Legends: Richard Thompson

It’s a crystal blue morning in Santa Monica, a few blocks from the Pacific, and Richard Thompson is waiting at a table in a little coffee shop. Around him, there’s a tranquility and a warmth, and although this legendary British songwriter lives in this vast city during much of the year, he seems untouched by the volume and vagaries of an Angeleno existence.

Richard Thompson

When I first interviewed him about a decade ago, he answered my first query into his songwriting methodology with, “Hey, there’s a lot of competition, I’m not about to give away my secrets.” Reminded of that, he laughed and said, “The competition must have thinned out.”

In fact, he’s right: so many contenders have fallen by the wayside, while Richard Thompson, somewhat miraculously, is still standing. Not only is he one of this world’s most gifted songwriters—as inventive and inspired with words as with music—he’s also one of the most prolific. As a teenager, he founded the folk-rock super group Fairport Convention, with whom he wrote a profusion of amazing early songs before branching out into a stellar solo career—and sometimes duo with his wife Linda Thompson—and for years, has consistently written solidly inventive and beautifully distinctive songs, the kind that don’t, as Van Dyke Parks put it, fall apart like cheap watches on the street.

He also happens to be one of the world’s greatest and most distinctive guitarists, and, as an instrumentalist alone, he could easily have had a distinguished career—if not for the fact that he’s one of this world’s most gifted songwriters. He also happens to be an exceedingly thoughtful and eloquent man, which is why sitting down with him over coffee to talk songs is a privilege not to be taken lightly.

Born in London in 1949, he absorbed all the music his family had to offer—from volumes of Irish folk ballads to his father’s jazz collection, his sister’s rock and roll and her boyfriend’s Dylan albums—so that his leap from folk to Django to Buddy Holly and beyond (a fusion forever instilled in his own work)—was effortless. They all live in his own songs: richly detailed narratives which reel like timeless ballads, propelled by the old ballads in her heart, the rock in his veins and the jazz at his fingers.

Now, in a world where albums aren’t the norm and it seems that much of the music-buying public is downloading single songs, he’s determinedly swimming against the current, writing both a song cycle and a folk opera. “Songs like to be together,” he says with a wry grin.

Does songwriting get easier over the years?

Yes. I think you can refine what you do, and become more consistent. And you write better songs that have a better shape and a better feeling. You evolve into and out of things, and go through stages, but, ultimately, you do improve.

You’re a phenomenal guitarist, yet you’ve said you like to work on songs without the guitar.

I think that before you pin music down, while it’s still floating a bit in your head, it always sounds fabulous. It’s never that good again. It’s almost celestial when you haven’t quite figured out what it is yet, when it’s still floating around and you haven’t quite grabbed it and defined it. It’s almost like music of the heavens.

But at some point, you have to bring it to earth and I suppose, at that point, you pick up an instrument. And you decide actually it’s in A and there’s three other chords. And it becomes a little more mundane, more of this world, and it’s a little bit of a sad time, but it’s rewarding that you capture it. It’s a bit like there’s a butterfly floating in the air, this beautiful butterfly, and you really enjoy watching it and you think, “I’ve got to have it.” So you get your butterfly net and your grab it and you’re really excited to see what it looks like when you take it out of the net, and you find the colors have all faded and it’s become this kind of gray thing. It’s become this sort of slightly less interesting object.

Yet most songwriters use an instrument to capture that butterfly.

I do that as well. Sometimes, if I have a chord sequence I like and I am looking for a tune, I find I can sit and play for awhile. But I also find it’s good to leave the guitar alone and go out for a walk—and stop thinking about chords, because things are looser in your mind. They’re not so defined. Your fingers fall into habits. If you think about guitar playing, rather than actually playing it, it’s a looser thing. You can imagine your fingers going places. You can see your fingers making chord shapes. But it’s not so defined. There’s a slightly more ambiguous element in there that can be created, that can take you other places. So it’s helpful to get away from the instrument. I do some rhythmic activity like walking. Or surfing.

Do you surf?

No. [Laughs]

When you do take it to guitar, is it clear to you what chords will go with it?

