Behold the Nearly Mythical Richard Thompson

by | Mar 15, 2023

Richard Thompson is a pegasus, which is to say, a rare being whose existence seems more conjectured than real. And in true human fashion, this magical artist walks among us because the number of people who recognize him for what he is are vanishingly small. He’s sort of like Clapton, a contemporary of his, without all that Clapton Is God baggage and the Bizarre Love Triangle etal. 

Thompson’s first band, Fairport Convention, helped to pioneer English folk music at a time when their peers were all about American blues music, finding expression in music many of their friends generally found corny (much like punks and American country music in the eighties). After their breakup Thompson toured and released music with his then-wife Linda, starting with 1974’s critical hit I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight and culminating with 1982 cult classic, Shoot Out the Lights, signaling the end of his marriage and this phase.

In the mid-eighties Thompson moved to America and began a solo acoustic career. For those not particularly familiar with guitar, they’re very much different beasts and to tame both of them is to Thompson’s credit. Not only did he play acoustic, but periodically he’d put together a combo and tour playing electric. What he lacked in commercial success he made up for with a dedicated following.

Beyond the extraordinary playing are the songs. A Buddhist and gifted songwriter, Thompson’s sensitivity to the human struggle is matched by a sharp critical social eye to rival Ray Davies. He’s continued to turn out smart, thoughtful albums at a pace that gives lie its difficulty, cracking the UK Top Ten of the album charts with 2015’s Jeff Tweedy produced Still. His last album, 2018’s 13 Rivers, reached #18 there.

Over the years his creativity’s manifest in other ways, like a soundtrack for Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, an album dedicated to 1000 Years of Popular Music, inspired by a Playboy Magazine question, and wrote a memoir, 2021’s Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice, about his pre-fame life (from 1967 to 1975). He’s even, apparently working on a musical, though he’s unsure when/if he’ll finish. 

Thompson’s a modern day renaissance artist, dipslayinga broad perspective, great technical skill, and incisive, rather dry wit.

The author spoke to the 73-year-old Thompson last year for an article that ran in the The Big Takeover, an outstanding music magazine that’s been operating out of New York since 1980. The interview is only available in the Spring 2022 issue. This is a small part of that interview. 

CP: We’ve spoken once before it was about 15 years ago… and I asked you like, what was the secret to your continued success in terms of creating really masterful pieces of work? And you said, the secret to your success was your continued failure.

Richard Thompson [sarcastic]: Gosh, that’s wisdom.

CP:  But it does seem like there has to be an aspect where you have to, to, to approach it like that

Thompson: Well, you know, you learn by your mistakes and mustn’t be afraid to make mistakes, because that’s the only way that you do learn. And it’s an ongoing process. And I think, you know, something else that we have to do as a musician is to really focus on the music. You shut out the audience. You shut your part of your brain off. You try to get right inside the music and to live the music. I think Yo-Yo Ma says, “You have to make the music live in other people’s hearts.” I think that that’s a wonderful way of looking at it.

CP: I think it was less than a decade ago, probably less, you said, “I still think I’m a 20-year old. In my mind, I’m still a new artist. I don’t feel like somebody that’s been around for a long time.”

Thompson: Yeah, I know, it’s a bit of a cowardly idea, actually. Because I keep thinking, “Well, if I do something experimental, or I do something that I’m not very experienced at people will excuse me, they’ll excuse my naivete.” But actually they won’t because I’m 70. When I was 20, I could get away with that. You write out a string quartet or something, and it’s full of mistakes. “He’s only young, you know? He’s only a kid, we’ll forgive him.” But they won’t forgive me anymore. I keep thinking they will. It’s just a terrible, terrible mindset. I have to get out of that.

CP: Well the mindset seems to have let you undertake a lot of interesting projects from recording the Grizzly Man soundtrack, where you’re doing all this improvising, to 1,000 years of popular music, where you’re kind of making up and filling in spaces and then you know the Villa Montalvo in Saratoga, Calif., shows [playing requests chosen from a bucket] to the live performance process of Dream Attic. Even the Buddy Miller process sounded kind of fun and interesting. 

Thompson: Yeah, it’s great to get outside of your own little box. The challenge is just doing what you do on a daily basis. I mean, I’m on tour right now and I kind of tweak the setlist from night to night so that it’s not predictable for me. But also when you’re doing other projects, collaborations or you’re doing a film score or something, it throws up a whole bunch of other things, and it takes you out of your comfort zone. You really have to go out on the edge sometimes. Doing Grizzly Man was good, I think I think you really couldn’t always feel comfortable during that process, because it was improvised basically by nature. That and there’s a film crew filming the music of the film. Werner Herzog, you know, is 10 feet away. You know, he likes to be out on the factory floor, while things are being done. So there’s always distractions and you have to focus. You know, we weren’t really allowed to watch the film clips while we were recording because Werner wanted every piece of music to stand up on its own merits. So we’d have to look at the screen and see the cue, you’re like, “Okay, that’s, that’s 37 seconds. Okay, now play a piece of music that reflects that mood and it’s 37 seconds long.” I mean, literally. And I have someone in control, counting down from 10 seconds, 10 9-8-7-6. And so I had to kind of wind a piece up. And we do this over and over and over again. It’s amazing what you can do when you have to. I had to shutter all these distractions, like a camera, but three feet from my face Werner is sitting there, directing. But it’s amazing what you can do when you really have to concentrate, when you’re really under pressure. And it was kind of fun to do that. And then you think, Gosh, I can actually do this. I can actually survive this process.

