Loudon Wainwright III has lived more than half of his 69 years, it's fair to say, in the shadow of his family. He burst onto the music scene of the early '70s carrying an acoustic guitar and a crest of creativity: his father was a longtime columnist for Life magazine. And his relationships in the '70s and '80s with Kate McGarrigle and Suzzy Roche, themselves singer-songwriters, produced three more musicians. One of them, Rufus Wainwright, arguably has eclipsed his father's fame.
"Fathers and sons and mothers and daughters and parents and children are, by virtue of their relationship, there is an element of competition," says Wainwright from his home in New York City. "That starts with Oedipus Rex. I mean, that's an old idea."
But Wainwright is now channeling not a competitive spirit, but a desire for a posthumous collaboration. In the one-man show "Surviving Twin," which premiered this summer in New York, Wainwright blended excerpts of his father's essays with his own autobiographical songwriting.
Throughout Wainwright's career, a fan could learn from his latest record where he was in life: whether he was married or divorced, had had a new baby or a death in the family. And, like a memoirist, Wainwright has had to reconcile the needs for privacy and truth.
"There's a lot more revealing going on these days than there used to be when I was a kid, certainly," he says. "And some of it I think is gratuitous. I think that – I like to think, anyway, that – my songs, which are personal, and which include or even feature family members, are not gratuitous. They're about real issues that people, that everybody's dealing with.
"If a song is good, and if it deals with one of these issues, then I’ll sing it, or I'll put it on a record, and damn the torpedoes. And there are some torpedoes!"
Those "torpedoes" now can include apparent salvos fired by his own kids, on their own records. One song by Wainwright's daughter Martha – whose title can't be uttered on the public airwaves – was inspired by his parenting style, as was the bitterly angry song "Dinner at Eight" by Wainwright's son Rufus.
Wainwright says, "My theory is that people like to be written about, like to be paid attention to. If the songs are good, it feels great. They're writing about their lives and doing a good job at it, so I'm happy to be a character in their songs!"
Wainwright's own songwriting hasn't flagged – last year's studio album, "Haven't Got the Blues (Yet)," was his 26th in 45 years – but he says his craft doesn't come any more easily than it used to.
"It probably comes a little more infrequently," says Wainwright. "It's a bit like sex in that regard. When it happens, it's very exciting and wonderful, it just doesn't happen as much as it used to! It's a mysterious thing, you know. When a good one comes along, I'm still mystified as to how it happened, and where it came from, but I'm extraordinarily grateful when it does happen, and I’m always hoping for another one."