Electrifying guitarist, evocative vocalist and masterful songwriter Richard Thompson covered a lot of ground in our conversation last week. Two songs served as my imaginary soundtrack to our encounter: “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” (written and sung by Thompson’s 1960s Fairport Convention bandmate Sandy Denny) and Thompson’s “A Heart Needs a Home.”
Just as the first song pondered the passage of time, Thompson, 69, discussed the past 50 years of life’s changes — children becoming adults, changing partners, touring “50 percent of the year,” political and cultural developments and spiritual awakenings — that have informed his vast catalog of haunting, poetic and deeply personal songs. His laughter and jokes punctuated our heady discussion and created a portrait of a rocker who observes the world through song and prose but doesn’t take it all so seriously that he can’t stop to have some fun and see the light side of life.
Thompson’s heart has found a new home in Montclair, where singer-songwriter and author Zara Phillips lives; they will appear together, along with author and musician Warren Zanes and other participants in the third annual Montclair Literary Festival, taking place March 20-24 at various venues. On March 20, they will take turns reading from their books and perform some of their songs. Zanes wrote the bestselling “Petty: The Biography” about Tom Petty and Phillips wrote the autobiographical “Somebody’s Daughter: A Moving Journey of Discovery, Recovery and Adoption.” Thompson will read from “Beeswing,” a memoir of his life and career from 1967 to 1975, to be published in 2020. Visit succeed2gether.org/montclair-literary-festival.
(Thompson will also perform a solo acoustic set at the Outpost in the Burbs in Montclair, May 11. The show will be preceded by a sold-out screening of the film, “A Winding Road: A Ramble with Richard Thompson,” presented in partnership with Montclair Film. Visit outpostintheburbs.org.)
With an understated, direct nod and wry smile, Thompson agreed with music critics’ frequent assertion that he and his Fairport Convention bandmates created British folk-rock, merging traditional tunes with ’60s folk and rock.
“We did invent British folk rock,” Thompson said. “It’s good because it really opened up the debate about folk in the U.K. and also Sweden, Holland, Spain and Russia. People heard what Fairport did to British music and they said, ‘We should do this to our own music and stop being dominated by American culture. We should blend our music with the lingua franca of the day, in other words rock ‘n’ roll, to create something more vibrant and contemporary.’ ”
Thompson has been described as “the best guitarist since Hendrix and the finest rock songwriter after Dylan” by the Los Angeles Times and designated one of the top 20 guitarists of all time by Rolling Stone, and was heralded by Time magazine as having written one of the 100 greatest songs since 1923 (“1952 Vincent Black Lightning”). I was struck by his humility and concern for matters beyond himself, possibly informed by his long-standing Sufi belief “of balance, compassion and giving.” He demonstrated a deep knowledge of literature, especially Scottish writers from the 1500s to the 1700s, often opining on matters suitable for a college professor, and delved deeply into discussions about the pain and beauty of love, loss and human suffering — but then quickly changed gears to display the heart of a rocker who wants to get out of his head and, as he said, “Get back to rock ‘n’ roll. Three chords!”
After leaving Fairport Convention in 1971, Thompson worked solo, and then in 1973 recorded a series of gorgeous albums with former spouse Linda Thompson for a decade until their breakup around 1982. Since then, he has enjoyed a successful solo career for more than 30 years.
A mature teller of tales, with well-developed character portraits, he’s equally stunning on both acoustic and electric guitar, getting the most out of both, making his guitar invoke a range of emotions.
In “A Heart Needs a Home” from Linda and Richard Thompson’s 1975 album Hokey Pokey, the lyrics describe loneliness and the need for companionship. Years after it was written and several relationships later, Thompson has found his heart connected with Phillips. Together they share negotiating the needs of their children, touring schedules, writing songs (Thompson is helping Phillips with some new material) and nurturing the spark that brought them together, with shared experiences of living in North London and embracing sobriety since their 20s.
After spending the last 30 years in Pacific Palisades, Calif., he has found his transition to Montclair, where he has been living for about a year, relatively easy.
“As a musician I’ve travelled all over the U.S., so nothing is alien to me … I am a child of the London suburbs, so I am comfortable with a few trees and parks. That makes me feel relaxed; I find some cities too urban and the country can be too isolating. I’ve lived in every situation, but I’m a suburbanite.”
