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Richard Thompson wearing a black woollen cap, holding the neck of a 12-string electric guitar and gazing into the camera.

Richard Thompson – The Tradfolk Interview

With his new album, Ship to Shore, approaching from the horizon, Richard Thompson takes us on a journey from Tufnell Park to Armstrong Park. Don't forget to pack the Marmite.

One of the finest songwriters and guitarists to come out of the 1960s British folk boom, Richard Thompson’s contribution to the development of what is now known as folk-rock cannot be overstated. An original member of Fairport Convention, he helped to draw the roadmap, planting sturdy signposts along the way with seminal albums such as Liege & Lief, Unhalfbricking, and countless others both as a solo artist and as a duo with his first wife, Linda. Where would most of us be without I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight or Shoot Out the Lights? How many times have we stumbled, only to find light and levity in classic songs such ‘Beeswing’, ‘Persuasion’ and the immortal ‘1952 Vincent Black Lightning’?

As he prepares to release the all-new Ship to Shore (out on May 31st), he logs onto Zoom (the inevitable last-minute software update notwithstanding) and is instantly both warm and generous with his time, happy to chat about anything we throw at him. Over the course of 45 minutes or so, we cover notions of longevity, his songwriting process, his obsessions with Marmite and memories from Tufnell Park, Trump, the importance of traditional music, Martin Carthy’s intentions to still be performing at 100 and Richard’s memories of the early London folk scene. Throughout the conversation, we find out more about the new album and what it takes to get out on the road after almost six decades. They say you should never meet your heroes. Clearly, they’ve never met Richard Thompson.

I class you amongst a small group of songwriters – Bob Dylan and Paul Simon included – who are still writing extraordinary stuff long after many of your contemporaries have gone off the boil. What’s your secret?

My secret is this: never tell anybody what my secret is [laughs]. The secret is… there is no secret. Do we have an imaginary cliff that we fall off of or when we hit 50 or 60 or something? I don’t know. I suppose my inspiration for longevity would be certain film directors and certain visual artists, like David Hockney, who are just excited about waking up in the morning and going to work and seeing what happens, seeing what unfolds; seeing if you can finish that song off that you’ve been working on, whether the idea you had yesterday is going to come to anything or not.

As my mother was saying when I was in my 40s, “When are you going to get a proper job?”

Richard Thompson

I think we’re kind of conditioned, as musicians, to think, “Well, you better die at the age of 27 if you want to have any credibility in this business”. The Beatles said in 1964, or whenever, “We’ll give it a few more years and then we’ll write for other people”. For younger people in those days, your career span was seen in terms of maybe five years, and I think for people like me, that’s been in the back of the mind since then. As my mother was saying when I was in my 40s, “When are you going to get a proper job?” She’s saying that at the Royal Festival Hall. “We’re not doing too bad, mum. It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”

I think you’ve got to be excited about it. You’ve got to be driven somehow, like demons or something from your past driving you onwards; driving you to keep creating. And you’ve got to be physically able to do it as well. You’ve got to be physically able to hear, your fingers have got to be working, your voice has got to be working. I mean, there are a whole bunch of factors that will impede you at some point. Who knows how long I can keep going, or how long Martin Carthy can keep going, or Mick Jagger? I’m not seeing Mick Jagger as a role model, by the way [laughs]. David Hockney, maybe.

Have things changed for you in the way that you approach songwriting? Dylan has spoken quite fascinatingly about how the songs that he wrote in his early days just spilled out of him and how he’s not able to do that anymore.

I almost find it the opposite, actually. I think I find it easier now. It was harder back then. To make a cheap analogy here, you’re in a darkened room and you’re looking for creative inspiration, and you can spend an awful lot of time trying to find inspiration. You have to find the bottom of the ladder and then climb up the ladder, and then once you’re up the ladder, you’re in the right place to be creative. But it’s finding the bottom of the ladder. It’s easier now to find the bottom of the ladder. I find it easier to tune my mind out, almost, to let the subconscious come in. I find that easier nowadays than I ever did when I was a teenager, or 20 or something. I used to find it much more laborious to get to the same place – the creative place. I could do it instrumentally. I could do it in a guitar solo or something, but as a songwriter, I always found that quite hard.

I’m so far ahead, I don’t know what to do.

Richard Thompson

I also find that now I write in bursts. I don’t write as consistently as I used to, but I find I’ll write six songs in a week and then dry up for another month, and then just write this little burst of three songs, two songs, six songs, and then an album, almost without thinking about it. I suddenly find I’ve got a lot of material. During lockdown, not being on the road, suddenly I had 50% more time to write. I wrote this album and I wrote the next album. I’m so far ahead, I don’t know what to do.

So there’s another album after Ship to Shore already waiting to go?

