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An Interview with Linda Thompson

[FOLKSINGER/SONGWRITER]
“I CAN TELL YOU THAT IF MORE FAMILIES SUNG TOGETHER OR EVEN WENT BOWLING TOGETHER, THINGS WOULD BE BETTER.”
Suitable subjects for folk songs:
Family
Murder
Incest
Infanticide
Old men with young women
by Peter Terzian
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
header-image

An Interview with Linda Thompson

[FOLKSINGER/SONGWRITER]
“I CAN TELL YOU THAT IF MORE FAMILIES SUNG TOGETHER OR EVEN WENT BOWLING TOGETHER, THINGS WOULD BE BETTER.”
Suitable subjects for folk songs:
Family
Murder
Incest
Infanticide
Old men with young women
by Peter Terzian
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

An Interview with Linda Thompson

Peter Terzian
8 Snaps

Linda Pettifer was first a witness to, then a participant in the English folk rock scene that sprouted up around Fairport Convention in the late 1960s and early ’70s. She frequented folk clubs with Sandy Denny and dated singers Nick Drake and John Martyn. She dabbled in recording and sang some commercial jingles. In 1972, she married and formed a musical partnership with Richard Thompson, who had recently left Fairport. Their debut record, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, released two years later, brought Linda’s pure, heart-piercing alto to the larger world on such Richard-penned compositions as “Withered and Died” and “The Great Valerio.” These songs, and the ones that followed on subsequent albums—“For Shame of Doing Wrong,” “Dimming of the Day,” “Walking on a Wire”—were a different kind of folk. For all of the violent emotion of Richard’s lyrics, the music unfurled slowly, like a state procession. Linda’s singing was regal and unwavering.

The marriage encompassed six albums, a long spell in a Sufi commune, and a famously rocky ending. Their final work, Shoot Out the Lights, became a commercial success just as Richard revealed that he was leaving the then-pregnant Linda for another woman. They toured America anyway; Linda’s devastated, damning performances are now legendary. She made a solo record, One Clear Moment, in 1985—beautiful songs, flashy period productionand then retired from the music business, the victim of a condition called spasmodic dysphonia. When she opened her mouth to sing, nothing came out.

So it couldn’t have been more surprising when a second Linda Thompson album, Fashionably Late, appeared in 2002. New vocal treatments allowed her to sing again; she reentered the studio with the collaborative encouragement of her two children, Teddy and Kamilla, both musicians in their own right. On 2007’s Versatile Heart, Thompson continues to bridge past and present folk generations. She duets with Antony on a Rufus Wainwright song, and is backed up by Martha Wainwright and Jenny Muldaur, children of folk greats.

I spoke to Thompson, who lives in London and is now married to film agent Steve Kenis, by phone in late August. She was visiting family in San Diego.

—Peter Terzian

I. A TRANSLUCENT PERSON

THE BELIEVER: Do you remember how you first met Sandy Denny?

LINDA THOMPSON: Yeah, I do. At the Troubadour, which was her club, a coffee bar in London. When would that have been? Sixty-eight or sixty-nine or something like that. She was a nurse and she did the folk circuit. She was just an amateur musician, but it was very clear right from the get-go that she was extraordinary.

BLVR: You became very good friends. What was she like?

LT: Sandy was one of these people that they don’t make anymore. She was very bright and funny, a woman in a completely man’s world. She could hold her own musically and in every way. When she auditioned for Fairport, she walked in and they said, “Well, what are you going to sing to audition for us?” And she said, “You first. You audition for me first.” She was twenty years old
or whatever. Richard thought that was fantastic. And she was an amazing songwriter. I remember her saying to me one day,“I think I’m going to write songs.” And I said,“Write songs? Weird. I mean, how are you going to do that?” And, of course, she wrote “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” the next day or something. There’s hardly ever been a voice that really throws me like Sandy’s. All the new people I listen to, I think, Are they as good as Sandy?

BLVR: So many of your compatriots from the late ’60s and early ’70s, such as Denny and Tim Buckley and Nick Drake, died very young. What do you think kept you from succumbing to the same pressures and troubles that dragged them under?

