By Brian Wise.
Richard Thompson has been widely acknowledged for decades as one of the world’s greatest guitarists. It’s a title that disguises the fact that he is also a brilliant songwriter and has been demonstrating that since the 1960s when he was in the seminal British folk rock group Fairport Convention. After he left that legendary outfit and released his debut solo album, Henry The Human Fly in 1972, Thompson made half a dozen mainly brilliant albums with his then wife Linda before their break up and the re-emergence of his solo career which has seen 16 or so album since 1982.
For years most of Thompson’s albums have received acclaim from critics and adulation from fans – who have included members of R.E.M. who appeared on the tribute album Beat The Retreat – but have not generated too much chart success. His songs were covered by Bonnie Raitt and many others and even Del McCoury brought new recognition to the classic ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’ with his bluegrass rendition.
Thompson was in danger of remaining the ‘world’s greatest unknown guitarist’ but a couple of years ago things changed dramatically. He won a Lifetime Achievement Award for his songwriting at the Americana Music Awards in 2012. Then he released the Buddy Miller-produced album Electric, recorded in Nashville. Last year he tour with Wilco and then released Acoustic Classics, re-workings of some of his best known songs. Initially intended for sale at his gigs it made the Top 10 of the albums chart in Britain. In a few months time Thompson’s new Jeff Tweedy-produced album is likely to get him even more attention.
At the age of 65, Richard Thompson has a higher profile than ever: his album sales are booming and demand for his performances is unprecedented. His only show in Melbourne sold out in hours. Not bad for an old bloke!
For his latest Australian tour Thompson is performing in trio format for the first time here. American and European have long been able to see him with a band but Australians have only seen him solo or with legendary bassist Danny Thompson (no relation).
I spoke to Thompson just prior to his Australian tour.
Can you tell us a little bit about the ensemble you’re bringing with you? You’ve played with them for a fair time, haven’t you?
Richard: Taras Prodaniuk on bass, Michael Jerome on drums. I’ve been playing with Michael now for maybe 15 years, Taras maybe 7 or 8 years and I love playing with those guys, and it’s a trio. We sort of laughably call it sort of a “folk power trio,” whatever that means. Sort of not that powerful.
Not quite like Cream.
Richard: Not quite like Cream. It’s like … your Cream meets Peter, Paul and Mary, or something. Sort of Soft Cream, Single Cream. Yes, it’s been fun, we’ve been working in the trio format for a few years now and it just offers so many possibilities – and we’re having a good time with it.
Well we’re certainly looking forward to seeing you in that format in Australia for the first time. Let me ask you about a few recent projects. Last year was incredibly productive for you but let’s talk about the Thompson Family album because that came out of the blue. What prompted it? Was it working on Teddy’s album?
Richard: It was really Teddy’s idea. I think Teddy had finished a record and he wasn’t quite sure what his next project was, so he thought it would be fun to do this. It was fun. It was great. You know, it’s just myself and my son Teddy, my other son Jack, my daughter Kami, Kami’s husband James, James’ brother Rob … Rob’s wife Brook and my grandson Zach. Did I mention him before? Okay. It’s hard to remember all ones kids and grandkids.
There’s basically seven of us onstage, and more on the record because Linda’s on the record as well, but she wasn’t able to perform live. It was a fun project. It was mostly done sending files backwards and forwards around the world but hopefully it turned out as a cohesive whole. We just finished some live shows. We did two shows in London before Christmas and we did three shows in New York just a couple of weeks ago. It’s been a really exciting project.
What was it like for you, as kind of the patriarch of the family almost, to be onstage with all these members of your family and recording with them?
Richard: Yes, I did feel very patriarchal. I feel very proud to have talented kids and I really don’t have to make excuses for them, they’re really great singers. They’re great songwriters. Fantastic instrumentalists, in some cases. It’s just a joy to play with them and I realised at one point … I’m standing onstage and I’m the oldest person onstage by, you know, at least 25 years. It could be 30 actually, a bit close to 30 years. No, 25. That was a bit of a shock, a bit of a fright.
Well I think your music has stood the test of time and people who attend your concerts are all ages. I mean, you appeal to a very wide cross section of ages, don’t you.
Richard: I hope so, yeah. It helps.
It’s a terrific album. Tell us about the song writing process for it, because that must’ve been an interesting process.
