All the Poets (Musicians on Writing): Richard Thompson




In this monthly series, Scott Timberg interviews musicians on the literary work that has inspired and informed their music.

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FOR A FULL half century, Richard Thompson has been among the most blazing guitarists — someone who can command half a dozen styles and still sound like himself — and most resonant songwriters of whatever decade he’s working in. His ’60s folk rock band, Fairport Convention, with singer Sandy Denny, added numbers like “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” “Genesis Hall,” “Meet on the Ledge,” and “Farewell, Farewell” to rock’s core repertoire, along with electrified “border ballads” and covers of overlooked Dylan tunes. His partnership with then-wife Linda led to masterful LPs like I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight and the frightening breakup record Shoot Out the Lights. Thompson’s solo career has ranged widely, from deranged rockers like “I Feel So Good” to eloquent finger-picked ballads like “Woods of Darney.” It sometimes seems there’s nothing he can’t do. He’s played guitar on albums by Nick Drake and Crowded House, and had his songs covered by R.E.M., David Byrne, Bob Mould, and Los Lobos. 

Thompson, raised in North London but based in Los Angeles since the ’80s, reworks his entire career in his legendary live shows as well as the Acoustic Classics series of albums, on which he features his classic songs in stripped-down arrangements. (The second album in the Acoustic Classics series comes out this week, on August 25, with Acoustic Rarities due in October.)

Thompson, on tour in Britain, corresponded from the road via email.

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SCOTT TIMBERG: I expect a songwriter like you draws on a huge range of sources — your own life, the music you heard as a kid, Dylan, the Beatles, and Chuck Berry, artists in various genres. How important have literary writers been for your work?

RICHARD THOMPSON: I’d say pretty important. Poetry overlaps a lot with songwriting, as does storytelling in any form, and I’d probably throw in cinema as an influence as well for that reason. I suppose I feel close to some of the writers who were themselves influenced by the traditional music forms, like Yeats, Walter Scott, Burns, and Thomas Hardy. I also love Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift, and a whole bunch of more minor writers from the 20th century, because that was what I was reading at a formative time.

Give us a sense of some of the authors who’ve been bedrock figures for you, with whom you’ve gotten in deep and to whom you’ve returned year after year.

I’d say Dickens, Jane Austen, Patrick O’Brian, Larkin, Ted Hughes … I’ve been fairly obsessed with Homer for the last few years. That might be the greatest stuff ever written.

The first band you recorded with, Fairport Convention, brought electricity and a backbeat to old “border ballads” and British folk tales. What drew you to that stuff, and do you return to it still — or was it just a ’60s thing?

When Music from Big Pink by The Band came out, we had to take a serious look at ourselves. This was a perfect blending of American roots, and in our earlier incarnation, it was everything that we wanted to strive for — except that we totally lacked the cultural background to do that, coming as we did from suburban North London. So we had to say, “Okay, now is the hour — now we have to, with some urgency, create a truly British form of rock ’n’ roll, so we can excel in something indigenous, as The Band had excelled.” So we went right back, to the 16th century in some cases, to find the old ballads and great old stories, and we found ways to update them and give them a contemporary urgency by adding electricity and a backbeat.

When Sandy and Swarb [fiddle player Dave Swarbrick] came into the band, they brought a lot of knowledge of that music with them. The rest of us knew it to a degree, but also furnished the rock ’n’ roll element. I return to this music all the time. It is never far from the style I play. I think there was a ’60s way of doing it, but subsequent bands and musicians have found variations of interpretation.

You derive, both personally and musically, in part from the Scots: your father was at least part Caledonian, you sometimes play in Celtic tunings, and your guitar can sound like a bagpipe. Do you find any affinity with Scottish (whether Gaelic or Lowland Scots) writers? I think you have a lovely song — “Burns Supper” — that nods to Robert Burns.

“Burns Supper” is about my father, who never missed one. He was a huge Burns fan, and could recite large chunks after a memory-jogging dram or two! My earliest memories of live music were all in Scotland, with accordion-led dance bands, and lone pipers playing pibrochs. My grandmother was Gaelic and sang in Gaelic. I still prefer that kind of modality in the music I create. When I was a bored kid — easily done in the ’50s in Britain — I would read my father’s and grandfather’s books of “border ballads,” so when it came time to write songs in a more British style, I knew all this lyrical poetry that had been sitting on the back burner for years, and I could rehash it.

You’ve been a Sufi Muslim since the mid-1970s. I wonder if any poets from the Sufi or Persian Golden Age — Rumi, Hafez, others — have been important to you and found their way in your work. Your album with Linda, Pour Down Like Silver, is commonly known as “the Sufi record.”