Unlike the suburban stereotype of sterility and homogeneity, “suburbs were a creative place for me, growing up. I had The Kinks living down the street when I was a kid. They were older than me — just so you know someone is older than me,” he said with a laugh. “They lived just a few blocks away, and when my band Fairport Convention started, our rehearsal space was where The Kinks used to live, and you had The Yardbirds around, too … There were all these clubs in North London so you could go to clubs without going into Central London.”
Although Montclair can’t claim to house The Kinks, it is the home for many treasured writers, performers and artists, nestled among the trees, playgrounds and cafés, so Thompson can continue to surround himself with creative types. “New Jersey is a combination of ugly and beautiful depending on where you go. You can be walking down a beautiful tree-lined street and then turn the corner and you are in an episode of ‘The Sopranos,’ ” he said. “I’m discovering a lot of musicians and writers here.”
Thompson enjoys touring, but also appreciates settling down by gardening and would like to spend more time on watercolors, which he says he only dabbles with now, when traveling. We did the interview at my Montclair home, and I was gratified to notice his very tall figure bent over to get a closer look at my about-to-bloom white amaryllis.
Thompson defies genre, probably because he’s busy creating them, and showed a great appreciation for cultural range when he picked up my old guitar, playing first “Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten, and then “There Is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast” from Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Mikado.” His commanding voice and fast finger work created the noise of a full band. I’ve retired my guitar back to its corner of the living room, because it just had its peak performance.
After 50 years of a stunning career, this hardworking musician finally made the cover of Guitar Player magazine. (I’d love to know why it took so long.) His solos are breathtaking and his fingers move faster than an Acela high-speed train. During his 30-year solo career, Thompson has received many awards, including recognition from the Americana Music Association in Nashville and Britain’s BBC Awards, and in 2011 he was given the OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. He has recorded numerous soundtracks, including one for Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man.”
Thompson explained that his friend, rock journalist Scott Timberg, encouraged him to write a book about his life from 1968 to 1975.
“I said no for two years, but then I thought it would be fun to do it,” he said. “I started to write a few things and then I really enjoyed the process and I’m still enjoying it. You can play with language. And I can also say things about people who are dead and they can’t answer back, which is great (laughs).
“I try to have a musical focus and my personal life is in there when I need to talk about it, because it reflects musical things as well. Sometimes I have to mention a girl I was with because it’s an interesting story that relates to a musical thing. Linda (Thompson) is in the book because we were together during three years covered in the book, ‘72 to ’75. We had a really difficult break-up, but we are best friends now. She’s forgiven me, which is spectacular.”
Thompson explained that memoir writing moves very slowly, while writing a song can “take 10 minutes. I don’t think there is much correlation with songwriting at all. Poetry is a lot closer (to songwriting) than prose.”
Reflecting on his writing process, Thompson noted, “I’m quite even-tempered. I’m not Chopin with wild mood swings. I can write anywhere. I love going to a resort, where I can write the darkest songs you can imagine, sitting on the beach, dipping in the pool. I write a lot upon reflection about the past.”
For example, he wrote “Broken Doll” (from his 2015 album Still) about a mental patient, years after the events described. “I wrote a song about (an event in) 1970, where I had an interaction with a mental patient, and it took 45 years to process this, and then the song came out.”
He named his book after his delicate and powerful song “Beeswing,” from his 1994 album Mirror Blue, because the song reflects the time period explored in the book. The song tells the story of an independent young woman during the Summer of Love with the backdrop of the Vietnam War; her desire for freedom ends up leading to a complicated life.
I was 19 when I came to town
They called it the Summer of Love
They were burning babies, burning flags
The Hawks against the Doves
The chorus repeats:
Oh, she was a rare thing, fine as a bee’s wing
So fine a breath of wind might blow her away
She was a lost child
She was running wild
She said, “As long as there’s no price on love, I’ll stay
And you wouldn’t want me any other way.”
The woman’s fate is explained by these brilliant and sad lines:
And they say her flower is faded now
Hard weather and hard booze
But maybe that’s just the price you pay
For the chains you refuse
Regarding this stanza, Thompson commented: “That’s when I knew the song was finished, because sometimes you are looking for something to wrap up a song, and I knew that was it.”
The song ends with the narrator longing for the independent young woman after she left him. I take from the song that it is also a poetic imagining of an innocent time when the narrator was younger, experiencing first love, with infinite possibilities ahead.
“It was a massive time of change in Britain — urbanites heading to country to reconnect naively with something,” said Thompson. “A new generation was gonna change things. To some extent, things changed, and it is a different world. But human nature is human nature, and people are greedy and corrupt and selfish and egotistical.” He referenced the current bleak situation in the United States and all over the world as evidence of the inevitability of human failings.
