After celebrating milestone, Richard Thompson gets back to work

Richard Thompson interview 2020

RICHARD THOMPSON

Richard Thompson celebrated his 70th birthday with a September concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall that — appropriately enough for an artist whose music touches on many genres — included guests from the worlds of British folk (Martin Carthy, Maddy Prior), American folk (Loudon Wainwright III), alt-rock (Hüsker Dü’s Bob Mould, The Stranglers’ Hugh Cornwell) and classic-rock (David Gilmour).

“I had a lot of fun when I could stop thinking about arrangements and what’s happening next,” says Thompson. “On one of the few occasions when I could relax, it was great fun.

“It was a fantastic night and with lots of guest stars. We sold out in three days and that’s pretty good for a folk-rock dinosaur like me.”

Thompson, who grew up in London and helped invent the genre of British folk-rock in the ’60s as a member of Fairport Convention, has been one of the world’s most widely acclaimed singer-songwriter-guitarists since then, and a prolific recording artist. He still tours often and is capable of making every show seem fresh. His devastatingly evocative treasure trove of songs — some originally recorded in partnership with his ex-wife, Linda Thompson — includes “Dimming of the Day,” “Beeswing,” “I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight,” “Withered and Died,” “Shoot Out the Lights,” “Wall of Death” and “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.”

He currently lives in Montclair, and has three New Jersey shows coming up. He’ll be at the Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark, Jan. 17 at 8 p.m.; the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, Jan. 18 at 8 p.m.; and the Scottish Rite Auditorium in Collingswood, Jan. 26 at 7 p.m. He’ll also be at Symphony Space in New York, Feb. 7-8 at 8 p.m.

MICHAEL STAHL

Zara Phillips and Richard Thompson. PORTRAITS BY MICHAEL STAHL

I recently interviewed Thompson and his partner — singer-songwriter and author Zara Phillips — for the second time at my home in Montclair.

“I come for the scones,” Thompson said, with a laugh. On the evening before getting a bad cold, Thompson sipped tea and, as he did during our last visit, admired my latest red amaryllis in full bloom. Thompson is an avid horticulturist and appreciates living among the green in his relatively new town.

(Click here for my previous interview with Thompson; here for my previous interview with Phillips).

I was glad to interview them again, not only because they are an interesting couple and Thompson’s stories about music history could fill a tome, but also because, once again, he re-tuned my guitar, dropping the pitch of the E string a whole step down to D. His genre-defying talents were on display as he strummed through a variety of songs before we got down to business.

It has been about one year since our last kitchen interview, giving Thompson additional time to settle into Montclair life and its community. He has enjoyed visiting with his artistic friends, including musician, songwriter and film-score composer David Mansfield, who lives nearby.

“We both like seeing Warren Zanes,” said Phillips. Zanes, a Montclair musician and producer, formerly of band The Del Fuegos, has also written several books, including his bestselling 2015 biography of Tom Petty, “Petty: The Biography.”

Thompson, Phillips and Zanes appeared last March in the third annual Montclair Literary Festival. Zanes read from “Petty” and Phillips read from her autobiography “Somebody’s Daughter: A Moving Journey of Discovery, Recovery and Adoption.” Thompson read from “Beeswing,” a memoir of his life and career from 1967 to 1975, to be published this year.

“I recount stories about Fairport and Janis Joplin, which are quite interesting — that was the teaser,” said Thompson.

I asked him for a few more teasers. “I will discuss jamming with Jimi and jamming with Zeppelin,” he said.

While they are both settled now in New Jersey — Zara has three children in the area and Thompson tours this country extensively — they plan “to spend more chunks of time in England,” said Phillips. “We are both Londoners and we miss it,” said Thompson.

A poster advertising Richard Thompson’s 70th anniversary concert.

Phillips participated in the September concert at Royal Albert Hall as one of Thompson’s “supporting” singers (he dislikes the term backing singer). In addition to the artists mentioned above, other participants included Linda Thompson; sons Jack Covey Thompson and Teddy Thompson; daughter Kami Thompson and son-in-law James Walbourne, both of the band The Rails; grandson Zak Hobbs; Kate Rusby; Eliza Carthy; Harry Shearer (as Derek Smalls of Spinal Tap); Olivia Chaney; Allistair Anderson; Ashley Hutchings; Marry Waterson; Dave Mattacks; Judith Owen and Christine Collister.

Thompson — who played for about three and a half hours and got off the stage only twice — complained that someone sang an impromptu “Happy Birthday” at the end of the concert. Phillips said she encouraged Thompson’s son, Jack, to sing the song to him.

“It was you,” Thompson said, smiling. “I’ll deal with you later.”