I’ve always loved Rumi and Hafiz. I’d add Ibn al-Farid and some of the less well-known Western Arabic poets to the list. These are complex poets, but sometimes their spirit creeps into my work. I’ve never been interested in being an Orientalist, or playing what gets called “World Music,” but the music of somewhere like Andalusia sounds very Western to my ear.

Someone — maybe it was you — said once that the dour, despairing, and melancholic character of much of English rock music came from literature teachers in Britain asking kids to read Keats, Hardy, Larkin, and the rest. Compared, on average, to American popular music, there does seem to be something darker and more tragic to songwriters like you, Morrissey and the Smiths, the Kinks, even some of the Beatles. (Would a young, successful American group have come up with songs like “Misery” and “There’s a Place”?) In any case, do you see a link here?

I suppose it is a bit different. I just thought it was normal at the time, and reflected the landscape and history. We were enthusiastically taught Yeats and Robert Graves, Frazer’s The Golden Bough, and Larkin by an engaged English department. Things like [John Osborne’s] Look Back in Anger were also on the syllabus. I think the main thing I learned was the importance of symbolism, and layering meaning. We all went to see films like A Taste of Honey, This Sporting Life, Kes, Billy Liar — gritty North Country realism … And French and Italian films — realistic, surrealistic. I think of the Beatles and Kinks as being part of that whole new ’60s scene. I also think the climate makes us Brits who we are. And someone said that British art is all about the landscape, and keeps returning and recycling reflections on the landscape.

I wonder if you could think of a writer of any kind — Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Homer — and tell us a bit about what attracted you to their work and how the influence, whether general or specific, worked through a song or album or period of your work?

With someone like Burns, it’s easy to see the influence, because he was both poet and songwriter, and there is a clear overlap. With D. H. Lawrence, it’s a subtler thing. As a prose writer and as a poet, he repeats himself all the time, and at first I thought he was just a sloppy editor, but there is an effect, and it’s a technique songwriters use too. Through repetition, you create singability and a kind of hypnotic state, and I think Lawrence was intending that in his poems, and he does it better than anyone I can think of. So I learned something from Lawrence — plus, of course, he is a brilliant creator of mood and atmosphere through these devices, which are also great tools for songwriting.

When we talk about literary influences on a songwriter, we typically mean something verbal — subject matter suggested by Virginia Woolf, a witty couplet inspired by Auden, that sort of thing. But have you received inspiration from a writer or a work on the level of structure, point of view, spirit — something that goes beyond words?

A few years ago, being a bit besotted with the Iliad, I thought it would be cool to read it in the original, so I did an introductory course on Classical Greek, which I found extremely tough, and I’ve been picking it up and dropping it ever since. I’m still on Book II. What I did discover, in the pieces I managed to translate, was that I didn’t like any of the existing translations — I thought they all got it wrong. To me it’s a much more spiritual story — closer, in fact, to Rumi and Shams-i-Tabrīzī than it is to something like Beowulf. There are subtleties and echoes of language all the way through, and it’s easy to see how translations can be so varied. So spirit — those Greeks knew a thing or two. They seem so lucid where we seem so muddled. I’m trying to learn clarity from Homer.

I wonder if any of the songs on Acoustic Classics II have a direct or indirect literary influence. Among my favorites on the album are reworked versions of “Genesis Hall,” “Devonside,” “Meet on the Ledge,” the great kiss-off song “Keep Your Distance,” and the sadly resigned “Why Must I Plead?” and, of course, “A Heart Needs a Home.”

“Devonside” is influenced by the style, and also the landscape, of Robert Burns. The River Devon is in Ayrshire, in Scotland, and is mentioned a few times by Burns. This is also the country my family comes from. So the setting is very Burns, and the verse structure is very Burns, and from there it becomes a more modern, jumpy, cinematic narrative. I think it’s easy to trace the origins, though.

This year marks your 50th anniversary as a “recording artist,” if we begin the clock with Fairport Convention’s debut. You seem to be in a Janus-like stage these days, both releasing retrospectives/retakes of your previous work, and recording new songs as well. Where are you as a literary man now, and looking ahead? Is there a writer or era or genre that seems to be tugging at your head and heart these days — and where might it take you?

I do revisit the ’50s a lot, especially ’50s Britain. The art and literature of that time was important to me, and I go back to it to try to understand myself, and to see how 60 years of perspective change the way I think about it all. Going back to go forward, I suppose. So Kingsley Amis, Larkin, Margaret Drabble, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Monica Dickens, John Betjeman, and the rest — and I think it bleeds into the ’60s too, but I’m almost burned out on ’60s culture these days.

Where does it lead? Maybe nowhere! Hopefully everything you look at or listen to or reflect on takes you a step in a new direction, but I have no idea where that might be.

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Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.


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