The edge of an era

Were it not for the Sex Pistols, folk-rock icon Richard Thompson might be passing his days as a mild-mannered antique dealer in his native north London.

The thunderingly brilliant guitarist with the gorgeously haunted voice, you see, gave up music for a time in the mid-’70s and opened an antiques shop. “That was an odd time to be in Britain in popular music, because the direction of music was kind of strange,” explained Thompson in a recent phone interview from a hotel room somewhere in Indiana. “It was the Eagles and Queen and kind of the bombastic stuff and the pretentious stuff — nothing in-between. I had a hard time finding any sense of fitting in, you know. The music world was getting smaller, and I was thinking I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in that world. So I actually stepped out for a few years.”

He pauses to laugh uproariously before describing his ill-fated venture into the antiques trade. “I was just too soft to do it,” he says. “You were supposed to exploit these old ladies who’d come in and say, you know, ‘I have to sell the family jewels.’ And I’d say, ‘Take these lovely things to the auction. You can get much more money.’ I just couldn’t quite be so cut-throat. But when punk came around in 1977 or so — particularly the Sex Pistols — everything came into focus. I saw there was still real energy out there. It gave me hope, and I returned to music.”

Two generations of music lovers (so far) owe a hefty thank-you to Sid Vicious, Johnny Rotten and company.

For the uninitiated, Thompson first blazed onto the London music scene in the late ’60s with Fairport Convention, a group that combined Celtic roots-music with rock and, in the process, invented a whole new genre: folk-rock. Thompson left the band in 1971 to team up musically with then-wife Linda. The two went on to record a string of critically-acclaimed albums, including 1973’s classic I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (which Rolling Stone promptly voted one of the top five albums of the previous 30 years) and 1982’s breathtaking, stripped-down Shoot Out the Lights (which Time magazine called “a record that has no contemporary equal.”)

Since splitting both professionally and personally with Linda in 1983, Thompson has forged a solo path, recording more than a dozen darkly beautiful albums — both acoustic and electric — including two Grammy nominees: Rumour & Sigh (1991) and you?me?us? (1996). Two tribute albums, featuring artists as diverse as Los Lobos, Bonnie Raitt and Elvis Costello covering Thompson-penned songs, have been released, as well..

His latest work — this year’s Mock Tudor, which also features his son Teddy on guitar and backing vocals — is an epic, elegiac road map of the curious cultural wasteland that is Thompson’s suburban London. The disc — which he calls a cornucopia of trippy, swinging rockers mixed with a few dark, brooding ballads, is “less cynical” than much of his previous work. Not to worry, though: The songs are still populated with Thompson’s trademark quirky, hard-luck misfits and jilted lovers: a small-time Mafioso turned hippie-guru; a blackmailing con artist with a penchant for expensive suits and naive women; a downtrodden, over-the-hill dancer with a heroin habit.

Thompson’s ragingly expressive voice stirs up echoes of Bruce Springsteen and Leonard Cohen, all the while remaining extraordinarily singular. And his passionate, stirring, gutsy guitar style — which has been known literally leave listeners breathless — has been lauded equally by peers, fans and critics. One Billboard magazine reviewer gushed, “He’ll challenge the faith of anyone who thinks Eric Clapton is God.” Thompson — at age 50 — is arguably one of a handful of artists who justly deserves the grossly overused moniker “living legend.”

Below is the remainder of Xpress’s interview with the soft-spoken, disarmingly charming Thompson.

MX: Since you’re considered pretty much the inventor of folk-rock, I was curious about what you think about the direction the genre has taken. While your subject matter and often-haunting tone has remained more reflective of the dark side of life than not, it seems what passes for folk-rock today is often really poppy — kind of alarmingly upbeat, sappy and watered down. What do you think of the turn the genre has taken over the years?

RT: Sappy, upbeat … hmm. Well, it’s a big world. Some people like sappy and upbeat, and I’d never condemn them for that. But some people like more serious stuff. I just kind of write the stuff that I like to write, and it is kind of serious. But I tend to see it as just that: serious, rather than wrist-slashing. I suppose I tend to take a traditional view of rock music and combine certain [older] traditions with rock sounds. Another kind of rock music has basically become the contemporary currency, for sure. But [what I do] is take along the threads of more historical stuff. In a sense, I think that’s something human beings always resort back to. Music goes in cycles, really. And actually, right now, I think roots music and those traditional elements are very much in evidence, if you look closely, which I find heartening.

MX: Along those same lines, the people who populate your songs are often troubled misfits and people living a bit on the margins. Laments about love gone tragically wrong are also a big theme. But an inherent affection for these characters usually comes through on your part, as well. I was just wondering how close that dark side you evoke is to the real you. And are some of the characters in your songs based on real people? If not, where do those characters come from?

