Why Richard Thompson is keeping the faith

As he prepares to curate this year's Meltdown festival, Richard Thompson reflects on his personal journey from the frontiers of English folk to the haven of Sufi Islam, the tempestuous years with his ex-wife, Linda, and how it feels to be rubbished in song by his children. By Tim Adams

Richard Thompson thinks of music as a spiritual act and as soon as he picks up a guitar you don't doubt him. There is a great deal more than flesh and blood and bone about his fingers. Thompson, always the dark horse in those Rolling Stone polls to determine the greatest guitarist of all time, who John Peel liked to call the "best-kept secret in the world of music", is one of the few artists who derives inspiration from both Sufi mysticism and the back catalogue of George Formby. He has taken lately to playing on stage a not-quite random shuffle from the greatest hits of the past 1,000 years: he channels multitudes.

As such, this ageless 61-year-old makes an inspired choice as director for this year's Meltdown on London's South Bank (the latest in a distinguished lineage that has included David Bowie , Patti Smith and Morrissey). At the dining room table in his pretty pink house in the hills above Santa Monica in Los Angeles, in trademark Che beret, he tells me how he has spent the past few months running through fantasy line-ups for the summer festival. Thompson will debut a piece he has written called Cabaret of Souls. "I'm trying to think of the least pretentious way of describing it," he says. "It's like a song cycle with string orchestra, not quite an oratorio, almost a musical play. It is not quite a lot of things."

The theme for the cycle is a talent contest in purgatory; Dante meets Simon Cowell. "I suppose you could say it was a satirical piece," he says.

Which particular circle of hell are the songs concerned with, I wonder – the medieval torments of cruise ship singers, the perpetual self-flagellation of singer-songwriters?

He smiles. "Well, there's an art critic in there, of course, and various other quite despicable types..." Thompson will also do a version of the show he is currently touring with the veteran American songwriter Loudon Wainwright III, entitled Loud and Rich ("We are, sadly, neither"). And a "family version" of his "1,000 years of popular song" which will be "more kid-oriented in that we will leave out most of the swear words". All in all, he says, he hopes that the event will be "a bit of an ear-opener".

The latter phrase would make a good introduction to Thompson's career. Over the years since he first came to prominence in the late 1960s as the intense young guitar genius in the archetypal British folk-rock band Fairport Convention, through his years singing emotion-racked ballads with his ex-wife Linda and into his eclectic solo career, Thompson has probably done as much to reinvigorate the canon of – mainly British – traditional music as any man living.

He has sometimes, inevitably, been called the English Bob Dylan, but the comparison never went much further than an interest in the indigenous roots of song structures, an unruly tangle of hair and a surprising way with a phrase. As a YouTube clip of the pair playing on stage together for the only time – in Seville in 1992 – reveals, Thompson has little of Dylan's rasping ego. To his army of devotees (a following that numbers Elvis Costello, Michael Stipe and Billy Connolly), he is prized as much for his modesty as his musical dexterity.

Looking back, I wonder, at his sometimes tortured career, does it feel a curse or blessing to have been a guitar-obsessed 17-year-old in the summer of love?

"Oh, I think certainly a blessing," Thompson says with a quick grin. "Music was all so wide open. You could play anything. You could be Dr Strangely Strange and have a career. You could be Hapshash and the Coloured Coat and make a record. I mean, the Crazy World of Arthur Brown were almost mainstream. The range of musical styles at that moment was fantastic and possibly unprecedented. And the record industry had no clue what was good so anyone could make a record."

Thompson latched on early to the idea that a guitar might be a good way of expressing himself. He grew up in Muswell Hill in north London, a conventional child of the suburban 50s. As a boy, he had a pronounced stutter, which still inflects his speaking voice a little now. His father was a stern man from Dumfries, a detective in the Metropolitan Police; the guitar was their little patch of common ground. Thompson's father was a jazz fan who had seen Django Reinhardt play in Glasgow in the 1930s. "He was a bad amateur player himself," Thompson recalls, "with three chords, though, unfortunately, not C, F and G", but his record collection, particularly Django's crackling genius, entranced Thompson.

Having plucked at his father's Spanish guitar, he first asked his parents for an instrument of his own for Christmas when he was five – "By that point, I remember studying the adverts for guitars at the back of the Radio Times, next to those for greenhouses and porcelain figurines" – but he was eventually granted his request aged 10. The instrument quickly became the surrogate voice for a desperately shy boy who, his sister has suggested, had seemed up to then likely to be most happy in the company of tin soldiers and model train sets.

Six years later, through a friend of a friend, Thompson was invited to play his guitar with a group of grammar school boys who were practising in the front room of a nice arts and crafts house up the road, called Fairport. "We used to spend half an hour playing and four hours thinking of a name," Thompson recalls. Portentous polysyllables were a must: Fairport Convention was born. Within three months, largely on the strength of Thompson's other-worldly solos, they had a record deal and a touring contract.

