Fairport Convention band cofounder Richard Thompson looks back on his life in music
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Richard Thompson, who's been a guest several times on our show because his music is so great. He stands out for the originality and the darkness of his songwriting, singing and guitar playing. He's been an influence on many performers, and his songs have been covered by people like Robert Plant, Elvis Costello and R.E.M. In 1967, he co-founded the British group Fairport Convention, which created a new genre, a hybrid of traditional folk music of the British Isles and rock. The group performed traditional songs and originals, and many of those originals were written by Thompson. Sandy Denny was the lead singer.
Thompson had no faith in his own voice as a singer and only started singing on stage after leaving the band in 1971 and going solo in '73. He formed a group with his girlfriend, then wife, Linda Thompson. They sang duets, sometimes with Linda, sometimes with Richard singing lead. Their last album together was in 1982. Then the band and the marriage split up. It's hard for me to imagine a time when he wasn't a singer because his voice is so sure and strong and able to express the emotions in the surprising, dark, melodic and lyrical turns of his songs.
Thompson's memoir, "Beeswing: Losing My Way And Finding My Voice 1967-1975," has just been published in paperback. It focuses on his early years as a performer with Fairport and with Linda Thompson. It's also about his childhood and teenage years. The title, "Beeswing," comes from the title of one of his songs. We'll be talking about his formative years, but I want to start with a more recent album from 2018. The album is called "13 Rivers." The song is called "The Storm Won't Come."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE STORM WON'T COME")
RICHARD THOMPSON: (Singing) I'm 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.
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 because you weren't allowed to use sexually explicit words in the earlier days of pop. But so many 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 and...
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're so attracted to this stuff. It's great storytelling, the old Scottish and Irish palettes and English palettes 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's 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: Your father was from Scotland. And your grandmother - and I don't know if it was your maternal or paternal grandmother - sang a lot too, in Gaelic sometimes. Can you talk a little bit about the songs you learned just from hearing them sing and what their style of singing was like? And if you were willing, to sing a few bars of one of those songs that you grew up with.
R THOMPSON: Oh, yes. My dad's mother was from (inaudible). And she, you know, she wasn't a great singer, but she sang around the house. I don't think I could sing you something she sang because it was in Gaelic, and I don't really have the Gaelic. She sang a song called "Ireland The Brown" (ph), I guess the brown haired. It's a love song. (Vocalizing). It's a beautiful tune, and it's usually sung unaccompanied. And she'd just, you know, be singing it around the house when she's doing the dusting, you know. I probably learned more from friends and from hanging out in folk clubs than I really did from the family. I wasn't really part of one of those strong family traditions like the Watersons, you know, or the McGarrigles.
GROSS: You know, you write that school was like prison for you. And the only thing that you were interested in was music, playing guitar. And before the British invasion, teenagers in England were in love with American rock 'n' roll and blues. And that's what influenced the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton and countless others. You ended up going your own way and finding, like, your roots, not in American roots, but in traditional music of the British Isles. But what styles did you try? What kinds of music did you play before finding that you wanted to go your own way?
R THOMPSON: Well, growing up in London, we had access to all kinds of music because everything came through London. So you could go and hear jazz. You could hear classical music. You could hear good R&B. You could hear good blues - from the British contingent and also from, you know, visiting American musicians who would generally come through London, people like, you know, Howlin Wolf and Sonny Boy Williamson would all kind of come through. And I just learned to play everything that I could copy. So I could play the blues reasonably well. I could play classical guitar. I could play country, which was very unfashionable at the time. So pretty much everything, really. And also, you know, I had a kind of short career as a session musician where I'm playing everything, where you just respond to whatever the session is and whoever the artist is, which is kind of fun, but you can get burned out on that as well after a while.
GROSS: You know, you write it didn't seem indulgent at that time - and you're talking about the '60s - for me to play a guitar solo for 10 minutes. In fact, it was expected. Half an hour wouldn't have been exceptional, as audiences were increasingly stoned and hearing things from an altered perspective. We, on the other hand, were relatively sober. What was it like in those days playing those really super-long guitar solos? Did you feel at the time that it was self-indulgent?
R THOMPSON: It didn't feel self-indulgent because everyone else was really doing the same thing. So if we were opening for Pink Floyd, I think it would almost be expected that there would be long instrumental passages where you could indulge yourself, really, And I did. I mean, I never thought I was drawing anything out. I like to feel that there was content to what I was doing. And then Pink Floyd would go on, and you think, well, you know how much content have they got? So it was all - it was kind of a self-indulgent, you know, very stoned kind of a musical scene. And, you know, the light shows and, you know, the very loud sound was all part of the sort of disorientating effect of the event, really.
