'Roots to Fruits' Part II
8/24/2005 (updated 8/24/2005)
"Even when I was signed to major labels I tried to keep out the way and to not be too much a part of it," Thompson went on. "It's a strange interaction - where music meets business. I'm glad to say that I'm pretty much independent these days, so the song applies less to me."
Besides being signed to the independent Cooking Vinyl label for formal releases, Thompson also distributes many of his live recordings himself, through his website at www.richardthompson-music.com. It's an arrangement that suits him just fine. "It's very easy for people to find you, and it's a great way for you to find the audience. The Internet has been a great boon for artists that don't really fit into the mainstream."
Thompson believes that the major labels never really understood him. "Because I play a style that isn't really an American popular music form, people are always wondering, 'How can we tweak him? How can we make his records sound more accessible', and so there have been various attempts to get me on the radio etc. I'm not sure they're always successful, and I'm not sure that people understand the musical genre. Often the records that are naturalistic sounding seem to be the most successful. It's human nature to want to be more popular or to make something more accessible, but it doesn't always work."
Richard and Linda Thompson's marriage broke up almost simultaneously with the release of Shoot Out The Lights, leading fans and critics to speculate that some of the darker songs on the record were autobiographical, which Thompson has consistently denied. He had often written melancholy and even bleak songs before and, for almost a quarter of a century since the divorce, he has pursued a solo career that was temporarily summed up by a 1993 triple disc set, Watching The Dark, named after the refrain from Shoot Out The Lights' title track, but also, say some, after his natural state when writing songs.
Thompson disagrees. "I don't see what I do as dark. I think sometimes to do justice to a subject you have to be serious, and I think I write serious songs. I don't think I write depressing or pessimistic songs. I'm an optimist. I really do not have a pessimistic worldview at all. There are a couple of songs where the lyric does go to the edge, but these songs are not expressing my permanent state . they're expressing a transitory state and I think it's important to express those moods. You can have a dark mood, but that doesn't mean that's who you are. But it's important musically that you do go to the edge and you do express the extremes of human nature."
Thompson, often considered the most English of rock songwriters, now lives in America, surely a contradiction of sorts. "I live in Los Angeles," he says, "which is a very bland culture. A place like New Orleans has an infectious culture that you would want to absorb. There's nothing I want to absorb in Los Angeles. It's a place where people impose their own cultures on the city. I take a very colonial view of America anyway."
Thompson's post-1982 solo career has produced ten albums that might be considered the backbone of his catalogue over the period, of which several - Hand Of Kindness, Rumour and Sigh, Mock Tudor ("to me the most successful record I've done, because it's closest to what I intended"), The Old Kit Bag and now Front Parlour Ballads - have stood out even in this generally impressive pack. But that's by no means all the prolific Thompson has been involved in.
"Every couple of years I try and release something that the radio can play, and that I can go out and promote, and then in between those it's nice to do side projects that are sometimes really experiments, with people that you might not have played with much before and you're not really sure how it's going to turn out. As a musician it's your duty to explore and to experiment and sometimes you can come away from a project like that with your music enriched and your attitude refreshed . things that you thought were limits or barriers knocked down. So it's wonderful to have the freedom to do those kinds of things."
Those kinds of things have included live albums, film and TV soundtracks (his score for Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man is about to be released), sometimes unexpected collaborations with folk, rock and avant-garde musicians, session appearances and so on. One of his recent projects, 1000 Years Of Popular Music, also due for official release shortly as both CD and DVD, is precisely that. It's a show in which Thompson plays an unlikely selection of songs, from Summer Is Icumen In, the first song ever written in English, to Britney Spears' Oops! I Did It Again, and makes them all his own.
In fact, there will soon be an astonishing amount of new and newish Thompson material on the record store shelves, so much of it, in fact, that he has jokingly suggested that an easy payment plan should be devised for hardcore fans who want it all. Two recent DVDs, Live In Providence and Live >From Austin Tx, capture the power, variety and blistering instrumental skill of two quite different Thompson shows, and there's a CD out from the latter concert, too. Then there's a five or six disc box packed with previously unavailable material due for release by the splendid folk at Free Reed Records early in 2006. Add that to the Herzog soundtrack, the 1000 Years project and Front Parlour Ballads and you might want to start thinking about that second mortgage.