Richard Thompson is not without his musical admirers – and that's putting it mildly.
Despite never achieving a hit record under his own name in the country of his birth the songwriter has earned acclaim where it matters most: from other artists. Lauded by some of the biggest, most inspiring creative forces in the game, Richard Thompson was recently labelled “the Ultimate Triple Threat” by none other than Jeff Tweedy.
On the phone to Clash on the hottest day of the year, however, the guitarist doesn't seem particularly threatening. Enjoying a rare sunny day in his homeland, Richard Thompson is genial, patient and above all self-effacing – not for him the opportunity to rest on his laurels, not when there's work to be done.
A recent tour alongside Bob Dylan, My Morning Jacket and Wilco, for example, an occasion which led to an increased bond between Richard Thompson and Jeff Tweedy. “We got to hang out a bit on that tour and then jam together onstage, which was great,” he explains. “I think at that point several people came up with the idea that he'd be a great producer for a project. So that's how it really came about.”
Setting aside time to focus on a new record, the two realised that – due to conflicting schedules – they had just nine days to lay down fresh material. “That was the window we had. Between my schedule and Jeff's, that was basically it,” he says. “So we kind of had to grab that. Ten days would have been great! An extra day would've been lovely. I think we pretty much got it done. We managed to record fairly quickly. We were doing two, three tracks a day which is pretty good.”
A calming voice on the telephone, Richard Thompson sounds uniquely un-phased by the tight deadline given to him. “It's not a good idea to have that attitude in the studio,” he states, “I think you have to be relaxed and not be thinking about the clock. It was a relaxed studio, where you're not aware you're recording – you're just sitting around with friends and suddenly… voila! You've recorded a track.”
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…his approach is fairly subtle
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The resulting album is named 'Still'. Prime Thompson fare, it's deeply English yet continually looking outwards; Tweedy's production leans towards the natural, an approach which seems to wring out the tiny details of the English songwriter's work. “We kind of discussed on the telephone the philosophy of the record and how we were going to approach it,” he explains. “What musicians we were going to use, add other people to it and generally how we were going to approach it. We didn't change that much, really – we didn't change the songs drastically. It was more tweaking things a little bit and then adding some textures here and there afterwards.”
It seems that this is a recurring pattern in Richard's work, with the songwriter speaking fondly of some revered solo recordings. “I think I always go in with everything finished or as finished as we can get it. Then when you get into the studio you really can't be wasting time and that's very useful,” he states. “I think I've always done that. I mean, 'I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight' which we did in 1972, I think we recorded in three days. Which is unbelievable, at this point. I think it cost £2500 to record. This is a major label release! But you didn't have the luxury of that much time to record, so you kind of had to have your shit together before you went in, for sure.”
With sessions spread across just nine days, 'Still' was constructed at breakneck speed. Naturally drawn to beautiful instruments, however, Richard couldn't quite resist the allure of Jeff Tweedy's enormous guitar collection. “Tweedy's studio is in the corner of this huge storage space,” he recalls. “It's an industrial loft and it's just stuffed with instruments. Hundreds, hundreds of guitars. If you wanted to sound like Les Paul there's a row of Les Pauls there, grab one of those. If you want to sound like Chuck Berry then there are 15 big-bodied Gibsons. So that was fun – I enjoyed that!”
No mean shakes as a songwriter himself, Jeff Tweedy's role in the making of 'Still' seems to be rather under-stated. A quiet, unobtrusive voice during recording, he was nonetheless a prominent voice in the construction of the album. “He was very good at being a member of the team and being another set of ears,” says the guitarist. “He's not somebody who imposes himself professionally, he's a really nice guy, a really sweet man. And his approach is fairly subtle. But he contributed great ideas all the way through the record. It was mostly tweaking. Changing the rhythmic pulse a little, or changing a chord sequence. It was a good, communal recording process.”
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It's better if people can see it if they want to see it.
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The title itself is a rather multi-layered pun: 'Still' could refer to the stillness within the songwriting itself, or it could be a self-deprecating joke i.e. is he still here?
“It could be a whisky still as well, of course,” Richard adds. “It's the trouble with explaining titles. It's nice if the album is called 'Still' and you can make of it what you want. I didn't have any strong intentions as to double meanings, or whatever, I just thought it was a nice title.”
“Sometimes you can over explain things,” he continues. “Sometimes it's nicer if people draw their own conclusions in a different way. Everyone who hears a lyric interprets it in a different way. Everyone who hears a song gets different pictures in their heads. So if you say, when I was writing this song I saw this seagull flying over the ocean you're really over-stating the case. It's better if people can see it if they want to see it.”
An always-passionate music fan, Richard Thompson weaves references throughout the conversation. A devotee of Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel – “this guy does unbelievable stuff!” – Richard also speaks fondly of the new Beach Boys biopic. Admitting that he has yet to explore the new Fotheringay re-issues, the guitarist states that he doesn't believe such a project would best suit his own career.
“I mean, there are box sets out there that, for me, are digging deep enough into the archives,” he sighs. “There's some demos in there, some live recordings that get re-issued. I think that's enough. If you dig really deep there's a lot more stuff but, for me, it's kind of repetitive. And beyond that, there's a lot of stuff that I really don't want people to hear. Stuff that I just don't think is up to scratch. It's nice to have things for the completists, the real fanatical fans but there is a point towards which I just don't want to go.”
For now, Richard Thompson will be concentrating on his new album, on fresh songs and a new batch of live performances. “In terms of this year I'm fairly busy touring this record,” he says, before adding: “I mean, I'm always thinking about the future and the next project.”
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'Still' is out now.