RICHARD Thompson could measure his life in songs he has written and those he has loved. A song is a thing of fascination to this weaver of words and music.
“I don’t write songs every day but I do think about songs every day. I really love songs and how songs work. I think it’s fascinating,” he says. “If I was to spend the rest of my life thinking about songs, I would still be learning.”
A song, he adds, is “a study in possibility” – and this founding member of Fairport Convention should know as he has written about 500, or so he calculates when asked. Band songs, solo songs, songs with his former wife Linda – down the years they have mounted up.
A Thompson song is unlikely to be inconsequential and sometimes it will be gloomy in the proud tradition of the folk genre he inhabits, apart from those moments when he turns up the volume and spirals out the notes like a Stratocaster-wielding dervish.
But it is never wise to pin something on Thompson, especially the badge marked glum, because there is a playfulness to his song writing, too, as witnessed by one song on his new album, Dream Attic.
Here Comes Geordie appears to take a sharply humorous swipe at a certain well-known singing and acting Geordie. So what’s he got against Sting?
“I’ve got nothing at all against Sting. I’m sure he’s a lovely man. Anyway, people just assume that song’s about Sting,” he says.
Perhaps that’s because it could hardly be about anyone else, as Richard knows, for he does like an occasional bit of musical mischief, as in an earlier celeb-bashing ditty, Madonna’s Wedding. “Ah, yes – but I actually name-checked her on that song,” he says, before protesting that he was sure Madonna was very nice, too. That’s not what you said last time we spoke, I say.
“Ay, yes,” he says, laughing. Thompson grew up in Muswell Hill in north London, a conventional child of the suburban 1950s, as celebrated in his autobiographical song The Boys Of Mutton Street, in which he changed only the name of the street, in order to get a better rhyme; the rest is pretty much his own post-war childhood.
As a boy, he stuttered badly and traces of that affliction can be heard in his speaking voice still. Yet a voice that once struggled to make itself heard now holds audiences in its spell, as he no doubt will when he plays the Grand Opera House, York on January16.
This tour is to promote Dream Attic, which is unusual in that it is a new album recorded live in front of an audience. “This is the album for those people who say they like a song, but it always sounds better live,” says Thompson.
So was it unusual and difficult to record a new album live, as most live albums contain songs familiar to the audience and the musicians? “Yeah, it’s very unusual and now I know why people don’t do it that way,” he says.
One challenge was that no one in the band knew the songs. “The musicians had to learn 120 minutes of music straight off, whereas in the studio you can go back and polish a song.”
In spite of the difficulties, Thompson confesses himself pleased with the result. “We left things on there we could have changed, but in general, the vocals are good and mostly in tune, and the guitar solos are good.”
Thompson has lived in Los Angeles for years but says he does not feel like an ex-pat. “I come over to the UK at least twice a year, and it’s easy to stay culturally in touch,” he says.
Being so far away allows him to look back at England from a fond distance, as he did on the album Front Parlour Ballads. “I do that a lot: a bit too much probably,” he says.
Technology helps him to keep in touch. “When I’m working I can have Radio Four streaming on my laptop,” he says, adding that if he gets up early enough, he can watch British football on the TV in Los Angeles, too – “Chelsea versus Manchester United, that sort of thing”.
Does he have a team? “Celtic are the family team, but they’ve been so crap lately.”
Last summer, Thompson curated the Meltdown festival on the South Bank in London. “It was fantastic, very hard work, but great,” he says. He selected the themes and artists for the festival, appeared in his own slots and occasionally with his chosen guests.
“Elvis Costello did a solo show which was phenomenally fantastic,” he says. “And I did a couple of songs with him at the end.”
Was that a good and interesting match of voices? “I think that’s for others to say, but we’ve both done a lot of harmony singing.”
Thompson fans who own a guitar, of whom there are many, may well have bought one of the three songbooks he has published. I have two and tell him that attempting to play his songs is my new hobby; but some of the finger-picking is very difficult.
“It’s meant to be,” he says, smartly.
He doesn’t want people to get hung up on copying how he plays a song, believing each performer can bring something to it. He gives an example of how listening and trying to work things out can be fruitful. “There’s a story that BB King was listening to records, trying to work them out, and he didn’t know that they were using slides, so he bent the notes, and invented a whole new style of playing.”
After his present tour, next on the horizon is a songwriters’ cruise in the Caribbean on board the Norwegian Pearl, with John Prine, Steve Earle, Loudon Wainwright III, Patty Griffin and Buddy Miller, among others. “We each do three shows over the week and workshops,” he says.
A cruise watching Richard Thompson and Steve Earle. Pass me my deck-shoes and let’s hope my wife doesn’t check the life savings (as if we had any…).
Did you know?
Richard Thompson received an OBE the New Year 2011 Honours List. Richard said: “What a fantastic honour. I’m absolutely thrilled.”
• Richard Thompson plays the Grand Opera House, York on January 16. The 7.30pm gig is sold out but phone 0844 8472322 for returns.