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, like, 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. We really liked great lyrics. So we'd do folk songs. We'd do, you know, Joni Mitchell, et cetera. I don't think anyone else was really doing that at the time.
GROSS: The first song that was a 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 kind of wrap ourselves around her arrangement of "She Moves Through The Fair," "Nottamun Town," a couple of 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? This is Sandy Denny with Fairport Convention, "She Moves Through The Fair."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE MOVES THROUGH THE FAIR")
SANDY DENNY: (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. He has a memoir called "Beeswing" that's just been published in paperback. Let's take a short break here and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD THOMPSON'S "ROCKIN' IN RHYTHM")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Richard Thompson. His memoir, "Beeswing: Losing My Way And Finding My Voice 1967-1975," has just been published in paperback.
When you started becoming deeply involved with - you know, musically with traditional music, did you do a lot of research, looking for old ballads that - you know, that struck you as music you and Fairport should be performing?
R THOMPSON: We did a lot of research. And for our first forays into traditional rock, you know, whatever you want to call it, we did look at some of the older ballads, particularly Scottish ballads, that had powerful lyrics - a song like "Matty Groves," which is a murder ballad. We thought, well, if you sing these lyrics over the power of an electric band, that's going to be an incredible combination of things. "Tam Lin," which is a very supernatural song, again, it's a story that kind of grabs you. And if you put it with this powerful backing, that's going to be something, really, quite fantastic. So we were looking for things that would work.
And, you know, I think we found some folk songs were too pastoral, were too bucolic to fit into that framework. But sometimes, with the older songs - you might have a song that's four or 500 years old. There are many versions. And sometimes, you'll want to grab the best bits from all those versions. And some traditionalists would sneer at that approach. But for us, we really wanted to get, you know, the best, the most honed down version of a song that carried the most power and had the least deadwood in it. The story would keep progressing and keep rolling. So yes, the answer is, yes, lots of research.
GROSS: Is there a song that you found through this research that you're still particularly fond of?
R THOMPSON: I mean, I love a song like "Willow Day," which is also known as "Adieu, Adieu," which is - it's like a highwayman's song. It's just such a perfect, beautiful song. It's got a great tune, has wonderful lyrics, very colorful lyrics. And I'm extremely fond of it. I was never involved in Fairport's recording that song. I left the band by then. But I sing it occasionally. I'll sing it live occasionally just because it's a wonderful place to go. And when you sing those old songs, you feel this reverberation of history. You feel all the singers who sang that song down through the years.
GROSS: Would you mind singing a few bars of it?
R THOMPSON: (Laughter) OK. Yeah. Well, I'll start, anyway. (Singing) Adieu, adieu, Hard was my fate. I was brought up in a tender state. Bad company, it did me entice. I left off work and took bad advice, which makes me now to lament and say, pity the fate of young felons all - willow day, willow day.
GROSS: Yeah. Our listeners may be hearing birds in the background (laughter). And, do you want to explain to us where you are?
R THOMPSON: Oh, yes. I'm in a car park because my house was too noisy. So I'm just watching some robins getting frisky. It's sort of mating season - and very charming.
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 out 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, it's almost - it is hard to know what the key is. "She Moves Though 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 could 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, who used 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 that as a guitarist?
R THOMPSON: As a guitarist, I learned from people like Martin Carthy and Davy 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")
DENNY: (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?
GROSS: That was Fairport Convention, with my guest, Richard Thompson, on guitar. Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Richard Thompson. And his new memoir is called "Beeswing," which is also the title of one of his songs. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "1952 VINCENT BLACK LIGHTNING")
R THOMPSON: (Singing) Says Red Molly to James, that's a fine motorbike. A girl could feel special on any such like. Says James to Red Molly, my hat's off to you. It's a Vincent Black Lightning, 1952. And I've seen you at the corners and cafés it seems, red hair and black leather, my favorite color scheme. And he pulled her on behind, and down to Box Hill they did ride.
(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD THOMPSON’S "SCOTT SKINNER MEDLEY: GLENCOE - SCOTT SKINNER'S ROCKIN' STEP - BONNY BANCHORY")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with songwriter, singer and guitarist Richard Thompson. His memoir, "Beeswing: Losing My Way And Finding My Voice 1967-1975," has just been published in paperback. In the late '60s, he co-founded the British group Fairport Convention, which created a new genre, a hybrid of traditional folk music of the British Isles and rock. The group performed traditional songs and originals. Many of those originals were written by Thompson. He left the group, went as a duo with his girlfriend, then wife, Linda Thompson. And then after about 10 years of recording together, they broke up musically and as a married couple, and he's been solo ever since.
