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Fairport Convention band cofounder Richard Thompson looks back on his life in music

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Richard Thompson, the British singer-songwriter-guitarist who has been writing and recording music since the '60s, is about to launch a summer concert tour and has a new album out. It's called "Ship To Shore," and it's his first studio album in five years, the longest stretch between records since he co-founded Fairport Convention in 1967 when he was 18 years old. Five years later, he became a recording duo with his wife, Linda Thompson, then went solo in 1983. Here's a taste of "What's Left To Lose," a new song from "Ship To Shore."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT'S LEFT TO LOSE")

RICHARD THOMPSON: (Singing) Goodbye, false hope. Goodbye, cruel meeting. You left me for dead with my heart still beating. What do I do to kill the ache? How many draughts of comfort do I take? What's left to lose? Everything I cared about is gone. What's left to lose? When there's nothing, how do I carry on? You left my life when you shut the door. I'll start again in another place, new faces to replace your face. And one day I won't miss you anymore.

BIANCULLI: Today we're going to listen back to two of Richard Thompson's visits to FRESH AIR. We'll hear portions of his 2022 interview with Terry Gross, after the publication of his memoir. But first, let's listen to his 1994 visit to the FRESH AIR studio, when Richard Thompson brought his guitar to promote his then new album "Mirror Blue." He started by playing and singing a number from that collection, a terrific song called "Easy There, Steady Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

R THOMPSON: (Singing) Jackknife with a precious load spills its guts all over the road. Excuse me. I had to smile. Lost my grip too for a while. I said, easy there, steady now. Easy there, steady now. She didn't have the decency to sweep away what's left of me. I don't have the presence of mind to walk along in a straight line. Easy there, steady now. Easy there, steady now. I call your name. I call it loud. I see your face in every crowd. 3 a.m., an empty town - Doctor Martens echo down. Old Man Heartbreak follows you. Corruption's shadow swallows you. I said, easy there, steady now. Easy there, steady now. Easy there, steady now. Easy there, steady now.

TERRY GROSS: Richard Thompson performing in our studio. You know, I don't know that I could think of another guitarist who combines the best of folk and rock better than you do. And I'd like to, like, go back to when you first got a guitar and ask you about what you were listening to then, what direction you thought you wanted to head in back when you were however old you were.

R THOMPSON: I don't know if I had a direction, you know. I don't think you think when you're that young, or if you do, you're, you know, Mozart or something.

GROSS: Why'd you want a guitar?

R THOMPSON: There was already a guitar in the house. My father played guitar and there's a lot of guitar music in the house, you know, Django Reinhardt records and Les Paul records. And then my older sister, you know, when rock 'n' roll came along, she had Buddy Holly records and Gene Vincent records. So there was lots of guitar stuff, so it was very logical to pick it up and play it. And I really tried to play everything. So I really absorbed, you know, a lot of folk stars and a lot of rock stars, you know, really young, you know, probably before I was 15 or 16.

GROSS: What was your father playing?

R THOMPSON: He was playing dance band jazz, very badly, though. He wasn't - you know, he was just an amateur musician.

GROSS: What context did he play in? He was a policeman?

R THOMPSON: Yeah, so he was - you know, he just noodled around the house. I mean, I think at some point he was in a dance band, you know, the Swinging Cops or something.

(LAUGHTER)

R THOMPSON: The Four Truncheons.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So did you teach yourself?

R THOMPSON: I taught myself a bit. My sister's boyfriends used to teach me. A couple of her boyfriends played guitar. So, you know, while they were waiting for her to get ready, which was usually a good couple of hours, I got a good guitar lesson. And then I took classical lessons at one point for a couple of years.

GROSS: Oh, really?

R THOMPSON: Yeah.

GROSS: So when you were, say, a teenager, what were the licks that you were trying hardest to learn?

