It’s difficult to write about British singer/guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson. This one unassuming guy has steadily, without much fanfare, participated in the making of dozens of amazing albums — first with Fairport Convention in the late ’60s, then with his ex-wife Linda in the ’70s and ’80s, and also on his own since the early ’70s. He is easily one of my favorite songwriters of all time, so I could get lost in either fanboy-speak or fake objective rockist language. So for all of our sakes I’ll shut up now and say that his music is great and you might like it.
Thompson performs Friday, Jan. 29 at the Ann Arbor Folk Fest. His appearance there is part of a small string of dates. As it isn’t a real tour, and he isn’t actively promoting his last record, Still (Fantasy), Thompson wasn’t available for an interview. Thankfully, I have one “in the can” from a dozen years ago that has never appeared in print. Thompson and I clicked really well. He is a very generous, and bright, spirited guy. After I’d turned off the recorder, he asked if that was all, if I had anything else to ask him. I was embarrassed that we’d already gone on so long, and I had to get back to my job, so I bagged out. Today, I wish I’d stayed on that line longer, maybe to dish dirt about genius folk artists like Shirley Collins or Nic Jones.
METRO TIMES: It seems like a lot of the British guitarists from your generation were influenced first and foremost by the American blues, but your music from the start seemed more influenced by contemporary American music — and obviously later Celtic, then even maybe Middle Eastern influences. Would you say that's fair to say?
RICHARD THOMPSON: What's fair — what's fair to say? I started out listening to Celtic music, actually. Celtic music and '40s jazz was in my house.
MT: Your father was a guitarist, right?
THOMPSON: Yeah; He was a fairly — he wasn't an accomplished guitar player, but he had the right records. He had the Django Reinhardt records and the Les Paul records. You know, so there was that. And there was Scottish traditional stuff going on. Then my sister was buying Jerry Lee Lewis records. So it was a mixture. Early versions of Fairport Convention — we had a very broad musical base, much broader than other bands. We used to play a bit of blues, a bit of bad white blues.
MT: Right. But it wasn't like the foundation of your sound.
THOMPSON: As I said, I think our base was, if anything, too broad. We played jug band music and country and all kinds of stuff. Audiences would scratch their heads in disbelief. Then we got interested in the American folk-rock singer-songwriter movement — Phil Ochs, and the Byrds, and Dylan, and all that kind of stuff. We started to cover that and to try to emulate that by becoming writers ourselves.
And then we thought, "Really we should be playing something much more indigenous, you know?" Our strength would really be to play music from the British Isles. "It's so tired and it's such a bad image, and you never hear the good stuff — so let's put some volts behind it." And we did dig out some of those fantastic old ballads and put back all the verses about murder and sex.
MT: Right, which is what the Appalachian folk tradition really took from it, I think.
THOMPSON: Well I think so, yeah. Appalachian music is very much Scots-Irish music transported. There are ballads that survive in the Appalachians that vanished 200 years ago in Britain. It's another great source of that music.
MT: Yeah, I love things like that. I love how things change over centuries.
THOMPSON: Yeah, me too!
MT: I read somewhere that you were sort of consciously regalvanized by the Band's album Music From Big Pink. Is that true?
THOMPSON: I think so. When that record came out, we saw it as a very honest record and a brave record against the current musical trend. We picked up a copy and just the picture of the Band — they had sort of short haircuts and things, and we thought, "Wow! These guys are really strange!" I mean, nobody had short hair, you know? Except Nixon.
It seemed musically very honest, connected in quite a broad way to the roots of American music. So we felt a bit of a kinship, and also we admired the way that it was put together, the skill with which it was performed. So that was a nice signpost on the road for us, really. There were many, I suppose, but that was certainly one of them.
MT: So you were pretty consciously saying, "Here's something, and we can do this same thing for our own traditional music."
THOMPSON: I'm not sure of the chronology here. I think we were already on the road to performing traditional stuff as a thing that was already in our repertoire. But I think that the fact that a band like the Band could be doing what they did meant that we should have the courage of our convictions and actually just perform music that was based on the traditions of the British Isles.
