Our favourite songwriting podcasters get another scoop, interviewing the Grammy Award-winning American folk singer-songwriter, actor and father of Rufus Wainwright
eteran Grammy-winning folk musician, singer-songwriter and sometime actor Loudon Wainwright III’s career spans four decades and 26 albums, the 26th of which, Haven’t Got The Blues Yet, is set for release in September. He’s also the paterfamilias of the celebrated Wainwright-McGarrigle music dynasty. Loudon’s children Rufus Wainwright, Martha Wainwright and Lucy Wainwright-Roach are all songwriters of note, each of whom at one point or another have performed or collaborated with their father.
Born in 1946 in North Carolina, but raised in upstate New York, he briefly studied drama before turning to music in the late 1960s, writing songs and playing folk clubs in Boston and New York City. Before long he was being feted in industry circles as one of several ‘new Bob Dylans’ and signed to Atlantic Records in 1969, barely a year after writing his first songs. He released his debut album, entitled simply Album One, in 1970 which was followed a year later by Album Two. By the time he switched to Columbia Records in ’72, Loudon had earned a considerable reputation for his nakedly confessional songwriting style, not to mention his wry sense of humour and spirited live performances.
Loudon’s third album, 1973’s Album Three, featured his one and only Top 40 hit to date, the deliberately throwaway Dead Skunk, and a period followed during which his then label leaned on him to try and repeat its success with a more mainstream, band-oriented sound on his next few albums. This didn’t sit comfortably with Loudon and he soon reverted back to the more stripped-down, idiosyncratic style with which he’d made his name.
Barring a brief break from recording at the turn of the 80s, he kept up an impressive output, receiving back-to-back Grammy nominations for two albums he made in the mid-80s, both of which were produced by another folk songwriting giant, Richard Thompson. However it was High Wide & Handsome: The Charlie Poole Project which actually earned Loudon his first Grammy in 2009. Moving into the 90s, Loudon continued to produce fine work, including what many consider his masterpiece – 1992’s History – much of which dealt with the loss of his father.
In more recent years, Loudon has been brought to the attention of the wider world via his continued association with the writer-director Judd Apatow. Apatow is a huge fan and has used Loudon’s songs in a number of his films and even commissioned new songs to be included in his 2007 smash hit comedy Knocked Up.
Is it challenging to write 14 new songs after having produced so much stuff already?
“Well, I guess it is. It’s taken two years. It’s work getting the songs, I mean it’s not strenuous work, but yeah I managed to get another album done. What a miracle!”
There are several themes on the record that returned throughout your work. Would you say you’ve got those themes in mind when you sit down to write? Or do you shape that stuff after you’ve got the melody and the chords?
“Songs come in different ways. Somebody can say a word, or I can read something in the paper, or see something on the television, or be thinking about something on my own and a song can come out of it. Five years ago the word went out to songwriters to write a theme song for Justified, and I got the word… I just constructed a song and the inspiration was that I wanted to get a song on TV show! Well, they didn’t pick my song, but I liked the song, so that’s how I got that one. Then, with I’ll Be Killing You This Christmas, I was kind of shocked into writing it by the terrible shooting that we had in Connecticut almost two years ago. That just came about abruptly.”
So is it typically the guitar you reach for when you get an idea?
“Yeah I’ll usually write some words down and grab the guitar, sometimes the banjo or even the ukulele and occasionally the piano, but mostly it’s the guitar.”
Are we right in thinking that you played a good few years before you started writing songs of your own?
“I started when I was 13 and I probably didn’t write my first song until I was 21 or 22 I’d say. I didn’t plan to be a songwriter – I thought I was going to be an actor.”
[SONGWRITING]… IT’S A BIT LIKE SEX – I USED TO DO IT MORE, BUT IT’S STILL FUN WHEN IT HAPPENS NOW
Do you actually remember what the first song was that you wrote?
“Yep. I don’t know it anymore. I’ve forgotten it and it never was recorded. I was working in a boatyard in New England and one of my co-workers was an old, grizzled lobster fisherman named Edgar, so the first song I’d ever written was called Edgar and it was about him. I don’t remember anything about it, but to have written a song was exciting to me, and I think the next week I wrote two more.”
You seem to describe events in your songs with great precision – it’s almost journalistic at times.
“Well my dad was a journalist and wrote for Life magazine in the 60s and 70s and I think I inherited some of that type of writing – that journalistic style of keeping things simple and clear, and hopefully having a beginning, middle and end. I’m very influenced by my father, so it doesn’t surprise me that my writing might have a journalistic feel.”
Would you say ultimately that words are more important to you than melody?
“I don’t read or write music and I can play about six guitar chords, all of which that I learnt when I was about 15. Occasionally I’ll write a nice little melody, but I think a lot of my focus is on the lyrics.”
Are you ever concerned whether to ever censor yourself, or is the job of a songwriter to be as honest as possible?