R THOMPSON: Oh, you know, the Buddy Holly sort of stuff. So I'm in the right tuning for "Tell Me How." (Playing guitar). You know, sort of Elvis stuff - (playing guitar, vocalizing). You know, that sort of stuff. The Shadows, who are a great British instrumental band I've heard - (playing guitar) - that kind of stuff. And the sort of folk stuff - yeah. (Playing guitar).

GROSS: (Laughter).

R THOMPSON: (Playing guitar, singing) And away we go. Heave away. Santiago...

GROSS: (Laughter).

R THOMPSON: (Inaudible) - a lot of that sort of stuff, you know? I used to go to folk clubs as well, so you'd get a real diet, you know? You'd see someone really good.

GROSS: (Laughter).

R THOMPSON: You know, you'd see Davey Graham. You know, you could see David Graham one week and then somebody, like, really atrocious the next week, but then, you know, you could see blues artists coming to Britain from about '63 onwards - '63, '64.

GROSS: And did they leave a big impression on you?

R THOMPSON: Oh, yeah. I mean, it's great - you know, you could see someone, you know, you'd heard on a record. And you thought they were dead, and then, you know, they'd turn up. It was just fantastic.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson visiting the FRESH AIR studio in 1994, speaking with Terry Gross - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 1994 interview with Richard Thompson. It's one of two interviews we're featuring today from the singer-songwriter-guitarist, who has a new album out and is starting a new summer concert tour. Here he is with another song, called "Taking My Business elsewhere."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TAKING MY BUSINESS ELSEWHERE")

R THOMPSON: (Singing) If she's not here by now, then I guess she's not coming. If she's not here by now, then I guess she don't care. Waiter, I won't waste your time anymore. You've already started to sweeping down the floor, and I guess she's not coming, so I'll head for the door. I'll be taking my business elsewhere. It wasn't for me, that spark in her eyes. It wasn't for me, that halo in her hair. When she touched me, a lump rose up into my throat, but she must act that way with any old soak. And, waiter, you don't seem to share in the joke, so I'll be taking my business elsewhere. Well, she called me her lover, and boldly she kissed me. I'll never get over the sheer surprise of her acting that way. And I'm feeling OK but for the eyes of her. Oh, it's cold in the rain, and it's dark, and it's sad, and I'll miss her tonight on my lonely back stair. Oh, I'm sorry for taking so much of your space. I'll move down the street to some friendlier place 'cause I guess she's not coming and you're sick of my face. I'll be taking my business elsewhere. I'll be taking my business elsewhere.

GROSS: That's Richard Thompson - great song. I've come to think of that as your "One For My Baby."

(LAUGHTER)

R THOMPSON: One for somebody's baby.

GROSS: Yeah. Now, what about the story behind the song you just sang?

R THOMPSON: That's just really - you know, it's me sitting down, thinking of a story. You know, actually, I was thinking, gosh, I'd love to write a song for Little Jimmy Scott, you know, as one of my favorite singers, and so I started writing, you know, a song, and it came out as this one. And I thought, well, he couldn't possibly sing this, but I could. So I'll keep it, you know?

GROSS: What made you want to write a song for him? Well, he's a jazz singer.

R THOMPSON: He's a jazz singer. He's a very intense performer and singer, and, boy, he sure sounds like he means it.

GROSS: Oh, spare me from having to read your lyrics and sounding...

R THOMPSON: No, spare me (laughter).

GROSS: ...Like I'm giving the squarest reading in the world, so - there's something I want to quote here. Can I ask you to quote the line? This is from "The Way That It Shows." I just think it's a particularly well-written couple of lines here. Can you quote the first few lines?

R THOMPSON: Of that one? (Reading) You're going to give yourself away to some Casanova on the spills and stains of a backstage sofa. He'll catch you yawning with one leg over.

Is that enough?

GROSS: Yeah. I think that's really great writing. I mean, I think...

R THOMPSON: Casanova, over. Well, at that point, I was - the rhyme scheme was getting desperate. I was running out of possibilities (laughter).

