Richard Thompson: 'Dylan played my song. I thought it was a joke'
A regular transatlantic traveller since he relocated to California in the 1980's, British singer-songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson has recently landed in Europe for a bunch of gigs with his electric "power trio." This follows his stint as one of the opening acts on Bob Dylan's "AmericanaramA" package tour. Rockol sat backstage with him prior to his show at the Paradiso Club in Amsterdam, Sunday July 21, to talk about His Bobness, his latest record, his eventual retirement and more.
What's more flattering? Being awarded an OBE by the Queen or having one of your songs covered on stage by Mr. Dylan, as happened a few days ago at Clarkston, MI?
Good question. They're both very flattering things. Maybe to have Bob Dylan play a song...That's a good thing. And it was a surprise, totally. I thought it was a hoax. I thought it was a joke!
Did you have the chance to hear his piano/acoustic guitar/stand up bass/banjo rendition of "1952 Vincent Black Lightning" and/or to meet him after show?
No, because we were on very early in the show so (when he came in) our bus had already left for the next city. In America you have those big drives, so we had already gone. I saw Dylan at the very last show (in Toronto), and he was very nice to me.
What did he tell you?
Oh, that's a secret!
And so we eventually saw Dylan playing Richard Thompson after so many years of you and Fairport Convention covering his songs, both on stage and on such early records as "What We Did On Our Holidays" and "Unhalfbricking". I remember you once saying you'd be glad to trade off all of your catalogue for just one Dylan song. Was it "Tangled Up In Blue", maybe, or "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts"?
I said that, that's true, and I've said similar things about several other songwriters. Shakespeare was a good songwriter too, even if he didn't write the music. Lyrics only.
On AmericanaramA you've had a few chances to play on stage with Wilco, trading licks with their inventive guitarist Nels Cline. Had you performed together before that?
I had toured with them before so we already kind of knew each other. But we had not played together on stage before, probably. The notion on that tour was about people playing together and doing each others' songs. My Morning Jacket would go up to play with Wilco, then Wilco played with me and so on. It was kind of varied. It was fun to play with Nels, we had a very good time.
They also got you to perform "Calvary Cross", a song much loved by your fans, but which you very rarely perform live these days. I just remember a rendition with the Dawes during your last Caribbean Cruise appearance.
You know, in a regular set I'd rather do "Shoot Out The Lights" because more people know it and recognise it. I get more requests for "Shoot Out The Lights" and it's kind of a similar song.
Playing the AmericanaramA tour and, just before that, the package tour with Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell...was it more of a challenge because of the reduced time allowed on stage, or more of an opportunity to gain exposure to new audiences?
The reason for doing those kind of tours is to reach different audiences. If you get half an hour that's ok, or you can play an hour, like we did with Emmylou and Rodney, and that's good too. Because you'd hope that your music would crossover to another audience. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn't. The Emmylou and Rodney tour was great because both audiences were very good and receptive. People loved the whole show, which is great. And even though we were playing to something like a quarter of the audience on the AmericanaramA shows or the venue was kind of half full, that's not bad. And then I came out and played with Wilco to a full house, which is good. So it's just to expand the audience...You can tour over the years for your audience. And at some point your audience gets older, dies and there's nobody left! So every few years it's a good exercise to just step sideways and see what's happening. I'm doing two shows with Peter Frampton this summer...
The funny and unexpected thing is that you are now considered an "Americana" artist. You're playing with an American rhythm section right now, but you've maintained your quintessential Englishness, none the less.
I think Americana really just means roots music, otherwise they wouldn't have me on those shows. Maybe Los Lobos should be on an Americana festival. Or even Bob Marley could be on it, nowadays. Or someone like Fela Kuti from Nigeria... artists connected to the roots, in some way. So Americana is just a tag.
A lot of young American bands such as Fleet Foxes or Midlake are now referencing Fairport Convention and your music as a source of inspiration. What's your feeling about it? Are you surprised by that?
It's nice. I'm glad somebody listens to our old records. And I can see the connection. As to why this seems to happen in America more than in England, I can't really tell.
You recorded your latest record "Electric" in Nashville in Buddy Miller's home studio but that doesn't mean the songs in it are American-sounding or countryish. Apart some of the tracks included on the bonus disc, maybe...
For the proper record I just tried to find and put in the strongest songs that were available. Because we were in Nashville, I wanted a fiddle player who could play Celtic fiddle and there was Stuart Duncan who can play anything. He's kind of a bluegrass player, really. So inevitably a little bit of bluegrass creeps in the record, although it generally does feel like a good Scottish kind of fiddle.
That's the first time in many years that you have given up the idea of a cottage industry, a self-contained unit of people who use to work together in the studio and on stage. Could it happen again, with Buddy or someone else?
It could, yes. Once again it's good to change the recording sometimes as well. So, for the next record I don't know what kind of record it's going to be. I could make it at home or I could go somewhere to get in a producer and make it different. I don't know what's going to happen.
At various times you've talked about doing a collection of songs for children, an acoustic folk record and other stuff.
Yes, I have about three projects at the moment that I'm working on in my mind. But I don't know what's next, I really don't. It'll probably be next year, though.
Since you became an independent artist in the early 2000's, it seems as if your success curve is costantly on the up. "Electric" went Top 20 in the UK...Is it a matter of established cult artists with a good fan base going up the charts because these are the people who still buy the records?
