Wainwright takes own songs to heart
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Loudon Wainwright III doesn't often get political in his folk songs, but that doesn't mean he's purely objective on the subject.
"Yes, my wife and I were watching the election results here in L.A., and enjoying the results. Congratulations there in Chicago," he tells us. "Whew. Four years ago I was in Vancouver mixing a record and watching returns at a Canadian house and, God, I was ready to pick up the paper and start looking for apartments."
Indeed, he returned home to America — but now he's in recovery. That is, his new album is called "Recovery," and it's a set of 13 old songs — songs mostly from the earliest outings of Wainwright's career (he was the first "new Bob Dylan," the singing surgeon on "MASH," a Grammy winning singer-songwriter, even star of and soundtrack creator for several Judd Apatow projects — and, yes, he's the father of Rufus and Martha). At the behest of artist-producer Joe Henry, Wainwright dredged up this baker's dozen of old tunes — "School Days," "The Drinking Song," "The Man Who Couldn't Cry," "Be Careful There's a Baby in the House" and more — and re-recorded them with his band. He talked to the Sun-Times about why he decided to look backward and what it's like singing a young man's songs at an older age.
Q. Each time we talk, I have to stop myself from calling you "Loudo" or assuming a friendship with you, which I think is the result of listening to so many of your deeply personal songs for so many decades. Is that common, people assuming a familiarity with you because there's so much biography in your music?
A. That's OK. It's not a bad thing. It hasn't gotten too creepy yet. People know a version of me, certain biographical facts because I've written about them. But they don't really know me, and I certainly don't know them. They show up in the CD line when I'm signing copies, and they say, you know, "This song meant a lot to me," and I like that.
Q. And here you are 40 years later, still touring.
A. Yeah, my swingin' life, still beating the bushes, still seeing if I can kindle some interest. I've been kindling now for 40 years — exactly, actually. I got paid to play music for the first time probably in 1968.
Q. How convenient for a milestone anniversary to offer this disc of retooled old songs?
A. Well, it wasn't that kind of thing, really. It all started in discussions with Joe Henry, when we were working on "Strange Weirdos" [an album of songs used in and inspired by the film "Knocked Up"]. I really love this group of musicians I'm recording with now in L.A., and we thought, "Why not go back and look at some of the old songs?"
Q. How did you decide which ones to "re-cover"?
A. It was very democratic. Joe mentioned some songs, I had some suggestions. I know that in these days of the Internet and downloading a song and reshuffling a playlist, the listener has a lot of choice in terms of the way they experience music. The last few albums I've made, I've tried to put the songs together in a way that creates a tone or a mood — dare I say, takes you on a journey. But once you make it, God knows, people can do whatever they want with it. Still, I gathered these 13 songs to try and make a journey.
Q. Having traveled quite a journey in 40 years, what kind of journey is this record?
A. Well, it's all about this band, really. That's what makes this different. That and the fact that it's all now from the perspective of a singer who's aged almost 40 years. The things I write about haven't changed much, actually. I was obsessed with getting old even when I was young.
Q. What was it like to rediscover songs you'd forgotten?
A. Well, I was sometimes amazed. Like "Old Friend" — I hate to praise myself, but I was amazed at what a good song it is. I was good, man! [Laughs.]
Q. Was there a desire to do anything different with the songs?
A. I came out of a tradition of singer-songwriters, and I liked guys who made voice-and-guitar records. So I resisted it. Now the calendar pages are flipping, the autumn leaves are blowing and here I am back doing these songs with a band. But it's a band I'm extremely comfortable with and really respect.
Q. I hear the next album might also be a looking back.
A. The next record might be different. I'm working with Dick Connette on a collection — there was a guy in the '20s, Charlie Poole, with a band called the North Carolina Ramblers. Dick and I are both fans of his, and we're working on something like that, singing some of those songs, writing new ones, adapting some.
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III
Opening for Leo Kottke
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: McAninch Arts Center at College of DuPage, Fawell and Park, Glen Ellyn
Phone: (630) 942-4000
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.