With the exception of his satirical West Coast soulmate Randy Newman, Loudon Wainwright III is one of the only singer-songwriters from the ’70s still turning out tunes that are consistently well-crafted, profound, and funny. We recently spoke to Wainwright about his newest album, Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet), which mordantly tackles such touchy subjects as clinical depression, old age, and (on the shit-stirring “I’ll Be Killing You at Christmas”) the country’s demented love affair with guns. Hilarious onstage, Wainwright is actually sort of serious in conversation, though also quite forthcoming (and, OK, funny), as when he decided to discuss the superb songs on his 26th (!) album.
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“Brand New Dance” (the album’s opener, which takes on old age) rocks harder than anything you’ve ever done. Have you been listening to Chuck Berry lately?
I certainly listened to Chuck Berry as a teen. But The Big Bopper was the guy I kind of had in the back of my mind when we cut that.
Did you cut it live, with a bunch of people actually playing?
David Mansfield, who produced the record and can play anything, created the basic track. Then we brought in a drummer and a keyboard guy and I sang my vocal.
Let’s talk about the song “Depression Blues.” With all the ways the narrator tries to deal with it — exercise, religion, and antidepressants — he never does. Is the underlying theme that depression is just something you have to live with?
There’s certainly nothing in the song that provides any explanation about it. I’m a person who suffers from depression from time to time. I’ve tried all the pretty conventional stuff. I was reading Robin Williams’s obituary today, and I was struck by his comment that it’s “always there.” It’s pretty much a mystery to me, even though I’ve experienced it pretty much over my entire adult life.
The song that really struck me — and you might be the first person to write a tune about our love of guns — is “I’ll Be Killing You at Christmas.” Do you think anybody, like [free-form station] WFUV, is going to play it?
Well, I sent it to FUV and I haven’t heard back from them [chuckles]. It’s a tricky song. It was Christmastime and I started fiddling around with this idea of, “I’ll be killing you this Christmas,” thinking it could be a comedy number: “I’ll strangle you under the mistletoe,” that sort of thing. Then the Newtown shooting happened and the song turned serious. There are some grim laughs in it, though.
How has it been received?
I started performing it. In Colorado, a guy came up to the CD table — where you come into contact with your audience — which can be a good thing or not a good thing — and said, “It’s too soon to sing that song.” The Aurora shooting had happened not that long ago also. He was upset. That registered with me. And I figured I wouldn’t play the song for a little longer. But then I found myself in Blacksburg, Virginia, where the Virginia Tech shooting had happened, which had the biggest number of casualties. I thought, “This is crazy. I’ve got to sing this song.” But at that CD table, I had faculty members from Virginia Tech coming up and they thanked me for the song. One of them said, “It feels like a lament.” Which I liked. Despite the fact that it has a kind of fifties-jazzy feel to it.
Of course, there was that article recently in which some lunatic suggested we start teaching eight-year-olds to use guns and then arm them. As if school wasn’t scary enough.
Yeah, “Don’t forget your lunchbox…and your holster.”
You’ve been making albums for a long time. How do you keep it fresh for yourself?
I’m coming from a pretty subjective place, so it feels like my techniques are pretty much the same. Songwriting is like sex, now. I don’t do it as much, but occasionally something interesting happens. But I’m doing what I always did: writing about what pisses me off, what makes me laugh, what happens to me. That hasn’t changed.
And just when you think the most horrible thing in the world has happened, someone truly creative always tops it.
Yes. Another good thing for songwriting is, you always have the possibility of still being appalled.
I have a song, my newest song, it’s not even on the record, that’s called “It Ain’t Gaza.” It starts off being, “We had the worst night we ever had last night. We had a terrible fight. We’re at the brink. What are we gonna do?” And then: “It ain’t Gaza.”
Kind of puts things into perspective.
Is there anything you’ve listened to lately that has inspired you?
Musically, I still listen to the same stuff I always have, which is dead black piano players [chuckles]: Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell. Usually stuff without words. Which could have something to do with the fact that I might feel somewhat threatened. I hear things from time to time that I like, like my friend [the songwriter] Gurf Morlix. But I don’t have my ear to the ground. [Loud, and comically:] Whatever you do, don’t tell my friends at FUV, but I’m not really listening to anything. But I’m sure there are tons of great songwriters out there. I hate it.
Over the years I’ve given them suggestions about what they should play, and they’ve never listened. It’s starting to piss me off.
[Long pause] It might be time for payola.
Did you think when you started that you’d still be doing this 45 years later?
No. Of course, when I was young, I was a romantic and figured I’d be dead before I was 30. But I still get excited when I write a new song or I perform. I’m lucky in the fact that I can play and people still show up. So, aside from the fact that it’s a drag hauling my ass around the airports? It’s a great job.
Loudon Wainwright III’s new album, Haven’t Got the Blues (Yet), will be available on September 9th on 429 Records.