“Sandy (Denny) would tell me stories about Annie Briggs, who was her best friend and a traditional singer. Some of Annie is in there. I was living in the U.K., sharing a thatched cottage in Suffolk, and this tramp used to come around asking for odd jobs, so we’d have him do gardening. We’d wash his clothes and clean him up. He was a sweet man, previously a stable boy. He lost his papers and got laid off. He’d come round every four to five months and he’d tell me stories about his life, so a lot of him is in the song as well.”
While the woman in the song is fiction, we talked about other free-spirited women in his life, including his sister, a fashion designer in the U.K., who “took my father head on. No one was gonna tell her how to live her life.”
He prefers that a listener comes up with his or her own interpretation for a song, and acknowledges that much of what he has written is unconscious and the product of his vivid imagination. But there is a core that he can identify and access. We discussed this further when the conversation turned to his outstanding 2018 album, 13 Rivers.
“The Storm Won’t Come” is the album’s stirring, ominous first track. In it, Thompson hopes for change during a difficult time, using guitar turbulence that make his words sound like a plea. He wails:
I’m longing for a storm to blow through town
And blow these sad old buildings down
Fire to burn what fire may
And rain to wash it all away
But the storm won’t come
Thompson explained that he has been going through a difficult divorce, and learned that a family member was sexually assaulted a couple of years ago. His songs reflect that attack, as well as the ending of one relationship and the beginning of another.
The album was written in the “space of two months, during a difficult couple of years,” and his troubles became “the background of what I was writing,” Thompson said.
“I look back at these songs and I think, ‘Where does this come from?’ And I suppose it comes from that turbulence. Also, the times we live in, when democracy is breaking down here and in Europe … that gets reflected in some ways in these stories.”
He explained that because the songs were written in a short period of time, “you overlap vocabulary (and) musical and lyrical chords predominate because that’s what you are feeling at the time, so that there’s a thing that makes it hang together.”
The album’s title was inspired by his travels. “I think of a river as a journey — when I was in Belize, I loved canoeing on a river with idyllic rainforests on both sides, and I’m canoeing down the river and I’m thinking, ‘What’s around the bend?’ I’ll go a little further, then I’ll get to the next bend and I’ll go a little further. I suppose I see the songs as a windy thing and you get to another verse, then another and I wonder how this is gonna end. And then sometimes the end isn’t the end, it’s just a section of the story.”
While his new beginnings in Montclair are referenced in “Her Love Was Meant for Me” and other songs on the album, Thompson said: “Zara is in there. But even if I have the intention of writing about something … I just drift off into other things. Unconscious things. Sometimes I write something and I think, ‘I love that line. what the hell does that mean?’ Like the line in that song: ‘She came to me walking backwards.’ I really like it. Can’t figure out what it means. Perhaps she is travelling from the future to the past so you kind of go past her in a different direction.”
I asked Thompson if he felt any relief or sense of closure by writing about the past few years’ difficulties, and he responded: “Writing things can sometimes be cathartic and also cathartic for the audience, but that’s not the intention. The intention is to have fun and make music.”
Pleased with the outcome, he said “sometimes you can write songs and think they are good and you go into the studio with the best of intentions, but it doesn’t communicate and you never know if it’s going to communicate until people start listening to it or you play it in front of an audience and people respond.”
In a later exchange, Thompson told me that “the best part of what I do is playing for a live audience. I love that feeling of communication. There’s a special still quality to playing acoustic, and a more visceral feeling to electric. I love both.”
We discussed in detail his early years, which set him up to be a stellar storyteller and creator of British folk rock. Thompson’s father was a detective with Scotland Yard’s elite branch in London during a time period when there was “a lot of police corruption and gangs in Central London in the ’50s and ’60s.” An amateur guitar player, his dad “had a great record collection, including Django Reinhardt and Les Paul, that got me interested in the guitar. And my sister, who was five years older than me, had rock ‘n’ roll records from when she was 11 or 12. So I’m hearing all this Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gene Vincent, plus there was a lot of Scottish music in the house because my father was Scottish.”
These musical influences can be heard throughout Thompson’s career. He said that in the early part of his career, his father “loved the idea that I was playing guitar, but he’d always say, ‘Here’s a Django Reinhardt song you should play.’ At some point he got proud of me and he and my mother would come to shows, but I really had to fight them to be a musician. It was tough.”
