British guitarist/singer-songwriter extraordinaire Richard Thompson may be famously curmudgeonly in his songwriting, but he’s gracious and ready with a good chuckle and a funny quip when talking with him one-to-one. I found that out when I spoke with him recently about his new recording Still, working with Jeff Tweedy, the process of songwriting, and the differences between American and British audiences.
Thompson recently toured in promotion of his latest album before taking some time to rest up a bit. He’ll be back in the States in June to play a supporting role with Wilco’s concert at The Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philly before again heading back home. I had the distinct pleasure of seeing him live at The State Theatre in State College, Penn., a restored 1930s venue without a bad seat in the house.
Though the new album has Thompson playing acoustic and electric guitars with accompaniment by other musicians, his live tour was a solo acoustic affair for the most part. That was the case in State College where he presented a stripped down acoustic performance; just Richard by himself with his trusty Lowden acoustic L32C, a medium-bodied, cedar-topped single cutaway that is his Signature Series instrument of choice handmade in Ireland and accentuated with a mic. Of course, if you’ve ever heard Thompson live, you know that’s all it takes for the masterful guitarist and soulful singer to create a sonic tapestry of uncommon power and subtlety.
Thompson’s guitar playing is nothing short of sensational. His hybrid picking style – playing bass notes and rhythm with a pick between his index finger and thumb, and plucking melody on the treble strings with his free fingers – is, first off, just remarkable to see. But it’s the hearing, of course, that truly mesmerizes. There were times, I swear, when I entered some sort of disconcerting yet delicious state of utter aural disorientation, not really capable of understanding how Thompson was getting so much sound, so many notes, such rhythmic POWER & MAJESTY from just two hands on one guitar. I found myself scanning the stage for some other guitarist who must have come out to join him, surely, only time and again forced to acknowledge that it was, after all, just him and his Lowden – and without overlaid tracks. Good God!
Thompson’s tour song selection for the show ranged far and wide through the 40-plus albums he’s recorded but not, oddly enough, so much so for his new album. He opened with “Stony Ground,” went into “The Ghost of You Walks,” and then ramped it up with “Valerie.” Next he dipped deep into his career-long Celtic connections with “Johnny’s Far Away,” the traditional Gaelic folk music song, and had the audience singing the chorus along with him. And that was just the beginning of two hours of exceptional guitar work, solid singing, and great songs including “1952 Vincent Black Lightening,” “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Good Things Happen to Bad People,” “Need You at the Dimming of the Day,” “She Twists the Knife Again,” and, most memorable from the new album, the light-hearted “Beatnik Walking.”
It’s really quite remarkable that someone with a folk music foundation has received the kinds of accolades Richard Thompson has over the decades. He was named by Rolling Stone as one of the “Top 20 Guitarists of All Time,” by Sirius XM as one of the “101 Greatest Guitarists Of All Time,” and won Mojo’s Les Paul Award. He’s the recipient of Lifetime Achievement Awards by the Americana Music Association and by the British Broadcasting Corporation – the two together making a striking joint statement about Thompson’s adroit blending of musical cultures. If all that weren’t enough, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II appointed Thompson an Officer of the Order of the British Empire for his services to music in the 2011 New Year Honours List.
Did you have some kind of overarching idea of what you wanted this album to be?
This one developed more as a collection of songs rather than having a theme to it or something like that. Every record seems to turn out different, every batch of songs seems to turn out different without really having to think about it. So, it wasn’t really any special project but just the songs I had around at the time.
This is the first time you’ve recorded with Jeff Tweedy, right?
That was fun. We had a great time. He produced the record, which we recorded at his loft in Chicago. It’s where Wilco stores all their gear, their guitars and stuff, and in a corner of that space is the studio. So, it’s a little different from most studios.
Some records I self-produce, sometimes I bring in a producer. You can get tired of your own decisions. You can find yourself too predictable. It’s nice to bring somebody in and Jeff’s somebody I admire a lot and I trust his opinions. He was great to work with.
It’s always wrong to assume everything a songwriter writes is autobiographical, especially with you, but it’s not hard to imagine that a good bit of this album is.