You write in your memoir about what it was like when Jimi Hendrix came to London. How did you feel his impact?
R THOMPSON: I went to see him fairly early on, probably early 1967, a little club, held about 300 people. And he was something clearly different. You know, he'd taken ideas from people like The Who, some of Pete Townshend, so, you know, pyrotechnics. And he wedded that with, you know, really good blues guitar playing and lots of feedback and a touch of psychedelia here and there. And it was clearly something very impressive and very different and something took it up a level as well. And I think when the other London-based guitar players, Peter Green and Eric Clapton and everybody heard Jimi, they really kind of scratched their heads and felt a bit second hand in a sense.
You know, Jimi seemed to be much more real and much more connected to the music he was playing. And all these British guitar players had really learnt from records. And they didn't live in Chicago. They didn't live in Mississippi. So I think it was owning up time in many ways. And for me, I just thought, well, I have to do something different. I can't be a blues-based guitar player. I have to be something else. So I really tried to develop an individual style.
GROSS: So when you're playing this, like, new kind of music combining, you know, traditional music and rock, was it hard to find an audience?
R THOMPSON: The audience were really there for us. And, you know, I think we only really started playing that music 100% after we had a traffic accident that killed our drummer. And we had great sympathy from our audience. And our first show was at the Festival Hall in London, and it was sold out. It was a great success. People loved it. And you had this phenomenon of playing in among these great songs, these wonderful ballads, playing traditional dance music, playing jigs and reels very loud and very fast. And we just were bowled over by this concept. And we had great audiences really from that point onwards. There wasn't ever a doubt. I think when we came to America, we found it a little bit harder. The audiences were a little more resistant to what we were doing and didn't really understand what we were doing.
GROSS: Let's talk about that car crash. This was in 1969. And you and the band and your girlfriend at the time, Jeannie, were in the car. And the person driving was like your manager or your road manager?
R THOMPSON: Road manager, yeah.
GROSS: And you'd just played a club in Birmingham. You were driving home. And you want to describe what happened? Is that too much to ask? I know it's very traumatic, so...
R THOMPSON: It's OK. Yeah, I can answer that. So we're driving back to London. We're almost at London. And our driver falls asleep. And the van, you know, veers off the road.
GROSS: But you knew that - you knew he was falling asleep. You tried to grab the wheel. You did grab the wheel to avert crashing into a pole. And you didn't crash into the pole, but the car, you know, spiraled into a tunnel instead.
R THOMPSON: Well, it kind of spiraled. I mean, wasn't - not literally into a tunnel, but it spiraled and rolled. And, you know, we ended up off the road and down an embankment. There were injuries. My girlfriend was killed. Our drummer was killed. And that was a real watershed for the band as we recovered from that, the three of us, anyway, I myself and Ashley and Simon and Sandy as well. We really had to have a meeting and say, what are we going to do? Are we going to continue as a band? Is it worth it? You know, this is too big a price to pay for the joy of playing music live. And eventually we decided, well, we should carry on, if only for the sake of Martin and Jeannie. I think we owe it to them to keep this alive and keep ourselves sane as well, really, I think. We had to have a project, I think, to keep a - to hold ourselves together.
GROSS: What was the project?
R THOMPSON: Well, the project was really to do the "Liege & Lief" album, which was the next album. And this was a more traditional record. I think there were a couple of original songs, but it was supposed to be a statement, really. This is, you know, how you play British music in the 20th century, i.e. with bass and drums. So that was the project that we put all our energy into and a lot of research into. And it kept us going through that summer. And, you know, I mean, I think it did keep us sane to some extent anyway. But it was difficult. You know, there wasn't a lot of therapy in those days. So there wasn't a lot of counselling. There wasn't a lot of thought of, you know, of trauma. And I think we were just supposed to get on with it, really, to get on with life. But I think we were deeply scarred, actually. And it took us a couple of years to truly recover from that accident. And I think some of the decisions that we made in the next couple of years were not good. It was a tough time, a tough time.
GROSS: So the album that you mentioned, "Liege & Lief," had a lot of traditional songs, but a couple of originals. I want to play an original that you wrote that's on that album, "Crazy Man Michael." Can you say something about the song before we hear it?
