The new album from Loudon Wainwright III is Older Than My Older Man Now, a comment on the realization that the singer-songwriter, at age 65, is now older than his father was when he died in 1988. The album is conceptual, on long-favoured themes of family, death and the passage of time. Not only do family members appear on the album, Wainwright recites passages written by his father ( Life magazine columnist Loudon Wainwright, Jr.) and sings one piece co-written by his late first wife, the folksinger Kate McGarrigle. He spoke from New York in advance of a pair of concerts at Toronto’s Hugh’s Room, on Wednesday and Thursday.
You’re not the only Wainwright with an album out. Your son Rufus just released Out of the Game, and, naturally he’s doing a lot of press. In one piece he was quoted as saying that he felt his mother Kate McGarrigle took the “better road,” as he put it, by partly sacrificing her career for the sake of the children. But he also said he admired you for sticking with your music back then.
He admired my selfishness [laughs] Well, he has me to thank for his own selfishness, I guess you could say.
He also praised the way you’ve kept your voice. I would agree. What’s your secret?
I attribute that to luck. I was a smoker for years. Occasionally I slip and have a cigarette. Remarkably, my voice has held up. I’m grateful obviously. But I don’t gargle with honey and ground-up bird eggs. I have no secrets.
In the same interview, Rufus also said that at his age, 39, he felt the need to reward himself just for existing. Isn’t that a little young for that sense of accomplishment?
To someone who’s 39, it’s not too young. I remember being 25 and being hung up about getting old.
And there’s a song on this record, Over the Hill, that you co-wrote with Kate McGarrigle way back in 1975.
You take yourself seriously at all points. Even at 65, I take myself much too seriously. Maybe we’re just that type of person – self-absorbed. But being 39, that’s kind of a shocking number. If Rufus wants to whinge about that, it’s okay with me. I was whinging about it when I was 39.
As you write in the liner notes, “death and decay” has been a common theme for you for most of your career.
I’ve been playing the age card for a long time, I have to say. But now that I’ve passed this landmark of outliving my father, I decided to gather up a bunch of these songs and really put it out there. Every song on the record has to do with the passing of time and mortality, and the failing of powers and the fearing of death and all that other jazz.
Which could make for a dreary record. How did you avoid the grimness?
I talked to my producer about a way to do it and not bumming the audience out. So, there’s some novelty songs on the record: My Meds and the duet with Dame Edna, I Remember Sex, and some lighter material. And the heavier stuff is leavened often by having other singers singing it with me. Just to make it a group of voices whinging, to use that word again, as opposed to just one.
Did the other voices necessarily need to be family members?
Well, as it turns out, three of my four kids are professional singers. And they’re really interesting, good singers. One of my ex-wives, Suzzy Roche, is a great singer. The album deals with family, so it felt logical to get them to sing on the record.
On the piano tune, In C, you sing that your children with Kate McGarrigle are grown, and that you’ve noticed they’re a bit like you. In what ways are they, other than their tendency to sing in the same key?
Obviously they’re a bit like me because they are artists and performers. They have genetic traits that have been passed on. I mean, I have my father’s words on this record. He’s been dead for 25 years. I feel now that we’re the same person almost. And when you’re very young that’s the last thing you want to be like. It’s mind-boggling.
Did you fight it?
I fought it with a vengeance. I hated the idea that I would be like my father. Which is one of the reasons I decided I didn’t want to be a writer, and wanted to be an actor instead. I wanted to go in a total different direction. But, of course, I ended up being a writer anyway.
It doesn’t seem like Rufus fought it, at least as far as being a musician.
In a sense, the deck was stacked for my children. Rufus’s and Martha’s mom was a singer. Suzzy Roche is a singer. They were getting it from all sides. There were guitar cases and banjos lying around in every apartment they ever lived in..
Rufus said something recently about the time he spent with his mother, as she was dying. He said he got a song out it. Where does that come from, taking inspiration from a traumatic situation?
I think it’s a songwriter’s thing. A wonderful friend of mine, [Idaho folksinger]Rosalie Sorrels, she’s had some life. You’d ask her how she was, and she’d say that this person was in prison and those people had their house burn down or that she was having surgery. I mean it was a litany, like a Raymond Carver novel or something. And then she would say, “but I wrote two songs last week.” So, I don’t think it’s a Wainwright-McGarrigle thing. You take what happens to you, and you write about it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.