The Ballads of Richard Thompson The singer-songwriter's latest project is Front Parlour Ballads, a mostly acoustic work. Thompson tells John Ydstie about songs build around bikers, schoolyard bullies, dreamers, lovers and losers.
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The Ballads of Richard Thompson

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The Ballads of Richard Thompson

The Ballads of Richard Thompson

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

The songwriting of British balladeer Richard Thompson is so vivid, you feel you're in the company of the characters he writes about--the bikers, the school yard bullies, the dreamers, lovers and losers. For nearly four decades, Thompson has been performing and recording everything from traditional folk songs to rock 'n' roll. His new, mostly acoustic album is called "Front Parlour Ballads." It was recorded in a small studio in his garage. Richard Thompson joins us from our studios in New York City.

Welcome to the program.

Mr. RICHARD THOMPSON (Balladeer): Thank you very much.

YDSTIE: You know, first of all, I have this image of you puttering around in your garage, picking up a guitar, flipping a switch, recording a song, then going into the kitchen for a cup of coffee and is that really how you recorded the album?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. That's exactly how I did it, yeah. Yes. It was a very laid-back affair and I found myself recording, you know, in the odd hour of time I had, you know, between picking up the kids from school and some other chore, you know, getting the groceries. So it was a very organic process and--compared to other recording processes. Very, very relaxed.

YDSTIE: Did it change the feel of the music, do you think?

Mr. THOMPSON: Yes, I think it did. In my mind, I was singing, you know, to one other person, although that person obviously wasn't there. But, you know, that whatever stadium rock is, this isn't.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Well, let's hear a little bit of what you've got on the album. You've got your guitar there in the studio with you.

Mr. THOMPSON: All right.

YDSTIE: Will you play us something off the album?

Mr. THOMPSON: Sure. This is called "Let It Blow."

(Soundbite of "Let It Blow")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) He was a species on the verge of extinction. She was an Air New Zealand hostess. They were mystically joined, like Rawicz and Landauer, like Pinky and Perky, like Porgy and Bess. O, he loved the pursuit and the romance. But the details were more of a chore. When the bride's veil lifted, his mind soon drifted, at least that's what happened before.

Let it blow. Let it snow. Let the mercury bubble and dive. Life's little traumas and courtroom dramas remind me I'm glad I'm alive.

O, she loved the clinking of glasses when the toast was to nobles and princes. In the conjugal nest, she was seen at her best, with her keen eye for curtains and chintzes. She had all of the furniture ordered by the time they were naming the date. And her mother came speeding from distant Dunedin to help with the flowers and cake.

Let it blow. Let it snow. Let the mercury bubble and dive. Life's little traumas and courtroom dramas remind me I'm glad I'm alive.

And at the Chapel of Partial Remembrance, the ushers went into a seizure. `Mr. Baccus,' they said, `should we stand on our heads. Would sackcloth and ashes displease you?' And they honeymooned down in Ibiza where the sun and the nightlife were hot. As she lay on the sand, he said, `Isn't it grand? I bring all of my wives to this spot.'

Let it blow. Let it snow. Let the mercury bubble and dive. Life's little traumas and courtroom dramas remind me I'm glad I'm alive.

And a life of volcanic activity left him nothing to spout but hot air. A long interruption since his last eruption was disguised, but devil-may-care. But some charm, skill and manoeuvre had him rising to meet the occasion. And for once they found bliss, but news of their tryst got to Fleet Street and caused a sensation.

Let it blow. Let it snow. Let the mercury bubble and dive. Life's little traumas and courtroom dramas remind me I'm glad I'm alive.

And the press were baying for blood now, they gave them a week at the most. We were all glad to see it reach weeks two and three but the fourth week the whole thing was toast. So she dragged her tail back to New Zealand, with threats of High Court and revenge. Meanwhile his eye did stray to the ample bustier of a novelty dancer from Penge.

