Interview by Jason GrossNowadays, it seems almost embarrassing to have to explain who Richard Thompson is. If he was just known for his work with Fairport Convention, he would still be a musical big shot but his solo career (spanning almost 30 years now) has actually been even more impressive, marking him as a triple threat: a stunning, unique guitarist plus a gifted songwriter and under-rated singer to boot. It's no exaggeration to say that a guy who's had a tribute album featuring R.E.M., David Byrne, Los Lobos and Bonnie Raitt among other is likely the envy of his peers, whether they'd like to admit it or not. Never a guy to take the easy route with his career, his latest album, Dream Attic (on Shout! Factory), consists of new material that he tried on a series of audiences on the West Coast.
Special thanks to Fred Mills and Blurt magazine
Q: Your new record is a live album with new material. Are you ever self conscious about trying new material on crowds (wonder how it'll go over)
I think always. Yeah. I think... I think that can be very revelatory. Sometimes though the audience doesn't understand it, doesn't get it, doesn't respond to it. I think you really have to test a song in front of an audience, if you can. And you never know...
Q: You have a knack for creating good satire pieces, like "Money Shuffle" on the new record- thoughts on getting it right (not too silly but still biting). How do you find a balance for that?
I'm not sure there's an exact formula for that. Uh... I don't know. As you say, it's kind of balancing act between humor and cutting edge... I suppose you just have to feel for it and hope for the best. I can't say how can easily come together a formula.
Q: Do you have any role models of other artists who do that well and guide you through the process?
(pauses) I think in songwriting and in poetry, you can find role models for that kind of thing. For singer-songwriters, Randy Newman is extremely good at that kind of really biting satire. There's some Dylan stuff and some Richard Farina stuff. And to go back into poetry, someone like (Robert) Burns is fantastic at that.
Q: You also have a knack for creating unique characters- like "Here Comes Geordie" on the new record. How do you craft their worlds, and do you put yourself in there?
I think generally speaking, when you're writing a song in the first person, you are trying to get into the head of somebody else. Sometimes (it's) a fictional character. Sometimes fictional characters are based on other people. You know, "Here Comes Geordie" is based on a real human being so it just becomes easy to satirize that person's shortcomings (ED NOTE: The Guardian claims that Sting is the subject of that song). But every time you're using the first person in a song, so you sing through their eyes, I think you really have to get as full a characterization as you can in two and a half minutes.
Q: When you do this kind of writing, do you have any literally or musical role models that influence or inspire you?
Yeah, I mean, lots of them really. I think you can take things from cinema as well because it's a very cinematic technique... Because you only have three verses, you have to soft cut sometimes in the narrative- that's a very kind of 20th century technique. Lots of writers, yeah... Lots of prose writers do that kind of thing. Gosh... lots! (laughs) It's just a question of where to start!
Q: How do you decide when a track should have an extended instrumental section (like "Sidney Wells" on the new record)
"Sidney Wells" is sort of a high energy piece of music. I think the narrative needs to be broken up, not so much for the sake of the narrative itself but for the sake of the singer who needs a rest occasionally because the words are coming quite fast. You know, it's hard to breath. Some instrumental space is very handy. And I think at the end, I think it feels like it needs to continue the emotions of the song a bit longer. It feels like it doesn't want to stop quite there, that it wants to instrumentally keep exploding the emotional aspect of the song, so that's pretty much what happens. And I don't know how long the song ended up being...
Q: Yeah, it is kind of extended but I think it works well.
Q: There's some great solos on the album (i.e. last track, "If Love Whispers Your Name"). How do you plot out solos?
I suppose if you have time... (laughs) you might think about the underlying chord sequence of the solo. You might store some ideas in your copious spare time, just to see what the possibilities are! When it comes to actually playing the solo, I think you have that kind of information embedded and you just kind of shovel that out of your conscious mind and just explore and just see where it takes you. (For that song), that's a particularly nice chord sequence to solo over- it's a little unusual. I think it takes you to different places really. It's an enjoyable experience.
Q: Do you practice guitar when you're not touring or recording?
YEAH! You have to practice, yeah. Yes, absolutely. Lots, lots...
Q: Do you think that your guitar playing has changed over the years?
Well, I hope so. I think it has. I know more about harmony for a start. I think my technique's a little better in some areas. And I think as you get older, your playing changes in some ways. Hopefully, you don't loose too much fire from your youth but you certainly gain some insights. So it should change, it should evolve a little bit.
Q: When you write, do the words or the music come first?