LT: When I moved to London at eighteen, I moved into a flat, and I walked into the living room and three or four people were shooting heroin. But right from an early age I looked at that kind of thing and thought, Ah, I don’t really want to do that. I think it’s being Scottish, I had some kind of streak of Calvinism in me. It’s not that I didn’t do drugs. I’m a bit self-destructive, but I definitely know when to stop.

BLVR: Their deaths, Denny’s and Nick Drake’s, must have affected you very deeply.

LT: Yeah, they did. Sandy’s especially. I felt very bad about Nick, because in those days people didn’t do interventions or anything, and we left him to himself. I remember seeing Nick in the street just shortly before he died, and he was like Howard Hughes.He had these long black nails and he was deranged. I talked to him for a minute and I thought, Oh, I’ve got to get away from this guy, he’s completely mental. I think there was a lack of compassion and understanding about mental illness and drug addiction in those days. It was the days of “Oh, pull yourself together.” As people rightly say nowadays, you wouldn’t tell someone with cancer to pull himself together.

And Sandy too. She called me not long before she died at three in the morning, the way she always did, and I said,“Sandy, I’ve got two kids, I cannot talk to you at three in the morning.” And I felt terrible about it after that. I mean, I spoke to her subsequently. But you know, we all were young and didn’t see the signs very much. I knew Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin and all these people, and I knew that they were definitely on the edge and crazy, but nobody said anything or tried to help. I don’t know why, it’s just the insouciance of youth, I guess. You think, Eh, they’ll be okay. And they weren’t.

BLVR: Did you have any sense at the time that Nick Drake’s music would have the lasting impact it has?

LT: No.

BLVR: Did anyone, really?

LT: No. I don’t think so. I mean, I know that Joe Boyd, who produced him, always says,“Oh, well, I knew.” I’m not so sure about that. Every week I’d go into Sound Techniques, where we all made those records, and Nick would be making a record or John Martyn or Richard or Sandy. It was all brilliant stuff. But I didn’t know these records would live on. I knew Nick was great. I think he’s very underrated as a guitar player. He was a brilliant, brilliant guitar player. I knew he’d never be able to work live, because he kept his head down, so he didn’t sing into the microphone. I was one of the few people who saw him work live, a couple of times. He just couldn’t do it, it was too much for him. He really was a gentle and troubled person, and just so beautiful, just the old cliché of too good for this world or something. It sounds ridiculous. But he was just a translucent person.

BLVR: Do you feel that you got to know him well?

LT: No. We went out for a while, and he’d come to my flat and he’d play all these songs—he’d spend hours and hours and hours. If he said five words during that time, that was a lot. He was certainly the most taciturn of people. He’d sit and play or he’d drink tea. He didn’t do drugs with me, but I know that he smoked a lot of dope and took a lot of prescription medication, I think. But I
never saw that side of him.

BLVR: Was the folk scene back then very factional? Was there any competitiveness between different cliques of musicians?

LT: Actually, it was only really that way with the people who were kind of Mussolini-like about things, the hardcore traditional people. When Mike and Lal Waterson made their record Bright Phoebus, of songs that they’d written, people came up to them at gigs and said, “When are you making a record? And we don’t mean that rubbish you just made, we mean a proper record, a traditional record.” There are still people who feel like that—you know, you can’t play a tambourine on your record because it’s an American instrument and you’re English. And you think, Yeah, you’ve got to get out more, mate. But Sandy and I were very friendly with other people in the music industry. She worked with Led Zeppelin. They were her biggest fans and we’d often hang out with them. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were fantastic about our music. A lot of guitar players, no matter what their field, admired Richard because, you know, how could you not?

II. “I HAVE THE STAGE PRESENCE OF A TOTEM POLE.”

BLVR: My feeling is that the word folk gets used a lot just to describe someone playing music on an acoustic guitar.

LT: Yeah, that’s true.

BLVR: What’s interesting to me is that many of the songs that you write are actually based on traditional structures, like the ballad. I was wondering when your first exposure was to that kind of music.

