Time has not dulled Richard Thompson. On his new record 13 Rivers, the 69-year-old’s guitar sounds as barbed as ever, ringing with the same rawness that defines past masterpieces like Shoot Out the Lights and Sweet Warrior. What’s more, the new lp, his 19th overall, finds the songwriter addressing the spiritual longing that’s run like a thread through records like Pour Down Like Silver and Hand of Kindness. “I’m longing for a storm to blow through town/And blow these sad old buildings down,” he sings on album stand out “The Storm Won’t Come,” pining for the kind of destruction that makes way for new creation. “Fire to burn what fire might/And rain to wash it all away,” he intones over an insistent stomping rhythm. After all these years, Thompson remains committed to tearing away the superficial to make way for the real.
Following a set of acoustic releases and 2015’s Still, which was produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, 13 Rivers was produced by Thompson himself. Recorded in 10 days with familiar collaborators from his live band, the album benefits from a first thought/best thought strategy. “I’m always aiming to get in and out of the studio as fast as possible, without rushing,” Thompson says over the phone. “I had a producer slated for this record, but he had to cancel. Everything was booked, so I thought, ‘I’ll just do it myself this time.'”
The result is a tough but yearning record, and one of Thompson’s best in years. AD rang Thomson from his home in New Jersey, where he’s lived about a year since moving out from California, to discuss the record and the energy that’s fueled his work since emerging in the late ’60s with Fairport Convention, through his ’70s and ’80s classics with his ex-wife Linda Thompson, and into his long and consistent solo run.
AD: You always play with a tremendous amount of intensity, but 13 Rivers feels especially relentless. In the notes that accompany the album, you talk about how the playing was a reflection of your internal state. What do you mean by that?
Richard Thompson: It’s been a tough couple years for my family, which I can’t really talk about. That kind of stress gets reflected in the music. It’s been intense in that sense, and probably that goes into the playing, songwriting, everything. Hopefully, that emotion comes across. I hope it would.
AD: There’s a lot of imagery drawn from natural forces at work — earthquakes, storms. Did the general tenor of American politics inform what you’re doing on this one as well?
Richard Thompson: It’s my own internal landscape more than anything else. My own turmoil. It’s my own longings and fears of what’s around the corner. The forces at work. It’s much more personal…[but] a song like “The Storm Won’t Come,” it can be taken as a political song. It can absolutely be taken that way. “Bones of Gilead” also works that way. I think those two songs are abstract enough to be fitted in different ways.
AD: “The Storm Won’t Come” is my favorite song from the record. Storms work a lot of ways in songs, but in this one, you’re actually longing for it. You’re not seeking shelter.
Richard Thompson: Sometimes you want change in your life. I think what the song says is if you try and change things yourself, it doesn’t always work. Outside forces have to change for you.
AD: Your songs, from as far back as “The Calvary Cross,” to this record’s “Rattle Within,” employ religious imagery. What does using that spiritual iconography allow you to do in a song?
Richard Thompson: I think it’s powerful language that people, whether they’re religious or not, understand. I’m a spiritual person, but I’m not a Christian. But I love the language of the Bible. The King James Bible translation, it’s one of the two or three greatest works of literature in the English language. I’m very happy to draw on that. I’m concerned to speak to people in a language they understand, and I think they understand that language. I [began] songwriting in the ‘60s, when you had authors like Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Robbie Robertson of the Band, all using this biblical imagery. So I’m probably still a bit stuck in the ‘60s.
AD: On Still, which you made with Jeff Tweedy, you shouted out your guitar heroes. People like Chuck Berry, Django Reinhardt, and Les Paul. Were those guitarists you were interested in when Fairport Convention was getting started?
Richard Thompson: Probably by that time I might’ve moved on to some others. It’s a very short list on that song. I’m leaving about 15 or 20 other guitar players. It could be a four and a half hour song, if I want to get everyone in there. [When Fairport Convention started] I was probably listening to more jazz and rock players.