Thompson and Phillips spoke about the memorable moment when Thompson family members gathered to perform “That’s Enough” from the 2014 album they collaborated on, Family. We talked about the passing of time, aging and the pleasure Thompson experiences when playing with his kids.

“It was very sweet to watch Kami and Teddy watching him (Richard) when he was playing with Gilmour,” said Phillips.

He never assumes they want to watch him. “I’m a bit self-effacing. We do a lot of stuff together; that’s the nicest thing for a dad,” said Thompson.

Also at the Royal Albert Hall show, Mould performed on Thompson’s “Turning of the Tide” and his own “If I Can’t Change Your Mind” (originally recorded with his band, Sugar).

“Bob Mould was fantastic, another great guy and someone I always admired as having a great attitude to music,”said Thompson. “Known him since early ’90s.”

ROMANY GILMOUR

David Gilmour posted this photo of Richard Thompson and himself at Royal Albert Hall on Facebook.

Gilmour sang and played guitar on Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” and his own “Fat Old Sun” (from the 1970 Pink Floyd album, Atom Heart Mother).

“Fairport opened for Pink Floyd at the UFO club in London in 1967 and it was the night that (Pink Floyd co-founder) Syd Barrett blew his brains out (on drugs),” said Thompson. “Gilmour was behind the stage, playing the guitar parts, basically, because Syd was incapable. He never really recovered. Acid overdose or something. It was Gilmour’s first show with Pink Floyd and he took over from that point.

“He’s just a good guy and we were on the same label and I’d see him at office parties and were on the same bill. We never rose to their prominence, but there’s still time!”

Phillips said she especially enjoyed singing with Cornwell (an early musical partner of Thompson’s, when they were both teenagers in London) on the 1977 Stranglers hit, “Peaches.”

“That song came out when I was 13 — one of the first punky songs I loved,” said Phillips. “It was fantastically fun and so weird when you love something when you’re 13 and suddenly you’re singing backing vocals.”

She spoke about the beauty of the Royal Albert Hall and said she used to sing in the ’80s in her 20s at big venues with artists such as Bob Geldof, Nick Kamen and David Essex. Then between her 20s and 50s, she played smaller venues. “I’ve done everything backwards,” she said. “I had kids, and now I’m back doing big venues. I’m not intimidated by it ’cause I’ve done it, but I can appreciate it now, alcohol-free. I can remember things.”

When she accompanies Thompson at big venues, she is reminded of his celebrity. “When I go to a show, I remember how many people know him and are there for him … people have been nicer to me now since I’ve been with him. He’s been great for my reputation.”

In 2011, Thompson was honored at Buckingham Palace by the Queen of England with the Order of the British Empire (OBE), for his service to music. He has been described as “the best guitarist since Hendrix and the finest rock songwriter after Dylan” by the Los Angeles Times and designated as one of the top 20 guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone. He also was heralded by Time magazine as having written one of the 100 greatest songs since 1923, “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”

We discussed the validity of critics’ lists of top musicians, and he reacted strongly: “It’s bullshit — critics make lists and grade people … certainly you can’t grade guitar players in a list. ‘Oh, Jimi Hendrix is No. 1 and (Spanish classical guitarist) Andrés Segovia is at No 56.’ How can you compare the founder of modern classical guitar — someone who invented the (modern-romantic) repertoire and invented guitar as a concert instrument — with Jimi Hendrix, a groundbreaking electric guitar player, who incorporated feedback and all of these other techniques in his playing? It’s chalk and cheese.

“At some point Rolling Stone put me in the top 20. So I figured, ‘Fine,’ I’d use that. Keith Richard is a wonderful rhythm guitar player, but to put him at No. 4 or something — I really wish they wouldn’t do it. It’s an exercise that has survived because people like it and it’s controversial, especially with guitar players. People champion their favorite guitar players to the point of insanity.”

I asked him who he’d pick as one of his favorite guitarists.

MARTIN CARTHY

“Alive or dead?” he laughed, before picking the British folk artist Martin Carthy as his favorite.

“Martin said, ‘When I hear a song unaccompanied, I hear a lot of ambiguity in it. I’m not sure what the key is. Is it in A, or is it in E or D? I don’t know, really, so why should I pin it down to one particular key? Why shouldn’t I have more ambiguous notes to give it a sense of space you lose when you start playing the very traditional chords.’ Martin invented a guitar style that succeeds in doing it. And in pursuing his quest he has become one of the most original guitar players on the planet. So, I admire him for his originality and perseverance.

“I like old jazz guys from the ’50s like Johnny Smith. Some of those great Nashville country/jazz players like Hank Garland are fantastic. Some the guys you heard on records, you never heard of. James Burton is one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century, but very few people would know him. He plays on hundreds and hundreds of sessions.” (Burton has played with Elvis Presley, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, Elvis Costello and many others. Keith Richards inducted him into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001.)