GROSS: I'm not even thinking about the rhyme, but the spills and the stains on the couch - I thought that was really nice. Did you...

R THOMPSON: I was actually thinking of a backstage in Philadelphia.

GROSS: Oh, really?

R THOMPSON: I can't remember what the place is called - a really sort of run-down rock 'n' roll theater, and it's got the smelliest couch I've ever seen in my life. Yeah, you can sort of smell the sort of improvised sex oozing off this couch.

GROSS: (Laughter).

R THOMPSON: Quite disturbing.

GROSS: Who are the songwriters you admire, and did you ever go through a period of trying to write in the manner of different songwriters like you went through a period of trying to play in the style of different guitarists?

R THOMPSON: Yeah, I think it's a great exercise. I still do it. You know, I still think, well, you know, here's a songwriter who has a great kind of flow or something - you know, why don't I try and write a song in that style? You know, I still do that. You know, early on, I was listening to - well, I was listening to, you know, people like The Everly Brothers and Phil Ochs and Richard Farina, and I've always been influenced by the Scottish ballads. I think that's probably the richest place you can find songs 'cause they're just so good and they're so stunningly, you know, succinct.

GROSS: And they tell whole stories.

R THOMPSON: You know, there's so much in a verse, and it's so beautifully pared down over the centuries - just wonderful stuff. So, you know, that's a big influence - and some of the Scottish, you know, writers like, you know, Carolina Oliphant and Burns, Walter Scott.

GROSS: Can I ask you to play a chorus of one of your songs that you feel is especially influenced by traditional Scottish ballads?

R THOMPSON: Gosh. OK. (Inaudible). (Singing, playing guitar) Oh, you speak the words locked in my breast. But it's late for me. Let an old man rest. One more black and tan on the barricade to keep me safe from loving.

And it goes on. But in terms of, you know, verse structure, you know, word usage, word repetition, blah, blah, blah, you know, and tune, I mean, it's very...

GROSS: And where you sang it.

R THOMPSON: ...Scottish, yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. I've really just so enjoyed the concert. I'm so thrilled we were able to do this. I want to thank you very, very much.

R THOMPSON: I'm very grateful you'd have me. Thank you.

GROSS: Would you like to close with another song from...

R THOMPSON: Sure.

GROSS: ...The new album? Or if you prefer something earlier or...

R THOMPSON: Yeah, I could do something earlier.

GROSS: Yeah, great.

R THOMPSON: Yeah. What would you like?

GROSS: Want to do "Feel So Good"?

R THOMPSON: OK.

GROSS: Yeah. Why don't you do "Feel So Good"? This is from a previous album from a couple of years ago called "Rumor And Sigh."

R THOMPSON: It is indeed, yes. Here we go. (Singing, playing guitar) I feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight. I feel so good, I'm going to take someone apart tonight. They put me in jail from my deviant ways. Two years, seven months and 16 days. Now I'm back on the street in a purple haze. And I feel so good. And I feel so good. I feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight. I feel so good I'm going to make somebody's day tonight. I feel so good I'm going to make somebody pay tonight. I'm old enough to sin, but I'm too young to vote. Society been dragging on the tail of my coat. I've got a suitcase full of 50-pound notes. And a half-naked woman threw the tongue down my throat. And I feel so good. And I feel so good. I feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight. They made me pay for the things I've done. Now it's my turn to have all the fun. I feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight. And I feel so good. And I feel so good, feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight. Oh, oh, oh. Feel so good I'm going to break somebody's heart tonight. Break somebody's heart. Break somebody's heart. Break somebody's heart.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson, visiting Terry Gross in the FRESH AIR Studio in 1994. By the way, we should note that the jazz singer he mentioned, Little Jimmy Scott, died in 2014. Do yourself a favor and listen to his music. After a break, we'll hear portions of a much more recent interview with Richard Thompson from 2022. And film critic Justin Chang reviews Janet Planet, the first film from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FREEZE")

R THOMPSON: (Singing) Another day without a dream, without a hope, without a scheme. Another day that finds you crawling on your knees. You raise your face up to the sun. You blow a kiss to kingdom come. You say goodbye to everyone, and then you freeze.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University. On today's show, we're featuring singer-songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson, who has scheduled a new concert tour this summer and has just released his first studio album in five years, "Ship To Shore." When he was 18 years old, Thompson co-founded the British group Fairport Convention, then teamed with his then-wife Linda Thompson as a recording duo before embarking on a six-decade solo career.