LT: A long time ago, I suppose over forty years ago, when I was a kid. In those days you were taught and listened to absolute crap at school, real awful lightweight stuff. But I was lucky that I met up with folksingers very young, great Scottish folksingers—Matt McGinn, who’s dead now, and Archie Fisher, who thankfully is not dead, and Hamish Imlach, who is dead. So I got exposed to it very early on. It’s just one of those things where I think you either instantly like it or you don’t. You know, seventy-four verses with no chorus—I thought, Ach, I love this! Whereas a lot of my friends were going, “Where’s the bar?”

BLVR: How do you think folk music has affected your life? I don’t mean so much the course of your career, but rather your inner or emotional life. Has it shaped who you are in any way?

LT: I never thought about it before, but I think it has shaped me in a way. I have a very dark side, you may have guessed. And it plays into that, all the murder ballads and everything. The universal themes in these traditional songs are often about family and incest and baby-killing and all that sort of stuff, old men marrying young women. When I think about it, to listen to those songs when you were twelve or thirteen probably gave me a different outlook on life than people who listened to bubble-gum music. I think in some ways it’s made me very sanguine about things. I kind of expect the worst, and if the best happens, that’s great.

BLVR: Your mother was a vaudeville dancer. Did she teach you anything about performing? When you first started out on the stage, did she give you any advice?

LT: No, that’s hilarious. You’re probably too young to ever have seen me onstage, but I have the stage presence of a totem pole. I close my eyes. My mother did often say to me, “Gee, couldn’t you sing something more cheerful?” But she certainly never gave me any stage advice. She was always a bit baffled by folk music, I think.

BLVR: I read that your mother’s death encouraged you to begin performing again.

LT: Yeah, it’s true. My father had been dead for a long time. But when your mother dies, it’s a big thing. You kind of feel a bit alone, and there were just things I wanted to say and I thought, I’d better do it. I can’t talk too much about my mother because the interview will disintegrate. Because I’ll start crying. But it’s just one of those things—I thought, I just want to get some things off my chest.

BLVR: Do you remember when you were first conscious of a real desire to sing?

LT: I think I was about ten or eleven. I sang in the Brownies. I sang “Tammy,” a Debbie Reynolds song, and everyone stopped, everyone was quiet. And I thought, Oh, that’s amazing. I don’t think I ever thought, I really want to do this and I really want to
make a career of it. But luckily, when you’re young, you just do things for the love of it. I would sing at every given opportunity, which seems weird, because I find it hard to sing now. But from that age, I knew that I had a good voice.

BLVR: I want to ask you about spasmodic dysphonia and how it works.

LT: Or how it doesn’t work.

BLVR: At the height of your dysphonia, was it only a matter of not being able to sing in public? Could you sing around the house when no one was around?

LT: I didn’t even sing around the house. I didn’t even sing in the shower. I just couldn’t. I’d occasionally do something; I did bits of theater work. It was hard, but I’d do it. But no, I didn’t sing much at all. I would sing a lot when I was lying in bed and very relaxed and very sleepy. My son’s bedroom when he was little was right next to ours, and he would knock on the wall at three
in the morning and say, “Mum, stop singing!” Poor child. But it was actually the only time I could sing.

BLVR: And does it still affect you?

LT: Oh god, yes. It does. It does. I’m very good this morning because I’m talking on the phone quite well. But I just can’t be sure of doing my best in concerts, so I tend not to work live. But boring, it’s so boring. It’s like alopecia or something, it’s one of those mental and physical things that’s hard to control.

BLVR: I’ve read that Botox injections helped you.

LT: I haven’t had one for four or five years now, but they worked for a while. There were downsides there—when they inject you, you get very hoarse for a couple of weeks before your voice comes back. And plus it only lasts for a very short time, three months or something. It just wasn’t worth it. And having a needle stuck in your throat—scary canary.

BLVR: When you were away from performing all those years, did you miss it?

