It's a Friday night at the prestigious Royal Festival Hall and without any announcement or fanfare, up strides Loudon Wainwright III. The cult hero and songwriter's songwriter steps up to the stage armed only with his guitar. Throughout the next hour he charms his audience with his charismatic showmanship and introspective song writing. On the strength of tonight's show, not many can rival Wainwright for insight, misery and joy.
We meet a few days later to discuss his most recent release 'Older Than My Old Man Now'. It is, incredibly, Wainwright's 22nd studio album and he shows no signs of slowing down. Containing all his hallmark traits, 'Older Than My Old Man Now' is filled with both deeply personal songs and humorous light-hearted tunes, proving as ever that he is a master of contrasting moods and tones.
As the album title suggests, 'Older Than My Old Man Now' focuses on the passage of time. Such musings however, are not new for Wainwright, after all, he himself notes that the first line of the first song on his first album is "In Delaware when I was younger". However he admits it is something that has become particularly pertinent: "I've been writing about growing old for some time, really from the beginning of my career. It's something I'm apparently hung up about and now that I am old, hopefully I speak about it with some authority".
Growing older and impending death are not the only themes the album touches upon. In many ways 'Older Than My Old Man Now' can been seen as a musical family tree. Containing three generations of Wainwright, the topic of family is a thread that runs throughout the record, if not throughout his entire career. One song in particular,'The Days That We Die', a song in which Rufus Wainwright features, tackles the very issue. "I wrote it because I was thinking about the difficulties that parents can have with their children, because as their kids grow up the difficulties can continue. Rufus, one of my kids, we've had a bumpy ride on occasions; but he's also a terrific singer. So I sent him the song and asked if he wanted to sing on it, he liked the song. Not only did he sing on it but he kinda came up with the arrangement, it's not really a duet, it's two separate voices and I think that has a powerful effect".
The idea of a lasting legacy, of putting right past wrongs is also hinted at "Maybe it's because as I get older, I get closer to finishing up here, I'm desperately trying to figure it out, to put the pieces together in a sense. I think all of us are curious about where we came from, how and why we wound up the way we did."
Wainwright is known for his confessional song writing which often errs into uncomfortable territories. Yet he doesn't spend too much time fretting over what others will think about his music or indeed censoring himself. "I don't start off thinking what can and can't I write about, what should or shouldn't I write about. If I finish writing a song, I look back at it and then usually I'll go out and preform it, take it to the stage and see how an audience reacts to it. If I come away with the conclusion that it's a good song , even if it pushes the envelope, like 'Hitting You', if I think it's good and not gratuitously pushing and achieves an effect on the audience, then I'll record it, perform it and include it in repertoire."
How to strike the right the balance between humour and biting honesty is however, something that consumes much of Wainwright's time when writing a new album. The album as an art form remains an integral part of his song writing process. "I know that people don't listen to music much in the way when they'll put on a CD, sit down, have a drink or go on a car journey. People pick and choose and just listen to tracks. But when I make a record I try to think about it as a 50 minute musical journey, so the mood is very important, as is the sequence of the songs. So I spend a lot of time sequencing and going for some kind of mood or tone."
The shadow of Wainwright's father (Loudon Wainwright Jr) looms large over the record. Wainwright Jr, a journalist for Life magazine, was a deeply influential figure for the songwriter, though their relationship was often fractious. His articles appear on the album as spoken word pieces, but Wainwright has taken to preforming extended version of these articles during his set. "He was an amazing writer, when we made 'Older Than My Old Man Now' I knew I wanted to somehow connect and bring his work into it. We have those two little section on the record, but then I realised 'God there's a lot more there', so I'm preforming as you say extended pieces in their entirety. I think it's his best work, because he wrote topical, political things, but I think his best work is personal. Whether it's getting a suit made in London or living with the dog. There's that similarity I suppose, I write topical songs sometimes, but most people would say that when I write about my personal life that's the most interesting."
It's getting late now and Wainwright has to prepare for another show, but the image of the lone songwriter remains striking one. "I have travelled and been pretty much a one man operation for most of my career and I think it'll continue to be that way". With his parting promise Wainwright sets off to do the only thing that has remained a constant in his life, strumming on guitars and playing shows.
Older Than My Old Man Now is out now on Proper Records.