Since the late 1960s when he emerged on the New York and Boston folk scenes as a sharp and promising young songwriter, Loudon Wainwright III hasn’t paused for a second. Twenty-five albums and numerous TV and film acting appearances later, this Renaissance man is having a Renaissance in his career.
Being asked by director Judd Apatow to write and record the soundtrack for his huge comedy hit “Knocked Up” — Wainwright also acted in the film — brought the resilient songs of Wainwright to the attention of a whole new generation of music fans. Couple that with the incredible success of his musician children, Rufus and Martha Wainwright, and you have something of a revival.
Wainwright’s newest album, “Recovery” (Yep Roc), is the perfect celebration of this time of rediscovery. Paired with producer Joe Henry, Wainwright reinterprets 13 tracks from his back catalog, all of which were written before 1973, giving them new arrangements, new meaning and new life.
What was involved in your decision to sign with Yep Roc?
I met Glen Dicker and those people over a year ago, and they were very nice and seemed to be very interested to make a record. The previous record that I made was called “Strange Weirdos,” and I actually did that with Joe Henry also. Yep Roc was anxious to get that, but it didn’t work out. Concord got “Strange Weirdos,” but that wasn’t my decision. Anyway, we had a relationship of sorts, and then we told them about this record. They were in L.A., and we drove around my car and I played them some tracks. They really seemed excited about doing it, and I liked their enthusiasm. Aside from all their groovy and hip young bands they also have what I would call the battered veteran roster. Nick Lowe and Robin Hitchcock, I like those guys. So it just struck me as being a good label.
As an artist, because you have been through this a million times negotiating for your record contracts, what’s important to you now that you have the bargaining power? What are you looking for?
Well this record contract for “Recovery,” it’s a licensing deal. I basically paid for the record myself out of my own pocket. I’ve never done that. I’ve made 20-something records, but I have always had a label whether it’s a big label or a little label, and I’ve been on both kinds and in between. So this time I thought I would try something different. Presumably after Yep Roc makes their money back from what they spend on promotion, distribution and production, I’ll start getting paid, and maybe I’ll make some money. If you’re like me in that category of guys that have been around for a while, you just get tired of putting all this work into these things and never getting a cent on it. Again, you’re not spending money out of your own pocket but you’re still not walking away with anything.
Was the band familiar with the songs when they came in?
They weren’t that familiar. The other aspect of this record is that it’s songs of mine that are quite old. They were written in the early ’70s, when I was in my early 20s. But some of them were unfamiliar even to me because I forgot, and I actually had to go back and relearn them.
So you hadn’t been playing these songs live?
Some of them I was. There is a song on “Recovery” called “School Days” which I have continued to play over the 40 years that I have had a career. But other songs I literally had to go back and learn because I hadn’t sung them in so many years. All my songs are musically pretty primitive and simple, so in terms of that the band didn’t have too many problems learning the songs.
When it comes to your music being put into films and TV shows, are you being approached for those or do you have people out there looking for sync licensing for you? Like “Strange Weirdos,” which was on the “Knocked Up” soundtrack, how did you find that job?
In that case it was Judd Apatow, who directed and wrote that film. I have worked with him before as an actor. I was in a television show that he did called “Undeclared,” so we had a relationship. And he is a fan of my music, so he just asked if I wanted to do the music and he gave Joe and I the job to do the music for the film. Also, there are people that are beating the bushes on my behalf, because it’s great to get songs in movies and television shows.
Do you find that supervisors are pulling things out of your back catalog frequently?
Yeah. Music supervisors remember old songs. I have a friend who is a very big music supervisor called Randy Poster. He does a lot of movies and he often calls me, and that’s a good thing. He’s familiar with the work and in a sense he’s a fan of the songs. If he’s doing a film and there might be a place for one of my songs in it, he calls.
Tell me about how you chose the songs for “Recovery.” Did Joe come to you with ideas of the songs he wanted you to rerecord?
He suggested songs. Interestingly enough, the song on the record called “New Paint” — you know he’s a singer-songwriter himself — was the very first song he sang in public. This would have been when he was 15 in Michigan somewhere. So he wanted that one on the record. He made some other suggestions, and then we just thought about it.
How did it feel singing these songs you had written when you were in your early 20s?
In some cases, as I said, I have been singing them live all along. But in other cases it felt good generally. My voice is so different now. Forty years of singing and playing guitar and things change. It sounds like two different people.
It really does. I have those old records on vinyl, and there is a big change in your voice.
Yeah, my voice was much, much higher, and it had a kind of edgy hysterical quality to it which was interesting. It was fun to do “Recovery,” because it was almost like I was recording someone else’s songs. But the songs were good. The guy that wrote those, whoever that was, was good.
Is that a funny feeling? When you read the lyrics do you feel like it’s not the same person?
Yes! We printed the lyrics on the album.
I noticed that. That’s very cool. No one does that anymore.
I think that if the lyrics are good they can be fun to read. If people want to think of it as poetry, that’s fine. I just wrote it down so they can read them. They aren’t poems — they are lyrics, but when I listen to a record I like to read along. And if there is a question as to what the person is singing, I want to know. I don’t want to guess.
Do you think there is kind of a reinterpretation in those lyrics when you sing them now?
I suppose. There is a song for instance called “Motel Blues.” I wrote it when I was probably 25. It’s about me trying to get a girl up to my motel room, and I actually say in the song, “sleep with me and save my life.” Now, I’m in a hotel, and it’s not that you’re not very attractive! But now when I’m in a hotel room, whenever I try to get someone to come up its usually to fix the television or figure out why the WiFi isn’t working or to open the windows. So that’s the difference between a 25-year-old guy and a 61-year-old guy. But in another way, when a 61-year-old guy sings, “come up to my motel room, save my life,” I think it has a different quality to it. It’s desperation. It’s interesting; I was obsessed with growing old even when I was young. And that’s a theme. I don’t know what that was about. And now of course I am older, so I think it’s an interesting project.