LT: I didn’t miss it the way a die-hard performer would, because I was never crazy about touring. I had a slight diva-like aspect. Richard and I were much better received in New York and London and Chicago, in big towns. Because even though it’s weird folk music, it’s very urban. So really I only liked doing the big towns, which was a bit naughty of me. If it was some little place in England or Boise, Idaho, I never thought it went so well. So I was no Willie Nelson, or somebody who’s on the road fifty weeks a year. My ex-husband loves being on the road, so people like that would miss it more than me.

BLVR: Do you find the songwriting process easy or difficult?

LT: I don’t find it as difficult as I should, because I don’t sit and labor over it every day. I should. That’s the received wisdom: you should write a little every day. Except that years ago I read in a magazine that Bob Dylan carried a pencil and paper with him and wrote down newspaper headlines and things, and I do that. I’ll write down things that take my fancy. Often I won’t work on songs for a long time, and on the other hand I just wrote a song called “Perhaps You Can Sleep” that I wrote in five minutes. So sometimes they come in five minutes and sometimes they take five months.

III. “IT’S BETTER TO SING FOR YOURSELF AND HAVE NO PUBLIC THAN TO SING FOR THE PUBLIC AND HAVE NO SELF.”

BLVR: Your children grew up during the years when you weren’t performing. Did you ever play them the records that you had made with Richard?

LT: As if.

BLVR: But they must have heard them at some time.

LT: I’m sure they did, because they know the stuff very well, but they didn’t hear them from me. I mean, I did my duty. I played them Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke.

BLVR:You’re recording now with a lot of people who are of a new generation—Teddy and Kamilla, Antony, Martha and Rufus Wainwright. In what ways is making music different for them than it was for you and your generation?

LT: Well, I think it’s still difficult. We have to discount Rufus because he’s a law unto himself, and it wouldn’t matter if he sang the phone book; people are going to go and see him because he’s just such an extraordinary and compelling person. And Antony too, with his otherworldly sound. I always say Teddy is a very unshowy performer. He reminds me of one of my favorite singers, Umm Kulthum, an Arabic singer. Teddy never grandstands, and he’s an amazing singer and he’s a very hypnotic person. We were talking about it the other day, and he said that he’d read somewhere that it’s better to sing for yourself and have no public than to sing for the public and have no self. And I think that couldn’t be truer. I think all of these performers you’ve mentioned, it’s hard for them. They’d all love to sell millions of records, but maybe they won’t. For my generation, because I was a hard-core folk
musician, I never expected to sell records. But you had record companies who stuck by you. They said,“Oh, we’re going to keep Richard and Linda Thompson because they’re a prestige act. They don’t sell, but people go,‘Oh, that’s so cool that you record them.’” But record companies don’t do that anymore.

BLVR: What’s it like to work so closely with your kids? Do you ever pull rank on them?

LT: Ah, no, vice versa. They pull rank on me. They go, “What do you know? You’re old!” It can be fraught, but there is an absolute comedy and joy in families singing together. In traditional music circles, people have always worked with their families. Families have always sung together. People who are related sound good together. We live in a different world now. It’s very insular and people go into their own bedrooms and watch TV. I can tell you that if more families sung together or even went bowling together, things would be better. I’m lucky because when your kids grow up you don’t get to see so much of them, and it’s wonderful to be able to be in the studio with them. I mean, if I was in an office with them, I think that would be a bit difficult. But to be creating something is fun. And Teddy and I tend to do things on the phone—I give him something and he gives me something—and then we get into the studio and we throw it all out and start again. We don’t sit down in a room together and write songs. That would be a bit Norman Bates–ish.

BLVR: Do you think that working with Teddy and Kamilla has changed their music in any way?

LT: It would be kind of arrogant of me to say that. I see more of his father’s music and mannerisms in Teddy, which is funny because he doesn’t work with his dad that much. Obviously, you’re going to be influenced by your parents. When Teddy was young I’d play him Annie Briggs, and he’d go,“This is awful, this is dreadful.” Because it’s an acquired taste. And of course ten years later I go into his apartment in New York and Annie Briggs is playing. So of course something goes down and they listen to it again and they think, You know, this is really good. Hal Willner told me that he was just going through the whole of Shirley Collins. And Shirley Collins is difficult. It’s difficult stuff to get into because it’s so plain and so unadorned. But when you do, it’s very rewarding.

