ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Imagine being a singer and never being sure, when you open your mouth, whether you'll have your voice.
(Soundbite of song "Blue and Gold")
Ms. LINDA THOMPSON (Singer): (Singing) Blue and gold, young and old, beautiful or plain.
BLOCK: For decades, Linda Thompson has had a severe vocal disorder that was first diagnosed as hysteric dysphonia. Her vocal trouble made her stop singing completely for many years. And it took three years to complete her new CD "Versatile Heart."
(Soundbite of song "Blue and Gold")
Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) Through the long, lonely nights I call your name...
BLOCK: Linda Thompson got her start in the British folk scene in the 1960s, had a long musical partnership with her husband, Richard Thompson. They had three children, and then a bitter divorce. On her new CD, she collaborated closely with her son, Teddy Thompson.
How does it work? What's the dynamic with you two?
Ms. THOMPSON: Have you heard of Norman Bates and his mother? It's a bit like that. No, actually, it isn't. We don't even sit in a room together. What usually happens is that I give Teddy a snippet of a tune or I give him some words, or he gives me a tune and I write some words. And we sort of collaborate long distance. And then, we go into the studio and refine it. But, you know, making music with your kids is the best possible way to see them. They're not going to visit you otherwise.
BLOCK: You think? That's what draws him in?
Ms. THOMPSON: That's what draws him in because you pay him, you see?
BLOCK: The title song, "Versatile Heart," is one that you cowrote with Teddy?
Ms. THOMPSON: I did.
BLOCK: And who did what? How did it get together?
Ms. THOMPSON: Well, I wrote the tune of the verse and I wrote the words. And he wrote the tune of the chorus. Well, he did write a versed tune, too, but I preferred mine. So we had to - came to blows about that, and then we moved on.
(Soundbite of song "Versatile Heart")
Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) You should have told me never should have sold me down the river. It wasn't fair play and I'm going away, goodbye. I could do much better. Will you write me a letter of recommendation? Say what you think, but please don't stint on the praise. You can play any part with a versatile heart. Sugar soft and sweet, you make my life complete.
BLOCK: Lyrically, this sure sounds like a song that needs the weight of years of experience.
Ms. THOMPSON: Yeah, there's plenty of experience behind that particular song, I have to say. And I always think it would be terribly good if you could buy a heart for every occasion. You know, if you could put your happy heart in and you take your broken heart out or vice versa, if you felt so inclined.
BLOCK: Yeah. This character you're singing about is someone who can be quite a chameleon, I guess, with matters of the heart.
Ms. THOMPSON: Yes. Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. And I think I'm both attracted and repulsed by that particular quality in people. Although, you know, I'm not a stranger to it myself.
BLOCK: Hmm, there's maybe a little bit of yourself in there?
Ms. THOMPSON: Yeah. Yeah, I'm afraid so.
(Soundbite of song "Versatile Heart")
Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) Sugar soft and sweet, you made my life complete.
BLOCK: When you're collaborating with Teddy, does he rein you in? Does he sort of urge you on to places you might not go?
Ms. THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I guess. I guess. I mean, I'm anxious - I'm always anxious to impress Teddy because I love him and because, you know, I'm - I admire him so much. And he's a quixotic talent. You know, he's an amazing musician. So, yeah, I suppose he does egg me on in that way. He doesn't really tell me what to do. And I don't tell him what - well, sometimes we do, but it never works out. We just do our own thing, anyway. But, yeah, I am inspired by Teddy. I'm - I really am inspired by him.
BLOCK: Let's take a listen to one of the songs, where you're singing with your son, Teddy. This is "Give Me A Sad Song"
(Soundbite of song "Give Me A Sad Song")
Ms. THOMPSON and Mr. TEDDY THOMPSON (Musician): (Singing) So I'll have a drink or two I'll sing my songs although my heart is aching.
Ms. THOMPSON: (Singing) I'll play my guitar, anything to stop my hands from shaking.
Ms. THOMPSON and Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) I'm not a winner. Everything I touch turns to stone. But give me a sad song. I'm in a class of my own.
BLOCK: When did you first notice that you were having trouble with your voice?
Ms. THOMPSON: I was 25 and I was pregnant, and we were making a record and I couldn't breathe. And I just couldn't breathe, and I sort of put it down to being pregnant. But I think I developed, you know, it started off physical and then it became mental. And I just got into this circle, you know, this sort of vicious circle of I'd know I'd have to sing and I'd tense up. So, I mean, I've really had it much, much longer than I haven't had it.
BLOCK: What kinds of treatments can you do?
Ms. THOMPSON: I did everything. And I spent millions of bloody dollars on screaming therapy and vocal therapy and just therapy-therapy. And then, I just, I gave it all up, I thought, I'm not going to sing. It's too much hassle. So I just didn't sing.
BLOCK: That just sounds like a huge part of your life to have to give up.
Ms. THOMPSON: Well, you know, it was a huge part of mine, and it still is. I mean, I wish I could, I just wish I could jump up on stage with my son, but you know, I can't do that because I constrict a lot. But that's the great thing about being a human being - we rationalize. And I had to rationalize and say, well, I can't sing, so I'll write songs instead.
BLOCK: So when it came to recording this new record, would there be times when you just couldn't sing, when you open your mouth and words wouldn't come out?
Ms. THOMPSON: Oh, my God. Oh, yes, Melissa. Absolutely. I mean, you know, it's embarrassing if there's other musicians there. But it just happens people are very understanding.
(Soundbite of song "The Way I Love You")
Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) I'd keep you with me still even though I know nothing's worth the holding if you can't let go. I spend my nights alone or in drunken company, that's the only medicine left for me. Till I fly, till I fly, fly away. Till I fly, till I fly, fly away.
BLOCK: Despite all the troubles you've had with your voice, have you thought about whether you could do some touring dates for the new album?
Ms. THOMPSON: Well, you know, I have thought about it and then sort of dismiss it with the next thought. I mean, I would love to. It's not - I think people think it's reluctance on my part to go on the road. It's really not. I'd love to go on the road, but I'm frightened of shortchanging people. Because if I seize up, you know, it's like your arm seizing up with arthritis. I mean, there's nothing I can do. I just sort of go on and croak. And I mean, I've done that before. And the audience is always really good about it. It's, you know, sort of very disconcerting for me. And I just don't know at this age whether, you know, whether I can put myself through that. So, probably not.
BLOCK: Well, Linda Thompson, it's been great talking with you. Thanks so much.
Ms. THOMPSON: It's been great talking with you, Melissa. Thank you so much.
BLOCK: You can hear more of my interview with Linda Thompson and more music from her CD "Versatile Heart" at npr.org.
You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.