MT: Right. When I had the pleasure to interview producer Joe Boyd in London in 1990, I'd had in my mind this vision I guess of the British music scene of the late '60s/early '70s as kind of being like the San Francisco — at least the way it was portrayed in the media — of everybody like living communally or something. Or at least having much contact with each other. And if I remember correctly, I was totally wrong in assuming that.
THOMPSON: What did Joe say? Did he say that wasn't true?
MT: Yeah, he said that Fairport, Pentangle, Nick Drake, you certainly weren't like all best buddies and in touch all the time — living communally, or anything like that.
THOMPSON: I'd say there was a lot of overlapping, though. I mean, the British folk-rock scene was fairly small. There were only three or four bands primarily, and only about 10 after that, you know? Fairport, we used to share a house and —well, we were fairly close to Steeleye Span, as a band, you know?
MT: Really? Well maybe my memory is off; why don't I just put it as a question. What was that scene like, then?
THOMPSON: Well, it was fairly small. And because it was sort of a folk-rock scene, you had people coming from the world of rock music, leaning towards folk music, and different people from the world of folk music, leaning towards rock music, then meeting somewhere in the middle. Or failing to meet somewhere in the middle. So everybody from the folk end knew each other from the folk scene, you know?
MT: Bert Jansch and those people?
THOMPSON: Yeah, all those guys, and Danny (Thompson) — they all knew Sandy (Denny) and Trevor Lucas and (Dave) Swarbrick very, very well. And the guys from the rock scene tended to know each other. There was more coming from the folk scene than the rock scene. The folk scene could be a little bitchy and backbiting while the rock scene was very mutually supportive; it all kind of met in the middle somewhere.
MT: Did you feel energized by it, part of an actual scene that was exciting?
THOMPSON: Yeah. It seemed very exciting at the time, and it was a very groundbreaking thing to do. Because there was this sense of the British tradition being somewhat lost, which at that point it really was. You were taught British versions of folk songs at school — very cleaned-up versions, you know. All the kind of toy stuff, which left you with a bad impression in light of life, you know, having this real Victorian sort of stuff shoved down your throat. Everywhere — Scotland, Ireland, and England — traditional music was at a fairly low ebb in the mid- to late '60s.
MT: And so when people were into folk, it was mostly American?
THOMPSON: No. There was a big folk scene in Britain already. There were lots of folk clubs that ran out of pubs, you know, the upstairs rooms at pubs, which went all the way from, you know, traditional music only — no instruments, only voices, the real puritan kind of stuff, and very precious stuff. This is folk music, you mustn't touch it, you mustn't harm it, and you mustn't arrange it in a modern way.
But you know, the folk scene was so far removed from the mainstream of popular music — that was the real problem. It was this little isolated world of its own, and everyone thought it was deeply uncool. Which it was! The problem that Fairport had was to reconcile this with contemporary music. To say "Well, in these traditions, English/Irish/Scottish music, there are these fantastic songs. There're these wonderful dance tunes. We have to make it into something that's valid, and that people can re-embrace, you know? This is people's own music. We have to give it back to them." There was a certain evangelical feel to what we were doing.
MT: Right, right. But not evangelical in the way of, you know, this is the pure path, you can't mess with it at all.
MT: When I interviewed Peter Stampfel from the Holy Modal Rounders he described the Greenwich Village folk scene in the late '50s and early '60s. It sounded very similar to what you were just saying.
THOMPSON: From what I know about it, I think it probably was similar, yes. One had to take the steps to make it contemporary. That was the important thing. In the way that folk in America became electric, it became a kind of a pop music, which is what it should be. It gave pop music a credibility, and an intellectual dimension.
MT: Right, but I think you took it another step, which none of the other bands really did, except maybe on a song or two — more than just updating it, you know?
THOMPSON: Our aim was to start off singing the old traditional songs, and make something of them. But at the same time we wanted to write our own material. The next step after that was to write our own songs in a British style, in a style that wasn't quite so influenced by transAtlantic roots. You know? Which is what I still do. That hasn't really changed.
MT: Right. One of the things that really amazes me about your music is that a lot of the songs, they don't really seem to have the sense of, "that's from this period or this is from that period." It's like you write great songs whether they're 30 years ago or from, you know, last week.
