Beginning with Fairport Convention in 1967, Richard Thompson has, with a stately assurance, taken his guitar and preternatural capacity for songcraft to some astonishing heights. From Fairport classics like “Meet on the Ledge” and “Sloth,” to the Sufi-inflected gravitas of his work with Linda Thompson, to the vivid, tragic storytelling of solo songs like “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and “Beeswing,” Thompson’s songwriting is pure, visionary, and indelible. His latest record, Electric, released earlier this year, marks no exception. At points rollicking, then resigned, and with a signature economy, it contains some truly great songs, the lilting “Salford Sunday” just one among them. I spoke to Richard a bit about his history, about songs, and about some of the people that he has worked with along the way.
— Keith Connolly
Keith Connolly Hi Richard. I read recently in an old issue of ZigZag that you had been asked to join the Eagles. I believe that my world would be quite a different place if that had happened. Is it true? I’m curious to hear it directly from you.
Richard Thompson Yeah, there was an approach, but I can’t really remember at what point that was; it was probably in the fairly early days. This went through management; I didn’t hear it directly. I wouldn’t have done it anyway, I don’t think, because I was much more interested in developing this very British strain of song writing and being in an American country-rock band would not have happened for me.
KC There is a good book called Mansion on the Hill by Fred Goodman. He describes how the record industry changed so radically from the early rock and roll years through the 1980s, and spends a fair amount of time on the Eagles. The idea of this band, in his opinion, was the beginning or maybe middle of the end. So when I heard your name thrown into this, I was like, Wow, that’s another piece of that puzzle.
RT Yeah. (laughter)
KC Okay, I guess we should start with a little bit of history. I wouldn’t know how to encapsulate Fairport Convention and the earlier part of your trajectory into a few sentences, but that’s where it begins in the public eye. It seems like there were a number of phases to Fairport Convention and then there was this major change that led to the Liege & Lief album in 1969—in the aftermath of the horrible accident. [In the early hours of May 12, 1969, Fairport’s tour van overturned on the M1, killing drummer Martin Lamble and Richard’s then girlfriend Jennie Franklyn. Richard was thrown from the vehicle and sustained a broken shoulder in the crash.] Something radical happened with the band’s approach: the kind of pop, West Coast version of Fairport transitioned into what would become the band’s more solid identity based on a modernist take on traditional English folk. What can we say about that that hasn’t been said?
RT That hasn’t been said? Well, probably nothing, but I’ll try to encapsulate it. Fairport was a band that didn’t want to be the same as other bands, so even in its very early incarnations, when we were doing covers, we tried to do very obscure covers. So when other people were playing blues and R&B in 1965–67, we were trying to find obscure but good songs. We were always interested in lyrics, so we were attracted to singer-songwriters like Richard Fariña and Joni Mitchell before she was recorded. At a certain point, around 1968, we thought, Well, we’re never going to sing soul as well as Otis Redding and we’re never going to play the blues as well as Muddy Waters. We should be finding our own roots out here in Britain and trying to do a contemporary version of British music. We had to build a bridge between the tradition and popular music, because it had kind of died out in the public consciousness. Traditional music was something that farmers and fisherman did, but it wasn’t even close to the mainstream. So we wanted to contemporize British music, to bring it into popular music. We did it in a slightly studied way, I suppose, but after a while it became second nature. That became the music of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and all those other bands.
KC In the UK there was a large group of musicians—post-’65, just to jump in somewhere—listening to records and bringing in these myriad influences. The public knows this much more through the stories of the Rolling Stones or of young people collecting blues and then turning them into this kind of new British-invasion music. Yet on a parallel track, at the same time, there was a lot of interest in folk and traditional music. That was connected to what was happening over here with Bob Dylan and Richard Fariña, as you mentioned. I guess this is where you come into contact with Joe Boyd. He describes seeing you guys play somewhere and starts to manage Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny, among many others [famously, the Incredible String Band, Nick Drake, and the Jim Kweskin Jug Band. Boyd also produced the first Pink Floyd single and is the founder of Hannibal Records]. It seems like he’s a catalyst for this time. So you guys were all friendly with the Steeleye Span, the Dransfields, and the Incredible String Band people, true? Everybody was in a kind of consensus together?
RT Yeah, I suppose so. I mean, from when we were teenagers we were going to folk clubs and blues clubs, we were listening to classical music, we were listening to jazz. We were living in London and we were trying to listen to everything possible. We were really on parallel scenes at the same time, so we knew people in the rock scene and the blues scene, and we knew people in the folk scene. I’m not sure if we were exclusively in one particular club. With Fairport, playing music that stemmed more from British traditions came out of an idea first—before it became a reality it was an intellectual idea.