Richard Thompson covered a lot of that ground in his memoir, which borrowed its title from one of his songs. The memoir is called "Beeswing: Losing My Way And Finding My Voice, 1967-1975." Terry Gross spoke with Thompson in 2022 after that memoir was published. She began by playing a sample from a 2018 album, a song called "The Storm Won't Come."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORM WON'T COME")

R THOMPSON: (Singing) I am longing for a storm to blow through town and blow these sad old buildings down - fire to burn what fire may and rain to wash it all away. But the storm won't come. But the storm won't come. I'm longing for the storm. But the storm won't come.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Richard Thompson, welcome back to FRESH AIR. It's always such a treat to have you on the show. I love your music so much.

R THOMPSON: Thank you. Thank you so much.

GROSS: You have such a dark sensibility. And I'm thinking about how so much of pop music over the decades, particularly in the pre-Dylan era, were about love and romance and, you know, more-chaste sex 'cause you weren't allowed to use sexually explicit words in the earlier days of pop. But so many are traditional ballads. Like, the ballads of the British Isles that you, you know, started singing are about love and murder and revenge and death and storms at sea and hangings.

R THOMPSON: Yeah, happy stuff.

GROSS: Happy stuff. Is that part of what you loved about those old ballads?

R THOMPSON: Well, I think it is. I don't know why we are so attracted to that stuff. It's great storytelling. The old Scottish and Irish ballads and English ballads are just wonderful storytelling. And if you grow up on a diet of that, you think that's normal. And when people say, oh, your music so dark, you know, you've got such a dark sensibility, you know, I just say, well, I don't know what you mean. I mean, to me, it's just normal. And I'm happy that people think my music is at least serious - that it's not frivolous pop music, that it actually shares some of the characteristics of poetry or of good prose. You know, you're going to the same places. You're just expressing it in a more musical way.

GROSS: What was behind the founding of Fairport Convention? And what made you think that you wanted to and that the band should explore the music of, you know, the traditional British ballads?

R THOMPSON: I think we started out as a bunch of friends. Myself and Ashley and Simon were three like-minded, you know, north London teenagers, fairly determined to not be like other bands. I think we thought there was a glut of blues bands, R&B bands, soul bands. So we always tried to find obscurities. If we were going to do a blues song, we'd try and find something that no one else had ever heard of. And we would do country songs, which no one else did at that time, and we'd do singer-songwriter stuff.

We were very early in finding Joni Mitchell demos before she had recorded. I think we were the first people to get "The Basement Tapes" - the Dylan "Basement Tapes." We were doing very early songs by Leonard Cohen. So, you know, we were being obscure before we really became writers. We were trying to have the most obscure, different material from anybody else. And I think our love of lyrics made us stand out from other bands more than anything else. What - we really liked great lyrics. So we'd do Phil Ochs songs. We'd do, you know, Joni Mitchell, etc. I don't think anyone else was really doing that at the time.

GROSS: The first song that was traditional song that Fairport did was "She Moves Through The Fair." And, of course, Sandy Denny was the lead singer. Why was this the song that was chosen to be the first actual traditional song that the band did?

