Richard Thompson- folk/roots hero returns with new album : interview : Louder Than War

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Richard Thompson, the legendary UK folk/roots/traditional guitar player who was a key part of Fairport Convention is set to release his new solo album, Electric
February 11th.

The new album sees Thompson return to the studio after his last album being recorded live. The resulting work is stripped down three piece drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk and produced by Buddy Miller who brings a sparse and powerful and very contemporary sound to the trio that really shocases Thompson’s powerful and lyrically urgent songs and his great guitar playing like the following track, the sardonically titled ‘Good Things Happen To Bad People’ showcases.

 

 

It was it a very different disciple to return to the studio to record the songs after recording them live last time on 2010’s Dream Attic.

 

‘Quite different, with the last album the musicians had to learn the whole set and the whole album and learn everything every song whereas in the studio you can just break everything down and do it till you get it right. The live thing is tougher, I thought it would be cheaper to record live as well but it cost exactly the same as usual (laughs). It was an interesting experiment doing that last album live and maybe I will do it in the future at some time.  The way we record in the studio is fairly live anyway and we recorded this album in a house which made it very relaxed.’

 

In a long career that started in the mid sixties with Fairport Convention and has continued with many solo albums is it hard to still find inspiration.

‘It’s not always there! But I don’t have a problem coming up with inspiration. I write more songs when I’m writing for specific projects like with this album which I wanted to do as a recoding as a trio with guitar, bass and drums. I wrote the material with that in mind and songs formed in a different way because of that format and that’s because of an inspirational starting point.’

 

So the framework of the band or way of recording can be the inspiration?

 

‘It’s always from an idea or a framework. It’s great working within limitations, I think that it’s a great thing if someone says write a film score and it has to be like this, for that’s an inspirational thing, the same with an album- it’s good to have a handle and an area to write within other than saying it’s completely wide open and write some songs and off we go. For me it’s much better to have a theme or a concept and then off we go! And this time the idea was to keep it simple and in the studio.

 

Themes how create t the music or local themes

 

Either I done albums that have been more thematic, I did an album did mock Tudor about growing up in London a London theed record, I done records with other idea a general themes it easier I not done every record that way sometime a bunch of songs I just written.

 

Lyrically what are you writing about this time? The last album had some political moments on it.

 

‘This time there are not overtly political songs but there is a song called Stuck On The Treadmill which is about people struggling to keep their jobs and how hard it is to earn a wage to live on, obviously it’s part sociological and part political and is about the situation of the last few years. There are one or two songs like that on the record. Other songs are about all kinds of things- love songs, songs of betrayal, jealousy and hatred!

 

 

Do you find working within a traditional form creates certain constraints to what you can do and do react against that?

 

‘I think both, inevitably you can be traditional or be inspirational or say I want to throw this off and use it as a basis and try to find something different that grows out of tradition by trying an adventurous harmonic idea or to go into a more dissonant area both are inspirational.

There’s been a big revival in folk and roots music in the last few years,  why do you think this is?

 

‘I think people like to know the old music. They like to know where they come from. The British are often very dismissive of their own culture though, like the way they laugh at Morris dancers or if a British folk song gets in the charts it gets treated like a novelty song rather than a valid piece of popular culture.

I think the more people that live inside the cyber world and the more they are on the internet, the more they seem part of the global village that people will crave the identity of their own culture and the more they will want to say this is the music of where I come from, the clothes of where I come from.’

 

 

It’s strange that the expansion of the net has made people more traditional…

 

‘I think actually the result of the net makes culture more local in a funny way. You got this worldwide connection out there but you focus on who and where you are.’

 

 

 

Are people connecting with the roots and traditional culture the same as you did in 60s

 

‘There is a similar connection, maybe in the sixties we had to build more bridges and the generation before us in the fifties had to do the same thing because popular music was very American based at the time. The stars came from jazz and swing and the old songs had been submerged and really lost – interestingly it was less so in Scotland than in England but in England traditional culture disappeared. It took Cecil Sharp in the early twentieth century and Bert Lloyd in the 1950s to find and revive the folk culture by collecting the old songs and making them known again.

The big folk club thing in the sixties started out as intellectuals saving folk music really and that, alongside their enthusiasm for American music by playing songs by Woodie Guthrie and Leadbelly was the basis of the revival. There was this intellectual thing about it. Folk music was the traditional music of the working man that was being lost and eroded in the sixties because a lot of those jobs were disappearing, so what we did with Fairport was that we said we have to contemporise this music or it’s going to become a back alley of music. We thought let’s bring it into the popular mainstream, let’s play it electric because that would be satisfying for us and our audience.’

 

Do you feel that you are still working in these parameters?

