A Phone Call With Loudon Wainwright III

You might not know much about Loudon Wainwright III other than that he's the father of Rufus and Martha. If you know more, then you're ahead of the game. If not, you should get your hands on everything he's ever done. Start with Album I, Album III, Attempted Moustache, I'm Alright, or History. He's a folk singer/songwriter that sounds like no one else that's ever been put on record. His honesty combined with heartfelt, sometimes humorous lyrics, make songs like "Motel Blues" and "Hitting You" some of the best things my ears have had ever the pleasure of hearing. He had a surprise hit in the early '70s with "Dead Skunk," a song about...a dead skunk. He's acted in Judd Apatow's 40 Year Old Virgin and TV shows like M*A*S*H* and Apatow's Undeclared, in which he plays Hal Karp, a recently divorced father trying to regain his youth and among other things, his wife. He is currently working on another project with Apatown in Los Angeles. I had the extreme pleasure of having a couple of minutes with Loudon and got to ask him a few questions. Enjoy. Then go buy his albums.

and lock yourself in your room and watch Undeclared.

Jeff: So you're in California right now?

Loudon: Yeah, I'm in LA.

J: And you're about to go on tour?

L:Yeah, I'm leaving tomorrow to go out for about 10 days.

J: Alright, well let's dive in.

L: Let's do it.

J:Your songs are a lot more honest and personal than a lot of other singer/songwriters. Is that something you consciously do when writing or is that something that comes naturally?

L: Well, I'm aware and people have pointed this out to me. I think what happens is that you develop a style of writing and subject matter that interests you over the years. And one of my favorite topics is my swinging life, you know? My autobiography. It's interesting to me. I'm obsessed and selfish and self absorbed so I write about myself I suppose. I mean, it's not entirely honest. I use hyperbole sometimes, but it's pretty much rooted in the truth so people somehow think that it's particularly honest. It's still a three-minute song or a ninety-minute show and I'm still working the room and trying to get to an audience. It's the beat that I've chosen and that's mostly because it interests me and seems to work on some level.

J: Were any of those personal songs ever difficult for you to perform live?

L: Not really, because I'm a performer and those songs were meant to be performed. I mean it may appear that if you look at someone on the stage, especially if they're up there by themselves, it appears as though they're kind of vulnerable. I suppose that's true in some cases, but they're also protected. They're on a raised platform, there's lights and a microphone and the rest of the people are in the dark and their focus is pretty much on what's happening on the stage. I've actually said it in a song or two that I actually feel safer on the stage in many ways and more open and more willing to take a chance because of the structure I guess you could say.

J: So I suppose that's why acting was another interest.

L: Well, I started out playing the guitar as a teenager but I didn't think I was going to be a songwriter. I wanted to be an actor. I went to drama school in the late '60s in Pittsburgh at Carnegie Melon and I wound up dropping out of that. I wanted to be an actor and though that's where I was headed. Then it just seemed fun to write. My father was a writer and I didn't think I wanted to be a writer but I found I could write. So I got into that and now I occasionally dabble in acting. But the performance aspect of it almost preceded the songs.

J: I just read All We Are Saying and at the end David Sheff asks John Lennon to comment on a few of his songs, so I was thinking we could do something like that as well.

L: Ok

J: The first song is "East Indian Princess."

L: Wow, that's a rather arcane choice. I think, as I recall, I've spent over the years lots of time in England and London in particular. In the very early '70s I had a flat in London and I was just interested in this idea of East meets West. An Indian women in a sari with a stud in her nose and one of those things on her forehead, ya know, eating an ice cream cone kind of struck me as interesting picture. A lot of my songs are descriptions. As I recall I make a little social commentary on that one too.

J: How about "Bicentennial?"

L: Well, ya know, I've also over the years written social commentary, topical songs. I've wrote songs for NPR. In addition to writing about my personal life, I get outside of that occasionally and take swipes at various things in that tradition of I suppose, folk singing. And we were going to have our Bicentennial and it was a big hoopty-do and it just seemed something to make fun of or poke a little fun at, so that's what I did.