There’s quite a lot of autobiographical songs on Still, which is unusual for me. I usually try to write songs with stories that aren’t so personal to me but this time, I absolutely did (get personal). As you get older, you get a different perspective on things and I think a lot of that is going on with this record. It’s a different take on a lot of things I used to take for granted.
“No Peace, No End” really rocks but it’s certainly a bleak and biting commentary on the state of the world today. Do world affairs today make you feel that way sometimes?
It could be applied to so many different parts of the world now. There are so many areas of conflict, so many refugees, so many crises. It’s extraordinary how the world has become such a hostile place in the last 10 or 15 years. And certainly when you’re writing songs you have a duty almost to reflect the circumstances of the age you live in. So that should be a thread for songwriters.
So have you met a lot of people like “Long John Silver”?
Yeah, you know there are a lot of snakes or sharks, you might call them (chuckling). This was about someone who bitched me up (laughs). You know, someone else may end up with the money but a songwriter always gets the last word.
Would you divulge just who that was?
No, I don’t want to do that. I’ll leave it as is.
On the other end of the spectrum you have a jangly, upbeat happy-go-lucky tune that celebrates Amsterdam.
“Beatnik Blues” looks back on a three-week tour I did in Holland maybe 20 years ago. You’d think that long a tour would be impossible in such a small country but I managed to do it. We stayed in Amsterdam every day and commuted to the concert venue. But every morning I’d have free time in Amsterdam. My wife and I would stroll around the canal. I believe it was September or October, the weather was great. I had such a good time. The song gives a little flavor of that wonderful time. This is me being very autobiographical.
You close out the album with “Guitar Heroes” which has you referencing five great guitarists in both your lyrics and your licks. Are those among your favorite guitarists?
Yes, certainly among. But I might have too many guitar heroes to jam into a song under six hours so I had to be selective. Certainly, though, Django Reinhardt, Les Paul, these were players I was listening to as a kid and they absolutely were my earliest musical instructors. Then there was Chuck Berry, James Burton, Hank Marvin of The Shadows. I’m playing tribute here to musicians I owe a great debt to.
Do you consider yourself more a songwriter or a guitarist? Or is it even possible to pull those apart?
I like to think of myself as being a package. To me, everything revolves around song. That for me is the most interesting thing, the most exciting thing. So, I love to write songs, then I love to sing them, then I love to play guitar for them. What doesn’t interest me is just playing instrumental pieces or, you know, the kind of thing where I’m just showing off. I really like the guitar work to be an integral part of a song and to further the narrative of the song. So, I like to think of it as all one thing with the song at the center.
What can you say about your songwriting process? Any particular blueprint? Do you start out with words or do you start out with music?
I can go either way. I think songs that start out with words end up a little differently than songs that start out with music so it’s nice to have both means of access to the process. I don’t have a real set way of working so just getting started is probably the hardest thing. And who knows where ideas come from. You know, you cast around for ideas in your own life and the lives of your friends. You see what you read in the paper – politics, social injustice, that kind of thing – and songs kind of suggest themselves. It’s a laborious process. Sometimes you beat your head against the wall for days and then suddenly ideas just pop up. It’s very unpredictable but the more you practice at it the better you get.
Do you find much of a difference between audiences in Great Britain, say, or Europe in general than here in the States? Do they respond differently?
Yea! American audiences are more lively than European audiences on the whole. I mean, it’s not a hard-and-fast rule but for the most part true. I think Americans like the idea of going out in a group and enjoying themselves. They want you to feel that, to know that they are there having a good time. They do what they can by way of encouragement to make sure the evening’s a success. British audiences are more inclined to wait and see what happens. They’ll kind of test you for a while. And then they might go crazy at the end. Some British audiences are a little more cynical. If you fall flat on your face, for them that’s just a different kind of entertainment (laughs). They’d be quite happy to see that as well. That would be an amusing evening out to see it be a total disaster.
But you know, Swedish audiences are also very reserved. Japanese are very reserved. I love playing in North America because the audiences are great.
Thank you for taking this time with me, Richard, and thanks also for all the great music.
Thank you, Wayne.
Photos by Vincent Dixon