Loudon Wainwright III was in no mood for an interview. Perhaps it was because he'd been dropped from his contract with Virgin Records or perhaps it was because he just signed a multi-album deal with Hannibal/Rykodisc.
Sounding much the character he sings about in "Mr. Ambivalent" from his 16th album, "Little Ship" (Charisma/Virgin), a mature, memorable collection, Wainwright disgorged little answers with painful patience when asked about his life and his music.
As captain of this ship, Wainwright relies on a Freda Khalo-like stock in trade, often using himself as the subject for this series of 15 musical portraits. Among the passengers on "Little Ship," Wainwright, a sometimes-humorous sometimes-sarcastic writer, continues to uses his children (from marriages to singers Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roach), Martha and the now hugely popular DreamWorks recording artist Rufus Wainwright, as subjects.
Rufus Wainwright has earned the lion's share of his father's literary attention, and since birth has been the subject of such songs as "Dilated To Meet You," and "Rufus Is A Tit Man." The latter gained unintended irony in light of Rufus' recent announcement at the GLADD awards: "I will be the gayest gay person ever."
On "Little Ships" Wainwright also uses his (late) parents as characters in carefully distilled autobiographical reflections.
"What else could I write about, really?" asked Wainwright uncomfortably. "I suppose I could make up things, but ... I write about aging and being a parent. That's what's going on in my little cheesy life."
Influenced as much by the American musical theater of Rogers & Hammerstein as by Bob Dylan, Wainwright, whose strong suit is in his lyrics, finds that he is evermore connected, in style, to the work his father, noted Life Magazine columnist, Loudon S. Wainwright Jr. The topic is dealt with on "Little Ship" in "OGM" and comes up again on "Four Mirrors."
"My father wrote about anything he wanted to. He wrote personal family things -- the house burning down, the dog dying and finding old pictures of his parents. And he wrote about astronauts, the Vietnam War and things that were newsworthy at the time. He has a massive influence on me. (Like him) I use description a lot and specifics and tell little stories," said Wainwright.
Wainwright also finds fun and profits writing topical novelty songs, a compilation of which are the focuses of his upcoming release, "Social Studies," due July 13. Capped by the single "Y2K" with a guest appearance from jazz-guitar god John Scofield, the "Social Studies" are drawn from a career that began, almost by accident in 1973 with Wainwright's sole hit "Dead Skunk." Wainwright confesses, "I've continued to come up with parodies and political pot shots. I will go to any length to get a laugh -- no matter how cheap."
In the last eight years Wainwright estimates he's churned out 20 such topical commissions for NPR and ABC News including album cuts "Our Boy Bill" that satirizes Clinton's sexual hijinks and a poke at a grouchy senator in "Jesse Don't Like It."
"Some of those are some of the best songs I've written. The Tanya Harding song ("Tanya's Twirls") still has some resonance and gets good laughs. Others, like 'O.J.,' have a limited shelf life."
Belying that comment, Wainwright continues to pop up all over the map in a variety of projects. Sony Legacy recently reissued his second album, "Attempted Moustache" (1973), and the half studio/half live "Unrequited" (1975). He is also heard on several tracks on the McGarrigle Sisters latest Ryko release The McGarrigle Hour with ex-wife Kate, Rufus and Martha. There's a Wainwright appearance on the multi-artist compilation "Fish, Tree, Water" dedicated to raising awareness and funds for the environment; a co-songwriting credit on British singing sensation Robbie Williams' album for "Jesus In A Camper Van", and there's a forthcoming singing and acting gig in the next Sandra Bullock film "28 Day."
Yet, when asked about the creative process Wainwright had little to say offering only a few, feeble anecdotes about having to stop repeatedly while recording for noise coming from the floor above. "I can't think of anything really. I have no overview," Wainwright said. "I'm kind of active in the middle of it trying to get through this tour and write the next song."