Richard Thompson: The Acoustics Behind 'Electric'
Guitar players will hear the pure, ringing tones conjured by 10 fingers that seem to be doing the work of 20 and say, "Oh, for sure — that's Richard Thompson."
That nimble guitar work frames songs that are like perfectly crafted short stories, often dark and biting. Thompson started out in 1967 with the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, followed by a long musical partnership with his then-wife, Linda Thompson. For the past 30 years, he's had a dynamic solo career, in which he's infused rock and jazz into traditional folk music.
Thompson brought his acoustic Lowden guitar to All Things Considered to play selections from the new Electric — his 21st solo album — and speak with NPR's Melissa Block.
On his distinctive picking style
"[I play] with a flatpick, and I play fingerstyle, as well — a pick and two other fingers. It's a very convenient, useful thing: There are some things you can do that you can't do with any other style. ... If you're a solo accompanist, it's good to be able to make a big noise — just to make it sound more orchestral; to make it more interesting."
On staying curious
"If you stop thinking that you're going to find new things every day, then you might as well just give up and go fishing or something. Music has to be exploratory, and you have to be finding new things. I'm basically self-taught: I did some classical lessons very, very early on, but there's big gaps. So I'm always trying to learn about harmony. In the last five years or so, I've been listening to classical composers — people like Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich — just because I love the harmony and the kind of dissonance that they put into their music. "
On his changing relationship to his characters
"If you are a songwriter, you keep revisiting your songs all the time, because you're performing them. So you might have a song that you wrote when you were 18, as indeed I do, that people request. And I have to keep reimagining and revisiting. And as I'm singing the songs, I get different pictures. Every night, the little movie is a little different ... otherwise I might go crazy."
On the physical strain of playing music
"In the middle of a tour, I'll often — if there's a day off — I won't play. I'll just let the blisters get better. Things physically hurt sometimes: fingers, joints, elbows, wrists, whatever. You're kind of punishing your body, you know. And sometimes, you really have to take the opportunity to let stuff rest."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Guitar players will hear the pure, ringing tones, hear 10 fingers that seem to do the work of 20, and say, oh, for sure, that's Richard Thompson.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Richard Thompson warming up on his Lowden guitar the other day, here in our studios. That nimble guitar work frames songs that are like perfectly-crafted short stories, often dark and biting. Thompson started out in 1967 with the British folk-rock band, Fairport Convention. He had a long musical partnership with his then-wife, Linda Thompson, and a dynamic solo career for the last 30 years. He came by to play some songs from his new album titled "Electric."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
BLOCK: Richard Thompson, thanks so much for coming in. It's great to have you here.
RICHARD THOMPSON: Well, Thank you. Great to be here. Thank you.
BLOCK: The title might be a little misleading for what we're doing today because you have your acoustic guitar with you, not an electric guitar. And I...
THOMPSON: This is true, but hopefully the energy is electric.
BLOCK: The energy will be electric. Why don't we just start right in with it and why don't you play us a bit of a song. What would you like to play?
THOMPSON: I'll play a, this is called "Good Things Happen to Bad People."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOOD THINGS HAPPEN TO BAD PEOPLE")
THOMPSON: (Singing) Sweet thing, believe me. You'll never deceive me. You stared me down without blinking. That's when I really started thinking. You must have been running around. You must have been running around. 'Cause you were smiling.
(Singing) Good things happen to bad people. Good things happen to bad people. But only, but only, for a while. You cried the day I walked you down the aisle. And I know you've been bad. From the way you smile.
BLOCK: Richard Thompson here in our studios with the song, "Good Things Happen to Bad People" - part of the song, anyway.
THOMPSON: The Reader's Digest version.
BLOCK: Yes, the condensed version. This is a song all about a suspicious mind.
THOMPSON: A suspicious mind, jealousy, yes. Of course, it's obviously fiction because I don't have a jealous bone in my body, so...
BLOCK: Not one.
THOMPSON: I've heard about it.
THOMPSON: Heard about jealousy. Yeah.
BLOCK: And you can write about that?
THOMPSON: Yeah. Mm-hmm.
BLOCK: Using some poetic license or something?
THOMPSON: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
BLOCK: Let's talk a little about your technique, because you have a, such a big sound with so much stuff going on out of that guitar. What are you doing with your picking hand?
THOMPSON: Well, I kind of play with a flatpick, and I play fingerstyle, as well - a pick and two other fingers. It's a very convenient, useful thing. There are some things you can do that you can't do with any other style.
BLOCK: What kinds of things?
THOMPSON: You can do double rhythm on the bottom strings.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)
THOMPSON: You can do...
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR)
THOMPSON: ...which is quite fun.
BLOCK: That is quite fun.
THOMPSON: You know, if you're a solo accompanist, it's good to be able to make a big noise, you know, so we use it just to make it sound more orchestral; to make it more interesting.
BLOCK: For as long as you been playing guitar, are you still finding new things out about it? Does it still have things to teach you when you sit down to play?
THOMPSON: Every day.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I think if you stop thinking that you're going to find new things every day then you might as well give up and go fishing or something, because the music has to be exploratory and you have to be finding new things.
BLOCK: What kinds of new things do you find?
THOMPSON: You know, I'm basically self-taught. I did some classical lessons very early on, but there's big gaps, so I'm always trying to learn about harmony. And, you know, the last five years or so I've been listening to classical composers, you know, people like people like Benjamin Britten, Shostakovich - just because I love the kind of harmony and the kind of dissonance that they put into their music. And I'm thinking well, I can borrow some of that. I'll steal.
