His children, Rufus and Martha, are more famous than he is. His songs are blueprints to every heartbreaking, embarrassing and hilarious thing that’s ever happened to him. He’s outlived his famous ex-wife (much to his own surprise). And now at 66 years old, singer-songwriter-actor Loudon Wainwright III finds himself the unlikely patriarch, looming large and loose over one of the most talented, sprawling, Canadian-American family trees in the music business.
After 40 years of toiling behind the mic, he’s also one of the world's best songwriters, further evidenced by his most recent record, 2012’sOlder Than My Old Man Now, which curls its way around Wainwright III’s lifelong obsession with mortality and death (“The Here and Now”), all the while keeping his sense of humour about the ridiculous parts of growing old (“I Remember Sex”), with frequent excursions into the rampant regrets that plague him still (“In C”).
“The songs are pretty clear, there’s nothing cryptic about them,” Wainwright III joked over the phone a few weeks before his upcoming appearance at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival (July 19-21). “They may be inspired by specific things that have happened to me or specific people in my life, but I think everybody knows what I’m singing about and if it brings up some feelings, that’s a good thing.”
But there’s something fascinating about Wainwright III’s brand of honesty — it’s both flattering and disparaging. Usually when one sings about their own shortcomings, without any sense of real remorse or apology, emotional clarity gives way to self-aggrandizing mythology. In part, Wainwright III’s benefited from that. He’s been labelled a womanizer, a barfly and, by his own daughter, in song, no less, a “Bloody Mother F--king Asshole.”
“Well, you know, I think I’m great,” Wainwright III laughs. “I mean, I might as well come out and say it. Like most people, I have an ego and I’m in show business, so you have to have kind of a healthy, conflagrated ego to a degree. On the other hand, I’m consumed, like a lot of people, with self-doubt and loathing and guilt. It’s both things. I hold myself in a high regard, but at the same time, I don’t.”
Wainwright III comes by the compulsion (or affliction) for disclosure honestly. His father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., who was 63 when he died and inspired the album’s title, was a columnist at LIFE magazine and used his own life as fodder on occasion.
“I’m re-examining his work,” Wainwright III says. “There are a couple selections on Older Than My Old Man Now, and I’m actually doing in my show now longer pieces of his. I’ve just come to appreciate it at the ripe old age of 66. He’s been dead for over 25 years now, so you’d think more or less I’d be – not over him, that’s not the right expression, but I feel closer to him now than I ever have. And I appreciate his work now to a degree that I don’t think I did when it first came out. That’s a really powerful thing for me personally.”
The entire record is something of a family affair. It features his second daughter, singer-songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche, and another ex-wife, also a singer-songwriter, Suzzy Roche. Rufus and Martha are featured throughout. Wainwright III also sings the one song he ever wrote with their mother and his first ex-wife, Canadian singer-songwriter Kate McGarrigle, who died in 2010. Their fraught and complicated relationship played out over a variety of songs, forming a bit of a he-said, she-said over the last 30 years, details spilling out over an array of interviews from all the parties involved, including their children.
But the bitterness and acrimony — it doesn’t so much dissolve in face of death — simply becomes a facet of a much larger, more complex heart than few ever know is in their capacity. This is the part of the record that resonates most deeply with me, and what moves our conversation away from interview and towards confession.
It seems impossible to fathom that you and Kate McGarrigle wrote just one song together.
Yeah, well, we played a lot of music when we first started hanging out. I have tapes of us playing folk songs and other people's songs, but we only wrote that one song, “Over the Hill.” She was a great musician and I wish we’d written more together, but when I first met her, she hadn’t really been writing lots. Her sister Anna had written “Heart Like a Wheel” and a few other ones, but she hadn’t begun to write her great songs, but she certainly did that when she started to sing with Anna. But it’s a pity we didn’t write more together, but I’m happy we wrote that one song and that it’s on this record.
Did her passing change your relationship to Rufus and Martha?
I don’t know if I can say yes or no on that. I mean, obviously, it’s always a huge event when one of your parents dies. In the case of Rufus and Martha, Kate was such a huge force in their life and continues to be so. As for whether it changed my relationship with them, I can’t say that’s the case, but I know it’s been a monumental thing for them. When my mother died and when my father died, it’s big. Our parents are giants, they’re titans of our lives, so of course it’s going to be a big deal.
One of the things that really touched me about the record is that my father died when I was 17, and he had raised us and we went to go live with my mother and it’s a huge upheaval. And even though they had been separated for a number of years, my mom was at his deathbed, every day, for two weeks. There’s something that divorce or separation can’t break between people sometimes.
[Quietly] Yeah. As it turns out, I was also in the house when Kate passed away in Montreal. I went up to Montreal and was there for that, too. Despite the fact that we’d been separated for many, many years — if you have family, children with somebody, that’s also big and imperishable, to use a word.
There are elements on this record, sometimes, where it sounds like you’re kind of surprised you’re alive.
I guess I can be surprised I’m alive. I’m taking a little better care of myself than when I was a young person. My father died when he was 63. My mother made it to 74. My grandparents, God, they were dropping like flies. My father’s father died at 43, my mother’s mother died when she was seven. So genetically speaking I’m in deep shit. It’s a miracle I’m alive [laughs].