorded with the band. It turned out we didn’t get any takers yet for the boxed set idea, but the idea [of the older songs redone] hung around. After one of the sessions for Strange Weirdos, everyone was assembled, and I played them "Motel Blues.” Nobody had heard it before. Those guys are very fast, so we turned on the machine and got it in a few takes. It sort of evolved naturally from there, and we kept working at it. We didn’t have any firm idea of how we were going to expand the songs. The band wasn’t very familiar with these songs, but my songs are pretty easy to learn. The chords are all the same. It was just a feel thing.

Did Joe have a lot of ideas for the arrangements, or did the players have much input?
I think Joe’s style, having worked with him on a few things now, is that he’ll certainly have an idea to begin with, but will go with the flow, so to speak. He doesn’t stop people and tell them to do things a certain way. He definitely moved us along. That is how he works, letting people be who they are. His ideas were good, and he had some specific ideas about song choices. A song like "New Paint,” I hadn’t played it in 20 years, and didn’t even know it anymore. It turns out that was the very first song Joe Henry had ever sung in public. He was in a little coffee house in Ann Arbor, Michigan. There’s a line in the song that goes "if I was 16 again, I’d give my eye tooth,” and Joe, when he was singing it, was 15 ([aughs].

Joe is getting quite the reputation for working with veteran artists. Think that is his secret, letting the artists do what they do?
That, and the fact he loves music and cares about it. That sounds corny, but he is just a huge fan of songwriting and musicality. He just bring a lot of good energy to a project.

I’m a huge fan of his solo albums. Were you aware of them?
I can’t say I’d heard a lot of his records, but I was aware of his name. Since then, I have heard them, and love them. He’s a great songwriter and performer, but he just seems to be on a roll as a producer, so, again, he’s going with the flow.

As you went back to this material, were you pleasantly surprised at how well it holds up?
Some of the songs I had continued to perform. "School Days,” I didn’t have to re-learn that. Some songs, like "Movies Are Like A Mother To Me” and "Old Friend” and "Say That You Love Me,” they’re songs I hadn’t done in years. I was struck by how good they were, how clear and clean the writing was. Even a song like "Old Friend” had quite a beautiful little melody. So I admired the guy who wrote them, and it turned out to be me!

If you met the young Loudon in a bar now, would you get on well? What would you talk about? What would you drink?
Dear me. They young Loudon drank pretty much anything he could get his hands on. Having a beer with me? I like to think we’d get on. Maybe I’d be jealous of him, as I am of all talented people. These young Turks, they make us old battered veterans nervous.

There’s a real range of material on the record. When we talked last time, you described your catalogue as comprising serious dark songs and the stupid ones. You wanted a balance here?
Well, I don’t think there are any comedy numbers on here. The closest thing to a novelty song may be ‘Movies Are Like A Mother To Me,” but we just chose what we thought were the best songs. It is hard for me to have an overview of the material. Someone else would be better at that.

Did Joe help choose the material?
We tried some things. We’ve actually worked together on three different things, so we are rather intuitive about what we’re thinking. If we try something, and the other says "well, I don’t know,” that’ll be enough. And Ryan Freeland, who engineered the record, was also part of that. When we were cutting them, it was a very democratic situation. Everybody gets ideas, and of course there was the day that Bill Frisell came in and played [on two tracks]. You just stay out of the way for that. It wasn’t a hard record to make, I must say. It was fun to make.

I think that shows. It does have a warm, relaxed feel to it. Now, when artists go back to earlier work, it often suggests writer’s block. That not the case with you, I gather?
I continue to write songs, though probably not as much as I used to. I don’t do anything as much as I used to before. Write songs, drink, have sex. I do less of everything now, but I still manage to get it done, so to speak. I’m writing new songs, and I expect down the line there’ll be another album of new material.

Along the way, you’ve had diversions into things like acting, hosting a TV show in England etc. Does that help keep the creative juices flowing?
When things like that happen, like an acting job coming along or the opportunity to be a TV show host, that is a great thing. The playing field is unleveled for a moment, and I rather enjoy that. An example that I’ve just finished is on this coming Saturday night. At the Edinburgh Festival, there is an opening night. Are you familiar with the books of Carl Hiaasen?