Let it blow. Let it snow. Let the mercury bubble and dive. Life's little traumas and courtroom dramas remind me I'm glad I'm alive. Hey, hey, hey, let it blow. Let it snow. Let the mercury bubble and dive. Life's little traumas and courtroom dramas remind me I'm glad I'm alive.

YDSTIE: We're here with Richard Thompson who's playing from his new album, "Front Parlour Ballads."

I love that song.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, thank you.

YDSTIE: Was it inspired by any particular celebrity couple?

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm not allowed to say. It is by some reality, but my lips are sealed.

YDSTIE: You know, I think people are constantly amazed by your ability to create these vivid characters and scenarios in three or four minutes.

Mr. THOMPSON: Sometimes you have to be quite cinematic. You know, you have to jump around a lot. You have to suggest a lot from small ingredients. You know, you haven't got time. You've got three verses and three minutes to tell a story so sometimes you have to start in the middle of the story. There's no time for the prologue and the epilogue.

YDSTIE: It's true, you know, when...


YDSTIE: hear that song, you've got the bride's mother driving down from her home to help with the flowers and cake and they're--one scene after another.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, I grew up listening to, you know, Scottish ballads, you know, murder ballads and songs about fairies carrying people off and stuff. And the language in a ballad is an extraordinary language and it's very terse, very succinct and very vivid. You know, it's a great place to learn how to write songs.

YDSTIE: So do you start with melodies first or do you start with characters first or do you start with a scene first or...

Mr. THOMPSON: No, all different things. I don't have a certain plan. You know, if I had a plan, I could probably do it better and write much more songs. If I knew what the ingredients were, you know, to get started, then that'd be great. So I start anywhere. I start in all different ways.

YDSTIE: Well, let's just talk about the song that you just played us. How did that come about?

Mr. THOMPSON: I don't remember. I have no idea. I just started writing it down. I was probably thinking about something else. A common pattern, if there is a pattern, in me writing is I'll be desperately trying to finish this really difficult song I've been trying to write for about three years and I'm never actually going to finish. But I'm working away on this song and I'm thinking I'm doing a really great job, and then as a sort of a footnote, I'll be writing things in the margin. I'm writing other songs, you know, down the side or at funny angles to that one and then--but those turn out to be the good songs and the one I've been working on, you know, forever is just an epic piece of junk, you know?

So I think you're basically starting an unconscious process and it's the unconscious bit that is the creative part when you finally step aside. You know, the You with a capital Y steps aside and allows, you know, the intuition to take over.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. Would you mind playing us another song?

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, sure, I can. This is called "Old Thames Side."

(Soundbite of "Old Thames Side")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) As I was walking down by old Thames side, well, my foot and my heart seem to falter for there you were standing by a Custom House Landing, like Venus risen out of the water. And I say it's because, well, I'm a fool in love, but I swear there's no beauty before you. And those that deny or think that I lie, well, those are the ones who never saw you.

O, there never was anyone so perfect as you, as you stood there, then you smile to greet me. When I search for a phrase to capture your ways, that's a task will always defeat me. And I say it's because I'm a fool in love that I swear there's no beauty before you. And those that deny or think that I lie, o, those are the ones never saw you. O, those are the ones never saw you.

YDSTIE: That's Richard Thompson, playing from his new album, "Front Parlour Ballads."

You know, that song, I presume, is contemporary, but it's got the sound of an old Scottish ballad and sort of even the lyric structure as well.

Mr. THOMPSON: I actually like to think of myself as part of a tradition--you know, singing in a tradition and sometimes, you know, a contemporary song, you know, it can be pretty close to it.

YDSTIE: You know, I just finished reading Bob Dylan's autobiography, "Chronicles," and he talks about how folk music sort of grabbed him by the throat and wouldn't let go and that he found it sort of a more interesting world with more interesting characters than the world that he was living in at the time.


YDSTIE: Did you ever have that kind of experience or do you have that kind of experience?

