Richard Thompson: An interview on the occasion of his appearance at WOMADelaide 2001, Australia

Richard Thompson playing acoustic guitar and singing on stage wearing black beret

Richard Thompson at WOMADelaide 2001. Photograph by Ian Fry for The Archive.

A few things have changed in Richard Thompson’s life since his last visit to town for WOMADelaide 1997. For a brief moment, he even tasted some commercial success with his album Mock Tudor cracking the UK Top 30 last year, if only for a couple of weeks. It was an unexpected but pleasant surprise in a career that spans nearly 35 years since his debut with folk rock pioneers Fairport Convention, and which is often described in terms of “undiscovered treasure” as far as the general public is concerned.

On the other hand, critics and fellow musicians have always been quick to extol the virtues and originality of his song writing and guitar playing, both acoustic and electric. One of the other developments has been the debut album by his son Teddy Thompson, released by Virgin last year and often compared favourably to Neil Finn’s style of song writing.

But in recent times, Richard has left Capitol Records and is currently looking at various ways of releasing his music to the world. While that happens, a new compilation titled Action Packed! will be released by his old label. It spans over a decade’s worth of material with a few unreleased or rare songs included as well.

This was something that Capitol were going ahead with anyway but they invited my feedback, and I just asked for a couple of wee tweaks to the song list, which I thought was pretty representative. There will be a live band version of “Persuasion,” which I don’t think anyone’s heard before.

That song started life as an instrumental to which Tim Finn added the lyrics, as well as recording his own version. On the subject of collaborations, a scurrilous rumour recently did the rounds of Richard teaming up with ex-Stranglers lead singer Hugh Cornwall. But sadly, it is not to be.

RT: First I’ve heard of it! I played in a band with Hugh at school, but I haven’t spoken to him since! Could be intriguing though…. Peaches meets Sir Patrick Spens…..

Being under the impression that Capitol had dropped him, I asked about the whole question of being with a record company that appreciates your work enough to sign you up, your last CD with them makes the charts and they still let you go? Is it better to just do what you like and let others work around that in their own way?

RT: Capitol were happy to keep me, I left them – I may still stay with EMI in the rest of the world. The whole climate of the music biz has changed in the last few years – it’s become so corporate and quarterly result driven that they only seem to be able to focus on the massive stuff, which they can now sell more of, but they can’t deal with anything else, hence the migration of many artists to other means of survival. The old virtues for someone like me being on a major label were promotion and radio, and if they can’t do that, may as well go somewhere else where the overheads are lower, and there is the faint chance of earning money from records. Remember, for me, records have always been a purely promotional device, recording contracts being as one sided as they are.

Thompson also has definite ideas about signing with an independent label as he has done before.

RT: People are evolving all kinds of new marketing strategies to reach their audiences as the traditional ways fail — we are looking at companies of every shape and size.

As to what the next album itself would be like, it is a question of whether it is felt the time is right for another radio friendly release or one of the more tangential albums that he sometimes releases. One possibility is a live recording from a concert he did last year titled 1000 Years of Popular Music, where he attempted such a daunting task in the space of one evening. With everything from “Sumer Is Icumen In” (the first known English song from roughly the 13th century) to “Ooops I Did It Again,” by way of a few jazz standards, etc., it would certainly be a unique listening experience!

RT: (It) could have a limited release on our new website, which is nearly up. The show was a lot of fun, if you accept that I’m an amateur at most of the styles of music played – the stars were supposed to be the songs. It would be fun to do it next year with a different selection but because of the nature of it, I don’t think it will ever tour.

One song that probably won’t be recorded is “I Agree With Pat Metheny,” a comment on Mr. Metheny’s outburst against Kenny G’s recent “duet” with Louis Armstrong. To quote the song: “A meeting of the minds, how nice / Like Einstein and Sporty Spice.”

RT: “Pat Metheny” is too much of a personal attack to have a place on a record – it’s a bit of fun in concert. Interesting how many Kenny haters there are out there.

On the other hand, Thompson has written a number of children’s songs such as “My Daddy Is A Mummy” (about Egyptology), which may see the light of day.

Even though it is a very general term, and one which could probably only be applied loosely to his output nowadays, I asked what he thought “folk rock” meant in the year 2001?

RT: Folk rock, who knows or cares? The media has always belittled and discriminated against traditional music. It’s not big on the agenda of our taste mongers – perhaps too masculine or political?

The aforementioned 35th anniversary of Fairport and therefore Richard Thompson’s career is obviously a major milestone (he left FC in early 1971 but still appears with them occasionally at their festival in Cropredy, Oxfordshire). It is remarkable that there is still plenty of interest to keep them all in a career, but I wondered if Richard himself ever sat back to think how lucky he was to do what he loves for so long?

RT: I feel very fortunate to have people listening still, and a few young’uns. Thirty-five years is a terrifying prospect, but I shall enjoy the reunion in 2002. Fairport has survived by being good, and it gets a lot of local support.

It’s always worth throwing in a question from left field, so I asked if he had to cover a song that he has previously recorded in a style he prefers nowadays, which would it be?

RT: Some of the stuff from Pour Down Like Silver could do with rework. It was recorded very fast, which is good for some things, not so good for others.

(That was one of the albums recorded in the 1970s with his ex-wife Linda, who is now re-entering the recording business after a number of years away.)

At the same time, obvious questions sometimes need to be asked, as in his favourite guitars.

RT: Acoustic: same old Lowden 27C; Electric: Ferrington blue finish 3 PU.

He is coming to WOMADelaide as a solo performer this time, armed with songs of rare warmth, depth and intelligence, a ready wit and a mighty impressive back catalogue. Also, the sort of jaw dropping guitar playing that can be described as either inspirational or enough to put you off wanting to learn the instrument for life! It will only be his second visit here and yes I’m biased, but he is bound to be one of the absolute highlights of the festival.

And a thought to finish. If a Kenny G record is played in the forest, and no-one hears it – is it still crap?

RT: “Yes.

This interview was originally conducted for dB Magazine, Australia.