"It’s just — shit, really.”
Richard Thompson has summed up his thoughts about fame, of which he’s tasted only a modicum. Still, he knows enough to be wary.
“It’s about praise and blame,” he says by phone from New York. “People praise you, think you're wonderful, then they think your last album was rubbish. Praise and blame. In reality, you’re somewhere in the middle. It’s you who has to determine the worth of what you do, to have some idea of the value of what you do. Other people’s opinions don’t matter. If you’re famous, you tend to get a lot of praise and love — but what if you’re coasting on the coattails of your previous work and producing rubbish? If you’re not famous, you get a clearer idea of who you are and what you are. You get a clearer idea of the value of life, the value of music.”
This coming from an artist who has reaped generous helpings of critical praise during a career that’s fast closing in on 50 years. He started as an avatar of new British folk with Fairport Convention in the late ‘60s, heightening the art of confessional singer-songwriterdom in partnership with his then-wife Linda Thompson, and has delivered an often brilliant and eclectic solo career since.
In 2010, Rolling Stone named him the 19th greatest guitarist of all time — which is precisely the type of thing that makes Richard Thompson’s eyes roll. Truth is, he very much deserves to be on any compendium of great guitarists. Thompson is one of the few in the pop/rock pantheon who can claim just about equal mastery on acoustic and electric. He relies on his acoustic for solo sets — the format he’ll use at the Capitol Theater show with The Blind Boys of Alabama on Valentine's Day. He also tours with a trio that showcases his plugged-in flights on (mostly) Stratocaster.
“When I play electric, I wild out a little more,” he says with a chuckle. “I indulge. I can’t help it. I grew up in the ‘60s, and that’s what people did in the ‘60s — the guitar solos went on and on and the audience, stoned out of their mind, nodded sagely. I’ve never quite gotten over that.”
It’s unlikely that any of his fans would object.
Thompson’s solos call upon an array of techniques that include machine-gun runs; stinging rock ‘n’ roll licks; country-esque warble-and-twang (with sweeping bends that call to mind pedal steel), silky jazz chords; speedy staccato lines out the Django Reinhardt playbook; and rolling Celtic-isms he developed while adapting U.K. trad-folk into a rock setting. Using an array of alternate tunings, he can play fast, slow, lyrical, manic — his quiver has a multitude of arrows.
Notably absent in his playing, however — especially given his background — are overt references to the blues. Thompson is just a few years younger than the six-string godheads that dominated the scene in his native London during the ‘60s: Clapton, Beck, Page, Peter Green, et al. But he didn’t chase them, and that was by design.
“When I was 11, 12 years old, I heard some of the Mississippi stuff — Lightnin’ Hopkins, Sonny Terry and Brownee McGee — from my sister’s collection,” Thompson recalls. “By the time I started playing at 14, there was the Stones, Savoy Brown — a blues band on every corner.
“I emulated some of it for a bit, but when I joined Fairport, we had a very pioneering mindset. We didn’t want to be like other bands. We eventually decided we should stop playing American music and play something truer to our roots, so we got into doing more electric versions of British, Scottish and Irish music — which, for us, was far more fulfilling than being a third-rate homage to Muddy Waters.”
His guitar development during this formative fusion experiment still holds significant sway over his playing. “I had zero predecessors,” he says, speaking of developing his folk-rock style. “When you bring a new instrument into a tradition, you try to emulate sounds that already exist. So I would bring [the guitar] toward a fiddle sound, or the pipes sound, or the vocal inflections. But there was a slight shift. I bend a lot of notes, which is a blues staple, but fit it into a more Celtic idiom. There’s a scale, the Scottish pentatonic scale, that sort of mirrors the blues scale.”
To put a fine point on it, Thompson closes his latest album, Still (2015), with the song “Guitar Heroes,” in which the “bebop, twang-headed rock ‘n’ roll fool” plays brief homages to his idols. The sequence runs from Django Reinhardt to Les Paul to Chuck Berry to James Burton to The Shadows, without ever touching on B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Elmore James or the rest. (To cap the song off, Thompson launches into a stretch that pointedly showcases an amalgam of those and other stylings that are very much his own.)