“That’s how I see it. Hopefully the honesty isn’t gratuitous, just for shock value. Although I think making the audience sit up and even wince can be a good thing. The criteria has to be that the song is good, and if I write something, even if it’s close to the bone, like Hitting You – I’d put that in that category. I take it out and perform it and I can tell usually if a song is good, and I can sense from an audience whether it works or not. That’s the final litmus test.”
You’ve been writing songs now for more than 40 years. Would you say it’s anymore knowable these days, that process, or has it still got some sense of mystery about it?
“It’s still mysterious to me. When the good songs come there’s a kind of magic about it, and I try not to think about it too much, but I’m certainly grateful when I get that kind of a visitation.”
How prolific a writer are you these days?
“It’s a bit like sex – I used to do it more but it’s still fun when it happens now!”
We know your typical guitar key is G, but sometimes you’ll throw in a chord which is dramatic and changes the mood. Do you deliberately look for those opportunities?
“Yeah, I’m not a real guitar player. Although I play well, I don’t have any knowledge of the instrument. But occasionally I’ll hear a song that maybe needs something and I’ll go looking for it. I’ll get out my book of guitar chords and I’ll try to find something.”
And would you maybe try different tunings?
Yeah, on Older Than My Old Man Now there’s a song in what’s called an open-E tuning: Somebody Else I Know Just Died. And a very early song of mine – I think it’s on my first album called Black Uncle Remus – that’s also in an open tuning, that’s in an open-G.
So will it typically be a chord sequence that comes first, or would you tend to start jotting down lyrical ideas before you do that?
“It’s usually the lyrics, although sometimes I’ll get a melody idea and put lyrics to it. But usually a couple of couplets written down on a piece of paper and that can be the start of something.”
And you say you need to create the right conditions for songs to happen? Does it need to be quiet space or do you need to sit with a guitar in your lap for a few hours?
“I wouldn’t do that. Again, one of the things I compare it to, aside from sex, is that it’s like fishing. You go out and sit in the boat, you put the worm on the hook and you’ll sit there, but not for hours and hours – some days they’re just not biting. Now the skill comes in getting the actual fish into the boat and there is a craft. There’s work involved, but a lot of it is this magical gift and maybe you can just call it luck.”
SOMETIMES I’LL GO WEEKS AND EVEN MONTHS WITHOUT WRITING A SONG, BUT THEN I GET NERVOUS SO I’LL KICK MY OWN ASS!
So you’re not really one of those ‘go to the office at nine o’clock’ sort of songwriters?
“Not unless somebody says they need a song at such and such a day. If I get an assignment, I do have a work ethic and I can do that. Then sometimes I’ll go weeks and even months without writing a song, but then I get nervous so I’ll kick my own ass!”
Do you have a vault of ‘failed’ songs hanging about that nobody’s heard, and do they become bits and pieces to use in other songs later on?
“That’s happened. One of the songs I like most on my new record is a song called In A Hurry. That song was completely lost – I’d forgotten about it – then I found an old notebook and thought, ‘This is pretty good actually’ so y’know… whatever it takes.”
Is there anything you can do in the writing process that might help the commercial potential of a song? Or is that not really something you think about?
“I try not to think about it, but sometimes you think ‘Wow! People like this, so maybe we should take advantage of that in some way.’ At this point nobody gets anything played on the radio any more – it’s all just a complete crap shoot! It’s all about getting something on YouTube, so that’s why we’re making our video. ”
Do you ever co-write at all or is your approach too personal for that?
“I have co-written. I wrote a song with Joe Henry and I’ve written a song with Terry Roach of The Roaches. I haven’t done it much, but occasionally I do it.”
Do you find that a satisfying experience?
“Yeah but apparently not satisfying enough to do it a lot! I am kind of self-absorbed – let’s put it that way!”
Your new album is coming in September. Do you feel the album concept is still important these days – that all the songs should hang together as an experience?
“Yeah, without getting crazy about it. I don’t know what this new one’s about – depression and alternate side of the street parking maybe? I know some people don’t even listen to music in this way. They put things on their iPods and shuffle everything, but I like to think that someone will be putting a needle on a record and listening to it for 20 minutes and then turning it over.”
With over 50 episodes under their belt, internationally renowned songwriters are queuing up to be interviewed by Liverpool-based duo Sodajerker. Established in 2012 by songwriters Simon Barber and Brian O’Connor, the Sodajerker On Songwriting podcast has welcomed guests including Neil Sedaka, Johnny Marr, Ben Folds Five, Billy Bragg, Richard M. Sherman, Neil Finn, Suzanne Vega, Jimmy Webb, Rufus Wainwright, Eg White and many more.
To find out more about Sodajerker and their work, or to download their podcasts – including the full 45-minute interview with Loudon Wainwright III – go to www.sodajerker.com. You can also connect with them via www.facebook.com/sodajerker or www.twitter.com/sodajerker, or download the podcasts from iTunes.