Then when we started to play that music and Sandy Denny came into the band, we got to know her circle of friends, which included Alex Campbell, Bert Jansch, and John Renbourne. When Dave Swarbrick came into the band, we met the Watersons and Cyril Tawney and people like that. This gave us access to a rich world of folk and traditional music. At the same time, we felt ourselves very much a part of the underground music community in Britain that included our friends in bands like the Crazy World of Arthur Brown, Blossom Toes, the Social Deviants, Pink Floyd—
KC So many of these bands made amazing records. They’re fairly obscure in the public eye, but it’s a slippery slope. Once you become interested in this legacy, you can get lost.
So I’m curious about Fairport’s transition, leading to Liege & Lief—it’s often talked about as the pinnacle album, the epitome of British folk rock.
RT The thing is that Liege & Leif was designed as a project after the accident that you mentioned. We thought, Well, this is the time to do this. We’ve been talking about immersing ourselves a bit more in traditional music, so here’s an opportunity. We don’t have any gigs for a few months, so let’s hide ourselves away and invent this hybrid of traditional and new forms.
So it was conceived very much as a project record. After it was done, we went, There is no point in going back; this is what we should be doing. This is what’s interesting to us. That became the start of the band and, in a sense, it’s still the style of music that I play today. I try to write contemporary songs that are based on traditional models.
KC Can you say a bit more about your consistent interest in building upon traditional models, and reactivating tradition?
RT I suppose it’s what they call roots music these days. Some musicians, myself included, feel connected to a tradition that we can go back to for a long, cool drink of water occasionally. You may get “modern” from time to time, but the modes and harmonies of the old music always ring through. They talk about this a lot in classical music—Debussy told Stravinsky that he had to make his music more “Russian.” And of course all those English composers like Britten, Delius, and Vaughan Williams were always recycling the past. In Fairport, we felt real resonance in the music—it was giving back the tradition to the British audiences. I’m still plowing the same field, but it’s a very large field, and I haven’t seen the end of it yet.
KC Getting back to Fairport, with Full House (1970), the follow-up album to Liege & Lief, on the track “Sloth” specifically, the electric-guitar playing takes on this kind of edge that will then come to define the sound of your music pretty much throughout the rest of your career. A breakthrough seems to happen, if you will. Listening to this one track, it dawned on me that this was the beginning of something in your sound that would then come to full fruition on the live recordings of your and Linda Thompson’s band in the ’70s. Was there something that you remember coming to at that time with your approach to the longer instrumental stuff or the electric guitar in general?
RT Perhaps fashionable isn’t the right word, but in 1967 it was certainly allowed to play long instrumentals. Pink Floyd was doing it, the California bands were doing it—you could get on stage and play a guitar solo for 20 minutes and people were not surprised. They were actually expecting it in some cases; it was almost the standard at the time. So in Fairport we would sometimes include longer instrumental passages in songs, and probably the one where it becomes more patterned on the British tradition is “A Sailor’s Life” on the Unhalfbricking (1969) record.
On that record, Swarbrick and I are playing instrumentally back and forth using traditional British modes more than blues or popular-music modes. That was a starting point, in a sense, although we had been doing stuff like that before. On the Fairport Convention (1968) record, there are some instrumental passages that echo the same ideas. Also, when we were playing in the folk clubs back in ’66 and ’67, we’d be doing similar things that probably never made it onto the record.
KC The electric guitar increasingly takes on a distinct sound, solidifying into something instantly recognizable. Can you comment on this evolution?
RT It was a gradual thing.
KC A little more obscure history: I’d like to ask you about the band Mighty Baby, who could have come up a few minutes ago when we were talking about the ’70s bands that have been obscured by history. How do they relate to the storied Sufi period of your career? I’ve heard that you weren’t using electricity for a period. I know that Mighty Baby eventually metamorphosed into the Habibiyya, playing a kind of acoustic devotional music.
RT Yeah, well, first they were called the Action.
KC That’s right.
RT They were a soul group. They were doing Motown covers and they were playing at the Marquee Club fairly regularly in London. I used to see them there sometimes. When they became Mighty Baby they became more of a psychedelic band, which is appropriate for 1967 or ’68. So I knew them from playing around the London circuit and then later from session work in the early ’70s. I think we all played on a Gary Farr record then, and at least two of them played on some Sandy Denny records. So I knew them socially and I was interested in the spiritual stuff that they were getting into. I gravitated in the same direction. Now we’ve entered into a large area and I’m not sure which particular aspect of it you’re interested in.
KC I’m interested because I’m also a fan of their music and noticed that they seem to overlap with you at this time quite a bit. The Habibiyya occurs concurrently with your and Linda’s Sufi period where palpable Eastern spiritual motifs start to show up in the music. The Habibiyya involved an American couple, who had initially played with Pat Kilroy in a band called the New Age.
KC Did you guys share not only the musical space at that time but also social space?
