Richard Thompson navigates troubled waters and ‘strange times’
It takes more than a few minutes for heralded veteran singer-songwriter Richard Thompson to settle into a conversation about his exceptional new record, “13 Rivers,” pop music, and his 50-plus years in the music business.
While talking via phone from London, he shrugs off even the mildest compliments about his work with silence and patiently considers initial questions before answering as if trying to gauge whether he’s talking to a blithering idiot or someone he actually can talk to. Once he feels comfortable, though, Thompson is eminently engaging and as articulate, witty, and passionate as his often-brilliant music, which has established him as one of the foremost chroniclers of life’s contradictions and the fickleness of the human heart.
And he has plenty to talk about these days as “13 Rivers, his 18th solo studio record, is one of his strongest efforts in years — a tumultuous collection of songs roiling with deep emotions that feel especially personal. Recorded over 13 days with a powerhouse group of musicians, the record captures the galvanizing feel of Thompson’s electric live shows — he plays the Paradise Wednesday — and features some of the more complex songs he’s written about subjects that cut close to the bone in these troubled days.
“I’ve had a tough time the last couple of years, and I can’t go into any detail about that,” Thompson says before politely declining to elaborate. “So yes, all of that personal stuff is certainly reflected in the songs, but there’s the backdrop of the strange times we are living in too. There are changes going on all around the world, and that is definitely reflected in what I wrote.”
Many of the best songs (“My Rope, My Rock,” “The Rattle Within,” “Trying”) deal with polarities — the tension between hope and despair, life and death, love and alienation, impulse and thought. They are themes that have marked a good portion of Thompson’s work throughout his career as a solo artist, with his then-wife, Linda Thompson, and his first band, Fairport Convention.
“A lot of life is like a Greek tragedy,” Thompson says. “It’s two things pulling in two directions, and you can’t really win whichever way you go so you do the best you can. I think a lot of the songs here and what I’ve written over the years are like that and, ultimately, yes, life is like that.”
While his music has always been balanced with love songs and sharp humor, Thompson has frequently explored some of the darker recesses of the human psyche or fraught relationships.
Thompson dismisses the idea that his music is dark, though. “I like to deal with serious topics. Some people call it dark, but I think it’s just serious. Popular music or whatever you want to call it is fairly adult at this point. It’s not teenage music anymore — it’s multigenerational music and reflects all ages of experience, and I suppose these are the subjects I like to explore. They are what genuinely interest me.”
Of course, Thompson, who first began recording with Fairport Convention back in 1967, is also one of the finest guitarists to ever pick up the instrument, but unlike many other players in his pantheon, his lead guitar work always serves his songs while elevating them without gratuitous theatrics. His stellar playing on “13 Rivers” punctuates the tempestuous lyrics and propels the songs to rare heights. He says his guitar approach can be traced back to his teen years.
“When I was 15 or 16 years old at school, I’d gone to see Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Peter Green — all these really good blues guitar players around London, and at some point, I thought: There are a lot of guitar players out there and they’re all doing the same thing,” he says.
“They were all very blues-based, but they were all learning off records. They were all these English guys and they were never going to be as great as Buddy Guy, as far as I was concerned, or as good as Muddy Waters.
“So I thought I really have to try and be different. I have to have different influences in my music. I didn’t want to sound like the blues guys. And on the first Fairport record, you can hear there’s still that blues influence, but I tried to move away from that to something much more Celtic. I was aware from the very beginning that I needed to develop a style, which is the style I’m kind of stuck with now.”
Thompson produced “13 Rivers” and says he’s always looking for new ways to present his music. But while he pays attention to current popular music, he doesn’t hear anything that might influence him in any manner.
“I don’t dig too deeply because it really doesn’t interest me. The Taylor Swift or Beyoncé vein of popular music is so processed and packaged. It’s like a brand. Like you’re buying Pepsi. There’s a lack of something, I don’t know — maybe soul, maybe musicality. It’s like there’s this algorithm that they found where there’s a certain tempo and certain notes with a certain sequence. I like root-based music. Americana, which sounds a bit more connected to humanity.”
Thompson turns 70 next year, but he has no intention of slowing down. He’s been making music for over five decades — something he doesn’t take for granted and could never have envisioned when he started.
“When I left school to go with Fairport, I figured I’d do it six months to a year and then go back to a real job or college — you know, go back to the real world — but meanwhile I realized, ‘OK, this is fun.’ A year turned into five years, which turned into 10 years, and I’m still here.”
He considers his career arc, pauses, and slyly adds, “I’ve had a feeling of looking over my shoulder frequently while I’ve been a professional musician, thinking at some point I’m going to get found out. This is too good to last. When I was 50 years old, my mother said, ‘Now dear, it’s time to get a proper job, isn’t it?’ She’d come to see me playing in front of 2,000 people in London and was like, ‘It can’t last much longer.’ ”
Richard Thompson’s Electric Trio
At the Paradise Rock Club, Boston, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. Tickets $27.50, 617-562-8800, www.ticketmaster.com