R THOMPSON: Well, when Sandy joined the band, we didn't have a lot of rehearsal time. We were playing shows all the time, and so we had to get Sandy into the band to integrate Sandy into the band as quickly as possible. So as she slowly learned our repertoire, we decided that we should learn some of her repertoire that she was singing in the folk clubs. And it was easy to wrap ourselves around her arrangement of "She Moved Through The Fair," "Nottamun Town," a couple of other other songs that she'd been performing. So that was a fairly easy rehearsal process, and for us, it was a nice way to start playing some British Isles music.

GROSS: Why don't we hear that recording? And this is Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention, "She Moved Through The Fair."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE MOVES THROUGH THE FAIR")

FAIRPORT CONVENTION: (Singing) My young love said to me, my mother won't mind, and my father won't slight you for your lack of kind. And she laid her hand on me, and this she did say, oh, it will not be long, love, till our wedding day.

GROSS: That was an early Fairport Convention song with my guest, Richard Thompson, on guitar.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson with Terry Gross in 2022 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2022 interview with singer-songwriter-guitarist Richard Thompson. He has a new album out called "Ship To Shore" and is embarking on a new summer concert tour.

GROSS: You write that it was hard to keep the sound of unaccompanied singing - the kind of singing that was often done with traditional songs - and the ambiguity of key and the lack of resolution in the melody once you put instruments behind it. Can you elaborate on that, and maybe if you could sing, perhaps, an example of the ambiguity of key and the lack of resolution in the melody that you refer to?

R THOMPSON: OK. You know, it's tempting when you grow up in sort of Western music to put anything that's from outside of it into the basic Western chord structure. You know, like, C-F-G or something will fit an awful lot of traditional songs if you let them, but in traditional music, sometimes it is hard to know what the key is. "She Moved Through The Fair"...

(Singing) My young love said to me, my parents won't mind, and my father won't slight you for your lack of kind. And she laid her hand on me, and this she did say, it will not be long, love, till our wedding day.

Now, you can sing that over the root note, or you can sing it over a fourth above or a fifth above, and sometimes, you don't want to pin that down. You want to keep that ambiguity. And a great traditional interpreter, someone like Martin Carthy, will use special guitar tunings in order to keep that ambiguity alive and to not nail it down into, sort of, C, F and G so it sounds like, you know, a Western-tradition popular song. And it's not always easy to do that, but it's a very desirable thing, I think, to keep that ambiguity going.

GROSS: So how did you deal with it, as a guitarist?

R THOMPSON: As a guitarist, I learned from people like Martin Carthy and Davey Graham - some of the great acoustic guitar players in Britain. And as a band, we try to arrange things in that way, and we did a song maybe a year later than that called "A Sailor's Life," where it's basically built around a drone. So you have a drone and melody and not an awful lot of saying what the chord is, and just drone and melody is a very old tradition. A lot of pipe music, bagpipe music from all around the world - it's basically drone and melody, so it's a very ancient thing. And you don't have to develop that into a chord structure necessarily. You can keep that ambiguity going, so in Fairport, eventually, we really tried to do a lot more of that.

GROSS: Well, let's hear the song you were just talking about. This is Fairport Convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A SAILOR'S LIFE")

FAIRPORT CONVENTION: (Singing) They had not sailed long on the deep, when a queen's ship they chanced to meet. You sailors all, pray tell me true - does my sweet William sail among your crew?

That was Fairport Convention, with my guest, Richard Thompson, on guitar. After leaving Fairport and playing with a lot of other bands, you and your girlfriend - then wife - Linda Thompson formed a group, and you did remarkable music together. How do you think performing with her changed you as a songwriter? - because you were writing songs for yourself and writing songs for her.

R THOMPSON: Yeah, interesting. I think - well, it had to make me empathetic to someone else's point of view - and particularly to write songs from a female perspective is very difficult. And I'm not sure I ever really did that successfully, but at least I could write songs that were at least ambiguous, that if I sang it, it sounded authentic, or if Linda sang it, it sounded authentic. I could never claim to get right inside her head, to write stuff in that way, but there were many songs that we tried out where she might start out singing and then say, well, you know, I don't really feel this - you know, why don't you sing it?

