Richard Thompson talks about why he doesn’t do happy love songs
If you want a silly little love song, don’t bother with Richard Thompson – the singer-songwriter does angst not amour. Instead of beating hearts, flowers and sunny days, you get bitter break-ups, painful goodbyes, spite and the long walk home.
“You can write a song about relationships and it can be just a very polite, twee love song,” Thompson said in an interview as he embarks on his latest tour with a new CD in hand. “But I don’t think that is doing justice to what usually happens to human beings.”
Thompson should know. His separation from wife and singing partner Linda Thompson in the 1980s was accompanied by a final tour now renowned in music circles for its palpable tension. He’s had some 30 years of solo work since then, building on an already avid following in the United States, where he lives, and Britain, where he achieved early fame in the late 1960s as an original member of Fairport Convention.
His music is hard to define – something that pleases him. It is a mix of hard-driving bluesy folk, country and rock, which Thompson simply calls “tradition-based”. And it is accompanied by outstanding guitar work that has had him included in Rolling Stone magazine’s Top 100 guitarists list.
But it is his dark lyrics, particularly his fascination with the fault lines of personal relationships, that define him for many fans.”I grew up on (traditional) murder ballads,” he said. “That seems normal to me. And pop seems light and fluffy.”
One example is “I Misunderstood”, a painful song about a man discovering his lover is saying goodbye, not good luck.
“It is two people in a conversation hearing different words, interpreting things completely differently,” Thompson said. “She is not interested and he is. She keeps offering platitudes that he sees as encouragement. It happens all the time.”
Thompson’s new album “Electric” won’t disappoint those who have become accustomed to such poetic melancholia. The songs on it are by no means all dark. But there are plenty of lines like “At least she looked me in the eye, with her less than fond goodbye” and “When you thought I was winning the game, you came out and snuffed out the flame”.
The album also come across slightly differently in that it highlights Thompson’s guitar playing, in places providing a slightly heavier, rockier tone than some of his previous work.
In the meantime, he has embarked on a tour – Britain first, followed by a U.S. tour with country singers Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.
Thompson says he attracts slightly different audiences in the two countries. In America, it is more of an alternative country crowd who might follow the likes of Lyle Lovett. But in Britain, it is a mix of old and new.
“For the most part, it is probably the audience that has been with me since the 60s (and Fairport Convention). That’s a constant,” he said, adding with a chuckle: “And a steady influx of young people, which is encouraging. We like that … long consumer lives.”
– This is an edited version of an article I wrote for my regular empl0yer, Reuters