I was noticing that even words to “School Days” could be written now. When you wrote it, you were almost looking at it from the perspective of well past those days.
Yeah, the only thing on the record that gives away that the songs were written in the ’70s is that last song, “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry, because I mention the movie “Love Story” which is from the ’70s. But everything else on the record could have been written this year.
How did things change for you between those first three records, which the songs from “Recovery” were on originally, and the next few? I know that right around the mid-’70s you started acting. Do you think it all had an effect on your songwriting?
I studied to be an actor. I went to drama school before I even did music, so I had a bit of training. I’ve really dabbled in acting more than being an actor. I was in “M.A.S.H.” in the mid-’70s. And more recently I have been trying to get more acting work because I want to travel less. If you’re an actor, they pay you to sit around in a little trailer and wait. If you’re a musician, they pay you to trudge through the airport. So a stationary life is what I’m heading for, I think.
You’ve balanced it well, being musician and an actor. Acting hasn’t detracted from your seriousness as a musician.
That’s good. I like acting, but its tough to get an acting job. It’s brutal. It’s worse. I’m much more established as a musician. And thank God I am a musician, because if I had to be an actor, I would have to be a waiter too.
Which do you think is harder: being a musician or a waiter?
Oh, being a waiter is harder than anything. [I was one] years ago. I was cheerful about it. It was in a macrobiotic restaurant, so it was a hippy-dippy relaxed scene. I didn’t have to get dressed up or anything.
Are you finding that a new generation is discovering you because of your work in ‘Knocked Up?’ Is this new record, in a way, for them — you revisiting your old stuff?
I love the idea of recovering these songs and finding them again and rerecording them and representing them so that younger people will enjoy them. That’s a wonderful idea, but whether or not that happens, I don’t know. We made the record because we wanted to. It just felt like an interesting idea. Working with ‘Knocked Up’ and Judd was a great thing.
He’s very tapped into youth culture. He is youth culture.
Yeah, it’s been a great thing for my career. And then my kids are working and they’re popular, so people are coming to the show to check that out.
Are you finding that there are a lot more young people coming to your shows now?
More than there were five years ago, I’d say. But young people, old people I’ll take whatever shows up. People are true.
Before you made your first record when you were playing in New York, how did your expectations of how your career was going to go line up to how it has really been?
I was a serious, angst-filled young man and probably had fantasies that I was going to burn out a blaze of glory at the age of 25. Or that I was going to become a massive star like Bruce Springsteen. Neither of those things has happened. I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and physically things have changed, but a lot hasn’t. Things are a bit better now with this new influx of fans, but I’m still traveling around by myself mostly, playing clubs and small concert halls and touring to a lot of the same places. Some new people are showing up, thank God. It’s been a job. My dream came true. I wanted to be a musician and a performer, but it goes by fast. You get amazed in the thinking. You try to remember what you were thinking in the beginning. It hasn’t really turned out the way I thought it would. But it hasn’t been bad either. And I feel that I don’t like traveling anymore, but I still love to write songs and I love to perform, and if you get a part in a movie or get to write a song in a movie or a play, that’s really exciting. So it’s a great job, hard and difficult, but I’m happy I have had it.
Did all of your children want to be famous growing up? You passed on that particular gene.
Well, it would appear so. But I think maybe secretly everyone wants to be famous. Maybe not. It’s a stupid thing to want to be, because chances are it won’t happen. But if people are honest, and certainly people in the business on any level, anybody that doesn’t admit that they wanted to make it is bullsh*tting you, I’d say. Because you need that kind of a drive to get noticed. It’s too competitive. You really have to care and want and fight for it and struggle for it.
Are there any particular challenges to making it as a folk musician as opposed to any other kind?
Well I play the acoustic guitar, and I was certainly influenced by folk music, but I don’t see myself as a folk star. I know that my records are put in the folk music category, and that’s a pity. Not because I don’t like folk music, but I think the songs are stronger than that. And I don’t think of myself as a pop singer either — I think of myself as a songwriter. Going back to traditional songwriters, aside from Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, my folk heroes, I was a fan of Frank Lesser, the guy who wrote “Guys and Dolls,” and Irving Berlin and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Those were the records that my parents listened to when I was a kid. Those were really my first exposures to music and writing and lyrics. So, it might be presumptuous of me to say that I wanted to be put into that category, but I think it’s a safer description of what it is that I do.
How do you mix together serious songs and humor songs? Because you have written some pretty silly songs.
I have. Well, the songs are written to be performed, so I have a show between 75 and 90 minutes, and I just like to take the audience on a little journey. It’s good to get them laughing and loose and having a great time and then change the direction and hit them with something heavier or weirder or scarier and then turn it around again. I like it when people laugh. But I also like it when they just listen.
In those early days, was Atlantic trying to get you to record with a band?
It was unheard of not to, unless you were a real folk singer. Atlantic Records wanted me to have a country rock band, but I didn’t want to. I fought that. And as it turns out it was a good idea, because I think people noticed the records a little more. And then for the third record, they put me with the band, and I had a hit single — the “Dead Skunk” song. I wasn’t comfortable with bands in those days.
What’s next for you as far as original material?
I’m writing new batches of songs. I just wrote a song for a play that opened at the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland.
Do you approach it as kind of a 9-5? Do you set aside songwriting time for yourself?
No, I don’t do it until I feel guilty and then I make myself do it. It keeps me going.