So there was a bit of that back-and-forth kind of idea. But I think it loosened me up as a songwriter, and it made me a bit more sympathetic. I think, you know, I admired someone like Robbie Robertson of The Band, who was writing songs for other voices, not for his own voice. And so he'd be writing a song thinking, well, Levon's going to sing this one, you know, or Rick Danko's going to sing this one. So I think I was influenced by that attitude, and that really helped me.

GROSS: So I want to play a song that she sings lead on, and you sing on the chorus, and this is "Walking On A Wire," and it's from the album "Shoot Out The Lights," which was your last album together in 1982. Can you talk about writing this song?

R THOMPSON: Yeah. It's a song about relationships - you know, being right on the edge, really, you know, or up on a high wire, and you can fall off any moment. You know, some people say - not me, necessarily - but some people say this was, you know, kind of a precursor of our marriage breaking down, you know, that it was kind of prophetic that, you know, we weren't going to be together much longer. I mean, I really don't know about that. Certainly, by the time the album came out, we were pretty much split up, and so lot of people have read into that album. It's, you know, one of the breakup albums. And I'm not sure I go that far, really. And to me, I was just writing songs. I didn't really know what I was doing in that sense. I wasn't deliberately writing with divorce in mind or anything. But perhaps I was subconsciously picking up on the news, and the songs just pop out. The songs just seem to pop out anyway. They seem to have a life of their own. And you write them, and you look at them later. And you think, oh, OK, maybe that was about that or about this. But I think at the time, you're not really conscious necessarily.

GROSS: Well, let's hear it. So this is Linda Thompson singing lead with Richard Thompson also on vocals. And this is from their album together, "Shoot Out The Lights," recorded in 1982.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WALKING ON A WIRE")

LINDA THOMPSON: (Singing) I hand you my ball and chain. You just hand me that same old refrain.

LINDA THOMPSON AND RICHARD THOMPSON: (Singing) I'm walking on a wire. I'm walking on a wire. And I'm falling.

L THOMPSON: (Singing) I wish I could please you tonight, but my medicine just won't come right.

L THOMPSON AND R THOMPSON: (Singing) I'm walking on a wire. I'm walking on the wire. And I'm falling.

L THOMPSON: (Singing) Too many steps to take.

GROSS: That was Richard and Linda Thompson from their album "Shoot Out The Lights" from 1982. You've said, you know, that it's sometimes hard to tell where a song comes from. They just kind of come to you. When you write songs now, are they coming from a different place at all 'cause you're - you've lived through so much more than you did when you were young. And also, you've written so many songs. I think it's hard for a lot of people to not keep writing the same song.

R THOMPSON: I think you have to be aware of of writing the same song over and over. On the other hand, if you write the same song over and over, you might finally get it right. I think there's a lot of writing with variations. You're almost writing the same song, but you managed to make it different enough that people won't notice too much. But you know what you're aiming for. You're aiming to perfect that particular song. But on the whole, I think you're trying to not repeat yourself, and that gets harder and harder, of course.

So there's always this idea that you have to come up with something that's different. When you do come up with a song that is - you think, well, no one's written this song before. I know for certain this is something that no one has tackled before. It's a great feeling. It's a wonderful feeling. And it's a rare thing, you know, because of how much we all love songs and how many songs get written and how many people want to express themselves. So being original does get harder and harder.

GROSS: Richard Thompson, thank you so much for talking with us. It's always such a pleasure to have you on our show and to have an opportunity to play a lot of your music.

R THOMPSON: Oh, well, it's a great pleasure. Thank you so much, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Richard Thompson speaking to Terry Gross in 2022. His new album, "Ship To Shore," is available now. And he's scheduled a concert tour for this summer, including dates in Cape May and in Woodstock, N.Y. Coming up, film critic Justin Chang reviews "Janet Planet," the first film from the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S "SURPRISE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.