Once puberty has wrought its hellish magic, there isn’t much a young man can do to alter the timbre of his voice. Still, the situation isn’t utterly hopeless. When Hollywood agent Henry Willson decided his young client Rock Hudson sounded too high-pitched and nasally to play the sort of romantic leads his good looks ideally suited, the actor waited until he had a sore throat, then screamed himself hoarse; when his vocal cords healed, his range had permanently settled into a lower, more masculine register. Perfect for Pillow Talk.
Teddy Thompson hasn’t resorted to anything quite so drastic. And those music fans who have heard his natural instrument — which his good friend Rufus Wainwright describes, simply, as “an amazing voice, one of the purest, bell-like sounds you’ll ever hear” — surely pray that he never will. But on a cold January evening, the voice that answers the singer-guitarist-songwriter’s New York phone sounds so much rougher and grittier than the one on his new Verve Forecast album, Separate Ways, that I wonder, momentarily, if perhaps Thompson employs a butler to screen his calls.
“I’m tired from singing a lot the last few days, so my voice probably is about half an octave lower than normal,” Thompson admits, once his identity has been confirmed. Preparations for upcoming dates overseas have taken a toll, but he’s not complaining. “I’ve never particularly liked my own voice very much,” he claims; “I was always jealous of people with gravely ones.” Hence, rather than going straight home after rehearsal today and sipping tea with lemon and honey before our interview, he went out for beers with his band.
“There’s a part of me that thinks that if I just keep carrying on with life the way I do, and keep having the odd cigarette with a couple of drinks, in ten years I’ll sound like Bob Dylan,” he confides, optimistically.
That voice, which is at least partially a genetic legacy bestowed upon him by his mother, the celebrated singer Linda Thompson, is only one key component of the Teddy Thompson package. The 29-year-old is also an accomplished guitarist — if not quite a virtuoso on par with his famous father, Richard Thompson, still leagues better than many well-known troubadours.
And his songwriting has made a remarkable leap forward since his self-titled 2000 debut. Imbued with hubris and humor, and wrought from a combination of frank honesty and sly character exercises, his lyrics on Separate Ways change points of view, blurring and overlapping from song to song. The storytelling style that emerges is slippery, yet compelling.
One other distinguishing characteristic, which Thompson shares with both his parents, is a je ne sais quoi that illuminates even his humblest performances. Consequently, whether they have discovered him via his contributions to the hit soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain, or the raves afforded Separate Ways after its British release in late 2005, an ever-increasing number of people are developing a love-at-first-sight affinity for Thompson’s multifold gifts. “When it all works together, it’s very powerful,” insists Wainwright of his buddy’s charisma.
Thompson’s comrade isn’t alone in this opinion. At the Sundance Film Festival, Wainwright attended a premiere of Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man, the new documentary by Lian Lunson. “I sat next to Judy Collins, who is an old family friend,” Rufus recalls. When Thompson appeared on screen, performing his rendition of Cohen’s “Tonight Will Be Fine”, the impact of his presence and musicianship was palpable throughout the crowd.
“Judy kind of gasped, and grabbed my arm, and said, ‘Who is that boy?’” Wainwright remembers. A question which, undoubtedly, more and more people will be asking in months to come.
Teddy Thompson was born in 1976, in the London commune where his parents resided at the time. Despite being the scion of two of the best-known artists in the British folk-rock movement, and growing up in the 1980s, the most vibrant era in U.K. pop since the Beatles’ heyday, young Teddy made it clear early on that he was a fiercely independent musical spirit.
“When I was first getting into music, between 10 and 13, I was very into ’50s music, both country and rock ‘n’ roll,” he says. “In addition to the Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry was one of my favorites, and Hank Williams and Roy Orbison.”
Contemporary hits seemed woefully shallow to Thompson; the latest chart fare from Wham! and Spandau Ballet failed to ignite the same passion in him that old Sun singles did. “As a kid, watching ‘Top Of The Pops’ in England, I just thought, ‘Modern music is terrible, and old music is good.’ It took me a while to figure out that was not quite the case.”