Settling down in a noisy Soho patisserie, Richard Thompson tries to turn his schedule into a joke. “It’s good to be busy, especially in these straitened times,” he says. Save for a period on a Sufi commune, Thompson has never been idle. In his teens, he was the celebrated guitarist of Fairport Convention. With his wife Linda, he made a series of albums through the 1970s, writing dark songs of betrayal and hurt. For 30 years now, he has been a cult solo artist, appealing, as he proudly claims, to “guitar nerds and songwriting nerds” alike.
But by any standard, Thompson, who turned 61 in April, really has been busy. A couple of months ago he curated the Meltdown Festival on London’s South Bank, appearing several times himself in various guises, including in his new not-quite oratorio, Cabaret Of Souls; he is working on a new project of Elizabethan bawdy songs with musicians from Shakespeare’s Globe; and he is about to release and then tour on the back of a new double album.
This album, Dream Attic, which he recorded live in concert, will be released at the end of this month. In a burst of energy he wrote the songs in three months. “It’s slower than Schubert ... It’s quite fast. I had a lot of ideas going into this and it seemed to be quite easy to translate the ideas. The songs for me hang together as an album, but it’s hard to say they’re linked in terms of theme.”
The opening track, “The Money Shuffle”, is a scabrous attack on bankers, “these useless greedy bastards”. He is seething about the bail-out. “I thought the system should have been allowed to collapse and be rebuilt from the ground up. Or to give the money to the citizens of the country: a thousand dollars each, please spend it.” And he reveals himself as a gold bug. “If money’s tied to the gold standard, it means something. Otherwise it’s a trick.”
Ageing and death run through the album. “Crimescene” contemplates his own mortality. “It’s a strange song, it’s an unwieldy song. I like songs that fit into a nice tidy shape; this one rambles a bit. It’s longer than I’d like but I can’t compress it any more. It’s a song with dynamic extremes: it goes from a whisper to a howl. It’s about old age. About getting older and life slowly destroying you.”
“A Brother Says Goodbye” “is a more explicit song, more real, more based on tragic experience”. It remembers friends who have recently died. “I’m not really allowed to name them. There’s a cameraman, an older woman, a musician. I could be like Elgar,” he adds enigmatically, “and just put the initials.”
Thompson has mined this territory before: in his early twenties, his song “Meet On The Ledge” imagined “too many friends ... blown off this mountain by the wind”. He acknowledges the theme. “I’ve been aware for a long time that to celebrate life you have to embrace death. It’s inevitable, full stop. And once you come towards that, you can truly enjoy the moment more and try not to waste time. Time is very precious.”
Recording the album live in front of an audience is a new departure. “We recorded eight shows. Under-rehearsed, but you can’t necessarily tell. I’m amazed at how tight it is – all credit to the musicians. And I don’t think we overdubbed anything.”
The most obvious sign of the live recording is that Thompson’s guitar solos, a concert staple, are longer and more unrestrained than on record. “You’re trading energy for accuracy. In the studio you can take time to do something and get it right. Live, you’re sacrificing some choices but you’re getting back to the sharp end of music. The way it used to be in the studio, actually – straight to 78. Louis Armstrong on ‘Heebie Jeebies’ or ‘St James Infirmary’; what you played was what was recorded and that was it.”
Playing the songs live for a few concerts before they were recorded let him test them out. “Your confidence in a song is a reaction to how an audience perceives it. You have favourite songs you try to push down the audience’s throat. And it doesn’t always work.”
The Meltdown Festival that Thompson curated in June was generally acclaimed. “It was a lot of work – three months of not sleeping very well.” The attractions ranged from a live performance of the comic radio quiz I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue to Vaughan Williams to Islamic punk. “I was trying to aim to be diverse: that’s part of the aim of Meltdown.” One concert brought together guitarists’ guitarists, from John Etheridge to Martin Simpson to James Burton. “Guitar Night was fantastic, wonderful. Friends and some new faces and some heroes. Egos were on the back burner; it was just great.”
Another highlight was a concert in tribute to Kate McGarrigle. The Thompson and McGarrigle clans are entwined by multi-generational bonds of friendship. “Loudon [Wainwright III, McGarrigle’s husband] and I used to feud over tennis; now it’s over who can produce the most musical offspring.” (Wainwright’s children Rufus and Martha clearly qualify, but Thompson trumps him with Teddy, Kamila, Jack and a guitarist grandson, Zak.)
The audience were on tenterhooks watching Thompson duet with his ex-wife Linda on McGarrigle’s song about marital desertion, “Go Leave”; subject matter perhaps too close to the Thompsons for comfort. “I wasn’t really thinking about it. Joe [Boyd, the organiser] said, ‘D’you want to play the guitar on “Go Leave” or shall we get Calum to do it?’ And I said, ‘No, that’s an easy part, I know how to do it.’ I hadn’t thought it was going to be just me and Linda on stage.” On their last tour together, of America in 1982, Linda ended up throwing bottles at her by-then-ex-husband: this was, he says ruefully, “a bit friendlier than last time”.
Less well received was Cabaret Of Souls. Originally, this was conceived as a showcase for his friend (but not relation) the double-bassist Danny Thompson. “I was asked to write a piece for the International Society Of Bassists’ convention, something featuring the double bass. In my mind I skimmed over the bit where it said it should be about six minutes long. That didn’t sink in. The bit that did sink in was when they said there would be a string orchestra available.” In its staging at Meltdown, its second outing, the piece creaked. “It falls between stools. It’s kind of an oratorio. It needs to be staged properly as a theatrical piece.”
He is starting a new project, Nutmeg And Ginger, with the early music specialist Philip Pickett, a long-time collaborator and leader of the Musicians Of the Globe. This promises spicy ballads from Shakespearean London, on recorder, rebec, viol and cittern. “He wanted to do something with his consort and more of a folky kind of voice rather than with a classically trained singer,” says Thompson. “Which I also think is a good idea. I don’t like it when classical singers sing folk music. Opera singers singing opera thrill and delight me, but when they transgress into other areas I get upset.” What upsets him is over-enunciation. “Every syllable – it’s an artificial way of singing to achieve volume and clarity in an unmiked room. It sounds too arch. There’s too much artifice. It doesn’t sound natural. I don’t believe that Elizabethan music was sung in that way.”
Although a quintessentially English figure, Thompson has lived for many years in Los Angeles. “You can find more allies in California,” he explains, despite throwing his hands up at its economic travails. “People will not cut budgets and they will not increase taxes. So things just get jammed right there. It could be solved in a penstroke really; it’s stupid and bizarre. But as a place to live I find it very easy.” He has not gone native. “Where I live is culturally neutral. If I lived in New Orleans I’d have to embrace the local culture because it’s so good. In California you can be your own person.”
The Britishness that runs through his work survives. “You can be an Englishman in southern California perfectly easily. With the internet you can keep in touch. You can listen to Radio 4 while you’re working. There are 60,000 Brits in the film business. If you want to find fish and chips or go to the pub you can.”
Thompson’s world is specific: bikers on Box Hill, itinerant workers camping on the Gower peninsula, girls with demons in their dancing shoes. But it has universal appeal. “Most people are moved by the songs. So there are enough common links from whatever this culture is to whatever that culture is. People seem to get it. What I write about is English culture and who I write for is British people. Perhaps they’re British people who don’t really exist.”
‘Dream Attic’ is released on Proper Records on August 30. ‘Nutmeg and Ginger’ will be performed at Cadogan Hall, London, on December 6. The Richard Thompson Band tours the US in the autumn and the UK next spring