Linda Thompson – The dawning of the day
A voice we thought we would never hear again has unexpectedly returned.
In 1987, Linda Thompson was recording a country album for Columbia Nashville with Herb Pedersen producing and David Lindley and David Grisman playing the session. It was meant to be the follow-up to her 1985 solo debut, the critically praised though poor-selling One Clear Moment, but the new sessions were a disaster.
Linda had suffered from dysphonia — a part-physical, part-psychological tightening of the vocal cords — off and on for nearly fifteen years, but now it was getting worse. She would get part way through a vocal take and have to stop when her throat cramped up. There were days when she could barely talk, much less sing. And the tracks that she did finish were stiff, with none of the mellifluous lyricism that had marked her six albums as half of Richard & Linda Thompson.
So she said the hell with it. She was happily remarried to a prosperous American movie agent; she had three growing children she wanted to spend time with; she was working with the National Theatre in London. She announced that she was giving up the music business; never again would she put herself through the torture of making a record or going on tour.
This was heartbreaking news for those who believed she possessed one of the loveliest, most dramatic voices in the English language. Her voice, and the voice of her best friend Sandy Denny, defined British folk-rock as much as Richard Thompson’s songwriting and guitar work did.
When Linda and Sandy sang the old ballads, they never made death and betrayal sound quaint or casual; the singers met the themes head-on and gave them an ominous weight in their long, unfaltering phrases. But Linda and Sandy never shared the meek fatalism of an older generation of folk singers; their robust tone and rhythmic accents implied a resistance to loss that created a delicious rock ‘n’ roll tension in the songs. And that was what folk-rock was all about.
Even after the long silence, reminders of Linda’s voice keep popping up. When someone publishes a list of all-time greatest albums, Richard & Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out The Lights is usually in there somewhere. And the most authentic moment in the recent, largely hokey movie Divine Secrets Of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood is Linda’s vocal from a 1975 recording of “The Dimming Of The Day”.
She begins that song in one, long, smooth exhalation — “This old house is falling down around my ears” — that drops in resignation without self-pity, and rises in hope without delusion. In the confidential murmur of her delivery, she sounds too weary to entertain any more pretenses — and yet she hardly sounds defeated, for she fills the elegant melody with a rich, purring tone. When she adds, “I need you in the dimming of the day,” she holds out the last, throaty syllable as if filling the song with the shadows of dusk, with the deep-seated need that comes when something — a house, a day, a relationship, a life — is reaching its end.
It’s a special voice, and it seemed gone forever, like the voices of many of Linda’s old friends from the late-’60s/early-’70s British folk scene: Denny, Nick Drake, Jackson Frank. Then came the news that Linda was breaking her vow of silence and releasing Fashionably Late, her first album of new material in 17 years. It’s due July 30 on Rounder, with her first tour in 20 years to follow in the fall.
The voice is intact. You can hear it in the way she begins “Nine Stone Rig” by singing, “They shot him dead at the nine stone rig beside the headless cross,” with the same chilly knife thrust she once brought to songs such as “Walking On A Wire” and “Pavanne”.
Though “Nine Stone Rig” resembles an ancient ballad, it was actually one of six songs on the album co-written by Linda and her son Teddy. In fact, it was Teddy Thompson — who toured with his dad in 1999, released his own debut solo album on Virgin in 2000, and toured with his friend Rufus Wainwright this past winter — who was the catalyst in getting Linda out of the house and back in the studio.
“Teddy inspired me,” she admits. “I’ve never told him this, but I did this album because I wanted to impress him. I was so knocked out by his album that I wanted to show him that his mum can do this, too. It’s kind of silly, but that’s how it was. One night we were sitting in the studio, listening to the playback of ‘The Banks Of The Clyde’, and he was so moved he sobbed. That was a fantastic moment for me.”
Linda says this with a bit of a chuckle, appreciating the irony of a mother seeking the approval of her son. For like her ex-husband, Linda is as irreverently funny when she’s speaking as she is somberly focused when singing. Talking on the phone from London, she fills the conversation with jokes at the expense of her ex, her kids, the music biz, religion, and most of all herself.
“Having the parents he did, Teddy has a bit of a folkie streak in him,” she says. “We sent him to rehab, but it didn’t work. About two years ago in Boston, he mentioned to me that he had all these folkie-like tunes that he was never going to record, because his own music isn’t like that. And I said that I had all these folkie-like lyrics lying around and maybe we could put them together.”
“When my album came out,” adds Teddy, 26, “she was maybe jealous or maybe realized how much she missed it. She had been spending a lot of time taking care of her mum, and when my grandmother died, my mum suddenly had a lot more free time and a lot of emotional things to deal with. So she started writing a lot.