There are ghosts in her singing.
When Linda Thompson’s wine-dark alto dips and feathers and swoons and swells, souls long snared by time’s winnowing tide seem to have found voice once more, seeping like new blood through her own.
Lately, one of those ghosts is Thompson herself. Until last year, her own voice was, effectively, dead, and had been so for nearly two decades.
Within folk circles, Thompson requires no introduction; she is royalty. Several albums she recorded with ex-husband Richard Thompson — I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (Island, 1974), Pour Down Like Silver (Island, 1975) and Shoot Out the Lights (Hannibal, 1982) — are now folk ‘n’ roll benchmarks.
Those records not only established Thompson’s striking vocal gifts but her knack for inhabiting tales of bloody retribution and love’s bloodletting, whether written by her then-husband or culled from the canon of traditional British Isles folk.
Following the demise of the couple’s tumultuous marriage, Thompson recorded her first solo album, One Clear Moment (WB, 1985), which met with lukewarm reviews. (She gives the album no better herself; it was too pop-y, she’s said.)
But the deliciously titled Fashionably Late, released last year on Rounder, is a return to all that is Linda. On it, she does many of her own songs, six of them co-writes with son Teddy. From the opening “Dear Mary” (on which Richard Thompson sings and plays guitar) to the concluding bittersweet homage to her ex, “Dear Old Man of Mine” (which includes Teddy and sister Kamila, two of the former couple’s three children, singing backup), the album is sheer delight.
But Fashionably Late would be a triumph even if it sucked. It heralds Thompson’s return to recording after 17 years’ absence.
By 1988, Thompson had ostensibly stopped performing. She was in the grips of a condition known as hysterical or spasmodic dysphonia. Simply put, the voice that helped fashion the modern British folk movement could no longer sing.
Things you can say of Linda Thompson’s singular singing:
• It holds darkness and slow-burning fire, both at once.
• It seems always to have existed.
• It is full of brokenness, and beauty.
• It understands that, sooner or later, you, me, we will fail.
Thompson’s first indication of the dysphonia dates to 1974, during recording sessions for Bright Lights, she noted by phone from her London home. At first, the condition was only sporadic. But over the next decade, it asserted itself more and more, profoundly exacerbated by her divorce in ’82.
Thompson was able to work only occasionally through the intervening years; going on stage and facing a microphone had become terrifying.
“I just never knew if anything would come out, and often it didn’t, [or] it came out late,” she reveals. “And of course, the more I worried about it, I guess the worse the spasms became.”
There weren’t really any options for treatment then.
“When women get sick with something like this, something you can’t see physically, it’s always put down to neurosis,” Thompson explains. “And of course, I put it down to that myself.”
Years later, public-radio personality Terry Gross, who likewise suffers from dysphonia, told her about pioneering treatments by an American man named Andrew Blitzer.
Botox, or Botulinum toxin, is produced by the bacteria that causes botulism, or food poisoning. In the form of injections to the face, it’s become the treatment du jour in recent years for removing unwanted wrinkles. With dysphonia, the toxin is injected directly into the vocal cords.
Thompson was not unfamiliar with Botox, having already gone under the needle for cosmetic work.
“Whatever it does to you, it can’t be good,” she speculates. “But I figured that if I’d had it in my forehead, I didn’t mind having it in my throat.
“To be honest, I stick my head in the sand, ostrichlike, about Botox,” she notes more seriously. “I wish it were milk thistle or Echinacea that did this for me, but it isn’t. It’s a f••king poison.
“I sort of weighed it up. I thought, well, should I be a nervous wreck and living on tranquilizers to try to get me to do this record and this tour, or shall I have these injections every four months?
“Not that I plan to keep doing it forever,” she adds, “because I don’t think I’ll go on the road for that much longer.”