Universal truth finder

Richard Thompson
Richard Thompson

Master guitarist, writer and singer Richard Thompson has been leading the way for over four decades. Rachael Clegg reports.

RICHARD Thompson was once asked what animal he’d choose to be. His answer - typically lyrical, and typically unexpected - was a ring-tailed lemur.

Somehow, this surprising choice of creature - quirky, sensitive, charismatic - is relevant.

For more than 40 years guitarist Richard Thompson has been a dominant player in British music not only as co-founder of folk rockers Fairport Convention but also as a prolific solo artist, whose repertoire has absorbed all a myriad of influences, keeping his fanbase - and indeed the music industry - on its toes.

And now, at 63, he’s back with another surprise - the stripped-down Nashville-produced Electric.

“It’s so simple it’s almost dumb,” says Thompson, of Electric. “We recorded it in a very relaxed way and ridiculously quickly.

“It’s a roots-based album with folk funk,” he says. “We built up a real sense of cameraderie recording that album though - it was great.”

Electric was recorded at country singer Buddy Miller’s home studio in Nashville and only took a few days to complete. Electric features guest artists Alison Krauss - who recorded the critically-acclaimed Raising Sand with Robert Plant in 2007 and fiddler Stuart Duncan.

The album is a largely upbeat, lively collection of songs whose subject matter covers girl-meets boy scenarios to unemployment.

“Stuck on the Treadmill is about unemployment and the struggle of holding down a job. It’s about the difficulty of living on the wage that you earn.”

Stuck on the Treadmill echoes the plight of working men and women struggling to make ends meet in a post-banking crisis world. And commenting on such issues, Thompson feels, is part of his job as a singer songwriter.

“I think it’s a job of an artist to sometimes reflect what’s happening in society and to sing about things that are relevant to people.”

Thompson is touring the UK to promote the album. “It takes a few days to adjust after touring,” he says. “You have to get back into the creative process. It really is a strange thing coming back off tour. I’m actually thinking of constructing a hotel lobby in my house just to keep me sane.”

As a guitarist, he needs no further accolades to confirm his prowess - the Grammy award-winning, Ivor Novello-winning artist is decorated enough, yet still, the man who was voted as one of the world’s top 20 guitarists has been inundated with further acclaim, this time for Electric.

The album was produced with just a core of three musicians - Thompson, drummer Michael Jerome and bassist Taras Prodaniuk. “Working as a trio does liberate you to a certain extent, you don’t have to worry about those extra instruments though there is space to be melodic.”

Thompson’s approach to songwriting oscillates between intuition and intellect. “I tend to write in piles. The next album is electric so I have a pile of electric songs but I’m also thinking about doing another acoustic album and there are other projects, there’s a theatrical thing I’m working on.

“It’s good to be working on different things, I come back to another project while I give another a rest.”

Thompson’s vast collection of songs ranges from the classic motorcyle-driven tragedy of Vincent Black Lightning 1952, to Devonside, a story of lost love.

“Songs like Devonside have a kind of plot. Though I deliberately left that one vague, there’s a lot of information that hasn’t been filled in. It is a boy meets girl story, she seduces him and he was enthralled for a while but the characters are pathetic. It’s about unfulfilled love.”

And as he’s got older, Thompson says he finds it easier to be honest in songs. “I feel I can get to the human condition more now than I used to. I’m always trying to find universal truths.”

So, perhaps it’s more appropriate to describe Thompson not as one of the world’s top 20 guitarists, but as universal truth finder. “I like that - universal truth finder!” he laughs.

Richard Thompson plays Sheffield City Hall on Saturday.