CP: We were just talking about the Band and I was really intrigued by the idea that for you when Big Pink came out, it was both an inspiration and discouraging, like, “guess we’ll have to find a new direction now.”

Thompson: I suppose that in those days when people used to try to play American music, we wanted to be authentic and we wanted to understand the roots of what that was. The Band were what we would have liked to have achieved if we’d remained playing American music, that would have been our perfect world, our perfect synthesis, playing gospel and country and r&b and blues and that whole mixture that the Band achieved. So it was like when I heard, the Big Pink and the album after that, it was like, “Okay, our bluff has been called. We’re not Native Americans, we should change our ambition. We should have a different ambition, even though these guys were basically Canadian anyway. But they just seem to be able to seamlessly play what really became Americana. We thought, “Well, it’s time for us to do in a sense what they’re doing, in a more British way. We’ll take British roots, and we’ll build our music on that.”

CP: You’ve mentioned at times, as many artists have, the idea of being a conduit through which music moves, which definitely diffuses the egotistical part. Is there something in the flow experience where you’re, you’re not directing or thinking at all, it’s just passing through and, and winds up on the page? How much of it is unconscious and how much is craft? Do you toss things when you get frustrated at their progress or just shelve them? How is the process for you? 

Thompson: The process varies. You know, they are kind of starting points, you know, to get into the zone where we are creating. So, I have all kinds of different starting points. As far as I can see, once you’re in it, things are flowing. Well, that’s great. You know, that that’s really good. And I think often you look at something when you finished it, and you think, well, that’s really good. I mean, did that come from me? How is that possible? I mean, that’s as far as I’m singing a song of my own, you know? And I think, that’s a really clever lyric. But how did I come up with it? I don’t understand, you know, that just really came through me. But you have to work towards that. That’s the craft part, the critical craft part that is work and you work at the craft. Then when your conscious mind does semi switch off, you’re ready to be able to be that conduit through which stuff flows. But yeah, you have to work with that side of it. Absolutely.

CP:  How much of that is pure? It’s all the craft, obviously, but the other time you’re in the moment, you’re trying to be present, and also letting the music flow through you, right?

Thompson: It’s hard to overanalyze what that process is, no one has successfully done it. But I almost assume that there’s kind of two parts of your mind operating at the same time. There’s basically the intuitive part where something is just flowing and there’s this logical part that that standing slightly outside of you and saying, “Eight bars. Sixteen bars. Key change.” So there’s a kind of a logical as well, but it kind of flips backwards and forwards quite quickly, as far as I can see. And that’s about as far as I’m willing to analyze it.

CP: I read you talking about your last album 13 Rivers and how you still didn’t know what all the songs were about, and I’ve heard authors express the idea that part of the joy is discovering what was going to happen, and that if they had it all worked out it wouldn’t be as interesting.

Thompson: Yeah, I think there has to be that sense of discovery. About everything. Every song I’ve ever written, there’s been some kind of discovery to it, and some kind of unfolding, which is part of the reward of the experience. And it’s good to not know where you’re going. But I think that you can finish a song and say, I don’t understand this song. That’s fine. But you have to have an instinct that is good. Even though you can’t explain it, you say, Well, I like the song, I believe in this song. But I don’t yet understand it.

CP: At the same time, you’re writing about something that you can’t fully understand and you have to know whether it’s being honest and true. But how do you know if something that you don’t understand is being honest and true. Obviously you have to have an instinct.

Thompson: Yeah, just an instinct for it. And, you know, sometimes I get criticized by people, “I like your album, but there’s three filler tracks on it.” Well, I certainly know that there are no filler tracks on any of my records. There are only songs that you don’t understand yet.

Richard Thompson, Friday, March 17, 7p.m. door. $64-$72/SOLD OUT. Greenwich Odeum, 59 Main Street, East Greenwich, RI 02818. 401-885-4000.

Chris Parker is a freelance journalist (The Guardian, Undark, Daily Beast, Billboard) and author of the book, King James Brings The Land a Crown, about the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2016 championship. He lives in Providence.

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March 20, 2023 11:10 pm

What an insightful, generous guy. And a musical legend of our time.

July 21, 2023 2:01 pm

RT is a Muslim, not a Buddhist. The Los Angeles Times described him as “the finest rock songwriter after Dylan and the best electric guitarist since Hendrix.”


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