Linda Thompson: Good art can't be depressing!

Salon exclusive: A legend on losing her voice, those amazing Richard Thompson albums and her brilliant new CD

By Rick Moody
Published October 27, 2013 7:30PM (EDT)
Linda Thompson         (Annabel Vere)
Linda Thompson (Annabel Vere)

Unlike its American counterpart, the British folk scene of the middle and late sixties was noteworthy for its profusion of great female voices: Sandy Denny, Maddy Prior, Shirley Collins, Jacqui McShee. Indeed, English folk seemed to prize the voices of its women, and to erect fewer barriers to their greatness than was the case on this side of the Atlantic.

And yet of the great voices of early British folk, Linda Thompson’s is the one that has most endured. Notwithstanding a grueling struggle with dysphonia that has slowed her output, she has just released the third album, "Won’t Be Long Now" (on Pettifer Sounds) since her return to performing in 2002, and it brims with the same heartache, good humor and wisdom that has always characterized her work, but with an added measure of yearning and human wisdom that adheres to singers who have come back from significant reversals.

If Thompson is still remembered to some degree for the great albums she made with her former husband Richard Thompson ("I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight," et al.), "Won’t Be Long Now" casts an eye further back at the traditional sounds that first animated the British folk scene, and even includes some of the players of that time — like Martin Carthy and Dave Swarbrick — as well as a helping of her extended family, including son Teddy Thompson, dauther Kami Thompson and grandson Zak Hobbs. (The album also includes one electrifying performance with Richard Thompson on the opening track, “Love’s For Babies and Fools.”) The result is a serene and confident recording that is more about the joy of being able to make music, 40 years on, than it is about needing to prove anything otherwise.

The interview that follows was recorded in the first week of October at Teddy Thompson’s apartment in downtown NYC, with grandson Zak, who tagged along and answered a few questions, the afternoon before Linda’s recent appearance at the Living Room, in which Teddy and Zak (and fiddler extraordinaire Dave Mansfield) performed some of the songs from the new album. As you would imagine, Linda Thompson is funny, wise, earthy and unapologetic, all of which are apparent even in a transcript.

Let’s begin at the beginning. From your point of view what’s different about this album, "Won’t Be Long," when compared to the albums of your “comeback” period?

I think this one’s a little traddier. I wanted it to have a slightly traddier feel, and I think it has… I tend to work with more or less the same people. I’m very happy with Martin Carthy I’m very happy with Richard [Thompson] playing the guitar, obviously, and John Doyle. I sort of a have a rep company, and they all sort of come in. So I don’t know how much different it is, but I think it is slightly more acoustic and it has slightly more family on it. Zak [Hobbs, Thompson’s grandson, who plays on the album] is old enough to pay his way now.

I definitely want to talk about the family aspect of the recording because it’s so central to the album.

It is.

Did you simply want family to play on it because you enjoy having family around, or does it amount to a sort of statement about music making generally at this point?

Definitely the former. The thing about a family singing together: it’s a good sound. It’s a nice, good thing to do. And I’ve got three – well, Zak’s my grandchild but I think of him as my kid – I’ve got three musical kids, and it is a way of keeping in touch with them as well. I get to see them more often! Besides, I love Teddy’s playing, and I love Kami’s singing. Zak is just incredible to work with. It’s incredible working with family. We sometimes have strops. Did we have any strops yesterday in the studio?

Zak: No, I think we were pretty good actually.

"Strops" is the British slang for…

For like, flouncing out. Like, "Well, I can't work like this!" But we didn’t have any strops yesterday at all. Zak and I had written a song and we put it down and we were very happy with it.

But family singing is also part of British folk tradition — as with the Watersons — and of the folk tradition generally. The Carter Family…

Yeah, you have American traditional families, as you say, the Carters, and we have all these families like the Watersons and the Copper family and all these families going back generations. I think it started when people worked together, when they worked on the land together, and started singing and started collecting songs. God knows how it's evolved to, you know, living in a high rise in New York. Teddy’s not a very folk-y musician, but he still has it in him. And Zak, who is 18, I never would have thought he’d really like it, but he loves it. It must be some sort of horrible genetic deficiency. [laughs]

Zak, you must have heard folk music your entire life because it’s been around, but is it your sort of thing?

Zak: Well, no one thought I was musical at all. I wasn’t that sort of kid. But then I went to a very musical sort of school and I thought, well I have to know an instrument. So I picked it up when I was 11. And all that music that I listened to, all that guitar-y folk-y music that I listened to, that was just what I wanted to play.

Linda: As much as I tried to talk you out of it, as much as I tried to tell you you were never going to make a damn dime… you didn’t listen!

Is family singing effective because of some spooky ESP-like ability to phrase well together, or is it because you share a certain timbre?

