Richard Thompson talks about modern folk music
There's an impermeable aura of durability around the work of Richard Thompson; it's like a well-tailored suit that never frays. He's not only an outstanding storyteller, but revered by many as one of the finest and most exciting electric guitarists ever to have shaken the rafters of the world's concert halls. He is one of the few truly poetic lyricists in rock, whose vision may be too dark for huge record sales or bellowing X-Factor karaoke, but whose ability to hone vivid characters and emotions into a tightly-packed rhyme is matched by few contemporaries - only the likes of Dylan, or Loudon Wainwright come to mind.
One of the original architects of folk rock, with Fairport Convention in the 1960s, with his ex-wife Linda from 1973 to 1982, and throughout an illustrious 30-year solo career, his audience is broad and yet he has consistently eluded mass appeal, despite penning some of the era's finest love songs - as well as its darkest sentiments. At the age of 62, with 45 years in music, Thompson continues to shake rafters and tighten heartstrings, following his own furrow and marrying the power of electric music to the folk tradition. Since the early 1980s, Thompson has based himself largely in Los Angeles, though he retains his Hampstead home in London, and despite 30 years on the US west coast, his songwriter's muse remains very much with the grey skies and suburbia of north London.
"I'm always thinking England, really," he says. "The cultural landscape is usually England, which is bleak, grey, and often it's back in the 60s. I think you often write about the time that formed you, or you're trying to decode the past; there are these knots in your past and you try to unravel them, to figure out why things happened, what made you what you are, what made other people what they are."
We're talking early on a midweek morning in his front room in Hampstead, a few days before a major UK and European tour begins to support his latest album, Dream Attic, which was itself recorded live on tour, eschewing the concentration of the studio for the energy and interaction of a live audience. Band members are still asleep upstairs, his tour manager is prowling around with fresh black coffee in the kitchen, and Thompson is sitting in a chair by the window, pondering how the folk and rock scene that forged him back in the 1960s has influenced the powerful folk and roots revival of recent years. "There's a really interesting groundswell - I think what is called the folk scene is very healthy at this point," he says. How does it compare with the 1960s revival? "In the 60s there were a lot of folk clubs - it was a fantastic place for up-and-coming artists. But there was a big disconnect between popular and traditional music, which is what Fairport was all about, creating this artificial bridge between the tradition and rock."
The result is, a generation later, what Thompson describes as "a very healthy English folk scene", and his stage and studio work continues to contribute to that rude health. Last summer, he was invited to curate the prestigious Meltdown festival on London's South Bank. Highlights included a tribute concert to the Canadian singer Kate McGarrigle, which saw Richard and his ex-wife Linda duet for the first time since their turbulent break-up in the early 1980s. He gave a platform, too, to Shifting Sands, uniting folk musicians of the Gulf and Britain with a set of songs relating to the sea. "It's a fantastic experience but very hard work - especially the months running up to it. We had some musical moments that were just extraordinary."
"Extraordinary" also sums up the milestone works that stud Thompson's career with Fairport, his ex-wife Linda, and as a solo artist. In 2006, he joined the surviving members of the original Fairport line-up to perform the epochal Liege and Lief album from 1969 in its entirety. Probably the most influential folk album of all time, and listed by Mojo magazine as one of the top 100 records to change the world, this was the album that fused rock and the tradition and laid down the template for generations of artists to come. "You sort of forget what it's like to play with those musicians," recalls Thompson. "Especially the rhythm section of Ashley Hutchings and Dave Mattacks. That rhythm section has a certain sound and a feel to it that is specific to those two people. I'd forgotten what that feels like."
Thompson left Fairport in 1971, but through the 1970s, he released a series of classic albums with Linda, writing intense songs of love and heartbreak for her to sing. He may throw off pyrotechnics with his guitar, but the ballad, often with a twist in its tenderness, has stayed with Thompson through album after album. The song that closes his latest album, If Love Whispers Your Name, has a lyrical, liturgical weight that makes you wonder if faith - he converted to a Sufi branch of Islam in the early 1970s - played a role in its composition.
"I don't think belief is in a separate compartment of life, something you take out of the cupboard and dust off then put back. I think that it's in everything that you do, in every process that you go through, so musically it's always there in the background, if not in the foreground. It's an all-pervading element." The song itself, he says, can be taken on different levels, though there's no doubt in his delivery that this is a song of experience and conviction. "It can be seen on a spiritual level, and it's a song of physical love. It's an old, wise voice talking to someone younger, saying this is what life is all about, this is what counts, these are the moments to treasure; the rest is illusory."