THOMPSON: Well, you're very kind. I might disagree with you.
MT: Well, at least to my ears. Maybe my ears are lazy.
THOMPSON: That's good. I like that.
MT: And you've written so many songs that reference, for instance, the weather — and so many songs that deal with women and relationships. Do you ever worry that you'll run out of steam with your subject matter?
THOMPSON: Dear me. Well, you're probably right about women, because I'm a male and it's a natural thing to do. It doesn't always mean a song's about women, you know, it means it's about human beings. You know, it's a human situation. And if you want to write about relationships, for me that's a natural thing to write about, or to address a song to the female principle, you know?
MT: How much time do you spend working on your music, when you're not on tour or when you're not recording?
THOMPSON: Well if I'm not on tour and I'm not recording, that's a good time to write; in downtime I try to get the writing done. I don't play music every single day of my life. I'll pick a guitar up while I'm watching TV. Or I'll try out some ideas, sit down, and write some verses. There's usually something going on. I have a musical life, you know?
MT: I wanted to ask you, and if it's too intrusive a question I apologize ahead of time. But however long ago it was, you were a student of Sufism. I am curious how that informs your life now.
THOMPSON: I'm a Muslim, and I've been a Muslim for many years now. I wouldn't call myself a Sufi at this point — it's kind of an inside part of Islam. But I'm very interested in Sufism and I'm very interested in Islam, and I'm a spiritual sort of person, you know? I lean that way. Whatever that means. I like to put things into my everyday life, that kind of awareness. I think it influences everything you do, whatever you believe informs your life and certainly informs music. So, you know, it's everywhere.
MT: Of course. Do you think you learned something from studying Islam about how in true ritual one can find real freedom? I know that I'm talking in a very vague way, but I see that as being, you know, what is the key to so much of the art that I enjoy. Whether it's these writers called the Oulipo who would consciously try to write a book without the letter "E," and in doing that would come up with some really fascinating stuff. Or the same way that when you or someone else is playing a solo it's within a certain framework — or do you think those are different things?
THOMPSON: I think they're the same things. I think that spiritual practice is more elevated than art practice. The two certainly overlap. You know, there are spiritual musical traditions. Indian raga is very spiritual leaning, and Andalusian music — the music of the Moors from Andalusia — is a very precise science of music. And in Persia, there was a science of music.
MT: I saw some amazing qawwali music just yesterday.
THOMPSON: Yes, that's something —you know, it's a higher form. It's higher than Charlie Parker and Stravinsky, really, to tell you the truth. It's more disciplined, it's more of a science, and it's designed for an effect.
MT: Have you ever tried to make music for yourself that was to reproduce that?
THOMPSON: Oh, sure! Absolutely.
MT: Have you ever done anything that you released that you thought was...
THOMPSON: Not really, no.
MT: So, there're different kinds of music for you, then?
THOMPSON: Well there are different kinds of intention. There's music that I play privately that's different — that's much more traditional and Islamic, if you like. But up on a stage, I'm not prepared to play that, really.
MT: Because it's a more personal thing?
THOMPSON: Yeah. Because it's more personal and I'm not sure that there are the common denominators that would mean that I would be able to communicate that to the audience. The audience is coming for a different intention. They're coming to be entertained in a certain way. I enjoy that, and it's a real music experience and a real release for me to do that. Spiritual kind of music has a different intention and sometimes has a different forum. You know, it's a matter of time and place. The music isn't going to change, but people's intention can change.
THOMPSON: And you know, the intention of the performer is very important and the intention of the audience is very important. Sometimes qawwali can be reduced to the level of a demonstration; the whirling dervishes can be seen as kind of a tourist attraction. And that isn't really the intention of it.
MT: But if it's done by great players, if you close your eyes, it can sort of be the same thing, I think. You know?
THOMPSON: Yes. And that depends on the intention and the purity of the listener.
Richard Thompson performs Friday, Jan. 29 at the Hill Auditorium for the 39th Annual Ann Arbor Folk Festival. Doors open at 6:30 p.m.; 911 N. University, Ann Arbor; Tickets range from $37.50-$100.
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