The British folk-rock pioneer, master guitarist and songwriter talks new music, the U.K.'s next-gen folk stars and ... hockey?
By Alan Light
Special to MSN Music
Richard Thompson is one of the great open secrets in rock 'n' roll. His best-charting albums have barely grazed the Top 100, yet for more than four decades he has been one of the most acclaimed musicians alive, as both an instrumentalist and a songwriter. His work with the pioneering British folk-rock group Fairport Convention, on a series of emotionally scalding albums with his then-wife Linda, and on 15 solo releases earned him a ranking by Rolling Stone as one of the 20 greatest guitarists of all time. Thompson's songs have been recorded by such legends as Robert Plant, R.E.M., Elvis Costello and Bonnie Raitt.
His new album, "Electric," is a stripped-down affair, built around a simple guitar-bass-drums lineup. Recorded in Nashville with producer Buddy Miller, it's full of Thompson's trademarks: blistering guitar work and frequently acerbic lyrics (the single is titled "Good Things Happen to Bad People"). "Because I had the idea for this to be a trio, it was very inspirational for the writing and the presentation," says Thompson. "There's less information behind you, filling in the gaps -- it becomes a whole different kind of thing. There's more space and air to the arrangements, the bass is playing more counterpoint to the guitar, the rhythm section has to be busier." (Not that the album is restricted to this lineup: Miller adds guitar to some songs, and master fiddle player Stuart Duncan, Alison Krauss and English singer- songwriter Siobhan Maher-Kennedy appear on several tracks.)
Last summer, Thompson also organized the Frets and Refrains acoustic guitar and songwriting camp in upstate New York, which he will be leading again this June. On the phone from his home in Los Angeles, he notes that the camp might have had its own impact on the new material. "Some of the ideas that got discussed, the more philosophical discussions that we had, probably sparked interest in other ideas and areas that may have resulted in songs," he says.
Richard Thompson's awards and accolades are truly monumental: A recipient of BBC's Lifetime Achievement Award, Thompson was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire in the queen of England's 2011 New Year Honours List. He was also recently honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Songwriting by the Americana Music Association. But what really gets him excited is talking about hockey -- he's become an "obsessive" Los Angeles Kings fan and season ticket holder in recent years -- so in addition to discussing "Electric," he also shared his thoughts on getting the season started following the recent, lengthy National Hockey League lockout. "It's really just insane," he says, "that these things can't be resolved in a civilized and timely manner."
MSN Music: From the title on down, it seems like you had a very clear intention for this album. When did that comes into focus?
Richard Thompson: I have a five-piece band, with someone in the U.K., someone in Montreal, and the rhythm section and me in L.A. To fly everybody in for a show starts to get quite expensive. So I wanted a smaller, commando-raid kind of band to hit festivals and occasional things. When I settled on this three-piece setup, I thought I should write some material specifically for this band -- which turned into a lot of songs, and then I thought maybe that was my next album.
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Why did you decide to work with Buddy Miller on this album, and what effect did that have?
I had a short list of possible producers and Buddy seemed the most interesting, which certainly proved to be the case. I don't think I'd ever worked in the studio with him, but I had met him and sat in with him in a live context. So I knew him, knew the kind of person he was, and he seemed like he would be fairly selfless and ego-free as a producer. Also, he has a home studio, which is a nice idea, that's 16-track analog. There was a sound to the room which really colors the record. It was a very relaxed environment, and we recorded really quickly. We got 16 tracks done in four days. It's not as fast as the Beatles' first LP, but it's getting up there.
In the last few years, there's been this resurgence in the folk-rock movement, especially coming from England with the likes of Mumford & Sons. Do you hear the influence of Fairport Convention in the work of these new groups?
Well, I do! What we figured out in Fairport -- which was that we were inspired more by the British tradition than by the American tradition -- I feel like I'm still there, still on that road. It's taking the lingua franca of the day, which is rock music, and combining that with the traditional roots.
It always comes out differently, but I think the philosophy is the same. The influences can vary; you might hear some African music and hear a great rhythm that you can incorporate. You can borrow things from other places, but as long as you have a firm foundation in your own music, your own roots, then you can be a butterfly and go and grab other things.
Tell me about your songwriting camp. I guess you enjoyed it last year, since you're doing it again this summer.
It was a fantastic camp. At this place (the Full Moon Resort in Big Indian, N.Y.), they did six or seven different music camps -- Dweezil Zappa led one, Todd Rundgren, the guys from King Crimson. I wanted to do a songwriting and acoustic guitar camp. We had about 110 people and it was so much fun, such a great time. We got wonderful feedback, at least a third of them are signed up to come back.
Teaching is a very enriching thing. You get as much from the class as they get from you. I've done bits and pieces before -- I did an iPad app a few years ago, and I did some one-on-one teaching as a teenager -- but I had never really thought in this way, this context, and I really enjoyed it. You're not quite sure what's going to happen, where the class is going to go or what they're going to do, so that's very exciting.
How do you feel about hockey season starting up now? Can you be as passionate about it after the strike?
I actually went to my first game of the season last night, and it was fantastic to get back into it. These negotiations were so tough on the fans; I wish there was some way to punish the owners, but I don't think it's going to happen. I love the idea of a fans strike -- of staying away from games for a season -- but fans are fans, and you just get back into it.
Has anyone written a great hockey song?
I think they're all a bit lame, actually. Hopefully I'll come up with something in the next few years.
Alan Light is the author of "The Holy or the Broken: Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley and the Unlikely Ascent of 'Hallelujah.'" A regular contributor to MSN Music, he is the former editor-in-chief of Vibe and SPIN magazines. He is the director of programming for the public television concert series "Live From the Artists Den," and contributes frequently to The New York Times and Rolling Stone. Alan is a two-time winner of ASCAP's Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.