Mr. THOMPSON: I don't know if it's a more interesting world, but it's certainly a world you can immerse yourself in and it is bizarre. It's a strange world. You know, the characters in the traditional music, in the body of the traditional music are strange. There's weird stuff there. And, you know, there's a lot of supernatural songs, you know, songs about, you know, witches and, you know, fairy queens and, you know, just really weird, dark stuff...

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: ...and, of course, all the murders and what have you.

YDSTIE: Yeah. Yeah. Murders and mayhem.

Mr. THOMPSON: For light relief. Yeah.

YDSTIE: You know, there are a couple of songs on this album that also sort of have a classical feel, sort of a Samuel Barber or that sort of thing.

Mr. THOMPSON: Hmm. I mean, I was listening to a lot of the French composers, you know, the early 20th century...

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm.

Mr. THOMPSON: ...French composers that were, when I was writing these songs, people like Ravel and Debussy and Satie, and I think some of that harmonic structure is in there. I think what I was trying to do was to build a bridge between, you know, traditional music that I know and this sort of harmonic world that I don't know quite as well of the early 20th century classical composers.

YDSTIE: So it's sort of trying to push the envelop a little bit.

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, absolutely. To push my own envelop anyway.

YDSTIE: You've been doing this whole sing/songwriter/performer thing for 40 years now...

Mr. THOMPSON: Just about, yeah.

YDSTIE: ...which seems pretty amazing.

Mr. THOMPSON: I'm still getting paid for it.


Mr. THOMPSON: It's a miracle, if you ask me.

YDSTIE: What's the next chapter, do you think? Or will you continue to write the same--you know, this long novel that you've been writing all along?

Mr. THOMPSON: I don't know. If I knew what the next chapter was, that would make my life a lot easier. Well, I've got various projects, you know, that I'm working on. I've been working on three different things at the moment, one of which is a new band album. But then I have another kind of home project that I want to do.

YDSTIE: In your garage-studio.

Mr. THOMPSON: In my salubriously appointed home studio, which is--I think it's 8-by-7. My home studio is extremely small.

YDSTIE: 8-by-7, wow.

Mr. THOMPSON: Yeah. So there's a reason that I play solo in there. There's no room for anybody else.

YDSTIE: You know, there's another song on this album that I really like a lot called "Solitary Life" and...

Mr. THOMPSON: Uh-huh.

YDSTIE: ...actually, let me just grab the insert. It's like--I should let you sing it but it's, `A solitary life, a life of small horizons, dull as the pewter sky over North West Eleven.' Is this you longing for a solitary life?

Mr. THOMPSON: Well, not really, no. I suppose it's an alternative road. You know, if I'd taken, you know, the right fork in the road instead of the left fork, you know, perhaps I could be this rather depressing person in this song. No, it's kind of a sad picture of Britain in some ways, of British obsessions and British small-mindedness. I've already had some hate mail from the people who live in the area known as North West Eleven. But it's nothing personal. They just scanned better than, you know, South West Nineteen. So, I mean, these are postal districts of London, I should point out.

YDSTIE: Mm-hmm. And before you go, would you mind playing the song for us?

Mr. THOMPSON: Oh, sure.

YDSTIE: Richard Thompson's new album is titled "Front Parlour Ballads." He joined us from our studios in New York.

Thanks so much.

Mr. THOMPSON: Thank you very much indeed.

(Soundbite of "Solitary Life")

Mr. THOMPSON: (Singing) Sometimes I long for the solitary life. Parents long gone, no kids, no wife. Sister somewhere in Australia, never did keep in touch. And sex no more than a, `How do you do?' with a copy of Penthouse in the loo. Socially, a bit of a failure, nice not to have to try too much. A solitary life, a life of small horizons dull as the pewter skies over North West Eleven.

YDSTIE: Our interview with Richard Thompson was engineered by Manoli Wetherell and Bill Deputy and produced by Tracy Wahl. There's much more music from Richard Thompson at our Web site,


YDSTIE: That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm John Ydstie.

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