When Thompson discussed his favorite songwriters, I suggested he list Phillips. She laughed, and he agreed.

“Her new songs are really good,” he said. Thompson will be recording, producing and assisting Phillips with her latest songs.

He also said: “I like dead people like Carolina Oliphant. She was an artistic writer, also known as Baroness Nairne or Lady Nairne. She was 18th century. Robert Burns was a great songwriter. Walter Scott wrote some great songs. Ewan MacColl was a great songwriter. W.B. Yeats wrote a few songs, one of which I’m going to sing at the Irish Center.” (Thompson, Phillips and Zanes will perform with poet Paul Muldoon and his band Rogue Oliphant at the Irish Center in New York on Feb. 10. There has been no official announcement but for updates, visit newyorkirishcenter.org).

The cover of Richard Thompson’s album, “1000 Years of Popular Music.”

We discussed Playboy magazine’s request for Thompson, along with other musicians, to submit a list of the 10 greatest songs of the millennium. He decided to take the request literally. “You are supposed to start in 1983 and I started in 1080, with St. Godric (with ‘Worldes Blis Ne Last’) and that (list) became the basis of the ‘1000 Years of Popular Music’ shows.”

Playboy declined to print his choices. However, his list inspired a 2003 live album titled 1000 Years of Popular Music. His favorites extended through the centuries, from Henry Purcell and Gilbert & Sullivan to Prince and Britney Spears.

In addition to a robust tour schedule, Thompson is gearing up for his annual summer camp, “Frets and Refrains Guitar & Songwriting Camp” at Full Moon Resort in Indian, N.Y., July 6-10. In a site nestled in the calming Catskills Mountains, he will be joined by a talented roster of teachers, including Richard’s sons Jack and Teddy, Martha Wainwright, John Doyle (“master of the Irish guitar and founding member of the band Solas”), Happy Traum and Sloan Wainwright.

“I can’t think of a more supportive environment for anyone learning an instrument, learning to be a songwriter or singer,” said Thompson. “We have an open mic every evening, and people sing some songs they write at camp and some that are part of their repertoire.”

“The teachers got people to sing who have never sung before,” said Phillips.

Thompson will also perform at a songwriting camp in South Africa that he learned about from Shawn Colvin. He plans to visit Table Mountain, a spectacular setting where he can indulge his interest in botany. “I have never been south of the Sahara. We’ll visit Cape Town and Johannesburg and also visit Victoria Falls,” said Thompson.

Thompson and Phillips are also busy writing new material. Working on songs for a new album and for a one-woman show, Phillips is focusing on the lifelong impact of being an adoptee, as well as issues of addiction and recovery. “I want to give people insight into recovery through the play,” she said. “And I’m taking more risks with this play now that all my parents have died except for Pat (her birth mother), so I’m not protecting anyone anymore. He’s (Richard) been pushing me not to do the same old thing I’ve always done.”

As far as his own recording plans, Thompson said: “I’m planning an electric album and an acoustic album, so depending on which pile gets highest, I’ll do that first.”

The cover of Richard Thompson’s album, “13 Rivers.”

I asked him if the themes of the songs on his upcoming albums will differ from the sentiments expressed on his last album, 2018’s 13 Rivers. “No, it’s all very sad, traumatic and political, like so much of my music,” he said. “I write something and then I say, ‘Why am I writing about this?’ and I don’t always know the answer.”

“I will know the answer,” said Phillips. “I will analyze them.”

“It’s a slow reveal,” he said of the 13 Rivers songs. “I write them as fiction. I can’t say they are reality. They are kind of an extension of reality. Once the creative process starts, it tends to go somewhere else and gets out of control and they (the songs) take on a life of their own. I am a shepherd that keeps them in the pen.”

“When you are in pain, it can be so painful to write and have perspective, but sometimes I can write well when I’m in that place because I need someplace to put it,” said Phillips. “When I’m writing a song, it’s always about more than one thing.”

“I don’t question what I write,” said Thompson. “All music is emotional … and it’s very spiritual stuff and it takes you somewhere else. Music, to me, is slightly elusive, which is why I can’t say what a song means.

“There’s also a youth thing, which you never really get back. Some people never really get past that — that’s all they write during the first flush of youth and then they are kind of done. But you can write great material as your perspective changes.

“It’s a rock ‘n’ roll illusion that it’s just about youth. If you are a filmmaker, maybe you wouldn’t direct a good film till you are 40. If you are a novelist, you might not write a good book till you are 40. One of my favorite painters just died at 90 doing her best work. People have different trajectories.”

