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In many ways, modesty doesn't become Richard Thompson. As a member of Fairport Convention in the '60s, he helped introduce, or re-introduce, Celtic music as an influence on contemporary pop. In the '70s and early '80s, first as a solo artist and then in a decade-long partnership with then-wife Linda Thompson, he quickly evolved into one of music's most insightful and distinctive songwriters, over the course of classic albums such as Henry The Human Fly and I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. After converting to Sufism, the Thompsons departed the music scene for a while, and they struggled through several ignored albums upon their return. Without a label, they cut the songs that would later appear as 1982's Shoot Out The Lights, an intensely performed set regarded by many as the pair's best. It was also their last: The marriage ended, and Richard once again embarked on a solo career that met with critical praise and commercial indifference. But Thompson's discography puts most to shame, up to and including 1999's Mock Tudor. (It almost seems excessive to mention that he's a world-class guitarist and unforgettable live performer.) Having just parted ways with Capitol Records with a new best-of collection, the London-born Thompson recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about his career.
The Onion: You've got a greatest-hits album now.
Richard Thompson: Greatest hits? Best-of, I think. I haven't got any hits, so I'm not sure that would be the best title.
O: Well, as an artist who puts a lot of effort into assembling albums that work as albums, how do you feel about best-of collections?
RT: I think it works pretty well. There are quite a few slow songs on there, which surprised me. Because in a sense, hearing it all done, there's a good proportion of acoustic stuff, which I wasn't quite expecting, so...
O: They weren't selected just by you, then?
RT: It was the record company that basically selected the tracks, and they said, "Well, what do you think of this?" And I thought, "Hmm, that actually is a pretty good selection. We could haggle over this for weeks and months, but if we just change a few things here and there, I think it's a good selection."
O: Do you think this album represents a discrete period of your career, or is it just sort of what you happened to be recording at a certain time?
RT: Honestly, it's not a definable era, except through a record label. It wasn't as if in 1989, or whatever, there was a big transformation. It's just a period. I feel it's a very consistent period in some ways.
O: In terms of quality, or in terms of tone?
RT: I think it's just in terms of evenness of tone, if you like. That isn't always a good thing, but I think in this case it's not a bad thing.
O: What's next?
RT: What's next. Well, the next thing is on the road. Still talking to record companies. I'm still jumping labels.
O: Have you considered going it on your own?
RT: Absolutely, yeah. That is a possibility.
O: How often do you tour now? It seems like you're on the road a lot.
RT: Yeah, it's hard to say, because tours aren't always logical. Sometimes there's a couple weeks off and you're back out again, or you go out for the weekend and come home. It's hard to tell where one tour ends and the next begins. I'm generally touring most of any year. I'm just generally out there doing it.
O: Out of choice, or out of necessity?
RT: I suppose both. I mean, necessity, really. I have to pay the rent, and this is how it gets paid.
O: More from touring than recording.
RT: Oh, absolutely, yeah. I don't really make anything from recording. It's more of a promotional device, really. I have to be out there. I love doing it, anyway. It's not a serious problem. I suppose if I could, I'd work slightly less than I do, if that were possible.
O: Any shorthand summation of your contributions to music would have to involve bringing folk into rock music on the British front. First of all, is that fair, and second of all, where do you feel the folk influence is being felt today?
RT: Big question. Well, I suppose I see myself on the periphery of rock, of popular music. I think I do have what are considered slightly strange influences for a rock musician or a pop musician.
O: Meaning folk, or...
RT: Yeah, I suppose so. It's a different musical tradition. It has more of a Celtic root to it. It's somewhere between Celtic and rock, or Celtic and popular. So that's a little strange for some people. It seems like, contribution... I mean, I don't know if I've made any contribution, but that's not really the point of what I do. I'm not on a mission in that sense. I try to do a good job. I might try to do a high-quality work if I can. The thing I do, really, is a communication with audiences more than any achievement through records.
O: Isn't releasing an album just an extension of communicating with an audience, though?
RT: I think it is, certainly, yeah. But it's not always perceived in that way. A lot of artists have a record-driven base that then feeds the concerts. I don't really have that luxury, so it's much more a slow building up of a live fan base.
O: And the albums are just reflections of that?
RT: Yeah, I think absolutely they're reflections or records of a certain time.
O: Do you think the folk and Celtic influence has been on the wane in music in the last few years?
RT: In one sense, I hope so, because a lot of it's kind of crap. All that Riverdance stuff is pretty gruesome, as far as I'm concerned. Umm... I don't know. Hopefully, it is in decline, and everybody else will retire, and I'll be the last one left.
O: Do your albums generally reflect your rate of songwriting, or do you have a sizable backlog?
