It is possible, in the murky and muted fashion of his long and curious career, that Richard Thompson has proved to be one of the European artists most influential on American pop music.
Often cited today as a primary figure by roots and rock artists and fans alike, Thompson first appeared 37 years ago as an expressive (if elusive) lead guitarist and songwriter with the groundbreaking British folk-rock group Fairport Convention. His decade-plus as one half of a celebrated, oft-emulated and musically unclassifiable duo with Linda Thompson furthered both his legend and his reputation. For the past twenty years, as a solo artist and as leader of the Richard Thompson Band, he has been a musical innovator and synthesizer, and a masterful instrumentalist.
And, as his multi-cornered, endlessly surprising song catalogue reminds you, he’s one complicated cookie.
Thompson’s haunting 1986 song “How Will I Ever Be Simple Again”, typically singular and subtle, evoked a soldier’s response to a war-ravaged yet innocent woman. The song’s title question, applied to its author, inevitably evokes the counter-query: “When was he ever?”
He’s been described, reductively, as a purveyor of “gloom and doom from the tomb,” but he regularly mixes the wittiest stand-up repartee heard on acoustic music stages with his songs, some of which are hilarious. And he often shows one of the lightest, most calibrated touches in contemporary lyric writing.
Often filed in the folk section of your local record store, and used as the very model of the master adapter of traditional British and Celt music, Thompson has explored a wide range of tones having little to do with either, and is a master electric guitarist. And in recent times, he’s actually lived in Los Angeles at least as much as in London.
In 2005, at age 56, Thompson remains entirely likely to engage, provoke and surprise you on an ongoing basis. Front Parlour Ballads, featuring thirteen new originals performed in acoustic arrangements, has just been released by Cooking Vinyl. He’s done the soundtrack for a new Werner Herzog film set for this fall, Grizzly Man. And, in his spare time he’s researched and presented a show, 1000 Years Of Popular Music, which was previewed on a CD and is soon to be expanded into a more inclusive video performance on DVD.
NO DEPRESSION: You’ve taken some time recently to survey the last thousand years or so of popular music. So tell us, what makes a song popular?
RICHARD THOMPSON: You could say that melodically and harmonically, things are going to be pretty simple, and that thematically it’s going to be about dancing or love, but there are too many tunes that defy all that! Whenever you come up with a formula, you can think of an exception that doesn’t follow the rule; I don’t think there are rules.
But in terms of our show, I have to make a slight disclaimer: The songs that we sing are not necessarily popular; they’re ones that we like! If we did a true portrayal of “A Thousand Years Of Popular Music”, it would be heavy on Julie Andrews numbers sung by the Archies.
ND: Somebody might look at that wonderfully motley list of songs you do on the 1000 Years CD, everything from the oldest-known English round to Britney Spears, and say, “Some of those things are traditional folk songs, and some of those are, well, you know — pop.” After decades of playing around the boundary where those meet and intermingle, what would you say is the difference between the two — and do you care much which side of the line you’re on?
RT: This gets into difficult territory.
ND: Yeah; that’s the idea.
RT: A word like “folk” is very difficult to define; almost everyone has their own. I tend not to use it; it’s so loaded. Some say folk is the music of the people; some say of the underclass. In which case — is rock ‘n’ roll folk music? Can classical music be? Jazz? So I tend to say “acoustic” — which is all that some people mean, anyway.
ND: Or “traditional?”
RT: Yes, “traditional.” The difference, as you go back through those centuries, may be about the function of the song — what it was really used for. An old song from Scotland would have been sung around a table in a pub or somebody’s front room, and the function was to be amusing, or to tell a story, to express a political viewpoint, or just relate the local news.
ND: It had a job!
RT: It was TV, radio and the internet. That wandering minstrel of history had a function as a culture carrier, even from one country to another.
ND: You seem to fill some of those functions even now. So, Richard, are you in pop music?