RT I was socially and musically connected to the Americans, yes, to Hakim Archuletta and his wife. We would informally play music together and we were involved in the same spiritual community as well at that time.
KC So you were doing some Eastern instrumental music along the lines of what was happening with the Habibiyya?
RT Along those lines, absolutely. I don’t think anything of that was recorded at any point.
KC Can I ask you about playing with John Martyn around this time?
RT Sure, yeah. I played on a couple of John Martyn’s albums, I think.
KC If I remember correctly it was Stormbringer! (1970) and Bless the Weather (1971). He made some amazing records.
RT In the studio those records were made very quickly. Pretty much everything we did was live; I don’t think anything was ever overdubbed. We were just putting the tracks down and that was it. It was spontaneous stuff. We were on the same record company at the time and, at some point, we had the same management. So it was, you know, a small incestuous world. In that era John was a terrific, very original artist. He was a really good acoustic-guitar player and a distinctive singer.
KC He also rarely gets credit for his innovations with the Echoplex, which predated David Gilmour and the Edge by some years.
KC The other obscure question I had was how you came into contact with David Thomas and Pere Ubu and the whole Cleveland scene? That’s a jump of a few years, but it’s another interesting overlap that I know nothing about.
RT I’m trying to remember how I met David Thomas. Crikey! I don’t remember. I must have turned up at a show of his or he turned up at a show of mine, is all I can think. He was kind of a Fairport fan, which surprised me because his music is definitely influenced by more avant-garde things. I think he enjoyed Fairport’s more British stuff. He suggested that we do a record together—it was an interesting experiment.
KC Do you stay connected to him?
RT I’m ashamed to say that I haven’t seen him for at least ten years at this point. There was a time when he was living in London and I used to see him a lot more. Geographically we’re slightly disconnected.
KC There’s a great new Pere Ubu record called the Lady from Shanghai, which is worth a listen.
RT Oh, good.
KC My next question is less about history and more about the idea of these songs, of which you have so many. I’m assuming you have to revisit them to get them into shape to play live. What are your thoughts about the role that memory plays in these songs that you’ve written? Are they places that are always there that you can revisit? It must happen habitually for you that these songs arrive and that you come to a point where you can record them, but then they continue to exist in all these years of passing. Here’s this long songbook that you have.
RT As a singer-songwriter, you’re in a unique position because you revisit your catalog nightly from all different temporal points. You might still be singing a song you wrote when you were 18 years old when you’re 60—the audience wants to hear it and perhaps you have a desire to play it as well. Perhaps it’s a song you’re proud of and you still have a relationship with it. If you paint a picture and you sell it, then you might never see that picture again, but if you write a song that becomes popular, then you might be singing it the rest of your life. It’s a strange and unique thing.
Is it memory? I don’t know. Songs are partly about you, probably, and then partly fiction—they continue to mutate. A song you wrote a long time ago, you thought of in one way—you saw certain images and pictures in your head as you sang it. But 40 years later, you might be seeing a whole different set of images, and you might interpret the song in a different way because you’ve changed. You’re more mature, you’ve seen more of life, and you might find different things in the song. If the song is any good, you can find different ways of interpreting it. But then there are also songs that you sang when you were younger that you can’t find anything to invest in anymore, so you stop singing them even if the audience wants to hear them. It’s kind of dishonest to keep singing a song that you no longer relate to. When you’re young you write naively. It’s hard to maintain a relationship with every song that you write.
KC I wasn’t aware that the Pointer Sisters had covered one of your songs: “Don’t Let a Thief Steal into Your Heart.”
I imagine that it’s kind of gratifying to hear your songs covered by an unlikely artist, unless they’re butchered. I don’t think the Pointer Sisters butchered it, by the way.
RT It’s good that songs have a life beyond you, that other people pick them up. It’s also a good thing that they transcend genres. This song doesn’t necessarily fit into the Pointer Sister genre, which would be, I suppose, soul, or pop.
KC It sounds kind of natural or perfect when they sing it. I never would have thought that would be the case.
RT They’re adapting the song a bit, which they have to, of course, to fit that particular genre. Also, I should say I get a lot of country covers—the songs don’t fit exactly into the genre, but with small adaptation, it’s not too big a leap from Celtic music to country music. The traditions are very similar.
KC I can’t help but mention the infamous Britney Spears cover that you did a few years back. I’ve heard you say elsewhere that “Oops! . . . I Did It Again” is really not terribly incongruous with some much older musical traditions, because it fits a certain kind of songwriting mold.
RT Harmonically, it’s not unlike some dance music from the 16th century, especially Italian dance. They share a very similar chord sequence.
KC Maybe in some ways the Pointer Sisters’ taking your song and your taking Britney Spears’s song aren’t really all that different. Both cases illuminate the possibility of what these songs really are.