RT: Yeah, there are always songs that get discarded from the recording or don't get to the stage of recording. There's usually a good reason for discarding songs, because they aren't the strongest songs. But there are always leftovers. I try not to overwrite, in a sense. I try not to push it too much, where I have 100 songs a year or something, because I think your ideas can become diluted, and the songs just get wasted. I think an audience can only absorb so many new songs from you at a time. A person can absorb 10 a year, or 20 a year, or something. Otherwise, you might as well give songs to other singers or do something like that.
O: How important is it for good music to be popular?
RT: I don't know. Important for whom?
O: You're getting at the vagary of my question here. Maybe people always feel this way, but right now, it seems like the gap between what's popular and what's good is as big as it's ever been. Do you think that's hurtful to music as a whole, to people who like music? Or will people who like music always seek out the good stuff?
RT: Complicated answer, I think. I think that people's motives, like those of radio stations and record companies, aren't always musical. Their motives are increasingly financial. I think the reason the music appears to be so bad at this point is that it's corporate-driven. It's not driven by creativity, as I think it has been from time to time. I don't think audiences are necessarily addressed by things like radio. Vast numbers of people are not having their tastes addressed or satisfied at any given time, because of the nature of media. This could change if you have hundreds of satellite radio stations, or cable radio stations. This could change drastically. People's needs could actually be addressed, but I don't think they are at the moment.
O: Do you see any hope for the Internet in that respect?
RT: Yeah, I think the Internet is a component of people exercising personal choice.
O: Is there anyone who hasn't covered one of your songs that you'd like to hear cover one of your songs?
RT: Hmm... Oh, I don't know, really. Lots of people. Yeah, lots of people, hundreds of people, thousands of people.
O: Anyone in particular?
RT: No, that'd be pushing it a bit. Let me think. A lot of dead people. I wish more dead people would record my songs. It can be done if Kenny G can do it. [G's "duet" with the late Louis Armstrong was the subject of an unreleased Thompson diatribe-in-song. ed.]
O: I actually just read about that recently. That's a horrid thing.
RT: It's disgusting.
O: I actually thought it was suspect when Natalie Cole did it with her father's "Unforgettable," much less someone who had no relationship to the other artist whatsoever.
RT: It was hopeless. Hank Williams and Hank Williams Jr., that was another classic.
O: You should put something in your will to prevent that from happening.
RT: Yes, I think I will.
O: One topic I noticed that rarely surfaces in interviews is your conversion to Sufism. Is that because people are uncomfortable talking about Islam, or do you prefer to keep private about it?
RT: It's a subject that people approach with a lot of preconceptions. In the space of an interview, I don't have time to get through the preconceptions to get onto the subject, so if it's avoidable or if I can gloss over it, almost, in a few sentences, I'm happy to do that.
O: From what I know of it, it seems like it could have a special appeal to musicians because of the way it emphasizes aspects of worship that are like performance.
RT: There's a very strong spiritual aspect to music, and a lot of musicians I know are very spiritual people, really. Even the ones who might be alcoholics, or might have a terrible drug problem or something, they're still basically very spiritual people. And they know that element is in music, perhaps because music is such an elusive thing. It's such a door sometimes to something mystical, if you like. I think audiences are very aware of that, as well.
O: What do you think is the greatest misconception about your music?
RT: That it's rubbish.
O: Right. Is anyone really saying that?
RT: The misconception... This is almost a press thing. I hate to say it, but it's almost a thing where a couple of reviewers will say, "His music is so doomy and depressing." That becomes kind of a press cliché.
O: Do you think people overlook the humor of your music?
RT: I think people, yes, overlook the... certainly the irony of the music. Especially in America, where people have a hard time with that sort of thing. Even more so in Canada, where people have no sense of irony at all. I think especially because some of the humor is built into some of the darker songs, so people kind of miss that, really.
O: Songs like "The Little Beggar Girl" are tremendously funny and dark at the same time.
RT: I like the idea that it's all kind of mixed in together. The irony isn't over here, and then the dark stuff is over here. It's all part of the package.
O: Do you think it comes through more in concerts than it does on recordings?
RT: In concert, yes, people can see what a cheerful, fun-loving chap I am. In concert, I can kind of joke with the audience and soften them up a bit before I mug them over the head with dark, despairing thoughts. A funny thing is, I'm just trying to write normal songs. I'm not trying to be dark or anything. And I think that because I come out of a folk tradition where mining disasters and things were just normal songsyou know, "Tom Dooley" and God knows whatit's just like normal stuff. So I don't think of the songs I write as being anything particularly dark or depressing, any of that stuff, or I probably wouldn't want to do it. To me, it just seems normal, and it seems normal in a song to deal with the topics I deal with.
O: In popular music now, there seems to be a real aversion to anything that's even slightly sad. Just the basic emotion of unhappiness is kind of on the way out in popular music these days.
RT: I think that's a shame, because people like to be moved, musically. It's a shame that there isn't room for that. When I was a lad, as they say, in my day when we was growing up, we had The Everly Brothers. That's just tremendously sad but wonderful music. It was sad music that was so great that we loved it. That's the function of music.