Yeah. I haven’t recorded it, but I’ve got the songs for it.

Do you tend to road-test them first?

Yeah, I think I like to road-test half of them and then see what happens in the studio with the other half. I love the idea of the band knowing all the numbers – we can be really quick; we can get everything in two takes in the studio. But it’s also fun to just throw things at other people and say, “OK, here’s a new song. Start the tape rolling. One, two, three, go!” and then see what happens spontaneously. That’s also fun. So I think sometimes a mixture of those two elements is a nice way to go.

Was Ship to Shore one or the other?

I’d say it was mostly pre-learned. I tend to send out demos to the band – which can be dangerous – and then everyone comes together in the studio with at least a rough idea of what we’re going to do. And then it’s more a matter of fine-tuning arrangements. I say it’s dangerous because there was a track on the previous album, ‘Her Love was Meant for Me’, that I sent it out to Michael and Taras, the bass player and drummer. I thought it was in a kind of strange 3/4 time. And foolishly, on the demo, I didn’t put a count on the front. I didn’t go, “one, two, three”. They read it as a song in 6/8, starting on the second beat. Try as they might, they couldn’t get it out of their heads that way around. So I said, “OK, you play it the way you hear it and I’ll play it the way I hear it and we’ll see what happens”. So it’s this kind of really weird, confused tempo that kind of works. If you pan the stereo to the left, you get me and Bobby playing guitars in 3/4. If you pan all the way to the right, you get Taras and Michael starting on beat two in 6/8 [laughs]. So it’s dangerous to think you’re planning ahead and making everything efficient, because sometimes it just backfires.

The cover art for Ship to Shore, the new album by Richard Thompson, out on May 31st

Do you have a songwriting process? Are you one of those people who carries a little notebook around that you dip into here and there, or do you tend to sit down and try to write a song completely and then move onto the next one?

Well, I think the notebooks are really important – something you have with you all the time that you can jot notes down in. It’s great because [the song ideas] don’t come back. You think, “I’ll remember that,” but you don’t. Maybe if it’s some brilliant idea you might, but most of the time you don’t remember those little things. And you realise afterwards how important it was to write it down. There are semi-conscious things – something you might wake up with from a dream – and you think, “Oh, I can’t be bothered to write that down. It’s not that interesting”. But actually, if you do write it down, it’s the germ of something that you might really appreciate.

I write complicated love songs because I think love is complicated

Richard Thompson

I love the fact that now, on your phone, you can make a little recording of a melodic idea. I just put it all down on the phone now, and that’s fantastic because not only do you get the notes, you also get the feel of what you’re trying to do. In the old days, I used to notate ideas on manuscript paper. I’d come back to them six months later and I’d think, “What the hell was I thinking about? What is this boring tune? I must have had something else in mind because this makes no sense whatsoever”. I used to lose ideas and now I can capture them much, much better on the phone. Hurrah for technology [laughs].

Let’s take a song like ‘Singapore Sadie’, from the new album. Talk me through how a song like that comes into being.

I think it came lyrics-first, actually. [Pauses for a moment] Can I say what this is about? Well, it’s about my wife, who wasn’t my wife at the time I wrote it. So it’s a kind of eulogy to her. Singapore Sadie… that’s just a red herring. That’s just to pull people off the scent, as it were. But what can I say? She’s a woman who sometimes attracts jealousy and hostility from other people, so I want to try and capture that in the song. It’s kind of a love song, actually, isn’t it, now I think about it? Gosh! I wrote a love song. Well done, me! That’s fantastic [laughs].

Do you feel that’s something you’re not known for?

Sometimes I write complicated love songs because I think love is complicated. Often we are satisfied with simple love songs because I suppose they push most of the buttons. But realistically, love is something way more difficult. Sometimes you love somebody in spite of things – you love a person or you love a thing in spite of the obstacles. Sometimes the obstacles drive you on to reach whatever goal you have in love.

But you do the relatively simple ones very well, too. Take ‘Maybe’, from Ship to Shore, which has a great Motown stomp on it. That’s a pretty direct love song.

Yeah, that’s pretty simple. I mean, that’s just playing with words and stuff. That’s kind of enjoying messing around with rhyme schemes and that kind of thing. It mentions a lot of very British things that’ll be lost on Americans, I’m sure. I mentioned Topshop in there. Jimmy Choo shoes, Lily Grace sweaters…

I think you carry a certain landscape around in your head, and it’s not necessarily where you are

Richard Thompson

You’ve lived in America for a long time, haven’t you? Do you find that your distance from England inspires the way your write? I’m asking because I lived in Japan for 10 years and I often found that rather than writing about this amazing stuff that was around me, I was slightly obsessed with things like… Marmite!