Over the following three or four years, the band, which also came to include the fabulous singer Sandy Denny and the pact-with-the-devil fiddle player Dave Swarbrick, invented their own genre, moving away from American influences and attempting to reconnect with indigenous jigs and airs. "By the time we got to doing electric versions of traditional music, or writing new songs in a Scots-Irish-English-rooted way, then I was pretty much set in what I wanted to do," Thompson says.

He remains devoted to the philosophy of that project, which has informed both his playing and his prodigious songwriting. "If you sing something where the roots go back 1,000 years, and the song still has resonance for you, it must mean it is saying something fundamentally true about the human condition," he suggests. "It's been tested and not found wanting. Sometimes, as a culture, we pay more attention to imported styles. That was certainly the case in the last century, starting with minstrel music and ragtime and then jazz. All the romance and the mythology was coming from overseas. We wondered if there might be a way of reversing that a bit..."

Thompson was never a hippie. "I always thought it important to be counter to the counterculture," he says. It was said that what the Grateful Dead did for LSD,  Fairport Convention did for real ale.

As a songwriter, Thompson has tended to explore the force of the statement that happiness is the least interesting of all human states. His doom-drenched epic "Meet on the Ledge", written in 1969, tended to set the tone not only of the decade's end but also of his subsequent writing (a darkness which seemed to deepen after he survived a car crash on the way home from a Fairport gig, in which his then girlfriend, Jeannie Franklyn, and the band's drummer, Martin Lamble, were killed).

"The accident probably made me grow up faster," he says. "I was 20. Just having to deal with death and losing friends was a difficult thing. But even before that I just put down what I felt." English teachers, he suggests, with a laugh, have a lot to answer for. "I mean, coming out of a sixth-form English class where you were reading Wilfred Owen of a morning – 'Red lips are not so red as the stained stones kissed by the English dead...' – you learn pretty early on that beautiful tragedy is really where language and music comes alive. And who wants to be thought of as fluffy?"

There is rarely a danger of the attribution of fluffiness to Thompson's songs, or to a singing voice that can still spit out a good deal of anger about subjects that include Blair and Bush's wars. "As a songwriter, I think what you are aiming for is slightly to discomfort the audience, to get just below the normal consciousness at the things that are not quite talked about. To the feelings that the audience doesn't know it has yet..."

He has never required mind-altering substances to access those emotions. "In '67, we were an innocent band, having half a lager before we went on stage," he recalls. "By 1970, we were a two crates of Newcastle Brown kind of band. But then I stopped drinking in 1974. I saw a fork in the road and I thought, 'I'm not going down that one.'"

The path he followed was certainly the one less travelled, at least by electric guitar heroes. He left Fairport and struck out on his own. There were one or two false starts. Thompson's first solo album, Henry the Human Fly, featured Thompson on the sleeve in a somewhat unnerving homemade fly costume. It was not a commercial success. It was only when he joined forces with the singer Linda Peters, who became his wife, that Thompson began to develop the full range of his lyricism.

Some of that insight derived from a newfound spiritual direction. Thompson was raised a Presbyterian and though that never made any sense to him it did not stop him, in the spirit of his times, looking for answers. "By the time I was 20, I had worked my way through Watkins bookshop in Cecil Court [in central London], from A is for anthroposophy to Z is for Zen. In all that, I thought the Sufis [the "mystical poets" of Islam] had the right balance and the right connection. And at exactly the moment I arrived at that thought I saw there was a Sufi meeting two minutes from our house in Hampstead, at a church hall in Belsize Park. So I went down there and I'm looking round this circle of invocation and I realised I knew four of them, all musicians I had done session work with. And then there were all these gorgeous women and great food. So it seemed right..."

Thompson has never fully left that circle, "a branch of a Sufi group from Morocco, led by a famous old sheikh"; he subsequently spent a few sabbaticals in the Sahara "listening to the wisdom of old guys", which he brought home to Linda and his two children. Thompson's 1975 album Pour Down Like Silver features a photograph of him in a turban, his eyes alight with the zeal of the convert.

Given what must have been a chaotic family life – he and Linda as young parents and on the road – I wonder if the five-times-a-day prayer regime offered him some structure and peace as much as anything?

He thinks for a moment. "What it was really," he says, "I had been waiting as long as I could remember for an appropriate way to thank God. Simple as that. I wanted to say thanks for life and creation for being here and I didn't know how to do it. It sounds pretty basic but as I prayed for the first time, I felt an overwhelming sense that this was what I had needed: to put my head down on the ground and feel I had submitted to something greater than me."

To stop searching for meaning?

"To stop using my brain for thinking and to start using it for reflecting."

Partly, Thompson was uncomfortable with the key relationship of his performing life: with his audience. "You get up on a stage and you are literally higher than the audience and it is a funny position. Some people deal with it by expanding their ego. But in the past, musicians had gone through the tradesman's entrance of the castle and got fed the scraps from the kitchen; it's only our culture that has elevated musicians to heights and I wasn't sure then, and I'm not sure now, that it's a healthy thing. I wanted to be a bit humbler about who I was."