He also found it challenging for Fairport Convention to be accepted in British folk clubs where “you had people who were trenchantly conservative, musically … clubs had rules that you couldn’t bring in instruments — you had to sing unaccompanied … and you should play a ballad in a certain way. Half the folk scene thought we were the worst thing and the other half thought (Fairport Convention’s music) was a kick in the pants.”
Thompson added that “traditional singers will sing a ballad that’s 400 years old and then sing a Britney Spears song. It’s the academics that care about these things and in Fairport Convention we were … happy to rock it up.”
He said that his storytelling was also influenced by growing up “in a house full of books as well, and a lot of the books came from my grandfather and great grandfather and were books of Scottish ballads — these great old story songs … sung at a time when there were no newspapers, radio or TV. The news got spread around through singing it.”
He added, “I grew up reading Robert Burns … and Walter Scott … and other writers from Scottish traditions … so when the time came to tell stories I was kind of trained without thinking about it. This stuff is kind of in me without intending it to be a career path.”
Eventually, he decided that rock ‘n’ roll was far more exciting, and came to understand that youthful boredom inspired his storytelling.
“There’s this expression, ‘the Sunday tea time of the soul’ … it’s this period in Britain, it’s winter, it’s raining outside all day and there’s nothing to do. Things shut down so I read — it’s something I did when I was a kid and stopped doing it when I was a teenager and I started playing in a band.”
After losing his drummer and girlfriend in 1969, Fairport Convention added more English, Irish and Scottish traditional music and “we decided to take it further and do rock versions of traditional songs — old ballads with these incredible stories (and) vivid, beautiful language.
“Music is very spiritual stuff, powerful — it can heal the sick and raise the dead — it is extraordinary,” Thompson said.
He has been interested in spiritual matters since he was a teenager and explained that his journey led him to “one particular bookstore in London, and I think the first book I read was called ‘Zen Flesh.’ There were wonderful short little stories …and they start you thinking in a different way. I thought, ‘This is great, this is better than the Presbyterianism that I grew up with when I was a kid which I could not quite decode.’ … By the time I was 23, the Sufis seemed to be where it’s at. They seemed to have access to the here and now.
“It wasn’t a mystery. In Christianity, sometimes you get to a wall where they say, ‘Oh, it’s a mystery. We don’t know.’ But in Sufism, if you do this, that will happen. If you travel, you will arrive, and may God grant you success. So if you take those steps, you will get there. It’s a difficult journey, not everyone can do it, but it’s there, it’s the map. You want to go, here the route.”
In 1973, he decided Sufism — often described as Islamic mysticism – was probably “the place to find knowledge” and found a Sufi meeting in a church that was next to his house. It was close to him the entire duration of his search. Thompson added, “I don’t think you get converted to something — you already are it and recognize it in yourself. I recognized in them a quality I wanted for myself.”
He spoke about other musical colleagues who share some of these beliefs, including Yusuf/Cat Stevens, an “old friend — he’s a lovely man. You can tell the quality of a person by the people around him and he’s surrounded by the nicest people. I can’t speak for him, but I think at the point where he wanted to have a more spiritual perspective — he’d kind of done it all, he had the fame, the money … he was looking for something else, he didn’t want to be Cat anymore … He was looking for someone else … he said something misplaced about (Salman) Rushdie and people will judge him forever, though he has retracted it.”
Thompson found in Sufism principles of “good manners, selflessness, concern for others, balance, a long view of life and perspective.” He said these beliefs impact his music, “though not overtly … your morality gets expressed, you can’t hide behind a mask …. I just write what I write and I think Picasso said, ‘I never critique myself, I just do my art.’ Critiquing is for the critics. And as an artist you have a responsibility to put stuff out that you feel, and if you find that place in yourself that’s real and true, there’s a commonality to what you express.”
We discussed religious tolerance in the United States under President Trump, and he remarked that “for now, the practice of Islam is freer here than in Saudi Arabia and most countries in the Middle East — there’s more religious freedom in the U.S. or in the U.K., but that could change if things become more authoritarian.
At concerts, Thompson loves to engage with his audience, showing his warmth and wit. We discussed a concert where he speculated that much of his audience were “nerds.” I suggested that his audience were deep thinkers.
“Yes, I don’t like that,” he laughed. “Would rather people dance to my music. I attract an inordinate amount of college professors to my gigs. You can’t choose your audience.”
For more about Thompson, visit richardthompson-music.com.