That is surely true. But I just think that if you persist, if you keep going and knocking on the door eventually people might hear you. I enjoy what I do and I keep doing it and if you do that you find that new fans come. A few people go away, maybe, but mostly people come and they stay. It's a very slow process. The opposite of when you get a hit record when you're twenty and then you go downhill from there. Mine is the other way. It's about the shows, the word of mouth, a very slow thing.
On the new record you seem to cover new ground, both musically and lyrically. I'm thinking about songs like "Stony Ground," which deals with the rather unusual subject of elderly lust. Or "Saving the good stuff for you", that someone has read as almost embarassingly autobiographical...
All songs are autobiographical but that one is just a story. I sit down to write fiction. "Stony Ground" too, that's a sort of riposte to people like the Rolling Stones having to keep this illusion of eternal youth going. They keep writing about virility, manhood, beautiful women and stuff. I think when you're seventy maybe it's better to write something more realistic. So I wanted to write about old people's lust and what really goes on!
Playing live with Taras Prodaniuk and Michael Jerome these days you seem to stay quite faithful to a tight setlist of songs. So where does the shock factor, the surprise factor come from for you and the audience? Does it come from the improvisational moments and the musical interaction?
Yeah, but I should probably change that set list more than I do! Also, in the last few months we've been touring and not touring and there's been no rehearsal time. So we're playing safe in a sense. Playing the kind of stuff that we know when we haven't the time to work anything up. But, yes, the songs tend to definitely change every night on stage. Is there any kind of jazz interaction between the three of us on stage? Yes, I think there is.
Strong songs like "Another Small Thing In Her Favour" off the new record are in danger of getting off the radar soon by not being played live. Does it happen because you're not so sure of their quality, their live rendition or their placement on the set list?
For all of those reasons, sometimes. We've not played "Another Small Thing In Her Favour" live yet because that's a song that's hard to do with the trio. I know I've recorded the album with the trio, but we had a rhythm guitar played by Buddy Miller in the studio. So for that song I kind of miss a rhythm guitar. That doesn't mean that we won't do it in the future because we will, but it's a little hard harmonically. Other songs, sometimes, if you don't hear a feedback from the audience maybe you think it's a song they are not interested in. And then there are the songs I just forget about. Maybe five years later I think, what happened to that song? We never played it! And sometimes twenty years later you look upon it and think that's a good song, I should revive it and I do. I'll bring some back.
So, as many artists do, you tend to think in terms of good songs more than in terms of successful albums...
Recently, though, you've been invited by the BBC Radio series Master Tapes to discuss about and perform songs off your album "Rumor and Sigh". That's usually considered among your best. Do you agree with that point of view?
Not truly. There are popular songs in it,"Rumor and Sigh" was a good selling album but I don't like everything on that record now. It was a BBC choice to pick that album. Not my choice, and I would have picked something else maybe. "Mystery Wind"? I'm not fond of it. "Why Must I Plead"? That's fine, it's easy to do it solo. I'll do it three, four or seven times a year. There are a lot of songs I am ashamed to have written, and there are the good ones, too. What's the ratio? 60 good to 40 that are not so good. Maybe 70-30.
Between a musical Caribbean Cruise and a songwriting/guitar camp in the New York area of the Catskills, you're sharing very much of your craft with people nowadays. Are you learning something from those experiences?
Yes, it's very interesting. What happens in the guitar camp is that you get into areas of discussion that are a surprise to me and to the students too. You maybe start off talking about predictable things and then things go off in strange areas. I love to keep different perspectives on songwriting. We had a class this summer where I talked about a certain little area of Scotland from where all these songs come from, you now those ballads from the 1600s. We talked about one particular song in one particular place and how this is based on a true story and then we contrasted it with a modern song, Leonard Cohen's "Famous Blue Raincoat". We looked at different ways of telling a story and people added interesting comments and took it into interesting areas of discussion. It was really, really good fun. And I think if you enjoy teaching, then that's the best thing. The most fun you can have.
You've always been considered quite a reclusive guy, a very reserved person. And now, through the Q&A sessions on your website, you have started to open up saying things about your personal life and interests, be it gardening or favourite sports. Does doing this come naturally, or do you feel compelled to do it because that's what people want?
It's natural now but I didn't want to do it in the beginning. Then people said to me this is the age where you have to interact with the fans. And so this is fun now, not too bad. Besides which, I'm just telling the truth. This is me, or is it me just making it up?
The class of '49 seem to go down quite well these days. At 64 years old you're still full of energy and commitment, while Bruce Springsteen still performs three-and-a-half-hour shows. Rockn'n'roll isn't a teenage thing anymore, that's for sure.
I wouldn't do a three-hour set, I do two-hour sets and to me it's crazy enough. And I wouldn't listen to three hours of music, I would immediately get bored. As for me, I try to keep healthy and fit. I have to. I mean, the gym every morning, trying to keep away from the flu and stuff like this. If you start to worry, then you start to get injured. Your body kind of knows what to do without you thinking about it. It just works. If I start thinking that I must protect my hands that's when you start getting awkward and stiff and rigid. And then if you get injured you have to do another job...
Retirement is hopefully a long way ahead. But how would you like to be remembered as an artist when that moment comes?
I'd like not to be remembered at all. To disappear completely. Just be erased. You know, sweep over the footprints so that I've never happened. Never existed. Hard to do, I understand, if you've left a bunch of records behind. (Alfredo Marziano)