Interview by John Wisniewski, with Jason Gross
"British folk music" not English folk music, is what we're talking about here, as eminent singer Linda Thompson (who was a vital part of the scene) puts it. Starting out in the ad world in the '60s, she became immersed in folk and entered the orbit of Fairport Convention, collaborating with them and then becoming musically (and romantically) involved with Richard Thompson, putting out some of the finest folk-rock albums of the 70's together. Though her career has spanned decades after that, with some information about an upcoming album below, here she talks about her '60's and '70's recording career, covering the same period as Richard's recent book, Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975. Hopefully, this makes the case that Linda herself should have a book out to tell her story in even more detail, dry and deprecating humor and all
PSF: You had grown up in London and then Glasgow. What was that area like in the 1950s? What kind of lasting impression do you think it made on you?
LT: I was born in London. Moved to Glasgow around 6 years old.
Glasgow shaped me, in more ways than one (We ate a lot of Scotch pies). It is, like London, a port town. Port towns have a reputation for being rough and ready, as there's a transitory feel about them. Glasgow is also an extremely tough town. You learn how to look after yourself. The people are witty and arch! You have to give as good as you get or you're scuppered.
The men in my mum's family were shipbuilders on The Clyde [river]. A hard job, that. The women would go to the docks on a Friday afternoon to meet their men. The men would hand over their pay packets, and their wives would give them back some pocket money. Of course, occasionally some of the men jumped the fence at work, and the wives didn't get any money that week. The '50's was a funny old era. There was, I guess, some post-war posterity, but not in Glasgow Council Estates. I didn't know any different, and I enjoyed the sing-alongs that happened in everybody's houses. Scottish education was superb in those days too, so I learned a lot.
PSF: What kind of music were you listening to and enjoying before you yourself became a musician?
LT: We listened to a lot of country music in my house. Patsy Cline. Hank Williams. That sort of thing. Brilliant musicians all. Hank Williams is still the sine qua non of songwriters. I loved Ray Charles too. I was particularly struck by his utterly amazing voice. I adored Oscar Peterson for some reason.
Then sometime in the '50s came Elvis. Pre-army genius Elvis. That was me, a goner!
PSF: You mentioned how explosive the arrival of Elvis was for you as a youth. Could you talk about that more? How did it affect you as something different and exciting that you hadn't heard before?
LT: I think the thing about Elvis was the energy and the fact that he did not sound like a white boy. Being drop dead gorgeous didn't hurt.
PSF: You recorded some early singles with Paul McNeill. Could you tell us about them?
LT: Can't tell you much about singles with Paul. Don't remember. I did quite a lot of studio work when I was young. They handed me a song, I sang it.
We covered a Dylan song. "You Ain't Going Nowhere," that was a pretty prophetic title for our musical and romantic life.
PSF: It might be a strange thing to ask, but you were also recording advertisements early on. I was just wondering if that might have made any impression on you in your work?
LT: Your question about singing jingles and how it affected my work is a very good one.
The positive aspects were: I learned very. very quickly. I don't read music, so I had to memorize things after one hearing. The negative aspects were: the money was extremely good, and the work was in London, so it made one lazy.
PSF: Before you yourself became an important part of the English folk scene, what were your impressions of English folk music? Obviously it had an effect on you, but could you describe what you found so compelling about it early on?
LT: Not English folk music. British folk music. Especially Scottish music, as I grew up in Scotland. We learned some rather boring folk music in school, then I discovered Scottish folk ballads and things like Hebridean mouth music. I took to it immediately. Quite dark and compelling.
PSF: Going back and forward a bit-you converted to Islam during the '70s, but I was wondering about how religion figured into your life before that, at a younger age?
LT: Good question. I was always a bit obsessed with religion. I had a Catholic phase. In those days, Mass was in Latin, there was lots of Churchy descanty music. Heady incense. I just loved the bells and smells.
A fascination with Judaism was next. I learned Hebrew songs, only went out with Jewish boys. Next was my atheist phrase. Still in it.