Yes, I’m also obsessed with Marmite [laughs]. Thank heavens for Amazon. I think I’ve said this before, but I think you carry a certain landscape around in your head, and it’s not necessarily where you are. For me, it certainly isn’t America. It’s usually somewhere British. It’s London or it’s Scotland, or it’s somewhere familiar, usually from my past, that I like to put the characters and the drama of the song into. To me, that’s just much more relevant and much more honest – much more where I come from, as opposed to, at times, America. I feel like a bit of an alien that has just been dropped into this landscape. It doesn’t mean that much to me, which is strange. Even going somewhere like New Orleans, where I feel much more comfortable… in some ways I still feel more comfortable listening to the records of people like Louis Armstrong or Jelly Roll Morton. Even though I’m here in this place and there’s Armstrong Park up the road, I still place Louis Armstrong on the family gramophone in Tufnell Park.

You mentioned demons earlier. Have demons been at the root of some of the songs on this album? I’m sitting looking at these new lyrics, particularly things like ‘Life’s a Bloody Show’, which feels potentially demon-fueled…

I find that song very ambiguous. I’m not sure who it’s about – whether it’s about me or if it’s a Donald Trump kind of figure. It confuses me. I like it as a song. I find it slightly strange, and I’m not sure where that comes from. It’s a bit of a dark song, a bit of a cynical song, and there’s also a Berlin cabaret element to it as well – a pre-war feel to it. Not that I’m advocating WWIII, but it just feels as though the world’s becoming a more repressed place. And, like Berlin in the 30s, there’s this kind of manic energy – slightly manic, although liberated in other ways. I’m waffling here. I’m slightly in the dark on that song.

It’s interesting that you mention Trump. Earlier today, I was looking at an interview that you did with Jude Rogers at The Guardian a couple of years ago. It was at the point where Biden had just got in, and you seemed quite optimistic and pleased that everything had gone back to relative normality. How are you feeling now?

I think Biden getting in was postponing something rather than solving something permanently. I think Trump is a dangerous element, and there’s no way they’re going to get to put him in jail. He’ll be the front-runner for the Republicans. Joe Biden should have stepped aside somehow, but it’s too late now. So I think the American elections are a toss-up, and I really think, from the signals that Trump has already put out there, that he’s just going to become a dictator. And even if he loses the next election, he’s never going to admit it, so we’ll have this whole thing all over again where he claims it’s all corrupt and he won. So the drama rolls on and, I don’t know, at some point, do I pack my bags and head back to Europe on a permanent basis? We’ll see what happens. But it’s a worrying potential end of democracy in the states. And Trump would certainly dump Europe and leave Europe to the mercy of his old pal, Vladimir Putin. Trump being incredibly selfish and self-serving at all times, he probably sucks up to Putin anyway and would again in the future simply because he wants to build a hotel in Moscow. That’s probably the only motive he has. Not to get too political about it.

You’re forever connected with folk-rock, being a pioneer of taking traditional music into the rock idiom. You’ve got songs on the new album that do a little bit of both. I’m thinking of ‘Trust’, with that great rock-n-roll riff that harks back to things like ‘Cooksferry Queen’, and then there’s ‘Turnstile Casanova’, which sounds like pure rock-n-roll to me. Conversely, you’ve got songs like ‘The Old Pack Mule’, which drips with the sound of tradition. What does the word, “folk”, mean to you these days? Does the folk tradition maintain any influence on how you write?

Folk is an ambiguous word. I think people have different definitions of what folk is. People have tried to define it and, usually, I’m not really satisfied with what they say about it. Suppose the word “folk” should disappear from the vocabulary… I think “acoustic” is a valid term. If you play acoustic music, that’s understood. All those singer-songwriters – most of them play acoustic. “Singer-songwriter” is almost a genre in itself. That’s something that seems to mostly defy trends. And, especially in America, there’s a whole circuit of singer-songwriters that hasn’t really changed much in the last 20 or 30 years. So I think “acoustic” is a valid word.

The word “folk” seems to me to be something best avoided almost

Richard Thompson

I also think “traditional” is a valid word. Traditional music is easier to define. It seems clearer to me that I have some traditional roots in British music and I have some roots in what I would call traditional rock-n-roll or… I’d almost say traditional pop music these days. I think if something goes on for 30 years, you can almost call it a tradition. But I would say that, even in Fairport, it was always a mixture of contemporary music – mostly rock music and traditional music. Just the fact that we were using a rhythm section – drums, amplified bass, amplified guitars – there was a strong rock element in there and some inescapable cliches that go with that. But aligning traditional music to that basically brings the tradition up to date at that time. So, yeah, the word “folk” seems to me to be something best avoided almost.

