Talking on a Wire

In a perfect world, as opposed to a Bizarro world in which rock critics are American idols, the release of a Richard Thompson album would be Big News, cause for celebration; instead, once more, it's a joyous whisper among cultists and the converted. Granted, he's an acquired taste, like absinthe and snails, but also worthy of the acclaim and adoration bestowed upon him by the sect since the '60s, when he proved himself a far more durable guitar god than Jimi Hendrix as founding member of Fairport Convention. With the band, ex-wife Linda (with whom he shot out more than the lights) and solo for two decades, his is the back catalog of greatness, a career of legend among the legions who adore his songs about getting women all wrong, making love all wrong and screwing up just enough to keep us from ever becoming more than just a mass of messy mistakes.

Thompson's latest, The Old Kit Bag, plays like a greatest: It's long on short-on-love songs, the kind populated by couples undone by "Jealous Words," who find love's "First Breath" the most suffocating of all and realize destiny is what drives them apart rather than holds them together. (With Thompson, the only thing inevitable about romance is its blasé dissolution.) The Old Kit Bag, subtitled as "unguents, fig leaves and tourniquets for the soul," is a withering and beguiling album--unadorned by the Mitchell Froom maul-of-sound that dominated his '80s and '90s releases, and on which Thompson is joined by a bare-bones ensemble consisting of bassist Danny Thompson, singer Judith Owen and drummer Michael Jerome, ex of half a dozen Dallas bands. It's as complicated as a tempestuous love affair and ultimately as rewarding, if only because Thompson, whose interviews read like how-to courses in songwriting and performing, is one of those musicians for whom heartbreak is the most satisfying emotion of all.

The Old Kit Bag, being so stripped-down, sounds like a sort of best-of, a representation of who you were and where you're headed.

I hope so. This is the way, as an artist, you think about every album. You think every one is the one that kind of sums it up, or you hope so.

What's always struck me anyway is how your songs always sounded whole even when out of the studio, even when it was just you on a stage with a guitar.

I hope everything was secondary to the song. And if the song's any good, then it should be able to survive a solid performance, a bad performance, somebody else doing a cover. It should really be strong enough to withstand whatever happens to it.

This album somehow feels more immediate, perhaps because there's none of that production getting in the way.

Well, what I think most musicians would like to think is that the records they make are immediate, and I suppose a way to make that happen is to get little in the way of the music--to mix the voice forward and mix the important stuff fairly dry and at the front of the mix. It's fully in your face, which takes courage sometimes.

Courage seems an awfully big word, but appropriate.

To stand up on a stage alone with an acoustic guitar requires bravery bordering on heroism. [Pause.] Bordering on insanity. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself in public, really. You get up on your own, and you have no one else to blame. It's a difficult thing sometimes. But it's a test of who you are, and it's a test of if you're any good, I think, as well.

Especially given how vulnerable the subject matter of your songs. It's like you're naked up there, vulnerable and just asking for it.

Yeah, it's complicated. You know, while you're being intimate, you're always being theatrical. There's also an element where you're pretending to be the person you're singing about in the song--though perhaps all that's based on your experience, maybe, it's not literally about you. Maybe it's as much about the audience as it is about anybody else. So you're also asking the audience to kind of look at themselves sometimes. That's almost a part of your job as a songwriter: to state what's just below the surface.

Do you believe it's the role of the songwriter, then, to act as audience surrogate--to say what they can't or won't out loud? And is that a role you've always been aware of, or is it something you kind of grow into?

I think probably the latter. I think I used to write songs for other reasons. I'm not sure why songs get written exactly. I think songs get written because it's fun to write songs. I think that that's the basic thing, and then there's the luggage that goes with that. But I think being a songwriter and a performer is a different thing. The fact that you know you're going to sing these songs sometimes brings a different element to them.

If you wrote songs knowing no one else would hear them, would you write different kinds of songs?

I think you always expect somebody else to hear them, even if it's only one person. I think to write songs in a vacuum is kind of strange. I think everybody who draws a picture on the back of an envelope or jots down a few lines on holiday about the sun sinking over the horizon or something, at some level if they think it's any good, then they want someone else to share that. I think that's just an inevitable human thing to do with arts, you know. Whatever you create, you want to be proud of somehow. You want someone else to share that feeling of achievement.

You talk about the delineation between songwriter and performer. They're two separate instincts, aren't they?

Yeah, I think they are. I think those can be confusing for the audience, anyway, because as a writer you're trying to be convincing, and as a performer you're trying to be convincing, as well. Stage discipline brings its own need for conviction. But at the same time it is a piece of theater, a piece of entertainment, and the lights go off and the show's over. You are trying to convince the audience of the reality of what you're singing about.

But you also cut through these songs of woe and misery by injecting them with a tremendous amount of humor. I don't think performers are ever funny when they talk to audiences, but you're the exception. How much of that is to keep the set from overwhelming the audience?

I think I started talking to the audience because, you know, I'd be embarrassed by the silence when I was tuning the guitar, so I think, "Well, I have to say something"--as much as I'd like to pretend to be the tortured poet and say nothing, in which there is tremendous mileage. Let's face it; if you just got onstage and just sang really moody songs and you never spoke a word, I mean, my God, you'd be a genius.

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Robert Wilonsky
Contact: Robert Wilonsky