Richard Thompson’s career has always been based on familiarity as much as evolution. The many devoted fans who have followed his nearly 50 years of work are quick to recognize Thompson’s voice, lyricism and guitar-playing. New listeners are easily drawn into that same combination. Beginning with his first ’60s-era group Fairport Convention, who blended the haunting music of the British lsles with the fierce force of electric rock and up through his critically acclaimed solo career, Thompson remains a singular figure in contemporary music. Since the late ’60s, he’s appeared on more than 160 releases, ranging from his crucial work with his-then-wife Linda Thompson, 30-plus solo albums, soundtrack work and guesting on an array of records by all manner of musical folks from Nick Drake and John Cale to Bonnie Raitt and Rufus Wainwright.
While Thompson’s music has been anthologized, no one’s been able to lock it into one specific box. Thompson’s songs can swing from the sentimental to the sardonic, at times in the same verse. Besides surviving a career spanning a half-century, Thompson has enjoyed/endured the mixed blessing of being a “songwriter’s songwriter.” Critical hosannas don’t pay the bills but, quite frankly, Thompson’s music is too cerebral for the masses. His music is inclusive and intense, a varietal too strong for the tastes of pop audiences.
Lesser artists of his generation could easily lean back on the legacy that Thompson has created, phoning it in rather than listening to receive what is current. On his latest release, 2015’s Still, Thompson naturally deified that career move once again, this time by collaborating with Jeff Tweedy. Aided and abetted by the Wilco frontman, on the 12-song collection Thompson continues to produce a kind of syncretic music that can veer from traditional folk songs to straight-up rockers and then dovetail into a confessional ballad. Thompson seems as knowledgeable of the music of Pandit Pran Nath as he is of Charley Patton’s, and he remains among the most unpretentious and forward-thinking musicians working today.
Locals can check out Thompson when he returns to Northeast Florida Feb. 16 at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall, where he performs an all-acoustic set.
Thompson had a phone conversation with Folio Weekly from his home in Los Angeles.
Folio Weekly: On Still, you worked with Jeff Tweedy. What compelled you to work with him?
Richard Thompson: I think it was a third-party idea. We’d done some live shows together and certainly in the back of my mind I thought that he’d be an interesting person to work on a project with. Some third party said, “How about you and Jeff doing something?” Jeff and I both thought it was a positive idea and the rest is … (laughs) history.
To me, the new tune “Pony in the Stable” is an interesting blend of Celtic and Middle Eastern-tinged riffs and rhythms. What’s the story behind that song?
It’s about getting lyrically pissed off. [Laughs.] You know, a lot of Celtic music does sound Middle Eastern so I’m not really being Middle Eastern but more Celtic, deeper Celtic. In Celtic music, as you’ve heard in a lot of other traditions, it’s the tradition of the melody being the largest component, the melody and the rhythm, and less emphasis on harmonic structure and things like chords. So in a lot of Celtic music, you have the whole band playing the melody. If someone is singing, they’d be singing the melody. So you come to really appreciate the melody. [Laughs.]
You’ll be thrilled to know that I cued up “Long John Silver” on YouTube and it was preceded by a commercial for Long John Silver’s seafood. So I don’t know if that’s a label marketing ploy (laughs) or what.
Long John’s Seafood? Wow. Am I in bed with the devil here or what?
In much of your solo work, the songs are based around drones and modal playing more than just standard, diatonic songwriting. In the same way that you said you are drawn to these strong melodies, are you drawn to drones and modal playing more than a diatonic form?
I definitely have a fascination with modal music. I think it’s just a matter of what I grew up with. It just sounds normal to me. I enjoy drones, I enjoy that kind of melody in drone. You know it’s in the Tamla/Motown stuff as well. It’s not something that’s totally alien to popular music. So it’s there. But if you want to look at the history of music, it’s a very old tradition that goes back to 1200 AD at least. You have a bagpipe playing a melody on a drone. I just love that sound — it speaks to me.
Yeah, it seems like all surviving folk traditions are based on drone, whether it’s Carnatic music, Moroccan, bluegrass, etc. It’s an interesting phenomenon.
Yeah, absolutely. I know at some point, a lot of folk music gets closer to a harmonic tradition, like the Western harmonic tradition, and things change. Sometimes folk tunes started out being devoid of harmony. Then somebody put some chords to it and that changed it and 100 years later, it’s a Peter, Paul and Mary song. There are variations in the process.