Traditional music is, for me, an essential building block. It’s an essential foundation. And I love British traditional music. I absolutely love it. And I tell people, if you want to learn how to write songs, this is the place to go. You go to the Scottish ballads as a place to learn how to write a song because they’re so well written and they’re so polished by generations of singers that it’s just a wonderful thing. I also think that if you have a strong base to your music then you can bring other elements into it. You’re not being a colonialist, you’re not being a dilettante – you’ve got this firm foundation of your own. So if you bring in an idea from African music or from jazz or something, it’ll still sound like you. You won’t sound like you’re being swayed by a trend, or that you’re being overcome by something imported. If your base is firm and you’re secure in that then you can go further afield.

Returning to Ship to Shore, perhaps this is another red herring, but the song ‘We Roll’ seems to offer pause for quite a lot of reflection. “Must be crazy but I’m doing it again/ Suitcase living since I don’t know when.” Is this you talking about yourself?

Well yes, as far as I’m concerned, I’m talking about myself. I’m happy if someone else sings it and it reflects their own lives – that’s fine as well. The thing about the road is that you get tired of it sometimes, but you can’t wait to get back out there. Sometimes it’s tiring but you love the actual concert process. You love to play music to people live, and that’s what keeps you interested and stimulated. I quite enjoy the travel as well. It doesn’t bother me too much, but there are always missed flights and sitting in airports for 24 hours and the weather and things that interfere with your joy of the process; some venue which has the worst acoustics in the world, and you think, “Well, I’ll grit my teeth and get through this because tomorrow I’m playing in a nicer place”. On the whole, after 55 years, I still enjoy the process. But that song is certainly reflective. When I played it for the band, they said, “Oh my God! You’re not retiring, are you?”

That was going to be my next question.

[Laughs] Is that what it sounds like? No, I’m not retiring.

You sing, “It’s near the end now and the curtain’s coming down”!

Well… comparatively speaking [laughs]. Who knows when that curtain will fall? I didn’t say it was the end. I said it’s near the end. Yeah, I don’t know. I saw Segovia when he was 70. He kept going into his 90s. Horovitz… I think Eubie Blake was nearly 100 and still playing.

I was on stage with Martin Carthy the other night and he said, “I see no reason why I shouldn’t be doing this when I’m 100”.

And he’s right! Your voice cracks a bit more but you can say that’s just emotion [laughs]. If you think about all of the old blues singers that we used to revere coming over to Britain and playing, and being quite ill in some cases as well. And you thought, “Well, this is still great music. This is fantastic music”. I think Martin has the right ambition, anyway. We’ll see if any of us still have that enthusiasm in another 20 years… if we’re above ground.

While we’re on the subject of Martin, I recently wrote up a long article on the history of Les Cousins. Did you ever get down there?

I’ve never played there, but I used to go there, yeah.

What are your memories of that place?

I used to go there probably when I was at school – about the age of 16 or 17, I think. I used to go to the all-nighters sometimes. I wonder how many people it actually held. In my mind, it held about 20, but it must have been about 50 or something. It always seemed quite small. I went there infrequently after that. Sometimes I’d go with Sandy Denny, probably in the early 70s. It was one of those great places. You had the Troubadour, you had the Cousins, and then there was Cecil Sharp House. They were all places where you could see great music. I saw a bunch of people at the Cousins. I remember seeing Roy Harper, and I think I saw Martin Carthy there as well, actually. I don’t have a clear memory. It was an important place, anyway.

It seems to have meant a lot to a lot of people. I was involved in running a celebration night in memory of the Cousins at a place called MOTH Club, where a vibrant young folk scene has taken root in Hackney. We had people flying in from the States for it.

I think it did mean a lot to people, yes. Just the fact that it wasn’t that celebrated at the time as well. It was just kind of there, but it really fulfilled a function of the London folk scene then. That event sounds wonderful. It’s good to know that there’s a Hackney movement.

Yeah, it’s a lovely thing. There are some great singers and players and there’s loads of enthusiasm. It seems to have grown out of lockdown. All these young people went home, dug into their parents’ record collections, and they’ve all come out as Pentangle fans.

[Laughs] Well, whatever it takes!

You were a big champion of Katherine Priddy, who has just released her second album. Are there any other young singers or musicians that have caught your ear recently?

I get asked this a lot. It’s just remembering people’s names. In the States there’s a very good singer/guitarist called Madison Cunningham. I saw her live and I thought she was really good. And then there’s Iona Fyfe. I like her. She’s very good. I’ve heard lots of fine young performers but I have difficulty remembering the names. I can’t remember people who I know quite well. [Laughs] I can barely remember what I had for breakfast.

Ship to Shore, the new album from Richard Thompson, is out on May 31st. It can be ordered via Proper Music. His accompanying tour arrives in the UK on May 25th.

Richard Thompson UK tour dates