Richard: Well, you know, everybody is told, ‘Write two songs,’ or, ‘write one song,’ depending. I think I wrote two for the project. I wasn’t given any other brief really. Teddy wrote songs that are very about family, about family relationships. I was thinking it would be nice to write songs where everybody can sing. You can have a nice, big chorus on. That was really my intention. I think everyone has a different idea of what they wanted to do.
Now we mentioned that last year was prolific. You also released the Acoustic Classics album after the Electric album which was also very warmly received by critics and fans alike. What lead to that?
Richard: It was. Yes, that was surprising. I was originally intending that to be something to just sell at live shows. Something that you have on the merchandise table for people who maybe hadn’t seen a show before, since that was kind of a retrospective acoustic versions of some old stuff. What you might call ‘hits’ or ‘classics’ or something. I wasn’t really intending it to have a proper release, but the record company sort of jumped on it and said, ‘Look, we’d love to put it out.’ They did and in the UK it was in the Albums Chart at number nine, which is pretty good for an older folk-rock dinosaur like me.
Yes, you’re emulating Bob Dylan almost.
Richard: Hey! Me and Bob.
I notice that ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’, one of my favourite songs of all time, has recently been recorded by Robert Earle Keen. Of course Del McCoury recorded it. Last year I even heard young Robert Ellis doing a version of it in concert. It’s a song that’s travelled across a variety of genres, hasn’t it.
Richard: It has, yes. Well, you know, the Del McCoury version was a kind of bluegrass version. They changed Box Hill, which is in England, to Knoxville, which is in Tennessee. That seemed to give it a bit of a kickstart in the bluegrass world. It was like bluegrass song of the year and everything. It was quite strange. Since Del’s version, other people have done country versions, bluegrass versions, it’s become a bit of a standard … As you say, it’s travelled a long way.
It’s actually become a bit of a standard but you have to be a really good player to actually do it, don’t you? I mean it’s not just a song you can strum.
Richard: Well … I know a couple of people who just strum it and that’s okay with me.
Electric seemed to just capture the imagination of so many people. You must’ve been really pleased with the response to the album.
Richard: Yes. I think it turned out very well. We recorded it in Nashville, not that you’d necessarily know that. We recorded in a house, very sort of low key. I think it just turned out really well. I think sometimes on records that you have to get lucky. I was very happy with the way it turned out and people seem to like it.
I wanted to ask you about the choice of songs on Acoustic Classics. There are 14 songs. How did you narrow the list down of songs that you were going to do? Was it kind of a natural selection process? Was it easy?
Richard: I just tried to pick whatever I thought would be the most popular songs. You know, the most obvious things, really; because I thought originally this would be a record that would just be on the merchandise table. There wasn’t going to be a release for this. It was just going to be something that I sold at live shows, acoustic live shows. That would reflect some of the music I’d just played so that that was really the whole intention behind the selection process.
That’s taken from a fair range of your career, isn’t it? You sort of scanned your whole career, basically.
Richard: Pretty much, yeah. I think there’s stuff, there might be something on there that goes back to the ‘60s. Certainly there’s stuff from the ‘70s, and there’s nothing too recent, I don’t think either. Which is another of the intentions of the record really.
Are these favourites of your songs of yours to play? Are these the ones that you like playing most, or the ones that suited the record more?
Richard: I think they’re ones that suited the record more. I’m happy to play all of them, and I do. I play all these songs in concert all the time. I probably get more excited about playing something that’s brand new, you know? That’s just human nature, I think. I mean, I love all these songs. These are my precious children.
Can you talk about the response to some of them? Because these songs would have different responses from audiences. For example, we talked about ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’. A song like ‘Beeswing’, when I’ve seen you play that, it always has a really emotional response from the audience. Do you get that sense as well?
Richard: I do, yes. It is a kind of emotional song. I think people read into the song all different things. You know, some people see it as a romantic song, for other people it’s a song of … lost love, unachieved love. I get all kinds of responses to it. ‘Vincent Black Lightning’ is a song that some people know it, particularly when I play in America, through the Del McCoury version. People come through that way and they have a kind of different angle on it. People hear different things. I might intend something when I’m writing a song and people put their own spin on it. Which I think is a good thing. I think a good song should be open to different interpretations.
I’ve always found ‘Wall of Death’ to be a really inspiring song with a great message behind it.