When someone asks me to describe your music, I’ve never said, “He’s a real chuckle factory.” What I mean is how your songs can sometimes have a healthy sense of darkness and sardonic humor. But they’re not cynical. I’m wondering how much of that lyricism is born from quality, poetic brooding and how much is sheer fiction?
Well, I think if you’re a storyteller, you’re probably making up fiction but it invariably winds up being about you and what compels you. You might write a totally fictional story that you don’t understand at the time and a few months later, you come back and look at it and go, “Gosh, that’s all about me.” You can’t avoid that. So that’s always there.
I’m going to lead the story with: “The Philip Larkin of the Woodstock Generation … “
[Laughs.] Yeah, well, there are also things like that. I grew up reading Philip Larkin, reading Yeats … you get a certain long view and also there’s a certain thing that you want to put into your own work. Because you kind of think, “Well, that’s what you’re supposed to do.” So you grow up reading some of those poets and you think, “Well, I’m supposed to layer my songs, there’s supposed to be another meaning underneath it.” A simple one. And you see people on the edge of popular music like Leonard Cohen and they do that kind of thing; as he is actually a legitimate poet. I think that as you develop as a writer, you figure out some rules for yourself and often it’s based on what you’ve learned at school or what you’ve learned from reading and then that becomes the vehicle you use to express yourself and this expression becomes a kind of language you use.
Years ago, you co-wrote “Persuasion” with Tim Finn and you’d done some collaborative work with Peter Filleul. During your solo career, you’ve guested as a guitarist — and correct me if I’m wrong — it seem as if you’ve done a lot of co-writing with others. Is that just circumstance or do you feel more comfortable writing alone?
I sort of like to do the words and the music and I like to have this whole expression in a song. You know, that it’s “all you.” That it’s not something that’s a compromise. Having said that, I’m an admirer of a huge number of co-written songs and think it can work really well. The easiest divide is words and music, where someone does the words and someone does the music. The words can speak kind of a unity of perspective and the music an overlapping unity of perspective. So I’m not adverse to it. I have to be forced to co-write. But when I’ve done it I’ve enjoyed it, but it doesn’t come naturally.
In your case it might never be needed.
Like now in Nashville, every writer is now a co-writer. [Laughs.] So, you know …
A lot of musicians, not just guitarists, hold you in really high esteem regarding your guitar skills. Sometimes with musicians, there’s what’s surely its own tradition of “cutting heads.” Do you ever feel added pressure to really blow the roof off with your concert playing?
I think that if you play with that in mind, then you’d probably do a good performance but it wouldn’t be the greatest performance. The best performance is where you forget everything: You forget the audience, you forget time … [Laughs.] You step out of reality and immerse yourself in the music completely and that’s when you play well. You know, if Bob Dylan and the Pope and Donald Trump are in the audience you have to shut it out. [Laughs.] Otherwise, you can play self-consciously and play very well, but you’re not inside the music.
I guess surrender is the key that opens it all up.
Yeah. Surrender is the key to everything.
You’re part of school of guitar players I hold in very high regard, guitarists like John Martyn, Davey Graham, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn — who’ve all passed away in the last decade. I surely see you as an absolute peer of that guild of players. Do you feel as if you’re deliberately carrying on that tradition of these eclectic British folk guitarists of the 1960s?
Yeah, I think so. I’m not sure if I’m directly influenced by that but they certainly kicked the door down for me; especially Davey, who’s a real pioneer and originator. He was the first person really who was playing folk music, jazz and African music … he was just a melting pot of ideas. I think after him, great guitarists like Jansch, Renbourn, Martyn … who was another great guitar player. You know, this whole school emerged of using alternative tunings and trying to bend the guitar, into a more of a traditional British way of music and not just the blues or something. So yeah, I’d be happy to be thought of as someone playing the same furrow as that.
One of my favorite songs you’ve recorded is “Bird in God’s Garden/Lost and Found” (Live, Love, Larf & Loaf), where you set the poem of the same name by Rumi to music. I think there’s a subtle current of spirituality in your music, but you never try to crack the listener on the head with your beliefs. How much of an influence does spirituality have on your work?
It’s something you can’t compartmentalize: Your spiritual view is what your worldview is, what your political view is, what your philosophical view is. I mean, that has to permeate everything that you do. Everything. And I think that appears in my music in varying degrees and I think often I’ll write a love song that’s apparently about a human relationship and it might be about a more spiritual relationship. So, as you said, I think beating people over the head with your own ideas is a waste of time. But you can’t help what you express.