THOMPSON: I could steal bits of that.
BLOCK: It's a long and noble tradition, that stealing thing.
THOMPSON: It is, yeah. But, you know, at the same time I'm rooted in a very folky tradition. So if I slip these ideas in there, they're kind of fleeting and passing because I'm just still an entertainer and, you know, it's basically three chords.
BLOCK: Just three chords.
THOMPSON: But what three chords! Wow, you know.
BLOCK: Not your average run-of-the-mill chords.
THOMPSON: Well, there's C, F and G or there's, you know, there's weird ones. You could do three weird chords, I suppose if you wanted to.
BLOCK: Would you play us another song from the new album?
THOMPSON: Ok. Yeah.
BLOCK: And then I'm wondering if you do one that I'm most fond of, which is "Salford Sunday."
THOMPSON: "Salford Sunday." Actually, I could do that now. I could actually do that now.
BLOCK: Yeah. Would you?
THOMPSON: OK. OK. "Salford Sunday."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SALFORD SUNDAY")
THOMPSON: (Singing) Salford Sunday, skies are weeping. Dawn is creeping through the blind. Salford Sunday and I'm aching for the night I left behind. For I left a weeping willow. She should be lying on my pillow. If I wasn't such a hard nose, such a perfect waste of time. Salford Sunday and I'm morning after bass drum beating in my head. Sunday papers talking scandals in the cold side of the bed.
BLOCK: That's beautiful.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
BLOCK: Richard Thompson here in our studios. When you're writing a song like "Salford Sunday," and you're thinking about the character, do you imagine the character? Do you picture him or her in your mind?
THOMPSON: I think you have to. Yeah.
THOMPSON: And, it's very strange, but If you are a songwriter, you keep revisiting your songs all the time, because you're performing them. So you might have a song that you wrote when you were 18, as indeed I do, that people request. And I kind of do these songs and I have to keep re-imagining and revisiting. And as I'm singing the songs, I get different pictures. You know, every night, the little movie is a little different. There's a song I do called "Vincent Black Lightning," which is quite popular and every night I see that in a different way. The characters are a little different.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Yeah. Otherwise I might go crazy.
BLOCK: And the character in the song, in "Salford Sunday," how do you picture him?
THOMPSON: You know, that's really me. I mean, he is very close to me and the story is quite close to real events.
BLOCK: You mentioned "1952 Vincent Black Lightning."
BLOCK: From one of your earlier albums. Would you like to play a little bit of that, for us?
BLOCK: You going to make a lot of people happy by doing this song, you know, so...
THOMPSON: Or really really miserable.
BLOCK: It is a song about love and death and motorcycles.
THOMPSON: Love, death and a motorcycle. What else is there?
BLOCK: Not much.
THOMPSON: That's it.
BLOCK: A redheaded girl.
THOMPSON: Redheaded girl. Yup.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VINCENT BLACK LIGHTNING")
THOMPSON: (Singing) Says Red Molly to James, that's a fine motorbike. A girl could feel special on any such like. Says James to Red Molly my hat's off to you. It's a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952. And I've seen you at the corners and cafes it seems. Red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme.
(Singing) And he pulled around behind and down to Box Hill, they did ride. Oh, said James to Red Molly, here's a ring for your right hand, but I'll tell you in earnest, I'm a dangerous man. For I've fought for the law since I was 17. I robbed many a man to get my Vincent machine. And now I'm 21 years, I might make 22, but I don't mind dying but for the love of you. And if fate should break my stride, then I'll give you my Vincent to ride.
BLOCK: Richard Thompson and his song "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Was Molly always a redhead?
THOMPSON: I think so, yeah, yeah. I keep hearing from women who claim the song is actually about them. It's always very interesting.
BLOCK: And I bet you don't tell them it's not.
THOMPSON: I don't. There's a woman in Los Angeles who is a redhead and is called Molly who has a Vincent in her living room.
BLOCK: And she thinks it's about her.
THOMPSON: Yeah, she's got a good case.
BLOCK: Yeah. Are there any days when you find you haven't picked up a guitar?
THOMPSON: Yeah. Sometimes bits of me hurt, so I think, well, I'm not going to play for two days just to let stuff heal. And in the middle of tour, I'll often - if it's a day off, I won't play. I'll just let the blisters get better, you know.
BLOCK: Things hurt, you say.
THOMPSON: Yeah. Things physically hurt sometimes, yeah.
THOMPSON: Yeah, fingers, joints, you know, elbows, wrists, whatever. You're kind of punishing your body, you know. And sometimes you really have to take your opportunities to let stuff rest.
BLOCK: Well, Richard Thompson, it's been great to have you come in and play for us today.
THOMPSON: Thank you.
BLOCK: And would you take us out with a song?
THOMPSON: Sure, thank you.
BLOCK: What would you like to play?
THOMPSON: This is called "Saving the Good Stuff For You."
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
THOMPSON: (Singing) I've seen trouble from every direction. My old head is peppered with grey. I could never resist life's temptations. Oh, they just seemed to fall in my way. I've had wives and I've treated them all badly, maybe a lover or two. All the time, I didn't know it. I was saving the good stuff for you. I was saving the good stuff for you darling. Saving the good stuff for you. There was some part of me in you, darling. To save the good stuff for you. I was saving the good stuff for you.
BLOCK: That's Richard Thompson. His new album is titled "Electric" and you can hear full versions of the songs performed here in our studios at NPRmusic.org. You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.