I find it really happens either way and I couldn't say that one predominates the other. Some songs start words first, some songs start tunes first... Some songs, it kind of all comes at once, which is really, really lucky.
Q: Do you find that one way might be easier to work with than the other?
I think it's probably easier to start lyrics first. And that tends to be different kind of song and that isn't always a successful kind of song. If you've got a tune looking for words, I think that can be a longer process. It depends. It's really hard to make sort of a hard and fast claim in any area where every song can be a different experience.
Q: Do you ever feel that you're competing against your own catalog of songs with your new work?
Yes, and I think that's probably a good thing... because you might stop trying to repeat yourself. If it's things you've already tried, if you're honest, you'll say 'well, I've done that. I have to look for something different.' Also, if you're honest, every album should become harder because there are more and more things that you've already done that are behind you, and you have to keep finding new areas.
Q: Do you find yourself composing songs with your band in mind (instrumentation, their individual techniques)?
Yes, absolutely. Not all songs but some songs... I think that could be a source of inspiration. Sometime you need a few ideas to get the creative process rolling so if you say 'it would be really great to have a band song... it would be great if it was in the key of G... it would be fantastic if it was fairly up-tempo, 4/4 and featured the bass." When you're half-way through writing a song, it's a great motivator.
Q: Do you have any thoughts on downloading/making a living today as musicians find it harder or harder to get by with album sales?
Yes, it is tough to make a living. Yes, the digital age is destroying the livelihood of most musicians. (laughs) You're sort of chuckling too... One has to laugh.
Q: Didn't mean to be callous about it.
(laughs) Well, for old farts like me, it probably isn't as bad for young artists trying to break through into the music business where you don't have the financial backing of a record company or a patron. You have to try and get your music out there, try and get people to hear it. It's very, very tough. I don't think the present model is sustainable. Something will have to change somehow. They're going to have to find a way to protect intellectual property somehow or... there's going to be a lot less musicians earning a living.
Q: You have a good website that offers a lot of your material, fan club items and special offers. Is that part of your strategy nowadays?
Yes. It's been part of the strategy for the last 10 years. And I suppose the Internet is a fantastic way to connect with the audience, for you to find the audience. And at the same time, the fans will let you know the kind of music they like to hear. You know, they say 'we'd love to hear more live recordings,' so it's easy to satisfy the demand there through releasing like that. So it's so dramatic... As much as I curse the digital age, it has great advantages as well.
Q: Do you find any new wisdom or new perspective with your Fairport material or early solo material when you play it now?
Yeah, I think always. It's a funny thing and perhaps it's unique to singer/songwriters, in you're constantly revisiting your own work at all periods as it were. So you might have written a song when you were 18 and here you are, age 60, and you're at a concert and someone shouts out 'hey, play that song from 1967.' And you play it and it's a strange thing to be still singing that song. If you're a painter, you might have painted something when you were 18 and sold it and it's gone off to South America and you'll never see it again. That's also a strange thing. It is unusual to keep revisiting all these periods of your past. And sometimes you have to say 'this is an immature song but I kind of forgive myself for writing it. I know there's flaws in it but I'll sing it anyway and I'll try and find new things in it.' And I think with songs from the '60's, there's certainly stuff that I wrote that are quite ambiguous. It was an age when you could write fairly ambiguous stuff. (laughs) Because of the ambiguity, you can find different things in the lyrics that you can connect even as a more mature person. (drolly) Ha, ha, ha...
Q: Do you think about where you are now in your career, looking at the scope of things?
Well, only if I really have to. Only if people ask me. I know that there's all that other stuff that has gone past but I think that's more for other people's interest. As I was saying, as a writer, you write a body of work that's kind of yours. You keep revisiting that and that's kind of OK. But I'm not thinking on this 'grand scheme' idea.
Q: What kind of grand/ambitious plans do you still have?
Well, nothing too grand, nothing too ambitious... Something I'm doing in November, which is a little different is I'm performing the New London Consort, which is a group of early musicians. We're going to be performing Elizabethan ballads. So that's a little different. We don't have plans to record it... I may be recorded. And I have couple of other larger projects, sort of longer pieces of music, which I really can't discuss right now.
Q: Have you ever thought about writing a book about your career?
I don't think my career's that interesting really... once you get past the scandals, it's all a bit boring. (laughs)
Q: Maybe you could write about your thoughts and observations.
There's all sorts of things. I don't know. There's a couple of things that I might write about music, on the subject of music, which I think might be interesting. Of course they might not be books. They might be short books.
Also see our Richard Thompson tribute article
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