R THOMPSON: I think the song's metaphorical. It's almost like a magical world, like a parallel universe, a dream world, and not far removed from the world of traditional music and the kind of themes, the supernatural themes that you find in traditional music. And I'm not sure I knew what I was doing when I was writing it, but clearly it's a reflection on the accident and on the loss of those wonderful people.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. This is Fairport Convention with Sandy Denny singing lead.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY MAN MICHAEL")
FAIRPORT CONVENTION: (Singing) Within the fire and out upon the sea, crazy man Michael was walking. Het met with a raven with eyes black as coals, and shortly they were a-talking. Your future, your future, I would tell it to you. Your future, you often have asked me. Your true love will die by your own right hand, and crazy man Michael will cursed be. Michael, he ranted, and Michael, he raved.
GROSS: That's Fairport Convention from their album "Liege & Lief." My guest is Richard Thompson, who was the guitarist and lead songwriter for the band. And then of course, he sang with Linda Thompson after that and then went solo and has been solo for years. How long did the band stay together after the accident?
R THOMPSON: Well, the band's still going (laughter).
GROSS: But Sandy Denny was asked to leave, and then you left.
R THOMPSON: Yeah. I think we lasted just a few months after the accident, and then, you know, Sandy left or was asked to leave. It was a bit ambiguous what was really the driving force behind that. Ashley left as well, and then I left about a year later. I think there was some traumatic reasons that the band split up in that way. I think if we'd been thinking a bit more clearly, we would have stayed together longer with a more stable lineup. The band went through a lot of personal changes over the years. I mean, they are still going, which is fantastic, with at least two or three original members. And they're still a great band. But there have been a lot of changes, and I'm not sure it was always logical.
GROSS: A few years later, Sandy Denny died. She fell down. I think she fell down a flight of stairs. And it seemed to be ambiguous whether it was death by suicide or an accident. You think it was an accident.
R THOMPSON: I do think it was an accident. I don't think she was someone who would ever contemplate suicide. But she'd become really unreliable. She had a young baby. She was very irresponsible. And in some ways, I think life was getting to be too much for her. And she'd fallen down the stairs before, so she had a previous brain trauma, we believe. And I think when she fell down the stairs again and hit her head again, I think that was really - it became much more serious. And she didn't really recover from that. But I don't think she was suicidal.
GROSS: You know, we talked about how much death there is in traditional British folk music and how - you know, you perform so many of the songs, and so many of your own songs are modeled on that. And I'm thinking about how there was, you know, death in your life at an early age, from the car accident and then Sandy Denny, you know, dying. So, like, you knew the death of peers through, you know, surprising and awful twists in their lives.
R THOMPSON: Well, I think that does something to you. You know, people lose parents young sometimes. You know, people get orphaned, or they lose their parents through illness or something, a war. And I think it makes you grow up quicker, you know? Life becomes more serious. And you see life, I think, also as a more precious thing, and you realize that time isn't this infinite thing, that time runs out. And you better enjoy life and live life at the time and really, really savor it. I think it gives you that quality.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you. My guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist Richard Thompson. He has a memoir called "Beeswing: Losing My Way And Finding My Voice 1967-1975." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD THOMPSON SONG, "1952 VINCENT BLACK LIGHTNING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Richard Thompson. His memoir, "Beeswing: Losing My Way And Finding My Voice 1967-1975," has just been published in paperback.
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 points 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 it 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. And I think, you know, I admire 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 relationships, you know, being right on the edge, really, you know, or up on a high wire and you can fall off at any, any moment. You know, some people say - not me necessarily - but some people say this was, you know, a kind of a precursor of our marriage breaking down, you know, that it was kind of 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 a lot of people have read into that album. It's 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 a 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. I'm walking on a wire. I'm walking on a wire. And I'm falling. I wish I could please you tonight. But my medicine just won't come right. I'm walking on a wire. I'm walking on a wire. And I'm falling. Too many steps...
GROSS: That was Richard and Linda Thompson from their album "Shoot Out The Lights" from 1982. You know, we talked about how you didn't really sing during the Fairport Convention years. And you shared vocals with Linda Thompson when you were in a duo with her. What was it like for you when you first tried to figure out if you could sing on stage, if you were good enough? I love your voice so much and it's so distinctive. I mean, I never confuse your voice with anybody else's. And - I don't know. Your singing just kind of speaks to me. But you never thought of yourself as a singer. So how did you figure out who you were as a singer and what qualities of your voice that you liked and were comfortable with?
