For four decades, Richard Thompson has been crafting and performing his unique brand of literate, heartfelt music. Beginning with the groundbreaking folk rock blend of Fairport Convention in the late 60’s, Thompson as long been acknowledged as one of popular music’s greatest guitarists and songwriters, and as an artist who has never compromised his creative voice. In 2011 he received a Grammy nomination for his live CD Dream Attic, and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for his work in music. Classic Rock Mine’s Mike Conway sat down with Richard Thompson in his hotel room, before an appearance at the Guinness Fleadh at Boston’s Suffolk Downs on June 19, 1999. Thompson’s openness, frankness and sense of humor when discussing his life and career, make this a memorable interview.
RT: With Fairport, we got to the point in 1968 or whenever it was, where we sort of intellectually sat down and said, “Well, you know, we’re never going to be a blues band as good as Howling Wolf ; we’re never going to play soul music as James Brown, because that’s not where we come from. What chance do we stand? We don’t have the background, the upbringing. We don’t want to end up as another lame British blues band. If we play music that’s more us, it’s more from our own roots, it’s more indigenous, then that’ll be something at which we can excel.
So we looked at British traditional music– English, Irish, Scottish– and it was kind of discredited, really. But we had grown up with the Victorian version, the sanitized version of folk music, which left out all the racy stuff, all the good stuff, and left out all the murders and the sex, so it’s kind of very sort of clean Victorian stuff, which is fine for school. And that really was the image of folk music. I mean it was pretty bad.
So we thought, well, if we take the energy of contemporary music, if we take the rock and roll, and we look at these old songs and these ballads and we do the spicy stuff– you know, we do the stuff that appeals to us. You know, the murder ballads and the industrial songs, the real love songs where there’s a bit of crumpet and crumpet– Anyway, so that’s what we really did. That was our sort of aesthetic. And it’s still mine, really, is to play contemporary music with a traditional root, but the where the traditional is really more where I come from, rather than where– If you grew up in America, perhaps a lot like The Band did, you like contemporary songs based on American tradition.
CRM: Now, have you run into resistance from labels over the years because of that combination of influences?
RT: Yeah. Fairport were on Island Records, pretty much from the word go, which was founded on Jamaican music. And they have bands like Traffic and Mott The Hoople and Blodwyn Pig. And we were always a bit marginalized there, even though Island was probably the best place that we could have possibly been, that there wasn’t a real understanding of the music, which isn’t surprising.
So it’s always been hard to find enthusiasts at record companies. You know, I tend to get kind of sent to labels because they think my name will look good in the roster somewhere. And probably for them it’s a difficult job to sell people like me. I don’t play an immediately accessible style of American popular music. I don’t play white blues; I don’t play white soul music; I don’t play sort of more accessible end of hip hop or rap. It’s not immediate. The listener has to make a small step towards me, and also has to make an effort to find me in the first place, I think.
I’m really slightly on the edge of popular music, which is okay. I mean I quite like being there. You get a better view, that’s for sure.