An eclectic guitar slinger continues a four-decade journey through music

By Bob Cannon

Over the course of his long career, Richard Thompson has become accustomed to hearing fans tell him they prefer the live versions of his songs over the studio takes. So for his latest album, Dream Attic, Thompson elected to cut out the middleman—all 13 songs were recorded live during a two-week American tour last February. “We basically chop out the studio process and go straight to live,” he says. “No overdubs, not a great deal of post-production on the record. It’s just as was played.” While the album accomplished Thompson’s goal of capturing the onstage energy generated by himself and his band, another goal remained stubbornly out of reach. “We were also thinking that it’s probably cheaper to record on the road,” he says with a laugh. “But it cost almost exactly the same amount!”

Cutting an album of brand-new songs live in front of audiences is only the latest twist in a musical journey that has included more than its fair share of unexpected adventures. The 61-year-old London native helped to found the venerated folk group Fairport Convention while still in his teens. Upon leaving the group in 1971, Thompson cut a series of seminal folk-rock collections with then-wife Linda Thompson, including 1982’s landmark Shoot Out the Lights. Following their personal and professional split, Thompson established himself as a solo act—proving to be a relentlessly creative instrumentalist as well as a top-notch songwriter whose tunes have been covered by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, R.E.M. and Robert Plant.

Earlier this year Thompson premiered Cabaret of Souls, an ambitious extended orchestral song cycle that he spent a year and a half working on. We caught up with Thompson between shows on his current tour to discuss his constantly expanding body of work.

What do you believe is your primary role as a guitarist?

I see myself as an accompanist. What I do is usually accompanying a vocal, either my own or somebody else’s. If I play a solo, I’m really trying to extend the mood or the narrative of a song. There are a lot of guitar players I admire, but I don’t like to compare them. I don’t like to say, “Chet Atkins is a better guitarist than Jeff Beck,” because at some point it all breaks down. Like, is Joe Satriani better than Andres Segovia? I mean, are they even playing the same instrument? Hardly! Lists are fine, and on my website it says, “Named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the Top 20 guitarists of all time.” I’ll exploit that, thank you very much indeed. But do I take it seriously? Absolutely not.

Does this album have a theme?

No, it doesn’t. There is something about when you write songs in a short period of time—they seem to have a fraternal relationship. They seem to relate to each other. Records like Sgt. Pepper don’t really have a theme, but because the songs are written at a certain time you get the zeitgeist of Sgt. Pepper.

Your songs are very dark. Why?

As a songwriter you have to express the highs and lows—and that’s some of the more interesting stuff that you’re ever going to write. It’s a place you go to, but not necessarily the place where you live. And it’s important to show that to the listener as a kind of shared experience.

Where does that impulse come from?

I was probably a strange child. My father used to correspond with a playwright friend in New York, and they’d send each other books on criminology. Quite bizarre, really. So there’s a shelf of that, and I used to pick up those and find them quite gripping. Then there was a shelf of Scottish poets and ballads, books of traditional ballads. There you had people being murdered and carried off by the fairies—different kinds of criminal activity, but more historical.

I suppose it’s the combination of the two that permanently scarred me. One of the reasons we like detective fiction is that people are more interesting when they’re under pressure, when they’re in extreme situations. Someone commits a murder, and how they deal with it is very revealing about their nature. People like that good-versus-evil thing.

Are you ever concerned that people will confuse you with your characters?

I hope so! That’s the highest praise. Randy Newman’s satire was so good that people took it seriously. The satire in This Is Spinal Tap was so good that some actually thought it was a real documentary. The closer you get the better, as far as I’m concerned.

Do you ever feel trapped by the expectations of your audience?

First of all, you are an entertainer. This is the job you choose to do. At one end you can call it art with a small “a,” but at the other end it really is entertainment. So you can aspire to be clever and tricky and a genius, et cetera, but you still have to get out there on stage and play to people in a way that they’re not going to fall asleep or start throwing stuff at you. (laughs) So a live show or a record is a balancing act between what you want to do and what the audience wants to hear—and an audience is by nature a conservative body. It wants to hear the stuff it already knows. But you can’t sit back and just play the familiar material, because the audience will start to fade away.

Are there songs you have to play?

Most nights I have to play “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” and I have to play “Beeswing.” A couple of ballads, which is interesting.

Is it hard to introduce new songs?

I’ve found over the years that the audience has come to expect that. The audience now challenges me back and says, “You didn’t play any new songs tonight. What’s going on?” Often with a live show you’ll think, “Here’s 50 percent songs that I think people would like to hear. These seem to be popular songs. And then the other 50 percent is what I would like to thrust upon the audience. Here’s some newer stuff. Here’s some weirder stuff. I think the audience, on balance, will be able to absorb these.”

What’s an acceptable level of fame?

It’s nice to have some anonymity. To be famous is a curse that people wish upon themselves, then probably regret immediately if it happens to them. I like the fact that I can play festivals, I can play in fairly large theaters, but I can also sometimes play in a club that holds 100 people. I love that intimacy. Also I love the change in the size of the audience, and adjusting to that all the time. The variety is great, and I’d hate to lose that. I’d hate to become so famous that I couldn’t play anything under 50,000. That would be terrible, and I’d be crying all the way to the bank. (laughs) To be someone who just does stadiums all the time, that must be deeply, deeply boring. You can’t change the show at all.

Do you ever try for hits?

Not really, no. I don’t think in marketing terms. I don’t have that kind of brain, unfortunately. If only I did, that’d be great! I’m just trying to make records that I think are good. The thinking is that if you make a good record, then more people will listen to it. Be true to yourself, put out some things that you’re proud of, and perhaps people will like it.

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