RT: First of all, people reveal more of themselves when they’re relegated to the margins of life. The boundaries are stripped away, which makes it easier to see who people really are. In terms of a song, that gives you a quicker inroad into the character, instead of, say, some humble accountant type who you might [need to] write 56 versions about to strip away the layers of blandness. If you go out on the street and meet someone who’s drunk and crazy, that’s more real and a lot more sincere. There’s no bulls••t, you know. So that’s kind of a songwriting device, in a sense. And also, people who have lost in love or are doomed to tragic, unrequited love are certainly more interesting than those who haven’t or aren’t. The people in my songs aren’t usually fictional. In most cases, they’re based on real people. I’ve always gone out and talked to people on the streets, because I really want to hear people’s stories. I’ve always talked to everybody. That’s so much more interesting. Everybody who has a story to tell is fascinating, so far as I’m concerned.

MX: When you started playing with Fairport Convention, were you conscious of the fact that you were making musical history, or were you just sort of doing what came naturally? In other words, did you realize you were defining this new genre?

RT: Well, it was kind of an intellectual decision to really concentrate on our style. It was a thing that we were playing anyway — bringing in these indigenous Celtic influences to our sound. So, yes, we were conscious of what we were doing, but we didn’t realize how far-reaching it would be.

MX: You’re often called a musical chameleon, and it really is uncanny how many styles you’ve incorporated into your work over the course of your career, not to mention the ease with which you move back and forth between acoustic and electric. What kind of music first influenced you, and how have your tastes changed over the years?

RT: In the house where I was growing up, there was a mixture of Scottish dance music and Louis Armstrong and classical music that kind of crept in, and Jerry Lee Lewis– an interesting mixture, you know. And then in the ’70s, I was playing pretty much full-time as a session guitarist, so I had to cover a lot of styles. You know, I’ve pretty much had to go with the flow, and I’ve always enjoyed playing a variety of styles.

MX: Do you come from a musical family? How, when and where did you first begin to play music?

RT: My father was a guitar player, though he wasn’t a particularly good one. And my grandparents used to have a dance band in Scotland. They used to play kind of swing and Scottish country dances. I first picked up a guitar when I was about 10. There was one in the house, so naturally I picked it up and started playing. Things just kind of took off from there.

MX: You’re in the rather interesting position of being hugely famous without being hugely famous, if you know what I mean. Among musicians and a plethora of die-hard fans, you’re held up as an icon. But the kind of huge commercial success that some of your peers have enjoyed hasn’t really been forthcoming. How do you feel about that, or is it important to you at all?

RT: Yes, I know what you mean exactly. But I certainly earn a living, thank goodness. [Laughs] And it’s actually fantastic, because [my current position] means I can play the kind of music I want to without having to pay too much attention to what’s expected of me. I kind of interface occasionally with the world of radio and the [mainstream] music world, but I’m definitely on the edge of that. And when I cross that boundary, it’s great: I can afford an extra crew member or something. So I don’t see [my current status] as a terrible position to be in. As long as people keep coming to concerts, I feel terribly lucky.

MX: Tell me about the impetus for your new CD. Why did you choose this particular time to write so elegiacally about your homeland? Haven’t you been living in America for some time now, and how does that factor into the whole equation?

RT: Yeah, I’ve been technically living here, but I actually commute a lot. … Mock Tudor was a project I’d had in mind for a long time — about suburbia and about London. I’d placed it on the back burner, along with a lot of other projects. But I had a couple of songs that already fit with that particular theme, and it just seemed an interesting time to put it forward and see if I could compose an album based on the subject. I was able to write the songs fairly quickly. And there you go. … Some of the songs are really personal, and some are really about other people and other people’s lives. And suburban London became more of a backdrop for the human drama. But as a writer, I think you visit the past often because you’re trying to decode something, you’re trying to figure out something that’s unresolved. It’s an unraveling of threads, really. But on the whole, I think of it as a compassionate record, rather than a cynical one.

MX: And does that mean you’re becoming a less cynical person as the years go by?

RT: I’m not sure you ever have to be cynical about the past. I think you have to be cynical about the present. Memories are usually sweeter than present-day reality, and it’s easier to be compassionate toward people in your past.

MX: Are you already working on a new project, or are you letting things settle for awhile?

RT: Well, I’m working on about four different things, but I’m a bit superstitious about discussing future projects.

MX: How do you feel about the two tribute albums that have been dedicated to your music so far? Is it a little weird to have people like Bruce Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt and David Byrne — who are so well-defined and have such signature styles — interpreting your songs?

RT: It’s a combination of things for me. It’s touching. Probably the strongest thing I get out if it is this: It’s nice when the public likes you and when critics like you — but the best thing is when your peers like you. When somebody contemporary to you records your songs, it’s a terrific feeling. A whole album of that is quite overwhelming, in fact. So I’m kind of humbled and embarrassed and all those things. I’m quite embarrassed, in fact.

MX: How have you and your music changed, if at all, since you’ve been living in America?

RT: I think at some point, if you just travel out of your own country even for a few weeks, you get more of a perspective on who you are and how you fit within any culture. At this point, though, I don’t think my geographical setting makes a big difference in the music. I think whatever landscape is inside me, I carry it around. Growing up in Britain is very internal to me. I’d be happy to write songs on a beach in Hawaii. Can that be arranged, do you think?

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