Richard Thompson

On his unusual new album...

There are few things in his career which Richard Thompson has not done.

One of Britain’s most revered guitarists, his songwriting brilliantly intertwines traditional music with pop culture. Live, the humble yet endearing figure can play everything from an ancient summer ballad to a Britney Spears cover.

Yet for his new project Richard Thompson set himself an unusual challenge. The singer decided to rehearse an album of new material which would then be recorded live in front of an audience.

Sure, he’s released live albums before but the sense of the unexpected lingers throughout ‘Dream Attic’. A wonderfully revealing release, the new album is a typically rich musical tapestry.

ClashMusic caught up with Richard Thompson to find out more.

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Where did the motivation come from to record the album in front of an audience?
Well, I was thinking that it would be a different approach, a different way of achieving what we wanted. The feedback that I often get from fans is “what we really like is your live records, we prefer the live records to the studio records”. I thought let’s test this a little further by taking an album of new material and recording it live. Just bypass the studio process and do things live.

How complete was the material before you started the tour?
The songs were pretty much complete. In the course of rehearsals and the first few shows the songs shaped and evolved a little bit, but I always try and have stuff as complete as I can before taking it to the other musicians.

How much improvisation was allowed during the performance?
I think solos vary in length from night to night depending on how everyone’s feeling. That’s a variable, and it should be a variable in live performance.

With this in mind, how do you decided which takes to use?
I think you just kind of know what’s a better performance. We would probably say, a steady tempo should be important, a good vocal performance, a good instrumental performance. Sometimes you compromise for something that’s best overall – you might have to abandon a version which has a better guitar solo in exchange for something which has a better overall feel. Those are just the breaks, you know? It’s a compromise.

Did you find yourself longing for the studio at points?
Yes! Frequently. There are nice things about recording something in a studio, you really have more options and you’re able to choose what you think is the best take and perhaps work on it. Then you can complete what you think is the best arrangement. Like, if you think “oh this’ll be great with a couple of horns on it, or backing vocals.” You have choices, so you can achieve really the sound that you have in your head. Whereas if you’re playing live you’re going for the energy of the moment. It’s going to be cruder and slightly less well arranged. It’s a trade off.

You could have recorded it live without an audience.
As it is, we get very close to recording live in the studio anyway. We usually fix some vocals in the studio and we’d be a lot more perfectionist about it. I mean, I don’t think we’ve ever recorded piece by piece, whereby we’d do the rhythm track, then the solos and then the vocals. I haven’t done that since the 60s and even then it was only occasionally.

What is your songwriting technique like? Do you treat it as a 9-5 job?
I suppose if I’m in a writing vein then I try and put in a few hours every day. I try do start early, like seven or something in the morning and then work through. I just keep going for about 12 or 16 hours. If it’s not a good day then I’ll do a couple of hours and then stop. I still haven’t quite figured out how to achieve a good day, or how bad days happen – they just do. Because I work at home there’s all sorts of distractions, errands to be run and that sort of thing. I answer the phone occasionally. In a sense, it’s one of those things where the more you work at it the more success you have. If you’re waiting for inspiration, for lightning to strike I think that’s a better approach to songwriting. Some songs I wrote really quickly, I wrote this album in a three month period. They just seemed to come as a group of songs and then I thought that the album didn’t really need anything else. That was it!

‘Money Shuffle’ is obviously a satire on the current economic situation.
Well some things just piss me off. That’s an obvious point of inspiration for a song, if you get mad at something you can normally write very quickly. When you see people being that greedy it can be the starting point for a song.

Have you found yourself becoming more politicised over the past few years?
I think I’ve always been a political person but I haven’t always expressed it as a songwriter in a direct way. Sometimes I express political problems as a human relationship, like a domestic problem. I think that’s more effective, but at other times you present something a little more directly. I think that on something like ‘The Money Shuffle’ there are references in there that people will recognise. It’s something which has affected everyone’s life, and certainly affected me enough to write that particular song.

Political commentary is a large part of the folk tradition.
I think it’s always a songwriting option, to write about political events, social unrest and social inequality. There’s a long tradition of that, it goes back almost as far as songwriting really. It’s one of the oldest veins of songwriting. You have model examples in the English tradition to reference since the 1500s, possibly before that. There’s lots of pre-existing blueprints for political songs. That’s a starting point, and then you can refine your own style. There’s also political writing in other cultures to look at as well.

Elements of the new album reflect on your passing years, is this something you are noticing more and more?
I don’t know. I’m just writing about what interests me, sometimes in order to create something you do look backwards. A writer like Charles Dickens was hardly ever looking at modern affairs, he was always looking at what had happened thirty, forty years earlier. I don’t think I do it that often but I do enjoy writing about the past, just because you have more perspective and it’s easier for you to see straight through your life and each other’s life. I think if you’re going to write as a 60 year old man then you have to embrace the fact that you’re that bit closer to death.

I think it’s a responsible topic for an older songwriter to deal with: you succumb to the aging process and it’s a drag. I think there is room for that kind of topic in popular music at this point as it is now a multi-generational music form and a 60 year can still kind of pretend to be 20. Slightly arthritically singing about youthful matters. But it’s probably more reflective of your own life to deal with some of these, shall we say, mature matters.

The language of your songwriting still seems to echo British traditional music.
I think traditional music is probably my biggest root. It’s bigger than my rock music root, and certainly lyrically it’s my main inspiration. I don’t think about it really, I’ve absorbed enough of it over the years that it just comes out. I’m happy to be writing in the continuation of a tradition.

Did this influence the instrumentation as well?
I think it’s something that I like to hear. I like to hear that kind of fusion of rock and traditional music in and around the songs. I’ve been thinking of musicians who can play that kind of music, and I’ll be asking to fulfil that role in the songs. (Demons In Her Dancing Shoes) I liked the natural continuation of that song into the instrumental passage at the end, it felt right to me. But then I am a bit deranged.

Richard Thompson’s new album ‘Dream Attic’ is out now

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