By Ben Walsh
Singer-songwriter’s new album was inspired by break-up. He talks about feeling inadequate in love and pretending to appreciate James Taylor
Actually, it’s probably better for the song if you’re the one who has been heartbroken,” says Teddy Thompson, matter-of-factly. “I did end up on the receiving end of heartbreak a bit more than usual in my last relationship. It’s about time. It’s fair enough.”
The English singer-songwriter – speaking to i from his pad in New York, where he has lived for more than 20 years – has created a collection of “heartbreak” soul songs for his compelling new album, Heartbreaker Please. When I tell him I’ve been listening to the record constantly for the past week, he replies: “You poor thing.”
Thompson, the son of folk royalty – his parents are singer Linda Thompson and guitarist Richard Thompson, formerly of Fairport Convention – specialises in self-deprecation. But the album, which features the fiendishly catchy and deceptively upbeat singles At a Light, Heartbreaker Please (“Here’s the piece of my heart/ That you left at the park/ Only bit that remains/ You can break it again”) and Brand New (“I just want to find hope under the sun”), is arguably his finest since 2008’s excellent A Piece of What You Need.
Heartbreaker Please was partly inspired by Thompson’s break-up. Of this parting of ways, he has said: “When you find someone that seems ideal, it’s easy to be untrue to yourself in order to try to match that ideal.” Does he truly believe that? “I’m not very quotable most of the time but I managed to get out something that was honest there, which is good,” he says. “That’s a feeling I had when I was younger, which people can relate to – when you’re trying to find your way and you’re going out with someone who seems much cooler than you and much more together.
“I felt like the lesser of the two in the relationship with her, as she was more successful than me basically and men have a hard time with that,” he admits. “Also her life and her image were really together and grown up; she was an ideal partner on paper but that doesn’t always mean it works in real life, and it didn’t. I did find myself having those sort of teenage feelings, that I’ve got to adjust to fit more into her life, as she was perfect.”
The beginning of the end, though, was when he clocked that she didn’t have very good taste in music. While a concert they attended together by a particular “1970s folk rock legend” induced tears from her, Thompson faked his appreciation: “Of course I said it was great, but the singer is someone he “really doesn’t care for at all”. (“Was it James Taylor?” I enquire. “Yes.”)
The 44-year-old prefers the soul of Wilson Pickett, Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson and the harmonies of the Everly Brothers and the Louvin Brothers. He was brought up on a diet of Erik Satie and Hank Williams by his parents, who never played English folk rock in the house. “When they came home the last thing in the world they would do is play music similar to the music they played,” he says. “But they did have really great taste in music.”
Thompson, who had a “posh bohemian” upbringing, was born in a commune in Maida Vale. His parents, who practised Sufi Islam (Richard still does), divorced when he was six and Linda subsequently married an American agent. They moved to Hampstead (“In a place that would be worth millions now”) and Teddy went to the progressive Bedales School in Hampshire. In his teens, he enjoyed hanging out with the extroverted Rufus Wainwright (Thompson is a self-proclaimed introvert and “observer”) in Los Angeles before settling in New York in his early 20s.
He’s been on his own for the three months of lockdown but he says that’s OK, because “that’s who I am anyway – I spend a lot of time alone. It hasn’t been difficult for me in that respect.”
Thompson is a non-prolific artist (his last album was his upbeat collaboration with pop artist Kelly Jones, Little Windows, in 2016) who has, by his own admission, “perfectionist tendencies”. So has it been a productive time creatively for him?
“Not really,” he says. “My mum used to say – she still does, she’s still going – if you want something done, ask a busy person. I need to be stimulated and busy and then I tend to get loads of things done. Sitting at home I can’t even begin to think up something inspirational. But I’ve been working on tech stuff and home recording and learning some of that stuff, which I’m not a natural at.”
When lockdown was first imposed he felt “very bleak” about his tour with John Grant being cancelled (it’s been rescheduled for May 2021) but a couple of streaming gigs, where fans donated money, proved quite successful and were “financially viable”, because he didn’t have to fork out for travel, accommodation, airfares and management expenses. In fact, he says, he sees this as an opportunity for artists to take more control of their finances.
“In the live world you’re reliant on a booking agent, a promoter and a venue and all those people take a big cut of what you’re doing,” he says, “but now that all of us are trying to present streams ourselves, the promoters are saying, ‘Hey, we’ll do the stream with you and we’ll split it 50/50 or whatever’ but why do we need them any more? What are they bringing to the table?”
Thompson maintains that once a certain number of your fans are watching everything you do online anyway, you don’t really need the third parties as much. Also there are no overheads performing in your living room, which his father has also been dabbling in, attracting a couple of thousand fans for a free gig on Facebook Live. “If they’d actually paid, he’d be rolling in it, he’d be laughing,” says Thompson.
“We’ve all got to get with the programme a bit more and embrace the fans and be more available for them,” he concludes. “That’s the just way things are, as the pie is much smaller and you have to cultivate your fan base and talk to them.” Although he then adds: “I miss the days when there was healthy disdain for the audience. That’s the music I grew up on, with musicians such as Mick Jagger, standing on massive stages sneering at their fans. That was the music world I fell in love with, you’re all literally and figuratively 20 feet above all these little people watching you.
“Of course you love and appreciate your fans but you do it with this sneer and arrogance, which is what makes for a good performance a lot of the time,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard to balance that with the meet-and-greets after the show, which all seem a bit silly. The mystery definitely goes and I was always enamoured of the mystery. We can no longer afford to be mysterious.”
Before our chat ends, I ask him whether his latest record is his Blood on the Tracks, Bob Dylan’s 1975 album about his split from Sara, his wife at the time, which is acclaimed as one of the great rock albums.
“Yeah, let’s go with that, in the hope that hundreds of people will foolishly buy the record thinking it’s anything like Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks!” laughs Thompson. “I mean I wish it was anything close to that… but then from a source material point of view I suppose it is.” Self-deprecating to the last.