These are all terrific questions… I think its all timbre. Because in my family, we all phrase things pretty differently. You know, it’s called "blood singing" when family sings together. And it sounds like blood singing, it sounds like these people are connected. You can listen to people who aren’t related and they sound wonderful, but never quite as good as the Carter family. It’s just that there’s something there. Like Ralph Stanley and his family, and I think you’ve hit it on the head, I think it’s just the timbre.

The harmony arrangements on this record are really extraordinary; there are a couple of those wall-of-backing vocals moments . . .

Well, that would be Teddy mostly. Teddy arranged the backing vocals. Except on “Mr. Tam.” That was me and Eliza Carthy just working out, you know, not quite as refined as Teddy’s backing vocals, just kind of belting it out.

Is that an inclination that comes naturally to you, to arrange vocals with such precision?

Yeah, I think it comes quite naturally to me. I think in fact when I first started – Emmylou [Harris] and I have talked about this a lot, Emmylou loves singing harmonies, everybody knows, and I do too, and really I preferred singing harmony. But Richard said I had to sing the lead. He said your voice is more suited. But I like harmony, I don’t quite have the harmonic ability that I did, but it’s nice to be able to say to the kids, "Could you go up there?" I like doing that.

So Kami sings lead on the Anna McGarrigle song. And how did that come about?

I didn’t want to do it! We had done it live, in a tribute to Kate McGarrigle, and Kami had sung the lead, and I was so happy doing the harmony, and it’s a very high harmony that I’m singing, and it was very relaxing, I could sing it in my head, so you’re up here [sings a note] and you’re not in your throat [sings a note], and it was just a joy for me to sing the harmonies. In fact I’ve been lobbying with my producer for years saying, let’s get Tom Waits in to sing the lead and I’ll sing the harmony. And the record company and the producer are saying, No no no, you have to sing your own lead vocals. But I’ve made a big step on this record; I’ve managed to get someone else to sing one of them. She sings it well.

Getting ready to do the record did you have material piled up that you wanted to record?

You know, we did actually have a bit of a stockpile. Because of what happened last time we were making a record, we over-recorded a little bit, and I said let’s leave off that trad stuff, and the next time we do a record, let's try and make it more that way focused. So I think we may have had five or six. When you’ve got that many, even four, you feel as if you’re halfway there. So we had a direction and the bones of some things. I mean, “Never the Bride” was completely recorded for the last record but we never put it on.

Did you tinker with it?

Oh, we didn’t touch it.

The opening track, “Love’s For Babies and Fools,” is the track with Richard Thompson. And it’s really striking, overpowering even. It showcases the sound you’re going for, just one guitar, no overdubs. How many takes does something like that require these days?

Oh we just banged it out. It’s so …  visceral. We don’t play together very often, so when we do, there’s some kind of race memory there. Whenever I write something like that I think, Oh, who could play the guitar on that? And then I think, Only Richard, really. He loved the song, and that was nice, that was gratifying for me. I wrote it about Rufus Wainwright and I played it for Kate [McGarrigle] and she said, I love it, you’ve got to finish it. So I did finish it, and Richard played on it, and I was happy with the results.

You wrote it for Rufus? Or about Rufus?

No, no, about rather than for. I wrote it about it him. I’d love it if he sung it one day, that would be amazing. It was just a tale of a young man, starting out in life and Rufus is, as you know, a supremely talented being, and you know, those people are difficult, there’s ups and downs . . . I hope he likes it. He hasn’t heard it yet, so...

Such an incredible lyric, such a very moving lyric. From my point of view, I think it’s slightly risky to make it the opening track. It’s emotionally demanding, but I like that.

Well, I’m glad you like it, but there’s no risk involved, because there’s no record industry, there’s nothing, so that was the tone I wanted to set, and not only do I know my audience, I know most of them friggin' personally. It’s not depressing, it's art. Good art just can’t be depressing. I just thought that was a good opening tone for the album, and I just thought it was strong. I hope it was the right move; we’ll see.

How do you write a song like that?

That happened very quickly. I’d actually started writing it a long time ago. Rufus and Teddy are great friends. They were all living in New York. Rufus and Teddy. And Martha, too. They’re all great friends and very good musicians and they were in their twenties at the time, and it was a sort of a dog-eat-dog kind of world. And you know, Rufus was par-taying. He was young, and he’d signed a big record deal, and it was party time.

And you know how that’s fun for a while, but even he, towards the end of his twenties, he thought, You know, this really is boring. And it is boring. And sometimes people think that when they’re young, they think I can do what I like – what’s love, love is for babies. He’s very different now; he’s a happily married man. That came incredibly quickly, that song.