We talked about cultural changes in folk and rock circles. “We lost a lot of people in the early ’60s,” said Thompson. “A crop of people disappeared very quickly at the end of the classic rock ‘n’ roll period — a lot of people disappeared for various reasons. Buddy Holly in a plane crash, Elvis went into the army, Gene Vincent, Eddie Cochran – both car crashes. So, rock ‘n’ roll suddenly changed like that. In the end of the ’60s, you had Jimi, Janis, Nick Drake — a lot of them drug related accidental overdoses — and there’s been a steady attrition since then. It’s a dangerous lifestyle.”

The level of risk is exacerbated, according to Phillips, by “the way you are living, the way people treat you and look up to you … some people can’t handle it … and the pressure of writing the next song.”

ZARA PHILLIPS

RICHARD THOMPSON AND ZARA PHILLIPS

“Adulation can lead to self-delusion,” said Thompson. “It’s a lifestyle where you have that intensity of being onstage and then that travel downtime, where you’re left to your own devices to decide what you are going to do with that. Well, do you read a book, take an interest in local architecture? Are you a bird watcher, or do you escape and just get into drugs just to numb it?”

“We’ve talked about the differences between what I’ve had with pop bands I worked with in the ’80s and the folk bands (he worked with) from the ’60s,” said Phillips. “I think there was so much drugs in the ’80s in the pop scene and so much sexual acting out. It was nuts. Constant partying. So much cocaine. It was everywhere.”

“It hit the music business first and then filtered out to the record companies, to the managers, the lawyers, the accounts department,” said Thompson. “Everyone was doing coke. It was absolutely crazy.”

“I think the mentality is a bit different now,” said Phillips.

“A vein of self-preservation crept in somewhere, maybe in the ’80s or ’90s,” said Thompson. “I think just seeing previous generations destroy themselves. You had a generation that was more responsible, actually reading the contracts before signing them, keeping the drugs and drinking under control.”

Qualifying his statement, he said: “there are several music scenes. I relate to one of them. I don’t see what goes on in the world of Beyoncé. I’ve no idea.”

Richard Thompson, in a 1988 publicity photo.

“Who knows what the young ones are doing?” said Phillips.

“Probably getting up to no good,” Thompson joked.

We discussed the current climate for musicians trying to survive economically in the industry. “It’s gotten harder and harder,” Thompson. “Not having any remuneration or (only) pathetic remuneration from your intellectual property — streaming has killed everything. I’d love to think that the governments will step in and pass some laws that make it more likely for musicians to receive royalties. There’s a government commission working on it.” Since he has several children in the music industry, he watches this issue closely.

Despite Thompson’s success, he is also humble, guided by his Sufi Muslim spiritual beliefs (often described as Islamic mysticism) of “balance, compassion and giving.”

His spiritual beliefs have given him a belief system to make sense of our world. “My interpretation of Islam is that you accept people of the Book. You accept Christians and Jews. They’ve been given the Bible or Torah and you respect them as believers of the Book … of God. (The) dividing line should be people who believe in God and people who don’t believe in God.”

Does he respect atheists and agnostics? “Sometimes I do respect them … I think as long as people ask questions and as long as there’s a struggle, then to me that’s acceptable. I have my favorite atheists. George Carlin is one of my favorite atheists because he saw things. He had a good critique of society. For people I hang out with, I like to think they have some kind of spiritual view.”

I asked him if you have to embrace a traditional notion of God to have a spiritual view.

WARREN CHURGIN

Richard Thompson at Montclair’s Outpost in the Burbs, in 2004.

“What’s a traditional God?” he said. “I don’t believe that people who think about these things at all believe in God as a Him. It’s beyond male or female … light and dark … If you believe this universe is a construct and you get beyond this world, none of that really holds true and we can only imagine what’s beyond this world. This is a world of opposites and I don’t think it extends as far as the Great Spirit. I like using the word the Great Spirit. Because it’s less tinged.”

Phillips nodded in agreement and explained that she identifies as Jewish.

“In my belief system,” said Thompson, “the Great Spirit created the world we know … The world is clearly constructed. It’s made of pieces, made of bits and it’s incredibly complicated.”

I asked Thompson about the quest to find community that shares his belief system.

“These days we say we are a community, but we pitch our tents farther apart — we are a far-flung community, not local,” he said.

In a prior interview, Thompson described music as “very spiritual stuff, powerful – it can heal the sick and raise the dead — it is extraordinary.”

Given that perspective, it’s not surprising that he says he doesn’t enjoy being the center of attention as a performer.

“I like to be the conduit of music, but don’t want to draw attention in other ways,” he says, adding, wryly, “I should be an egomaniac and get on with it.”

For more on Thompson, visit richardthompson-music.com.

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