AD: Fairport was surrounded by the blues-rock explosion in the early days. You listen to so many records from that time, and everyone was aping the blues. Your playing doesn’t do that, not in an overt sense. Was that a conscious choice?
Richard Thompson: The people I was playing with, the guys that became Fairport, we really didn’t want to sound like other bands. We’d listen to jug band music, we’d listen to country music, slightly different things than the blues palette most people were stuck on at that time. As a guitar player I thought, “There’s so many guitar players around London, all playing the same thing.” And we’re all disconnected from the roots of this music. Nobody’s from Chicago, no one’s ever been to Chicago. It was all learned off records. All credit to someone who mastered the style, like Peter Green, who I thought was a great guitar player. But he hadn’t been anywhere close to blues culture. He was a Jewish guy from London. [Laughs] So I thought, I don’t want to be like that. I have my own influences. I tried to look beyond the obvious. At some point with Fairport, that took toward traditional English music.
AD: Did that framework ever begin to feel constrictive?
Richard Thompson: Constrictive? I just think in the beginning it was a thoughtful process, something I was very self-aware of. At a certain point, I stopped thinking about it. I just played what I felt like. And there is some blues in there: the way I use vibrato might go back to BB King, stuff I play might go back to James Burton, but other stuff goes back to Scottish pipe music and Irish fiddling. When you learn an instrument, you have your heroes anyway, and you try and emulate your heroes. At a certain point, you do find your own voices, a mixture of your influences.
AD: You write in the notes that your hope is that these songs take on new meaning for the listener as time goes on, that the reward is in relistening and giving things time to grow. Do you find that’s the way the songs work for you? Do you find yourself singing a song years later and realize that it’s changed into something different?
Richard Thompson: You have to prepare for that, you have to allow that to happen. If you play something night after night, the meaning has to unfold for you. I’ve been singing some songs for 50 years, songs I wrote as a teenager. And I have to interpret them in a different way, because in some ways they’re naive in their original meaning. I have to find a different meaning in these songs, to keep myself enjoying them. Otherwise, I can’t sing them. You have to forgive yourself for being naive, to some extent, for being 19. Fortunately, in the ‘60s we were writing songs that were vague enough they lend themselves to more than one interpretation.
AD: Over the years, your work, with Fairport Convention, with your ex-wife Linda Thompson, and your solo work, has influenced younger artists — there are a lot of players like Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn, Joan Shelley, who are clearly very influenced by what you’ve done. Do you keep up on new music?
Richard Thompson: I do, but I wouldn’t be able to see if I influenced anybody. I can see people being influenced by Nick Drake, and I hear that. I hear people being influenced by Sandy Denny. I can hear people being influenced by my contemporaries. I just wouldn’t be able to hear it if it was me.
AD: We talked about some of the religious imagery in your songs; I find there’s something very spiritual about the way you play guitar. When I listen to someone like John Coltrane play, I hear someone reaching for a spiritual ideal. And I feel like I hear that in your work as well. Does playing music feel like a spiritual practice for you?
Richard Thompson: It does. I’m a huge fan of Coltrane, and I agree, there’s a huge spiritual dimension to his music. As messed up as his life was, when the guy was playing, he was reaching, absolutely reaching for something. I would hope to do the same thing. If Coltrane is one of my heroes, so’s Charlie Parker. As messed up as his life was…
AD: The playing is a way of transcending one’s situation?
Richard Thompson: Music often does that. Even simpler music. It deals with your problems, takes you out of yourself. It’s cathartic. And because it’s abstract, it addresses that longing. words/j woodbury
Recommended Listening: Richard Thompson Band :: Live at Rockpalast / December 1983
Enjoy this conversation? Aquarium Drunkard has launched a Patreon page, which allows readers and listeners to directly support our online magazine as it expands its scope while receiving access to our secret stash, including bonus audio, exclusive podcasts, printed ephemera, and vinyl records. Your support will help keep an independent cultural resource alive and healthy in 2019 and beyond.