Groundbreaking British DJ John Peel once called him “the best kept-secret in the world of music,” but Richard Thompson has been flatpicking raging guitar solos for more than 50 years. He burst onto London’s swinging music scene in 1967 as the teenage singer and guitarist for Fairport Convention, the seminal folk-rock band that married traditional English songs with an infectious rock groove. In the ’70s, he began singing hypnotic duets in harmony with his then-wife Linda; their best-known album, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, was released in 1974.
In the early ’80s, the singer-songwriter went solo and has regularly put out albums ever since. Though he remains relatively under the radar, the press takes regular notice of him: In 2011, Time magazine listed his 1991 fingerpicking masterpiece “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” as one of their All-TIME 100 Songs, and in 2015, Rolling Stone put him at #69 on their list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2011 for his musical contributions.
Last September, he released 13 Rivers, his 18th solo album. It features 13 thundering, mostly minor-key songs that Thompson vaguely describes as having been written during a dark time in his life. He brings the Richard Thompson Electric Trio, with drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk, to the Lensic Performing Arts Center on Thursday, Feb. 14. Pasatiempo reached him by phone at his rented house in New Jersey, where he was resting up in advance of his 2019 tour.
Pasatiempo: The songs on your new album have been described as having a “grim urgency” and an “unflinching gaze,” which could also characterize much of your songwriting over your career. In the first verse of the opener, “Storm Won’t Come,” you sing, “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.” Are these songs for troubled times, or is this just business as usual for you?
Richard Thompson: It’s not that bad if you really listen to it. [laughs] I don’t think I’ve written literally about anything. I’ve been in this parallel world of song fiction. I’m sure all these traumas that my son has been through are reflected in there.
Pasa: Your father was a Scotland Yard detective who played guitar as a hobby, and you became a working musician in London as a teenager. Who were your biggest musical influences back then?
Thompson: He wasn’t very good — sorry, Dad. I was in school and it was a very natural transition to do it professionally. I hardly had to think about it. I’ve been thankfully paid for music ever since. It’s been absolutely brilliant.
I grew up in London and there was a huge amount of music to see and listen to. I used to love The Who when I was in school still. I’d see them at the Marquee Club in London and that was just fantastic. You could see all the R&B bands, Peter Green with John Mayall, and you could see Eric Clapton and you could see Jeff Beck. You could see all these great guitar players, but at some point I decided I didn’t want to be like them — an R&B-slash-blues guitar player — and I started to put more of the Celtic music in.
And then, of course, we were seventeen, eighteen years old, playing with Pink Floyd, Soft Machine, so some of that rubbed off too.
Pasa: What do you remember most about collaborating with singer Sandy Denny? What were some of the best and worst aspects of playing with Fairport Convention?
Thompson: Sandy was an extraordinary singer. She could be moody, but when she was funny, she was wonderful to be around. When I think of her, I think of her infectious laughter and the ridiculously funny things she would say.
Somehow [Fairport] managed to be a good band fairly early on in our incarnation. It was always a lot of fun. We were always friends and I’m still friends with everyone that was ever in the band. We had a tragic accident in ’69 when our drummer was killed. I think that really affected everybody. We were all in a state of shock for several years after that. … I think that was the worst aspect, not being able to sustain a stable lineup.
Pasa: You got into Sufism in the ’70s. What aspects of that religious practice do you still carry with you?
Thompson: I’ve been practicing Islam since I was twenty-three years old, so that’s five years ago now, let’s think. [laughter] You know, that’s like 45 years, and for a long part of that I was actively a Sufi, which is more like the inner teachings of Islam. It’s like the inside. Even though I don’t specifically practice that now, I still think like a Sufi. I still approach Islam in that way, as having an outside and an inside.
Pasa: Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy produced your album Still, released in 2015. What did you like about working with him?
Thompson: He’s a really interesting musician and I thought he would bring something different to the table. I really like what he’s done with the Mavis Staples solo record. He really put her at the center of her own record, which doesn’t always happen. He’s really great on things like song structure, which a lot of producers aren’t really that tuned into.
He also said, you know, you guys are a trio, you’ve been playing as a trio for a long time, but on a record, you have to turn it into a more quartet approach. I think it was really instructive.
Pasa: What are the differences between life on the road 50 years ago and now?
Thompson: Well, then we stayed in terrible guest houses — you know, freezing. My main memory of 1968 was just being cold. I mean, absolutely freezing and damp, touring the UK. The food was terrible pretty much on the road in those days, just greasy.
Now it’s a lot more comfortable, better food’s available. Everything’s improved, and hopefully, the music has as well.
Pasa: What about the differences between American and British audiences?
Thompson: I think Americans like to go out for a good time and be part of a good time and will want you to succeed. At the beginning of a show, they’ll let you know that they like you and they’ll encourage you with some applause and kind of sustain that through the whole show. At the end, you might get an encore, and that’s great. In Britain, they’re not too sure they do want you to succeed, they might be just as happy watching you fail. They’re more cynical in that way. They’ll clap a bit for each song, but it’s harder work.
Pasa: What are your thoughts about the folk revival that arose in the early 2000s, with the rediscovery and rerelease of albums from ’60s singers like Vashti Bunyan?
Thompson: I think it goes in cycles. I think people on a regular basis want to revisit their roots, the roots of their culture. It seems to go backward and forward. I think people like Vashti Bunyan were very overlooked in the ’60s. You know, there was so much music coming out in the ’60s. It’s taken a lot of time to digest it, and people are still discovering interesting music from that era. I’m not surprised that there’s been a revival because the music was so extremely good.
You know, people like Nick Drake, who sold about a thousand records in his lifetime, has now become a major influence on younger artists. He’s selling like hotcakes.