Still is auditory proof that Thompson is not rehashing old ideas or has just given up and and lapsed into pure nostalgia — a condition that affects so many long-in-the-tooth rockers. (“Musicians who coast,” he says, “should get a sharp slap — to bring them back to full consciousness.”) The dozen songs bring ample surprises and showcase his formidable storytelling, whether personal ruminations or more folk-inclined narratives populated with dysfunctional characters.
To shake things up, Thompson called upon Jeff Tweedy, a fan, to produce. They recorded the sessions, quickly, at the Wilco leader’s Chicago studio. The result is a more Spartan, kinetic sound. “I think I know how to make a good record,” Thompson says, “but sometimes I feel my choices are predictable. It’s nice to have a new set of ears, another brain to bounce ideas off that will lead you in a different direction.”
Still, his 16th studio album (to go along with several live ones) is by no means the 67-year-old’s last. If anything, Thompson is looking to accelerate his output. “You realize that life is finite and to get through a few more projects you’ve got to get moving,” he says. “I’ve already written loads of songs for the next album.”
Thompson employs a disciplined work ethic in his songwriting that’s rare in the rock world. It’s very much a solitary pursuit. He rises early and puts in office hours in a workroom in his suburban Los Angeles home — generally sitting with a guitar, writing notes on staff paper. “A while back, I learned to mistrust cassettes,” he explains. “I’d lose the cassette or have to wind through an hour and a half to find the idea I was looking for. Notation isn’t perfect, though. I’ll jot down an idea and look at it two years later and wonder, ‘What was I thinking?’”
He’s added another tool in recent years. “I’ll jot a memo into my phone or talk into it,” he says. The technique is especially effective for collecting and organizing the random ideas he gets on the road.
But back to songwriting office hours? Really? How about inspiration, magic, channeling the muse? “Think about someone writing a novel,” he explains. “Hemingway got up early, started writing, typed standing up, put in his shift. You wouldn’t call Hemingway uninspired. I see what I do as a bit like that. The nice thing about it is if I’m home on successive days and keep on writing, the rusty faucets of inspiration creak open and I start to come up with ideas all the time — at dinner, in the car. On the other hand, I might get into the workroom at 7, 8 a.m. and hit a brick wall. So I say ‘screw it,’ and knock off.”
Thompson takes the same methodical approach to guitar. Does the veteran virtuoso practice? “Absolutely,” he replies. “As you get older, the joints start to stiffen and you have to keep mobile. If I’m in the studio I might play eight, 10 hours in a day. If I’m on a plane, I don’t play at all. But ordinarily, if I don’t have a show, I play a half an hour to an hour a day. I play guitar while watching TV — which is absolutely hell for the other people watching.”
What does all this focused process add up to?
Richard Thompson: working musician, popular to a point, but never bona fide famous. “It’s always nice to be more popular than you are — as an idea,” he says. “There’d be more people at the concerts. You could afford to take the band out more on the road. Most of these are financial considerations. Plus, you’d have more clout, more ability to control your career — not take a concert you really don’t want, not get up at 4 a.m. and play breakfast TV.
“Occasionally, I’ll see [an act] that’s really useless being very successful and I’ll have a pang of resentment. But on the whole I’m really happy where I am, that I can earn a living as a musician. Not a lot of people do these days.”
• • •
Preparing for this interview allowed me to deeply revisit Thompson’s catalog, read a ream of reviews, interviews and biographical material, and watch the 2002 BBC documentary Richard Thompson: Solitary Life. My fandom re-stoked, I was struck by the consistent value of his output over the years.
Then I made the mistake of telling him. When I praised his work — a bit fawning, I admit — he emitted a slight chuckle. Near the end, after hearing his take on fame, praise and blame, I mock apologized: “I want you to know that I am deeply sorry and retract all the nice things I said about your work.”
Thompson, whose wit can be as dry as bleached bones, quipped back, “That’s good. I almost hung up the phone.”
With that, we said our quick thank-yous and hung up our phones.
Richard Thompson plays Capitol Theatre in Clearwater, Florida on February 14, 2017 with Blind Boys of Alabama. Tickets are $35-$50 and more information on the show is available via local.cltampa.com.