BLVR: I’ve tried to listen to her, and I feel that way, that I haven’t really gotten it.

LT: She’s one of my dearest friends, and I didn’t get it for years. I thought, Oh, she’s not really a showy singer. But there’s something about it now that I listen to it, especially the stuff she did with Dolly, her sister who sadly died—it’s like warlock music or something. It completely transports me.

BLVR: I’ll give it another shot.

LT: Yeah, give it a shot. It’s one of those things. A few years ago, everyone said to me,“You’ve got to read The Red and the Black. You’ve got to read Stendhal.” And I ended up after two weeks of reading it in France throwing it into the sea. I thought, I don’t get this. So it’s not for everybody. But I think Shirley Collins and Annie Briggs and people like that are very worth listening to.

BLVR: What do you like to read?

LT: At the moment I’m reading The Duty of Genius, which is a book about Ludwig Wittgenstein, the Austrian philosopher.And then I just read The Dream of Scipio, by Iain Pears, which was fabulous. I like to read great literature, basically.

BLVR: And has literature influenced your songwriting in any way?

LT: Personally, I don’t think you can write if you don’t read. I mean, obviously people do, and it shows. But if you want to be any kind of writer, you have to read, and you’d better read good stuff, because if you read rubbish, you’ll write rubbish.

IV. “I SHOULD HAVE MARRIED THAT RICHARD BRANSON.”

BLVR: I think fans tend to mythologize rock couples.

LT: Oh god. Absolutely.Everybody mythologizes everything.

BLVR:Do you resent that at all? Does it bother you that people read things into the albums you made together, or into what the press wrote about your tours together, and make assumptions about your relationship?

LT: My feeling about that is if they read those things into it, that’s true for them and that’s good. As long as they’re listening, it’s fine. Years ago, somebody said to me, “That guy from Squeeze told me that you left Richard for another woman.” And I said,“Oh, fabulous! How cool is that. It’s not true, but I’m so glad it’s doing the rounds. It makes me much more interesting than I am.” I mythologize about it myself, sort of twist the facts, because it was so long ago.

BLVR: That’s true—when you look back on relationships that you’ve had, certain things come to the forefront that don’t give the whole picture, certain memories take precedence,other things get drowned out. It’s very tricky.

LT: It’s very tricky. There’s always that one person—you say to your kids, “Do you know, I should have married that Richard Branson.” You know, ’cause I used to hang out with Richard when I was young. You say these things as if you were ever going to marry Richard Branson or he were going to marry you. It’s really funny how when you get older you do that. You go,“I could have married…” or “I could have sung…”And most of it’s apocryphal. But somehow you make it real for yourself, you know?

BLVR: Did you and Richard Thompson come from different backgrounds?

LT: No, we came from exactly the same background.We had one Scottish parent and one English parent.We both had that strong Calvinist streak in us. Very, very similar. We liked the same music and the same literature. We were very alike, and funnily enough, my husband and Richard’s wife are very alike. They both come from California and they have very similar natures. It’s weird.

BLVR: Do you feel that the public perception of your marriage with Richard and your work together is accurate or distorted?

LT: It’s a bit of both. People always say,“This dysphonia, terrible thing to happen when your marriage breaks up.” In fact, my dysphonia started when I got married.It happened just a couple of months after. But I suppose it’s a better story, in a way, that I got dysphonia when Richard and I split up. And you know, it doesn’t bother me too much, the distortions. I read about really famous people and they say,“Oh, they’re looking fat and ugly”—that must be really, really awful, personal attacks. But when people say, like I told you earlier, “She left him for another woman” or “She couldn’t stand his Sufic fasting or going into the forest for days,” none of which happened, I mean, that’s kind of amusing.

BLVR: You and Richard both converted. He’s still a Muslim. Do you have any particular faith or belief now?

LT: Well, like I always say, there are a lot of things in life that are more important than money, and they all cost money. So money’s kind of important, and if you’re doing any kind of work, whether it’s artistic work or nonartistic work, you’ve just got to do what you believe in. I think that’s my religion—don’t let the bastards get you down.

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