R THOMPSON: I think it was a very slow process. In fact, I used to sing harmony. I'd sing behind Sandy or something. But when you have someone who's that strong and that in tune as a singer, it's very easy just to jump in and sing a harmony underneath. When Sandy left the band, you know, we kind of shared vocals. No one was really confident enough to be, you know, the lead singer. And then when I started working with Linda, you know, I felt a little bit more confident. And playing in folk clubs was a very good way of making your voice stronger and getting, you know, becoming more confident as a singer because in a folk club, there's nowhere to hide. You really have to just get on with it. You have to be, you know, whoever you're going to be and sing however you are going to sing. And they'll accept it or not. You know, there's no hiding behind, you know, microphones or reverbs or anything like that.
So that was a good confidence booster as well. And then really, when I was solo, I just thought, well, you know, I'll, you know, I'll do the singing. I love singing, but I didn't feel my voice was still quite there. So it took me a few solo albums to really feel that I was getting in the right direction anyway. And I had producers who were not necessarily great vocal coaches. I had producers who were saying, oh, you must sing louder. You know, you must give it a bit more grit or something. Whereas my voice sounds better if it's not that loud, if it's a little bit underneath. So it was a learning experience for me, a learning experience for my producers as well. But I think I finally got there. And I think I sing OK now, just about.
GROSS: I would say. Let's take a short break here and then talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is songwriter, singer and guitarist Richard Thompson. His new memoir is called "Beeswing: Losing My Way And Finding My Voice 1967-1975." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with songwriter, singer and guitarist Richard Thompson. His new memoir is called "Beeswing: Losing My Way And Finding My Voice 1967-1975."
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? Because 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 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.
R THOMPSON: And 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 kind of song. And if you do, then you could tear up, you know, the 10 versions before that. But on the whole, I think you're trying to not repeat yourself. And that gets harder and harder, of course, not only because you're writing more songs - you've written 400, 500 songs - but everyone else is writing songs as well. You know, like, in Nashville, God knows how many songs they write a year, you know, just in Nashville.
So there's always this idea that you have to come up with something that's different. And when you do come up with a song that is - that 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, it does get harder and harder.
GROSS: Do you think your songs now in your 70s are coming from a different place at all than they did when you were younger?
R THOMPSON: Oh, definitely, yeah. Yeah, I think that they come from a certain maturity for sure. They're not songs that you write when you're 20, I don't think. On the other hand, you know, I love the energy of thinking that you're still 20, you know, fooling yourself that you're still young and you've got all this energy. And I think you can write good songs by fooling yourself, that's for sure.
GROSS: I want to close with the song "Beeswing," which is the title of your book as well as the title of the song. And it's one of your better-known songs. I think it's also the title of your music publishing company.
R THOMPSON: Yes, it is. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So what is it about this song that means so much to you that you've named the book and your publishing company by it?
R THOMPSON: The publishing company - I think I named it after - a small town in Scotland is called Beeswing. And there's also a Scottish dance tune called "Beeswing." So I think that's where the name came from originally. And then the song really came later. We're still talking a long time ago, but the song came later. I think the song title became the book title because the song seems to me to encapsulate things about the '60s and '70s - not everything about the '60s and '70s but the way that society changed at that point. And people didn't accept the values of their parents. And they dropped out. They didn't go to university. They didn't go into the straight job. You know, they went off around the world and in some cases didn't come back. They took to alternative lifestyles. And I think some of that is expressed in the - you know, in the book and certainly in the song title.
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: Well, it's a great pleasure. Thank you so much, Terry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEESWING")
R THOMPSON: (Singing) I was 19 when I came to town. They called it the summer of love. They were burning babies, burning flags, the hawks against the doves. I took a job in the steamie down on Cauldrum Street, and I fell in love with a laundry girl who was working next to me. Oh, she was a rare thing, fine as a bee's wing. So fine, a breath of wind might her away. She was a lost child. Oh, she was running wild. She said as long as there's no price on love I'll stay. And you wouldn't want me any other way.
GROSS: That's Richard Thompson singing his song "Beeswing," which is also the title of his memoir. It's just been published in paperback. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about Rupert Murdoch, his family and the media empire he created, including Fox News. My guest will be New York Times reporter Jim Rutenberg. He co-wrote a series of investigative articles about how Murdoch's newspapers and TV networks helped create, amplify and profit from the right-wing populist wave in the U.S. and other countries. The series has been adapted into a CNN+ documentary series. I hope you'll join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD THOMPSON SONG, "BEESWING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.