- 03 Apr 19
On the English folk music legend's 70th birthday, we're revisiting his classic interview with Colm O'Hare, originally published in Hot Press in 2007.
With a career stretching back to 1967 and a body of work consisting of over 40 albums, folk-rock legend Richard Thompson continues to record and tour to almost universal acclaim and full houses.
Variously described as “England’s finest living songwriter” and "one of the top 20 guitarists in the world,” Thompson has been busier than ever of late. In the last five years alone, he’s put out an all-acoustic album (Front Parlour Ballads), a film soundtrack (Grizzly Man), a three-disc box set, and his ambitious 1000 Years Of Popular Music DVD, which included his unique take on Britney Spears’ ‘Oops I Did It Again’. And that doesn’t include various live DVDs, compilations, re-issues and internet-only live albums. In fact, such is the proliferation of Thompson product that he recently joked that he was working on “an easy payment plan” for his fans.
“It’s a cyclical thing with me,” he says of his approach to work. “We do a band record every three years or so, but I’ve been quite busy with other things. I’ve got this style that I’m known for, but if you do some other side-projects with styles you’re not used to or not prepared for, it can turn up interesting results.
“One of the main reasons for doing the 1000 Years thing was to show the audience that you can drag out these songs from history and hold them up for scrutiny. A lot of great music gets thrown away when styles change, and it’s nice to pull stuff out like that. With the Britney song I think the audience realised that it’s a well-structured song, regardless of its origins.”
Though he’s been “exiled” in California for the past 20 years, Thompson remains quintessentially English - his 1999 album Mock Tudor took a wry but affectionate look at 1950’s post-war suburban life in Britain. His latest album, Sweet Warrior, sees a return to a full electric sound, with his typically bittersweet/barbed lyrics and fiery fretwork. As the title suggests, the lyrical theme is battles – of the public and personal kind. One song - ‘Dad’s Gonna Kill Me’ (Dad being short for Baghdad) is written from the point of view of a terrified US solider serving in Iraq. It must be difficult speaking out against the war as an expat living in the US?
“No, not at all, and anyway you can get that kind of fallout anywhere in the world. I’m happy to be here and to be able to fight it more directly.”
Another milestone for Thompson this year is the 40th anniversary of Fairport Convention, the band he joined as a seventeen-year-old guitar wunderkind. He’ll be joining them at their annual Cropredy celebration for a special performance of their classic Liege And Lief album.
“It’s a frightening thing,” he says. ”I remember the 10th anniversary, and feeling old back then! But I’m very proud to have been connected with them. It’s amazing that they’re still out there. It was such a great era with all those groups like the Incredible String Band doing amazing stuff."
Roots and folk music has seen a huge resurgence in recent years - as the elder statesman of the genre, how does he view the current scene?
“It’s fantastic,” he enthuses. “I just hope it sticks around for a while and that it isn’t just a passing trend. In England people are very open to it, and the fact that the BBC cover something like the Cambridge Folk Festival so comprehensively gives it a presence. I think in Ireland, the folk revival happened back in the sixties when people reconnected with their own music. But there’s a whole bunch of great new people like Seth Lakeman out there, and it’s great that there’s an outlet for what they do.”
Though he has been with major labels throughout his career, these days he releases albums on his own label and through his website. “I’m happier doing it this way but I’ve no choice - it’s the modern reality, a new version of the cottage industry. It couldn’t be done without the internet of course, and I think it probably means more work for the artist. But it’s the end of an era as far as big record companies are concerned. The great days of Warner Brothers and companies like that are long gone. It’s their own fault really. There’s a lot of American Idol about the industry, which has become so deeply conservative. It’s all about minimising risk.
“On the positive side, it means we have more control over things. We’re really careful about stuff like mastering, and fanatical about how the record sounds.”
No stranger to open air festivals, Thompson recalls performing at Lisdoonvarna a quarter of a century ago, and looks forward to playing outdoors again at Midlands.
“I remember it well,” he smiles. “That's the one where it rained a lot. This one's in the grounds of a big house, isn’t it? - so we should be OK.”