 

‘I still play in the same style. I’m a British based roots musician. I’m writing songs still that have a strong element of British tradition and rock n roll in them and I’m building this kind of bridge with the past.

 

People talk about great English art and music normally with people like Ray Davies- who is one sort of Englishness and here you are with a very different kind of Englishness.

‘I think Ray’s Englishness is more music hall based. I use traditional songs to base what I do on and he doesn’t have those references. I love Ray’s songs and I think they are great though. The same with the Beatles’ Penny Lane and Strawberry Fields which are very English but don’t reference traditional music much. With Fairport we wanted to go back to the old music and bring that to people’s consciousness.’

 

Do you think there had been an editing or tidying up of folk music?

 

 

‘Yup, absolutely (laughs), The Victorians cleaned them up when people like Cecil Sharp went into schools people were learning traditional folk songs from him which was great but they were the cleaned up stuff.  It was a great achievement to learn those songs in schools but the songs were a lot more fun than that. When people hear the bawdy stuff, they think it’s great (laughs). The real music is dealing with real issues – like the song about the randy poacher who screwed all these women- fantastic idea!  That’s a theme not to different from what you get in hip hop music…’

 

 

Do you think Hip hop and maybe punk in the 70s are modern folk musics?

 

‘They are kinds of folk music. You can say that rock n roll is now a traditional music, a classical music in a way that’s been around long enough to qualify like classical. There are three classic jazz styles now. I don’t think rap is quite there yet in terms of history but you can argue that it’s a folk music of the underclass, for the less privileged and that it is a political music.’

 

 

Do you feel a responsibility to the culture as an elder statement, maybe even a guardian of it?

 

‘I feel a shared responsibility with the culture. There are enough people out there that only sing traditional music, people like Martin Carthy,  Norman Waterson and the Unthanks who only sing traditional music.  My music is based on traditional music but not it’s pure and that doesn’t weigh me down.’

 

You don’t do direct copies of the roots music- do you think important to do something new from the old music and not a museum piece?

 

‘Sometimes I get a hankering to sing traditional songs, I learn some of those songs and they are so beautiful and they resonate so deeply that you just want to sing these songs and connect with them. Other times I feel it’s a very good thing to tweak a song and modernise it and do what you want with the old music.’

 

How was the song writing for the new album, do you have to work at it for a few hours every day?

 

‘I have to work at it. Sometimes I go for months without writing. It’s frustrating for me and not a good time for my family- I become a right moody bastard (laughs). Normally I write fairly steadily and then when I’m working on a project I really concentrate on that short and intense piece of work. The new record took two months that was really quick. It was a very intense period of working on one project!

 

Is there a point when you know when the record is finished?

 

I don’t . I think sometimes you have to say, I got enough material. It’s good enough to record. On the new record we recorded 16 tracks with the idea that we choose 11 later on. We didn’t know what the final line was going to be and those came from 40 songs, so I had abandoned half the songs during the process before we even recorded.’

 

Good Things Happen To Bad People is a great title- sardonic and darkly funny- What’s the song about?

‘It’s a jealousy song. Sometime you write songs and look at them later and think that’s not really me, where did that song come from? Maybe you base it on feelings you had at some point in your life. The song is a barometer and you play the part of the barometer and it’s not your viewpoint, so that was a jealous song- like blues songs. I was thinking of the very jealous type of songs and I thought maybe I would try something like that and I suppose this idea of redemption or karma, like you’re going to get yours later, just you wait- we live in hope!’

 

 

Is Salford Sunday a reference to Ewan MacColl who was born in the city and also wrote the famous song covered by the Pogues, Dirty Old Town about the place.

 

‘Not really, but I guess it’s the second song about Salford that has been written in what seem like a slightly desultory manner. It seems like a put down but it’s not, I was thinking back to the 60s Salford that I remember from touring and the song is set then when it was grittier and grimier. I always loved that industrial landscape and I was very fond of that kind of bleakness, although the inhabitants of Salford may not take it that way! I’m playing the Lowry in Salford in March, I might get lynched now- let’s see what happens!’

 

Finally, when you were at school in London you were in a band called Emil And The Detectives with Hugh Cornwell, the future Strangler.

 

It was at school and was way back in the mid sixties. He was the bass player at that point and we had a little trio. We were playing when we were 14 till 16 .

It was the school band and would do 6 gigs a year if we were lucky. We would play at parties and anywhere that would have us really! We were a covers band doing r’n’b type stuff and Who numbers, anything we could get our hands on. When you are 14 or 15 it’s whatever seems hip or exciting. When I started to play in Fairport I stopped playing with Hugh and didn’t see him for 40 years then we got back together a couple of years ago and we are pals again.

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