This recognition coincided in Thompson with the growing sense that his marriage was unravelling. The intimations of that breakdown seemed to be contained in the songs he wrote in 1980 for what became his final – and best – album with Linda, Shoot Out the Lights. By the time the album came out, Thompson had met his current wife (Nancy Covey) and Linda had given birth to their third child. Even though they were separating, Linda insisted on embarking on an infamous tour with her husband in which she sang songs that appeared to unpack his depression about their relationship. By some accounts, Linda would sometimes take out her rage with Richard on stage (it became known as the "kick in the shins" tour).

Listening to some of that record now, lyrics like: "I hand you my ball and chain, you just hand me that same old refrain...", it seems an act of quite scary honesty, if not cruelty, a demonstration of the truism that a writer's first loyalty is to his art. Is that how he hears those songs?

Thompson flinches a bit when I suggest this. "You don't know the context," he says. "You could say this was a divorce album, but the songs were written two years before that."

But it was all there in them?

"Maybe. Subconsciously. Sometimes songs I wrote for myself to sing, Linda ended up singing. Thing is, if I sing those songs now they don't take me back to that time. I sing those songs a lot, I've sung them 2,000 times. I think of other things..."

In what might look a little like poetic justice, Thompson has recently been the subject of some of the songs of his musician children, Teddy and Kamila. He is not always shown in a favourable light...

"There is a song of Teddy's about me being a rotten father, just like there are songs by Martha and Rufus Wainwright about Loudon Wainwright being a horrible dad. And the question you have to ask is: Is it a good, honest song? If it is, then fine. I've talked to Linda about this. At some point, the specific circumstances of its writing become diffuse and it stands on its own. That is what songs are – little capsules of emotion. Divorce was hard and horrible and gruesome on the kids."

Not long afterwards, Thompson went to live with Nancy Covey in LA. The day after I visit, they are off to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary in Big Sur. Their son, a guitarist, is 18. Thompson never intended to come to America; he seemed so rooted, and not only musically, at home. But it has proved liberating for him.

"To start with, I was trying to be near my kids if they wanted me. But to earn a living at that time, and to rebuild my life after the divorce, I had to work here..."

In some respects, it is only in exile that Thompson has learned to inhabit his voice, at least as a singer. His range and power have evolved since he became a solo artist, though he still enjoys his collaborations, not least with the "old regiment" of Fairport Convention with whom he plays most years at Oxfordshire's Cropredy festival organised by the band's stalwart, Dave Pegg. Does he sometimes feel on those occasions that there was another life he left behind?

"Not so much. But it's good to know people are constant in their music. I don't think Fairport could be accused of pursuing fame and wealth, but the drawback to longevity is that your audience ages with you and you have to be vigilant not to end up playing for blue rinses in Cromer Pavilion..."

His Californian life has not made Thompson much sunnier, at least in his songs, though he seems very much at ease with himself in person. "There is an inner landscape you carry around with you and that's where your songs live. For me, it's 50s or 60s suburban Britain, I guess. And I very much keep in touch. I open my laptop and there is the Guardian on the home page. In my car I've got the World Service and Test Match Special..."

Alongside these more prosaic reference points, Thompson keeps up his faith, though being a Muslim has become a different thing entirely in the last decade in America. Has he encountered prejudice or problems?

"I suppose I keep my head down a bit more. It is important to assert your belief obviously. But this country has a lot of ignorant people in it."

Alongside his trenchant anti-war song "Dad's Gonna Kill Me", he also wrote, in 2002, "Outside of the Inside", which dismantles the jihadi's view of western culture in a subverted Taliban voice: "God never listened to Charlie Parker/ Charlie Parker lived in vain/ Blasphemer, womaniser/ Let a needle numb his brain/ Wash away his monkey music/ Damn his demons, damn his pain."

It sounded like a hard-headed attempt to reconcile his faith in music with his Sufi belief. What was the response?

He smiles. "I don't think anyone noticed, really. That song is imagining what these extremists, this fringe of so-called Islam, were saying of western civilisation and it's me thinking, 'Well, I like western civilisation. Charlie Parker. Einstein. Shakespeare. Not all bad...'"

Can the two traditions ever be compatible?

"Well, they certainly used to be," he says. "I'm not a scholar, but Islam certainly teaches tolerance of Christians and Jews, people of the book."

What about non-believers?

"Non-believers, you leave them alone. It's not your business."

Thompson reads the Qur'an and visits the mosque "whenever I think I should". He believes that "before life was something and after life is something. I certainly believe there is another stage after this. If you want to think of that pseudo-scientifically, you might think of another dimension..."

Does he believe that music is a way of accessing such other dimensions, of glimpsing them in life?

"Music is very elusive," he says. "It is so airy. It can lift your heart and take your imagination to extraordinary places. You think of someone like John Coltrane or Charlie Parker; they maybe weren't successful in their lives, but when they played music that was an incredible expression of their souls."

Thompson then picks up his guitar and you could believe you hear exactly what he means.


Tim Adams

The GuardianTramp

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