I don’t know if I’d ever have put it out if Kate hadn’t come to stay with me in London. And I said, This is about Rufus. And the great thing about the Wainwrights and the McGarrigles is that you could write something about them… "Martha is a hooker, Rufus is a son of a bitch…" and if it’s a good song, they’ll go, Ah, fantastic. And I feel the same about certain songs that Richard wrote about me. People would ask me, aren’t you mortified, and I’d go, Are you kidding me, that’s a great song! So, I may never have finished it without Kate, God rest her soul.

I’m wondering if  "Won’t Be Long Now," from your point of view, has a retrospective quality. If you’re summarizing a bit, both in the subject matter and in going back to your roots with the traditional approach to the songs.

Well, maybe. That’s a valid point. Part of it is I’m getting old. I mean, I’m careening towards 70. You think well, I want to do what I like, and this is what I like. I’d get bagpipes on my record if I could. I’ve had people who’ve said, Please Linda, don’t put bagpipes on the record, its going to make people puke! But I just want to do what I want to do. And I’m lucky to be in this position. The records aren’t that expensive to make, I have a nice record company, and there’s no sweat. So I’m just going to do what I like, and traditional music is what I like.

It sort of leaves out the rock and roll part a little bit.

I know, I love rock and roll. In fact I was just talking about this. I love rock and roll, and I love all of that, and I don’t know if you find that there’s a lot of people who get good at what they’re doing and then they suddenly think, I’ll form a band! It's like, now that I’m really brilliant at something I’ll go and do something at which I’m totally mediocre. And I understand they want to change things up, but I feel there are things that I do well. I love rock and roll, but I can’t really sing it. I play to my strengths, I guess.

I’ll differ with you on that, on your not being able to sing it. Well, let’s talk about the family album you guys are making. Zak told me about it on the way over. So what’s the idea, how did it come about?

We’re all going to do a couple of songs each…

And which we are we talking about here?

My daughter, her husband, Zak, Kami, my other daughter Moona, she’s a good harmony singer but that’s not what she does for a living. Richard, and Jack, Richard’s younger son. Not Richard’s older son because Jesse’s not a musician. But everybody else. A load of Thompsons. We’re all going to sing on each other’s tracks and we’ll see how it goes. My son-in-law sent me the most brilliant song the other day, he sounds brilliant, and he recorded it on his iPhone! I mean, we could put it on the record like that. It makes me jubilant and depressed all at the same time.

So is it going to be called ‘The Thompson Family…?’

I have no idea. I have no earthly idea. I’ve given Teddy three songs. One he loves and two he’s not sure about. So I’m just going to do what he tells me. On Friday we’re going to do some more backing vocals or something . . .

You’re just recording it a little bit at a time, here and there…

I think we have six or seven songs already done. The basic tracks are done, all we need is overdubs. So it should be fun. Me and Richard, we’d never have come up with this, we’d never have done it, but if your child asks you do something you’re going to do it. I think it’s more from the younger generation; Kami and Teddy wanted to do it and we wouldn’t say no. And actually, the more I hear of the songs the more excited I am. I mean, we wrote this song together because – he’s written a solo song on it, and I’d had my songs, and we listened to Kami’s songs and we all went, "We’re going to have to up our game. We’re going to have to write something else." And we’re not a very competitive family, but it’s suddenly come in a bit. I said to Ed, my producer, yesterday: "No pressure, we have to make this the best song on the family record." And I thought, what am I saying! I mean, they’re all great musicians. You don’t want to be the worst on the record…

And how do you, Linda and Zak, write together?

Well, we’ve only written one. We were at his house a while ago, he was playing some chords and I was kind of singing a tune across it and we started to sing “Bonnie Boys,” and I said, "Well that’s what its going to be called, 'Bonnie Boys.'” I’ve got four grandsons, and that’s what it was going to be about. The lyrics came fairly easy, and then I chopped them in half and the bridge took some time.

Zak: We went through a few bridges…

Linda: I played a bridge to Teddy and he goes, “Well it’s a little cliché,” and I said, “Can you help us” and he sort of went away and was like, “No you should do it on your own.” He liked what we did in the end. So that’s the first song Zak and I have written. I don’t think we’re going to make a big habit out of it, what do you think?

Zak: It was organic...

Linda: It was, I mean, I was leaving your house and you were doing some homework and also playing the guitar… [Aside: he’s finished school, no more homework for him – nothing for him, he’s not at all interested.] He plays non-stop. In fact he’s being a real musician, he’s sleeping on Teddy’s couch for this trip. And Teddy has to stay out, he says Zak plays 24/7 and it drives him 'round the bend. And Richard was exactly the same. He is so – Zak is so like Richard in his playing...

I felt that way about your solo on the record.

There’s a really huge chunk of Richard Thompson in Zak.  Its uncanny, it’s like stripes in a rock.