Richard: ‘Wall of Death’ is………I suppose it’s almost a challenge to myself, actually. It’s a bit like a memo to myself to take more risks: to be on the edge, to not play safe – which isn’t a terrible thing if you have to sing a song a lot. It’s good to have a song that reminds you of things and pushes you to achieve more. That’s a nice thing to have on a nightly basis in a repertoire.
It says everything about life, really, doesn’t it? I mean you can play that to someone and say, ‘Have a listen to this. This is what life’s all about.
Richard: Well, it’s not everything about life, there’s a few things missing, you know. There’s a few aspects that I haven’t quite covered there.
Richard: Thank you……….love, death, politics, sex; I mean there’s a few things missing, but …
That’s all right.
Richard: We try. We try to get everything into every song.
Well if it’s a memo to you, it’s also a memo to other people, I reckon. That’s the purpose of the song, I think.
Richard: Well, you write basically first of all for your own satisfaction. You write them, you know, they’re something you like to sing and then, hopefully, they get to a point where you perform it to other people and they get something out of it. That’s the idea.
Do you get different responses to different songs depending where you play, whether you’re in America or the UK or Australia? Do the audience differ, or are they pretty much the same in their responses?
Richard: It’s a bit different. In the UK people have known me for longer. I’ve got fans that really go back to the ‘60s. From Fairport days, so … I get a slightly different response. Different songs are popular over there. In the States I didn’t really start doing the States until the ‘80s, so I have a slightly younger audience in America. Again, they have slightly different favourites and different expectations.
Australia is probably a mixture of those two. I’m playing in Japan next week and that’s a whole different thing where perhaps the lyrics have had less emphasis than the instrumental aspects of the music. That’s also true of some European countries where there’s a language issue. There’s slight differences from country to country but it’s not drastic.
You’ve been able to maintain a career into your mid-sixties, when other people have dropped by the wayside. It’s been a remarkable career in a way, hasn’t it? I mean you haven’t dropped off in your intensity or your productivity at all.
Richard: Well I don’t think you should. I don’t think there’s a reason to. I suppose there’s a time when popular music was considered to be a young person’s game and you got out by the age of 25 or something. The music, whatever you want to call it – rock or something, or folk-rock, or whatever – are really multi-generational forms of music now. They have a long history. I think people expect you to be creative longer. If you write your novels, you might not hit your stride till you’re 40 or something, which is the same if you’re a film director. I’m not sure why these days you should burn out at 25 or 30 as a popular musician. I think that model is kind of old now.
You’re audiences are probably as big or bigger than ever, aren’t they? Certainly the Electric album was probably your most successful album for quite a number of years. It seems like you’ve had this entirely new career over the last couple of years.
Richard: Yes, it seems to get better. I think. I still sell a lot of CDs, which is kind of strange. I mean physical CDs rather than downloads. Maybe that’s just because my audiences is unbelievably old or something. Certainly I’ve an increasing sort of market share of CDs, so that hasn’t really dropped off. As you say, audiences are bigger all the time, so perhaps just by me being stubborn and persevering, get to achieve a larger audience and a larger following.
Over the last couple of years you’ve branched out. You’re running a music camp called Frets and Refrains. Can you tell us just a little bit about that? What that’s all about?
Richard: Well yes, that’s so much fun. This is every summer, it’s July this year. It’s in Upstate New York very near Woodstock. Beautiful idyllic setting and we have wonderful teachers. We’ve had Shawn Colvin, my son Teddy Thompson teaching songwriting, my son teaching guitar. We bring about 110 people … We’ve pretty much sold out every year that we’ve done it. I think this is going to be our sixth year coming up. We just have so much fun with it, it’s great. It’s a great guitar and songwriting camp.
Do you enjoy doing it?
Richard: I love it! I absolutely love it. I have a great time. I think the teachers are very good but also it’s a kind of camp where everybody is of the same mind. You have 110, 120 guitar players and they’re all sitting around in circles and they’re all teaching each other. They’re all learning from their peers, which is great. We just have a super time doing it.
I can imagine there would be so many people who would approach you and ask you what your secret is, how you play. I suppose this is a way of formalising it, isn’t it?
Richard: Yes, and I think people realise pretty soon there isn’t a secret. Or the secret is that you just keep playing and keep practicing. You know, at camp I’m very available, really. To answer people’s questions, so it’s … yes, it’s a nice exchange.
