For over five decades, British singer-songwriter and guitarist Richard Thompson has redefined the boundaries of folk and rock music. He’s made many appearances in Madison, returning Wednesday to perform at the Barrymore Theatre with an electric trio.
Despite all his accomplishments, the act of creating music still has a sense of mystery for him. On his latest (and 19th) solo album 13 Rivers, he wasn’t sure where the songs he was writing were coming from.
“I just flowed with these songs,” he said in a recent phone interview. “It wasn’t as if I was thinking too much. But the songs just seemed to arrive.
“And when I finished them, I was surprised by them. I didn’t know why I was writing the songs I was writing. That happens sometimes in the creative process. You’re not always on top of the process. So sometimes you feel more like a channel for what comes out.”
One might say they flowed like 13 rivers.
“I think because the songs were written in a short space of time, written within six months of each other, I think that gives the songs a commonality,” Thompson said. “There are overlaps in terms of the music and lyrics. Sometimes with an album you feel the songs belong with each other.”
Once he had a collection of song ideas he was satisfied with, he traveled to Los Angeles to record them at the famed Boulevard Recording Studio with frequent contributors Michael Jerome, Taras Prodaniuk, and Bobby Eichorn.
“I had an idea and know the musicians really well. I’ve worked with them many years now. So, I kind of knew the way it would sound,” he says. “But there’s always surprises in the studio. There are always things that change.”
On “Bones of Gilead” and “The Storm Won’t Come,” he sings about dealing with different forces of change.
With “Bones of Gilead,” it’s a force for good but as Thompson says, “it’s going to be an uncomfortable change anyway. But ultimately, it’s going to be for the better, but you have to live through this period of difficulty to get to the good stuff on the other side.”
Meanwhile “The Storm Won’t Come” is about longing for a change to arrive in one’s life.
“You can’t force that,” he says. “And if you do force it, it doesn’t really work. So, you have to be patient and let nature take its course.”
On that song, there were several surprises in the studio.
“Michael, the drummer, used a tom-tom, which I wasn’t really expecting. That set up a different groove, a different feel to it,” says Thompson. “And underneath the track we overdubbed a Hammond organ. It’s just about inaudible, you can’t really hear it. But it throbs through that whole track and really builds through the whole track. So, it gives it an underlying, almost like a howl to it, almost as if it is a storm or wind blowing.”
Thompson’s love for performing music hasn’t waned since he helped formed Fairport Convention in the late 60s and followed it up with a successful solo career. Next year he’s looking forward to performing the orchestral piece he wrote about World War I at music festival Big Ears in Knoxville, Tennessee, as well as continuing work on his next album.
“If you’re going to keep playing music, it has to keep exciting you,” he says. “So, you have to keep exploring and have to keep learning. And you have to remain true to yourself. Otherwise, perhaps you should be doing something else.
“In a performance, you are playing sometimes what an audience wants to hear and that’s balanced with newer material that you’re excited about playing. You have to find new ways to keep enjoying it and expressing it. So that means you have to change it a bit. It’s a balance between being an entertainer and being creative.”