Most people would die to sound a little bit like Richard Thompson.

That’s true. Richard’s very proud of him and so am I.

So, Linda, what’s left to be done, when you think ahead?

I can’t really think ahead. People say to me – I’ve got another record, a live record, vaudeville songs, which I absolutely love. And I said, "Look I’ve finished it, can we put it out now?" And they said, "Oh no, because you have a record coming out at the end of… So we’ll do 2014/2015." I said “Do you know how old I am?” It’s like an insurance person coming and saying we’ve got this long-term investment, and I’m like, well give it to somebody else. I can’t do anything long-term. So I don’t think much in the future, it would be silly. At 66 you’ve just got to take it day by day. When I’ve got something to say, I’ll put it down. I’m supposed to do another record with Ann Savoy, who’s a friend of mine who is a Cajun musician, and Emmylou, next year, but we’ll see. I’m a bit overwhelmed with everything that’s happening right now.

And how about the singing part, is it still difficult?

The singing’s hard – [coughs]. It hasn’t come up much today, partly because it’s quiet in here and partly because you haven’t asked inane questions. I started an interview a couple of days ago where a woman said to me, “It seems to me that when Richard left he took your voice with him,” and I’m thinking to myself, well, this interview's going to be hard – And I don’t mind it, I don’t mind any question, or whatever, but tomorrow we’re in a bigger room and it might flare up. I’m going to tell people to just ignore it. But yes, singing is hard. Yesterday, singing was fine.

You just don’t know on a given day –

You just don’t know. They say that dysphonia, it’s a bit like Parkinson’s; there’s some kind of misfiring synapse. I think it started with something psychological – and everything deeply psychological becomes physical. But who’s to say – I was in New York a few weeks ago and sang like a bird, and yesterday, I sang fine.

The live track on the album is totally great too.

I had Ed record every show because four nights out of six I’d be fine, and then on the other two I’d open my mouth and nothing would come out. Very difficult when you’re on stage. I don’t want to subject people to that, and me just not being able to get anything out. But we’ll see, it’s been a little better singing-wise. Now, speaking has become a problem with me. The worst thing about it is when it comes, and it’s coming a little bit now, is that I sound as if I’m crying and I sound very weak, and that’s that’s what brings pity. And I can take anything from anybody but sympathy. I’m British.

I won’t ask anymore, because I don’t want to cause –

The thing is, I can be in Bloomingdale’s, and a girl will say to me, what color lipstick would you like, and I won’t be able to reply. I find it very hard. My house isn’t as clean as I’d like it to be, because I find it incredibly hard to ask my cleaner to do anything. I don’t know what it is. It is my peculiar kind of craziness, and everybody has something, so I’m just going to ignore it.

So just one last question, I just want to ask about singing – unrelated to the vocal problems, how you feel about – what you learned as a singer now. Part of the reason people love Linda Thompson is because it’s an incredible instrument you have. This voice summons feelings as few other voices do. And my question is, what do you know now in this time of singing songs that the young Linda Thompson didn’t?

I would say if I had my druthers again, if I was young, I would learn more about technique. On the other hand – I’m very fond of a signer called David Thomas from Pere Ubu. I love him. He’s quite thin now, but when I worked with him he was 700 pounds. Whatever. And David would be eating a cheeseburger before he went onstage and then put it down and then sing like a bird. You know, Caruso smoked like a chimney. Its all mind over matter. But I think I would have learned a little bit more about breathing, because part of my problem is breathing. When I get nervous I can’t breathe, I panic a bit. I think I would have done that. But then I’m so thrilled that you say people are touched by my voice, because if I had learned all the technique, perhaps I would be a more robust person and I wouldn’t be as emotional. I’ve said to Teddy, there’s a song about my mother, my mother died 14 years ago. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to record it. I just don’t think I’ll ever be able to record it. And one song, a few years ago I did a song called “The Banks of the Clyde,” and it was about my childhood, and I’m singing it (we were in North Carolina) and about halfway through I’m sobbing and still trying to sing and trying to be professional. And when I’m done the engineer says "Could we do it one more time Linda, with a little more emotion?" [Laughs.] But anyway, when I hear somebody say your voice touches people, then I’m pleased. Maybe that’s the way it has to be!

Zak, you’re going to get the final word. What’s it like being the third generation of this incredible musical dynasty?

Zak: When I started, I was kind of the first person [since Richard] to go for this lead guitarist thing. And everyone was looking at me like, how fun, to be filling those shoes! And I was just a cocky little kid so I didn’t really – it didn’t bother me – but now I’m like, oh man, it’s quite hard.

Rick Moody

Rick Moody is the author of six novels, three collections of stories, two memoirs, and a volume of essays on music.

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