I have to say one of the most enjoyable hours and educational hours I’ve ever spent was at the Country Music Hall of Fame a couple of years ago when you did that Q&A session.
Richard: Oh yes, that was interesting, wasn’t it. That was a lot of fun, yeah.
That was really fantastic and I was surprised because I’ve always thought you were a little bit reticent to do that sort of thing. I don’t know why I thought that – you’re not there pushing yourself forward. It was just a tremendous interaction with the audience that must’ve been enjoyable for you because you spend the entire hour talking about your music.
Richard: Well, yes. It’s nice to interact with the audience in that way. I had a fantastic time because I was backstage, because it was The Hall of Fame. They said, ‘Oh, do you want to see Chet Atkins’ guitar?’ ‘Do you want to see the Carter family’s stuff?’ I’m backstage and I’m just having a ball with all this stuff that they’ve got there. Like old records – you’ve got thousands and thousands of hit records by everybody. It was fun backstage and front stage.
Can I just ask you about one of the songs you talked about in that Q&A, which was going back in history – ‘Matty Groves.’ You did a fantastic little exposition about that song, which is obviously important to you and your career.
Richard: Yes. It’s a great song. It’s a song certainly dates from the 1600s, could be older than that. If you want to learn about songwriting, that’s one of the places you could go, because of the way it was written. It has wit, it has irony, it has very colourful use of language. If you studied songs like that, you couldn’t go wrong as a songwriter. You could really learn how to weave a tale, how to tell a story. It’s a beautiful song, there are many versions of that song, but I think the version that Fairport did actually is a very well honed version. I think every verse is very important and it tells an extraordinary story. I forget how many verses it is, it’s like 19 verses or something. They go by very fast, I’m happy to say.
The other night at the MusiCares Ceremony, Bob Dylan said very much the same thing about his learning songwriting: that he studied all these old songs for years and learnt them and went back into history. It sounds like you’re saying the same sort of thing – that you need to listen to this music and immerse yourself in it to learn the craft of the music.
Richard: I think that’s true. If that’s the kind of songwriter you want to be. I think that myself and Bob Dylan both wanted to be extensions of a tradition – modern interpreters of traditional music. If that’s they way you want to go, then it is important to study and the old songs are fantastic. Songs last hundreds of years and they’re fun orally and they’re handed down orally because they’re really good songs. That’s the real secret – and sometimes the bad verses get left out and sometimes people improve a line or two as it gets passed down through the generations. It really is a great place to learn the art and I agree with Bob.
Finally, what’s your next project, Richard? What are you going to be … I know you’re going to be here soon, you’re going to Japan, but are you going to go into … Have you been doing any recording, what’s next on the roster?
Richard: Well thank you for asking. Yes, we just finished recording, actually. We were up in Chicago a couple of weeks ago with Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, I’m sure you know him. He is producing a new record for us, which should come out in June. This is myself and the trio – the same trio that we’re bringing to Australia … and so that’s exciting. That’ll keep us busy the rest of this year. I’m working on a project for the Art Council in the UK commemorating World War I. This is for 2016, I’m doing a piece for them, so that’s another project. A few other things down the road, but nothing you need to worry yourself about.
I won’t. Is there a title for the new album yet?
Richard: Not quite. I think we’re still going backwards and forward a bit, so we’re very close. Don’t quite have it yet.
I suppose a few years ago Jeff Tweedy might’ve seemed an unusual choice, but not when you go back into his musical background and the fact that he’s recently produced Mavis Staples, et cetera. How did that come about?
Richard: We’ve worked with Jeff live. Last year we did a tour in the States with Wilco and they’re nice blokes. They’re very conscious of the roots of music. We think in a similar way about how to make records. So … I think it was a fairly easy, single-minded process.
Did he suggest it or did you suggest it?
Richard: It was mostly my suggestion.
Good suggestion, well done. Is it finished, is it actually finished, the album finished?
Richard: It’s finished, yes. We haven’t mixed it, but it’s recorded. It will get mixed … It’s going to have to be mixed while I’m in Australia, so I’ll be getting files from Chicago while I’m Down Under.
All new songs I presume?
Richard: All new songs, yes.
Fantastic. Are you happy with it?
Richard: Yes, I’m very happy with it, and some of these new songs we’ll be hopefully debuting for you in Australia.
Fantastic. Look forward to seeing you. Thanks, Richard.
Richard: Thanks Brian, thank you.