PSF: As you became part of the folk scene, what were your impressions of Fairport Convention and the band members when you first heard them and when you met them? Also, was it really a tight-knit group of people involved in the scene, as has been described otherwise?
LT: I wasn't aware of Fairport at all. I was more into trad music. I got interested when Sandy [Denny] joined. She took them to another realm. Introduced them to folk music, and the rest is history.
PSF: Could you talk about the record with the folk group The Bunch called Rock On? How did that come together and was the recording session for that album like?
LT: The Rock On record was made at the first live in Studio ever. I think it was the first. Virgin owned it. We were all in our early 20's, so usual studio romances and such occurred. Making it was fun.
PSF: You and Richard were a couple of course but could you talk about how the two of you bonded musically early on so that you wanted to play and record together?
LT: As to Richard and I bonding musically, we were both half Scottish, and we liked the same performers, either rock, folk or country. We read the same books too. We still do.
PSF: I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight is still a beloved album today but at the time, it was rushed through to put it out. What were the recording sessions for that like?
LT: Bright Lights was done quickly. Cost two grand to make I think. Released to a distinct lack of enthusiasm. It's still selling, so ha ha.
PSF: Could you talk a bit about your conversion to Islam? A lot to unpack there, including living on the commune, the trip to Mecca, but also what was your thinking that led you to that path?
LT: Conversion to Islam: someone takes your hand, and you repeat that you want to be a Muslim. It's about as well thought out as saying "I divorce you" three times! Being a Muslim woman was a tough gig. I bought into the patriarchy myth. Richard's subsequent wives have been Protestant and Jewish respectively. He would never take up with a Muslim woman now. Very smart too. The guy who ran the commune was one of those nutty cult leaders. He just died. I didn't cry!
Glad I went to Mecca and Medina. What an experience.
PSF: A few questions about Hokey Pokey:
-The album took a while to come out after it was recorded. Why was that?
-How was the recording for this album different than that for I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight?
-Did you and Richard see yourselves as stretching the whole concept of British folk?
-Did you see anything autobiographical in those songs?
LT: I think the record company didn't know where to place Hokey Pokey, and who can blame them?
I remember very little about the recording of the album.
Songs are usually autobiographical, especially Richard's songs. My only criterion is: are they good? I thought they were good.
It would be megalomaniacal to think we could change the face of anything. We never gave boundaries a thought.
PSF: Around that time, you and Richard toured as a trio with Simon Nicol in small clubs. What was that like? What were the crowds like?
LT: I liked touring with Simon. He drank. We didn't, so he was less boring than we were. He's also a phenomenal guitar player. Crowds were folk club crowds. Usually very responsive.
PSF: For Pour Down Like Silver, the background story seemed to be that you were being pushed and pulled by the label and the Muslim group, where the former wanted new music but the latter didn't want you to record. How did that play out?
LT: I stayed out of the fighting, music biz or musical. Like all our albums, there are good things and not so good on Pour Down Like Silver.
PSF: How do you think that album compared to Hokey Pokey or Bright Lights?
LT: I could never say anything we did was good-not really my style.
PSF: Wait, did you mean to say "good or bad," or did you really mean that nothing that you and Richard did was good (which I would disagree with!)?
LT: Just being modest. Those records are terrific. Ha.
PSF: After Silver, you took a break for a few years from doing music. Why did you make that decision, and what did you do during that time?
LT: I don't rightly know what Richard did. Lots of praying with the other men. I got pregnant a few times and cooked for the community. Kitchens now give me the horrors. Ha.
PSF: Is there anything that you'd like to say about your current activities?
LT: I am in the middle of doing a record with other singers singing either my songs or songs I co-wrote. Rufus [Wainwright] does a song. The Rails. The Proclaimers. Teddy [Thompson] and some others are singing the songs. So far, so good. Teddy producing mostly, with input from me if I remember to show up to the studio. It's not at all bad, actually.
Also see our Richard Thompson interview and our Richard Thompson tribute article
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