I have in my little treasure chest a letter from Johnny Cash

J: "The Man Who Couldn't Cry"

L: Ah, "The Man Who Couldn't Cry." That's an interesting song. More allegorical than usual. I suppose the starting place is when you're a guy you're not supposed to cry. But then I just started to create this imaginary fable about a guy who couldn't cry. Normally my songs take, or the good ones anyway, are written fairly quickly but I remember "The Man Who Couldn't Cry" took a long time to write. I had written most of it and then I couldn't figure out a way to end it. I think it ends with him going to heaven.

J: Did you enjoy the Johnny Cash version?

L: I did indeed. I was thrilled. I have in my little treasure chest a letter from Johnny Cash and I went to see him perform it at Carnegie Hall. So that's a real highlight I'd say.

J: What about "The Picture?"

L: That falls into that category of, well two categories, the description thing and this interest in the family and the passage of time. That's one of my favorite areas of exploration. Really all I did was describe the photograph.

J: And last, I know when The Squid And The Whale came out "Swimming Song" was all over the place.

L: Well, "The Swimming Song," that's one that's over 30 years old, but I still perform it. I've written a couple of songs in my career on the banjo, that being one of them. It's quite melodic and it's probably the song of mine that's been covered the most by other people. Kate and Anna McGarrigle did it and a great folk singer named Mary McCaslin and Earl Scruggs recorded it a couple of times and Fairport Convention recorded it. So, when someone else sings your song, that's a kick and that's, as I said, one of my most recorded songs.

J: Have you heard Big Star's version of "Motel Blues?"

L: Um, yeah, I've heard it. It's a live version. I did hear that several years ago, it's very good, very interesting. I've never met Alex Chilton, but I was thrilled he chose to do that.

J: Is it weird hearing someone else play a song of yours? Is it an honor?

L: Well, it's mostly an honor. I mean, there are exceptions. Well, it's always an honor. If somebody thinks your song is good enough, even if they screw it up, it's always an honor. I am always happy to hear that someone thinks my song is good enough to record or sing.

J: Switching gears a little bit... How did you get involved in playing Hal Karp?

L: Judd Apatow, who created that series, it turns out was a fan of mine as a pretty young guy. As a teenager I think. He used to come in - he lived on Long Island - and he'd come in and see me in shows at The Bottom Line. Actually he was telling me...I opened a show for Donovan once at Carnegie Hall and Judd was at that. So he was a fan. I had come out here a couple of times and taken stabs at being an actor. It's a tough line of work. I was back in New York not really thinking about try and then Judd's people or whatever called and said if I'd be interested in auditioning for a role in a TV series and I was just kind of surprised. I didn't have an agent and again, I hadn't been trying to get any work. And then they sent me some tapes of Freaks And Geeks, which is his previous show, which I liked a lot. I thought well sure. I auditioned a couple of times in New York and just got the job.

J: How was that experience?

L: It was a great experience. It's so unusual to be on television in something....good. It got great reviews and it deserved them and got cancelled. I was really pleased that I got to do the shows I did and got to work with Judd. I'm actually working on some music for a movie of his that is coming out next year.

J: Yeah, I was going to ask you about that...

L: Yeah, I actually have a little acting role, a small role. But I'm also writing songs and doing the music with another soundtrack called Joe Henry. So after I finish talking to you, Joe has a studio over in his house in Pasadena, we're working on the stuff today.

J: Is there any music or artist that you listen to these days?

L: Again, I'm really so self absorbed that I don't really have my ear to the ground or ear my to the iPod or whatever you call it. I'm sure there's lots of great people but I immediately cover my ears because I'm so jealous. (Laughter)

J: Do you listen to a lot of music?

L: Not much, I mean I listen to my old record collection. Charlie Mingus and Joe Beam, kind of eclectic old folk music. Ramblin Jack Elliott...

J: Ah, I just met Ramblin' Jack a few weeks ago!

L: We just did some work with Jack. He's amazing. Todd Haines is doing a movie about Bob Dylan and Joe is doing some of the music for that and we recorded Jack doing a Dylan song.

J: So if it was raining outside, which one of those records would you put on?

L: I've been watching a lot of Felini movies and I used to have a record and I don't have it anymore, but it was the violin music of Nina Rota. He's the guy who did all the Felini movies. Oh man, just great great music. That's the first thing that sprang to mind when you asked that. It might be Nino. Maybe you'll have to Google it.

Loudon Wainwright III

A Phone Call With Loudon Wainwright III