Man, I love his stuff. I’ve read them all [he’s a popular Florida writer of comedic thrillers].
Well, you know the book Lucky You, then. He gave permission for the book to be adapted for the stage. One of the producers is Jon Plowman. He was responsible for Absolutely Fabulous, the English version of The Office, Black Adder, a lot of great BBC comedy stuff. He and I did a show together 30 years ago in Manchester, and he thought I might be the right guy to write a couple of songs for this, which I did. I wrote three songs, one of which is something of a theme song. I recorded that, David Piltch is on there, and two of the others have the actors singing. That was fun, and that’s a different kind of thing. It’s collaborative, where I get notes and e-mails from the director about certain changes he wanted. I enjoy doing different kind of things.

I know Carl is inspired by music, citing Warren Zevon as an inspiration.
Yes, Zevon is mentioned a lot in that book, but he wasn’t available!

With acting and doing the soundtrack album for Knocked Up, are you finding that is opening you up to a new and younger audience?
Yes, certainly being involved with Knocked Up, and there was a television show I worked on with Judd Apatow, Undeclared, five or six years ago, but younger people are showing up. Of course, that could be because their parents or grandparents were fans of mine. I’m always happy to see a fresh new face out there, or in the line for signings at the CD table.

And perhaps one element in there might be the success of your offspring, Rufus and Martha, and their fans checking out the old man musically?
Yes that happens, and quite frequently. People will say they love Rufus and Martha, and now they love me ([aughs].

Ever thought of writing an autobiography?
I think I’ve already written it - in my songs. Between "School Days” and "Doing The Maths,” it seems to me that to write it down in prose form would be a bit redundant.

If someone came up to you in the early ‘70s, as you were writing and recording these songs, and said that you’d be recording them again, in 2008, after about 20 other records, how would you have reacted?
That would have surprised me. Again, being an angst-ridden young man, I didn’t imagine I’d be living past the age of 25 or 26. My highly melodramatic idea. It is kind of an interesting return, which is why we called the album Recovery. It is going back and finding something. Not that you didn’t necessarily lose it, but finding it to enjoy and appreciate again.

I know you have a big tour planned for fall and winter, including Toronto and Vancouver. Will you bring a band for that?
I’d love to be able to afford to bring those particular guys. We are going to do a show in L.A. next month with that crew, ‘cause everybody lives there. But they are very in demand, too expensive really, to be honest. In a couple of key locations I may get some players I really like, just to give a feel of the ways we did the songs on the album.

Is performing and touring still something you really enjoy, or a necessary evil?
Yes on the former, no on the latter. I love to perform, but getting there is not half the fun. These days, it’s brutal. I’m 61, and that in itself means moving through an airport is tough. The security, it is all a big hassle, but unfortunately there’s no way to teleport myself there. But once I’m there I generally have a pretty good time.

Over your career, you’ve often written topical songs. Are you tempted to do so, during this fascinating period where you are?
I have continued to write those. There is one I wrote that I’m doing again now. The thing about topical songs is that they have a limited shelf life. I did write one called "Presidents Day,” four years ago. Presidents Day is a holiday here in the States, where we celebrate Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. It’s generally at the end of February. Four years ago, we were getting ready to have another President, so it has a kind of slant to it. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite pan out the way I hoped four years ago. Now, there’s no way that you know who can get back in, so I perform that song with a certain amount of joy. Yes, it’s funny to write about, and I expect I’ll keep writing topical songs.

Have a sense of optimism now about the election coming up?
Again, we are getting rid of that one guy and that group of guys, so that’s great news. Optimism, I don’t know. I have some hope, and I guess Barack Obama would approve of that. I’m kind of cynical about the whole process, and I suppose things could still get worse, but perhaps things will get better.

You referred earlier to potential new material. Any sense of direction there, musically or lyrically?
I keep visiting the same themes I suppose. there are a couple I characterize as "family” material. Then a few death and decay numbers, another of my favourite topics. Speaking of hope, I have a song called "In The Middle Of The Night,” which I see as almost uplifting, hopeful and positive. That took a lot of doing, to get that song down. Just a group of songs that hopefully people will get to hear on a CD, down the line. And I’ll be singing them when I come up to [Toronto club] Hugh’s Room there, so you can get a taste of it live.