Since his days as the lead guitarist and songwriter for the folk rock group Fairport Convention during the late ‘60s, English musician Richard Thompson has been heralded as one of the best songwriters of his generation. Hundreds of his peers, contemporaries and younger artists have covered his material either live, in an album or both. He’s also worked with a bunch of other reputable musicians on their projects as well. Thompson’s guitar playing has been consistently incredible for decades and any fan of his would agree with this statement. On Sunday evening at 5:30 p.m., he’ll be performing on the Rhythm Stage as part of the Rhythm & Roots Festival making its return to Ninigret Park in Charlestown.
We had a talk ahead of the show about growing up listening to a variety of music, honoring your roots, loving to make music with his family, what he thinks of his songs being covered and how performing live in front of people is the best feeling.
Rob Duguay: You come from a musical family and while growing up in the Notting Hill neighborhood of London you listened to a mix of rock & roll, jazz and traditional Scottish music with the latter two styles part of your father’s record collection. From being exposed to that variety of music at a young age, what eventually gravitated you to songwriting and the guitar?
Richard Thompson: I think it comes from a total of your roots, the music that you listen to. If you’re lucky, it becomes a kind of synthesis for when you come to create your own music. I’ve always been interested in traditional music, popular music, jazz, rock & roll and classical music or some sort of mix between those. When I started to create my own music, I really started to blend these styles together. I’ve always wanted to play music and I’ve always wanted to write music, which gradually became a possibility although it never seemed like a career choice but I’ve done it my whole life which is pretty amazing so I’m very fortunate for that.
RD: It is pretty amazing. You’ve collaborated with the likes of Nick Drake, Bonnie Raitt, Michael Stipe from R.E.M., film director Werner Herzog and even Johnny Rotten from the Sex Pistols among many others. Out of all of the collaborations you’ve done during your career, what would you say is the most memorable or the one you’re most proud of?
RT: It’s always great to work with Bonnie, I’ve played on a couple of her songs and she also recorded a song of mine which is fantastic. She’s such a lovely person, such a generous and great human being so it’s always a thrill to work with her. I’ve done some collaborations with Crowded House during the ‘90s and 2000s which was nice but one of my favorite things to do is to collaborate with my family. Sometimes I get to play with my son Teddy and my daughter Kami who’s in a band called The Rails and it’s always the best feeling to know when you have this family thing going. The voices blend really well and you have the respect between the generations which is always a tricky thing in families but it’s nice to have that musical respect.
RD: A lot of musicians have covered your songs, such as Emmylou Harris and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour doing renditions of “Dimming Of The Day” and Sean Rowe, Robert Earl Keen and Bob Dylan doing renditions of “1952 Vincent Black Lighting”. What do you think of how this has literally happened hundreds of times? Do you find it to be a bit flattering? Do you just hope they don’t mess it up and do the song justice?
RT: It can go either way. You can hear a cover of one of your songs and think they really missed the point or it was really bad or you can think that it’s fantastic and they took the song somewhere that you as a writer never thought of. It’s always a privilege to have someone cover your song, that’s the first thing. It’s something that you can be very proud of as a writer and it’s something that you won’t forget so it’s a mix of things.
RD: You’re known for having a seemingly endless touring schedule, so when COVID-19 happened last year and everything shut down, what were you doing while being cooped at home? Did you just start writing a bunch of new material? Were you alone with your own thoughts trying to figure out what to do while not being on the road? How much did the drastic change affect you?
RT: It was a distressing time because for a lot of musicians the revenue streams have pretty much dried up so you rely on live performance to make a living. I really had to suck it up for nearly a year and a half but I was lucky to have a home recording studio so I could jump in there and record things, which was great for writing. I did get lots of writing done, I’ve written a couple EPs that have already come out and I have a full album that I plan on doing with my band probably later in the year so it was good for that. I must say that it’s fantastic to be getting back to playing live, it’s just the best thing.
RD: I can totally understand that feeling. Speaking of that feeling, you’re in the middle of a run of shows in the United States, which includes this weekend’s Rhythm & Roots Festival. You’re playing in a variety of settings ranging from clubs to festivals and other places, so what are your feelings on going back to playing these shows?
RT: Every venue has its own unique quality and I’ll be doing stuff indoors which is great. During the summer it’s a real mixture of sizes of crowds along with the indoor/outdoor thing as well and I just enjoy the variety. I really take each show on it’s own merits as it comes along and it’s going to be great to play Rhythm & Roots, which I’ve done before. I’m excited about that and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.