RT It’s a cultural exchange. (laughter)
KC Speaking of a cultural exchange, what was it like working with Werner Herzog on the Grizzly Man soundtrack (2005)? The resulting music is very open ended, and quite beautiful. It suits the mood of that odd film about the tragic story of Timothy Treadwell perfectly.
RT It was an unusual score in that it was mostly improvised. We would look at each scene, and then improvise from memory the moods and emotions that needed to be underwritten. We did a lot of work in a short time. I think we did it basically in two days, and had enough music left over for some of the spin-off TV series. It was necessary to have the right musicians on that project. Werner uses music with the greatest sensitivity in his films; like the visuals, the music is poetic.
KC I’d like to ask you about some of the different producers with whom you have worked, starting with Joe Boyd, who seems less of a technician than this kind of maypole by which people and situations were connected. Then through the ’80s and ’90s, you worked with Mitchell Froom, and now for your latest album, Electric, with Nashville mainstay Buddy Miller. What role have these producers played in the different phases of your career?
RT Joe was a naturalistic producer in the sense that he didn’t have a strong aural stamp that he put on his records. He liked records to sound as natural as possible. He liked the stereo picture to be as if people were standing on a stage, so wherever your instrument was, then your vocal might appear in the same place—that kind of idea. His records have lasted so well for that very reason. So you listen to a Nick Drake record or a John Martyn record and they sound undated because he wasn’t using any tricks or any particular devices in the recording process that would label it as being from the ’60s, ’70s, or ’80s.
Joe, as you suggest, was a great catalyst. He would bring people together. In the studio, he would let things happen if they were going to happen, and he would speak up if things were getting bogged down—he’d come up with suggestions. He liked things to flow of their own accord if possible and tried to bring the best of the artist out rather than impose his production stamp on a record. I think it’s the best way to work.
Mitchell Froom was, I suppose, a quirky producer. He would introduce certain sounds and certain sonic ideas into the recording process in order to help it sound spontaneous and garagey. It was great fun to work with Mitchell. The records are more stylized; they sound more like the ’80s and ’90s. If I were to do them again, I would probably want to make them sound more naturalistic. But, you know, if you’re signed to a record company sometimes they say, “We want more snare drum on the record. We have to have that big echoey Bruce Springsteen backbeat . . . ”
KC It seems like in the ’80s specifically there was a lot of that going on.
RT Well, with all artists, there was a certain pressure from the A&R person to produce something that was compatible with the radio. So even for a folkie like me, there were certain sounds and ways of production to make the record market friendly. It just happened; that was the way of the times.
KC It seems like Electric is more direct. There’s emphasis on the music and less of an idea of the industry, although it sounds big and full and great.
RT Yeah, it is direct and naturalistic. It was recorded very quickly with a minimum of musicians. Mostly we did it as a three piece. It was recorded analog, which is a slight throwback in sound. If it’s tweaked, it’s tweaked to sound like an older record, like a record from the ’60s.
KC There’s kind of an immediacy that I felt from seeing your trio’s live shows from this record. An immediacy that comes closest to your solo work, like when you’re doing acoustic guitar and vocals, and an . . . do I want to use the word intimacy?
RT It is intimate, yes. With acoustic shows, a very close relationship between the artist and the audience can develop.
KC There’s also something about the economy of playing with this specific trio. It’s comparable to the solo songs, but it also has the capacity to expand into some fantastic instrumental work. Your current drummer, Michael Jerome, is amazing to watch.
RT Oh, he’s great.
KC There is a real and immediate connection between the audience and the group. A lot of people whom I have spoken to who listen to your music would agree with this: There is a distinctive quality that your songs possess. They make their way into your life and stay there.
RT Well, it’s what’s supposed to happen. It doesn’t always work, so if it works, I’m very grateful.
KC With any artist who has had a career as long as yours, the press and, to some extent, the public have a tendency to react to each new release with some variation on “He’s back, with his greatest work since . . .”. The fact is that you started some 40 plus years ago—you have always been there. What can you say about this unbelievable constancy?
RT It’s probably an illusion. It’s hard to make a great record, every track a humdinger. So few people do, that when it happens, they become classics. Most of mine are half-good—sometimes only a third, sometimes two-thirds. So I tend to think more in terms of individual songs. That, to me, is what lasts, and that’s what I’m reviving every night.
It is annoying of course when critics say, “A return to form!” or, “His best in a decade!” because from where I’m standing, it really isn’t that bad and it probably isn’t that good. But they have to say something. And more and more, publicists are desperate for some hook to hang on each recording to differentiate them.
KC Well, it’s nice to see that it’s come back around. Is there anything else you’d want to say about Electric or anything else that’s on your mind?
RT I don’t have a message for the world, so that’s okay.
KC Fair enough. Thanks for your time, Richard.
RT It’s a pleasure, thanks for yours. Bye-bye.