The veteran troubadour is still on the road and using his songwriting to discuss the issues of the day, including the Republican frontrunner and Spotify
Friday 1 April 2016
Loudon Wainwright III is just beginning a huge US tour, which runs until April 2017. At his apartment in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which overlooks the Hudson river, he’s preparing for the rigours of the road. Most of the coming dates will find him alone, as usual. “It’s an economic thing, to a degree,” he admits. “A long time ago, in the 70s, I had a rock band. Primarily I’ve been solo. I don’t go out with a tour manager, I travel alone. It’s getting harder to haul my ass around everywhere, but there are less overheads.”
Customarily, he’ll fly and then hire a car if he’s hitting several cities within driving distance. “It’s hard for me to write on the road, just because it takes every ounce of energy I have to get there, rest a little bit, then go up and do the show. Occasionally I can write songs on the road, but it doesn’t happen usually.”
So a song such as 1971’s Motel Blues was probably penned when Loudon returned home, able to filter his touring experiences. “I’m always trying to write songs, I’m always thinking about putting out another album,” he says, unsurprisingly. “I caved and wrote a song about Donald Trump. It’s a dirty job … He’s a pretty easy target, I wouldn’t even say he’s a moving target. I’m still learning it, just finishing it. I think that there’s some laughs in it.”
Wainwright’s last two albums have markedly different characters. In 2012, Older Than My Old Man Now was steeped in morbid reflection, considering mortality, with any humour, if it was present, being dark indeed. Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet) featured an upbeat band presentation, jumping around to address a wide range of varied subjects, from the weighty to the almost trivial. It sounded like the album of a younger man, as if to recover from the downbeat pall of its predecessor.
“It takes me a couple of years to write an album’s worth of songs that I think are good enough to be on a record,” Loudon muses. “I do it song by song, and then kind of shape it, and the record might have a tone or mood. That’s just the way it turned out, and it wasn’t as if I’d planned ahead of time. I don’t do that. I just focus on trying to get the songs together, and then make a decision over how I’m going to produce the record, and who I’m going to use. It’ll find my, or its, audience, one way or another. Or not!”
In a drive against complacency, Loudon plans on reviving different song selections as the tour proceeds. “I have more than I need. I have a lot of songs. I’ve been going back and relearning some of them,” he says. “It was great to go back to that very old material, some of which I had to relearn, and completely treat them in a different way. I’m struck by how good they are.”
Wainwright grew up in Westchester County, upstate New York. “This is my hometown. I feel comfortable here. I started to play in the clubs here in New York, down in Greenwich Village, the Gaslight [Café], that was the primary club.”
This was a significant hive on MacDougal Street, where the likes of Bob Dylan, Dave Van Ronk and Tom Paxton honed their craft and which the Coen Brothers loosely based 2013’s Inside Llewyn Davis on. Loudon just got in there at the Gaslight a few years before it closed in 1971.
The place he really got his start though was in Cambridge and Boston. “I used to go up and play, little coffee houses. You start off by doing a few numbers on a hoot, or an open mic: they used to call them hoots.
“You don’t have an audience at that point, so you’re really just trying to get noticed, and you’re not getting paid, well virtually nothing.” His luck changed when someone from the Village Voice saw him and wrote up a positive review.
“In a matter of months, I had a record deal, so I was extremely lucky. There was not even a year of bumming around, and trying to play shows.
“John Peel was very instrumental in getting my career going. He played my first couple of albums a lot. You hear about people struggling for five, or even 10 years: I was good, don’t get me wrong, but I was also extremely lucky.”
In June, Wainwright plays a pair of New York City gigs, just below his original Greenwich Village stomping ground, at SoHo’s City Winery, which has been a regular haunt in recent years. The first gig is called Under The Wall And Off The Radar (22 June): “The idea being that I would pick people that I like, that I’ve seen, and that other people may not have seen, but should, that I think are really good.” So far, he’s invited along Dave Hill, Rachelle Garniez, Brian Dewan and Marc Eskenazi, a very diverse crew whose talents veer between writing, singing, guitaring and stand-up, in varying ratios. The second Winery date, on 29 June, is a Family & Friends show, where a possible combination of Rufus, Martha, Lucy or sister Sloan Wainwright may well be involved.
A glance at Loudon’s Spotify page reveals a live album, Late Night Calls, as the most recent release, lifted from a 1972 radio broadcast. “That’s a bootleg,” Wainwright fumes. “I have nothing to do with that complete rip-off. That infuriates me. I wouldn’t listen to it, it’d be too depressing. I hate the idea that someone is just getting something for nothing, but also that there’s no quality control. It pisses me off – I consider it thievery. Being the person who did the performing and writing, I feel violated.”
For him the important things are easily calculated: it still comes down to playing and writing music.
“The exciting part is writing the songs and the fun part is doing the shows. As long as those two elements are in play, and I’m getting paid, I’m perfectly happy.”
Loudon Wainwright III is currently touring the US