Usually, but, sometimes, the revelatory moment of writing the song can be when you do change the melody—just that one little twist somewhere. You think, “Whoa, that’s it!” I’m thinking of, like, Buddy Holly writing “Peggy Sue” and he gets into the studio and says, “How about the third time through we go to an F chord?” It’s the big moment of the song, the defining moment. Which otherwise is a 12-bar blues. So things like that. You find a harmonic opening you weren’t expecting. That can be a big lift as a writer, an exciting thing.

Does living in sunny L.A. affect what you write?

I don’t think so. I kind of think you carry a culture in your head. For me, Los Angeles is a blank canvas. It’s not as if someone has already painted the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean up there that you have to pay attention to. To me, it’s culturally blank. You can be who you want in this town. And creatively—internally—it’s a bleak Bronte-esque landscape. I could be lying on a beach in the Caribbean but still write grim and Dickensian.

You’re one of the best songwriters at writing story songs. Did that come naturally to you?

Every song really tells a story. Some are more fleshed out than others. Some are more linear than others. But most pop songs, apart from pretty basic dance music, is telling some kind of a story—usually a love story, sometimes a political story. In modern songwriting there is a lot of cinematic technique, where you jump into the middle of action. You might be writing in first person through the eyes of the protagonist. It’s a little cinematic scene, and you do hard cuts. And some more is left to the imagination. I do a lot of that in addition to the narrative songs, and I enjoy both. I’m surprised by how popular the ballads are, the story songs. So in a sense, I’m reacting to what the audience would like.

Why does it surprise you that the audience likes those?

Well, you wouldn’t think that that would be a way that people still enjoy receiving a story. In the 16th century, before the gramophone and the cinema, the way people heard news was not from newspapers; it was from ballads. You’d hear about the local murder and it would be a ballad.

Today, I’m surprised that people have the attention span to sit through a long song. I’m glad they do. I’m rewarded to know that this process, which goes back thousands of years, still works in the age of distractions and so many ways of mediating information.

Some songwriters feel writing story songs isn’t as relevant as writing about yourself.

I don’t think there’s a difference. A story song expresses the songwriter’s world-view, his morality—whereas, a song about you might just be telling a story. It’s a process where you start out writing a personal song and it becomes universal, and you write a song about other people and it ends up ultimately being about you.

When you are writing, are you consciously thinking about what the song will say?

No. That can stop you in your tracks—you can outmaneuver your own subconscious. You want to get to the point where it’s almost a semi-conscious or unconscious act of writing. And if you’re looking at yourself the whole time, you’ll never get to that point.

Making music, either creating it or playing it, is sort of a handshake between the two sides of the brain. The intuitive part of the brain is kind of flying, and the logical part of the brain interjects occasionally and says, “Four bars left,” or says, “key change,” or says, “F chord coming up,” or says, “What rhymes with ‘bush’?”

Do you sometimes put up a rhyme and then work backwards from it?

Yeah, absolutely. Totally. I think, sometimes, you can write a song totally backwards. You get this killer line that ends the song and you think about how you get back from there? Or you start from a title, or an idea. Something that sounds cool, an oxymoronic title or something. And you build from that.

Do you find you can perfect a song, or do you have to settle sometimes?

It’s got to be right. It has to be as good as you can get it. There is no perfect, but you do it as well as you can. Then you say, right, finished, done it. But then a year later or five years later you might say to yourself, “That’s a bad verse. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Do you think songwriting will continue to evolve, and are there new places to go with songs?

I have to believe that’s true. Otherwise, I would not see the future as very interesting. I think it’s absolutely possible to write a song and go somewhere where no one’s been before, uncharted territory. In terms of content, I see limitations where there should be none. I know there are things I wouldn’t write about, but that shouldn’t be the case. You should be able to make a song out of anything, out of any situation.

Edward Elgar’s wife said [to him], “You think you can write about anything, don’t you?” And he said, “Oh, absolutely. Anything is an inspiration.” So she said, “Why don’t you write about your friends?” And he went away and wrote “The Enigma Variations,” which is probably his greatest, most recognizable piece of music.