Richard Thompson is one of those rare musicians who has found something interesting to bring to a variety of settings, from the folk-rocking outfit Fairport Convention to his duo with his former wife, Linda, to his long and fruitful, alternately plugged-in and unplugged run as front man. His new album, Electric, is the fruit of his paring down his usual quintet down to a power trio and holing up in Buddy Miller’s home studio in Nashville.
Best of all — for Thompson’s audience and his interviewer — he’s a folk singer, songwriter and guitarist who has not only a sense of history but a robust sense of humor.
CMT Edge: Artists generally seem to find it a pain to come up with concise descriptions of their latest projects, but you’ve seemed to have fun with it, tossing off phrases like “wimp trio” and “‘70s Celtic funk.”
Thompson: It’s hard to describe, really. I’ve made several facetious descriptions of what the sound should be. Hopefully, it’s just its own thing. That’s what you hope for.
The phrase “‘70s Celtic funk” got me thinking, though, that besides the more obvious departure on this album — the fact that it’s driven by a plugged-in power trio — the R&B part of the equation is something that hasn’t surfaced a ton in your body of work.
Yeah. It’s just something that happened with this particular group of musicians, myself and [bassist] Taras [Prodaniuk] and [drummer] Michael [Jerome], when we play together. It definitely just seems to kind of emerge. We just have fun playing probably more grooves than I’ve played before. It’s really not very Celtic to play grooves or just think in a groove sense. So that’s probably an element in there that makes it lean in a certain direction.
You can really feel it in a track like “Stuck on the Treadmill.”
That’s a track that I think it sort of took me by surprise, in a sense, that we came up with this arrangement and this kind of sound. When we were recording it and I heard the playback, I thought, “Wow, that’s actually quite funky.” (laughs) You know, for English suburban folkies.
In your days with Fairport Convention, a lot of your peers were eating up American R&B, but that wasn’t the route you chose to pursue.
Yeah, at the time everybody was playing blues or R&B — every single group in London, anyway. Everybody was playing blues or soul music basically. Instead, we really wanted to be different, rootsy in a more British way.
It wasn’t like you were hurting for a folk music tradition to work with.
Yes, good point. But the fact is so much of British folk music had been neglected — since the late 1800s probably. When the gramophone came in, it kind of submerged the local folk music. … And it wasn’t really until the ‘50s and ‘60s that there was a serious folk revival, a rediscovery of the roots of British music.
Since you committed yourself to indigenous music all those years ago, is it in any way gratifying that you’ve gone on to write so many songs that have been embraced by American roots artists, recorded by everybody from Alison Krauss to Del McCoury, Patty Loveless and Linda Ronstadt and that you were given an Americana lifetime achievement award last year?
It’s great, yeah. I think sometimes we forget that it’s kind of a narrow divide between Celtic music and Appalachian music. Obviously, the Scots and the Irish came over and they settled in the Appalachians, and that became the roots of old-timey music and then country music. Melodically, it’s very similar. Thematically, it’s very similar. Perhaps it’s a short step for someone to take a song of mine and turn it into more of a country song.
Sometimes you’re given more credit for the dark strains in your songwriting than you are for your wicked wit. Really, both elements are present, including in a lot of the songs on here.
I’m glad you noticed!
I heard it in “Stony Ground,” “Sally B” and a lot of other songs. That said, why do you think music with ties to folk tradition has developed a latter day reputation for being so very unfunny?
Well, it beats me. Some people have no sense of irony. People sometimes just believe what you say, not realizing that you’re saying the opposite of what you mean. (laughs) But that kind of wit goes right back into folk tradition. The Scots and Irish songs are incredibly witty in a very sort of ironical way. It goes back to the 1500s and 1600s. You find these amazing lyrics where they’re so cutting because of the skill in the use of irony. I’m just trying to pick up on that tradition and continue the good work.
One of the songs I just mentioned, “Stony Ground,” also got me thinking about how folk music is thought of as lacking in sexuality and sensuality. That’s not true to history, but that’s the idea now.
The songs that people are writing now, perhaps they lack that. Certainly in folk music, in traditional music, God, it’s all about sex.
There are some dirty old folk songs.
Oh, absolutely. What happened was that the Victorians went in and cleaned them up, so that kids could sing them in school. Obviously, if you’re going to teach school kids, they can’t be singing these incredibly bawdy songs in class. So that happened. It took a couple of generations after that for people to remember and rediscover the more titillating qualities of some of these songs. Sex and all that sort of stuff — that should absolutely be an important part of a song. Listen to, like, 67 percent of blues songs. There’s some heavy, um, metaphors.
What is it that makes songs like “Another Small Thing in Her Favor” or “Sally B” feel so contemporary and also feel so tangibly related to tradition?
You have to love the tradition that you come from or the tradition that you decide to latch onto. I mean, these days, more and more people learn music from an iPod. You can grab music from anything anywhere in the world. But I think it’s important to embrace the music of where you come from, and I come from English and Scottish traditional music. That’s where you start, and that’s the basis of what you do. Once you have a firm foundation in that, then you can go anywhere. You can be as contemporary as you like. You can bring other elements into your style. It’s still built on this firm foundation that gives your music its own unique characteristics. I write contemporary songs because I live in the contemporary world, and I write about what I see and what I do. But the roots are still there.
When you first began performing as a solo artist after years in a band and then a duo, how did you arrive at who you wanted to be when you carried the entire show by yourself onstage?
Well, it’s interesting. You stand up onstage, and I think you react. You start performing, and as you’re performing, you’re realizing what’s missing. You realize what you lack as a vocalist or what your material lacks sometimes. It kind of becomes obvious. When you start playing in front of people, you start to hear your music through their ears, and that can be a very disturbing thing certainly.
Performing solo, you have no one else to rely on. So I tried to develop a guitar style where I could be more orchestral. I could play fuller parts in different tunings, just to get a bigger sound out of the guitar. I also had to develop more of a stage persona that wasn’t necessarily me because I’m a fairly shy, retiring person. I found myself onstage and realizing that I had to kind of attack the audience a bit more. I had to kind of reach out and be a bit more proactive in the stage process. So I started to sort of shout at the audience and berate the audience and tell jokes and kind of be this other person as a survival mechanism. … I certainly had to go that direction to have people listen to the content of the songs, for people to stay with you for an hour or an hour and a-half.
Your longevity would indicate that it’s worked out pretty well for you.
I hope so. I have a very loyal audience. They’re just fantastic. They’re wonderful people. In some cases, people have kind of been with me for 45 years, which is incredible really, through thick and thin. It’s great to have fans like that.
A dedicated, long-term fan base can be a demanding fan base with very rigid expectations. How is it that you can make an album differently, as you’ve done with Electric, and know that it’ll go over, and they won’t be upset by you changing things up?
You have to educate the audience as you go, I suppose. If you give audiences everything that they want, then you’re going to stand still and you’re going to be playing the hits forever — the same songs. An audience is basically a conservative body. An audience wants to hear something it already knows. So if you never give the audience exactly what they want, if you play some of the stuff that you want to play, some things that stretch the audience and drag the audience forward into the future, then they might get used to that. They might then come to a concert thinking, “Well, where’s the new stuff? Where’s the stuff that’s gonna challenge me?” You can kind of slowly educate the audience. Then the audience will start to challenge you back. Then you have a wonderful situation where you’re kind of pulling each other forward into the future.