Loudon Wainwright III is one of the more amusing singer-songwriters to emerge from the heyday of the genre. On his new album, Older Than My Old Man Now (2nd Story Sound Records), he takes on mortality—a very serious subject—but still interjects his distinct brand of humor. For Wainwright, the subject is not new. “I’ve been interested in that for a long time,” he said. “I’ve written about the predicament of aging and where we’re all heading.”
His father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., died in 1988, just a few days short of his 64th birthday. When Loudon III realized he was nearing the age when his father died, he began writing the songs on his new album. He refers to Older Than with a laugh as “the death and decay record.” But the album is surprisingly not depressing. It exhibits the rich quality of a finely crafted novel and showcases Wainwright’s deft songwriting skill for getting right to the heart of a subject. There is a depth to it not often found on the pop charts today.
As entertaining and ultimately uplifting as the album is, Wainwright does not buy into the “sixty is the new forty” axiom. “Sixty is the same old sixty that it always was,” he laughed. “We might live to be 85 or 90. I’m 65 and I’m aware of the changes and where this is all headed. I’ve got friends who have gotten there.” When Wainwright said this, he might have been speaking about his ex-wife, folk musician Kate McGarrigle, the mother of his two children, Rufus and Martha, who died at the age of 63 in January of 2010. “It’s just a very powerful subject and something I think about every day. I don’t consider myself to be morbid or obsessive. I just think it’s a reality which is there and it’s interesting to me and I write about it.” Wainwright is confident the album will be perceived as “amusing, interesting, engaging and, dare I say, hopeful.”
Wainwright released his eponymous debut in 1970. His discography now includes 22 solo albums, plus live albums, compilations and contributions to other recordings. He is very influenced by the 60s folk revival. Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, one of his favorite artists from the folk scene, appears on Older Than on the song “Double Lifetime.” “He was a huge musical hero of mine, more than Bob Dylan,” Wainwright said of the 80-year-old American music legend. “I was drawn to what Jack Elliott did, despite the fact that he wasn’t a songwriter. He is such a wonderful entertainer and performer and a kind of larger-than-life guy.”
There are other guests on the album, including members of Wainwright’s family. Rufus appears on “The Days that We Die.” His daughter Lucy Wainwright Roche, whose mother is Suzzy Roche of The Roches, appears on, appropriately enough, “All In A Family.” Suzzy herself appears on “10” and Martha on “Over the Hill.” The opening song of the album, “The Here & The Now,” is practically a full-scale family reunion featuring Lucy, Suzzy, Martha, Rufus and Lexie Kelly Wainwright, his daughter with Ritamarie Kelly.
The appearance of Rufus on the new album and the song they did together is particularly important to Loudon. “The song was really inspired by my relationship with Rufus,” said Wainwright. “It’s been bumpy. It’s been a tough relationship which we continue to work on.” Wainwright’s father, who is the inspiration for the album, is also represented. His writings are included on two songs—the title track and “The Days that We Die.”
The members of his big extended musical family are “musically all on the same page, but quite different,” according to Wainwright. Considering the various women, his children and his other relations, one wonders what his family life is like. “It is a little complicated,” said Wainwright. “Because some of us write songs about it, it may seem a little more melodramatic. We don’t have to wear name tags at Thanksgiving, though.”
Wainwright originally wanted to be an actor when he was young and went to drama school. Initially detoured by his musical career, he now frequently appears in movies and television. Along with roles in such television shows as M*A*S*H, Ally McBeal, Undeclared, and Parks and Recreation, he has been cast in films including Big Fish, The Aviator and many others. With the help of Joe Henry, he did the soundtrack album Strange Weirdos, which includes music inspired by and from the film Knocked Up. Wainwright has also taken a turn in plays, as he did most recently in a revival of Hot Lunch Apostles at La MaMa in Manhattan.
Despite his abilities as a songwriter and the fact that his father wrote for Life magazine, Wainwright won’t be writing his autobiography. “It just strikes me as hard work,” he stated. “My songs are fairly autobiographical.”
In the past, Wainwright wrote more political and social songs. “I don’t think of myself as a political songwriter per se,” he said. “I certainly engage in social commentary. When something pisses me off I write about it.” And he really shines when his songs reflect his dry wit, as is most evident on his smash hit “Dead Skunk.” “I love to laugh and love to make people laugh. A funny song is trickier to write than a serious song. It has to have a very specific result, which is laughter.”