Though Richard Thompson, 65, is at an age many when most daydream of retirement, the songwriter and guitarist continues to make vital music. Last year's Electric (New West) continued a run of excellence that stretches back to the late '60s, when he first debuted as a member of Fairport Convention. Reached at home in Los Angeles in early June, the musician, who brings his "Celtic power trio" (which includes drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk) to Southern Theatre for a concert on Wednesday, June 18, discussed his observational writing style, the recording of Electric and why complacency equals death.
Though Richard Thompson, 65, is at an age many when most daydream of retirement, the songwriter and guitarist continues to make vital music. Last yearís Electric (New West) continued a run of excellence that stretches back to the late í60s, when he first debuted as a member of Fairport Convention. Reached at home in Los Angeles in early June, the musician, who brings his ďCeltic power trioĒ (which includes drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk) to Southern Theatre for a concert on Wednesday, June 18, discussed his observational writing style, the recording of Electric and why complacency equals death.
Iíd really enjoyed the records Buddy [Miller] had been doing in his famous [Nashville] home studio, and thought, ďI wonder if that could work for us [with Electric]?Ē And it did. Itís a cluttered environment, in a sense ó there are cables everywhere and guitars and boxes and amps. Itís kind of controlled chaos, but acoustically it was very good. When youíre in a real studio thereís a red light that comes on, but when youíre playing in someoneís house you donít really think youíre recording. Itís a bit of a trick, I suppose. You just start jamming away and suddenly youíve actually recorded something, and itís very relaxed and un-self-conscious.
I think sometimes in the studio you get lucky, and we got lucky. We just started playing and things seemed to go smoothly. At times, you can struggle in the studio and take a long time doing things, so I think fate had a hand in it.
The original idea of stripping the band down to a three-piece was really more economical than anything else. Iíd been enjoying playing with a trio on live dates Ö and I started to write material in a different way. There are subtle differences in how you write for this sort of band, and it was interesting to pursue. I think the next record will also be a trio record.
If youíre not experimenting and youíre not exploring, then youíre kind of dead as a musician. All the great musicians never stopped moving. Beethoven never stopped and Bach never stopped. You have to keep reinventing, if you can. You have to keep your ears open and keep listening for new ideas. You can get complacent. You can get smug. Itís good to shake it up now and again.
My father [a Scotland Yard detective] would say, ďOK, describe the person who just left the room,Ē so he really helped develop my powers of visual observation and memory. If I get mugged, I actually could remember a lot of the details about the person who mugged me. I also studied art when I was a kid, and that also helps your visual memory. Iím a wholly visual writer, I think.
I think people who write over a long period, there are some demons in there and things you never get rid of ó things from your childhood, maybe, that just haunt you. And one of the ways you resolve them is through writing and rewriting and reworking and trying to figure out who you are and what your relationship is with life and how you fit in with the planet. Often you write a song trying to resolve the past.
With relationships you donít necessarily get it right the first time. Or the third time. Or the fourth time [laughs].
At some point, though, you do figure it out, and if youíre fortunate you end up in the right situation. You get used to yourself and your faults, and you kind of learn to forgive yourself.
As a songwriter, Iím mostly influenced by the traditional music of England, Ireland and Scotland, and thatís what I keep coming back to. Itís something you fall in love with. You hear a song thatís 400 years old and it still speaks to you, and you can feel the reverberations through history of this song. You can hear the voices of the people whoíve been singing it and handing it down and polishing it and refining it as it goes through the generations. Itís such a beautiful thing. Once you get a taste for it, I think it never leaves you.
Pamela Littky photo