The Rails: On Track to Bring the Rock Back to Folk/Rock

RNR Globe exclusive with Kami Thompson and James Walbourne

The Rails

The Rails bring the noise on their third album, Cancel the Sun. The band is the nom de musique of Kami Thompson, daughter of folk stars Linda and Richard Thompson, and James Walbourne, known for his work as a sidekick and co-writer with bands like The Pretenders, Son Volt and The Pogues.

They’ve been singing and playing together since they met eight years ago, starting as an acoustic act. They first became known for their Anglicana approach, a bending of British and American styles, rooted in traditional music. They’ve gradually been moving toward a harder, more rock and roll sound and, on Cancel the Sun, they kick things into overdrive. 

“Our last record, Other People, had James on electric guitar a bit,” Thompson says. “It was a ’70s, Fairport Convention kind of album. This time we went for a rock feel. We’ve been aiming to do it for a while, actually.  These days, we don’t listen to much folk, if any. Live, in England, we have a great five-piece band and we both play electric guitars.” Walbourne agrees: “We just wanted to plug in and have a good time, the way we do on stage, really.

“My memory of the last three years is very blurry,” Walbourne continues.  “We write an album, tour behind it, then write another album. I’ve been on tour with The Pretenders as well. Last October, we decided it was time for a new album, so we sat down and wrote one.”

The Rails always put both their names on the songs they write for their albums but, until recently, Walbourne did more of the composing and lyric writing. “I wrote some tunes for Other People, but they weren’t a fit, so they were shelved,” Thompson says. “I felt cut out of the creative process. We weren’t getting along well personally or professionally. After that, James quit drinking. It had an impact on our private and work life and it’s been a good thing for us. We finally we sat down and discussed how to work together. We’ve been co-writing everything since. We’ve been amazed at how smooth the process has been. The last time, things were fraught and emotions were running high. This time, it’s been enjoyable and really liberating.” 

 “We created a few guidelines,” Walbourne says. “Since we’re married, if you don’t have guidelines, it can end in tears. If we didn’t like something, we just left it behind. The focus was the song, and that was it. Kari worked more on the lyrical side and I was more on the tunes. When I strike a chord, a melody comes and I record it in my demo studio, then we kick it around a bit.”  

The Rails Cancel the Sun, Thirty Tigers 2019

The album was made with producer Stephen Street (The Smiths, The Cranberries, Blur). They both played acoustic and electric guitar, with Walbourne overdubbing the keyboards parts. His brother, Rob, played drums and their friend Carwyn Ellis contributed the bass lines. “Steve helped shape the sound,” Thompson says. “We let go of the reigns and listened to his input.  

It was done old school, getting the drums and bass down with us playing live and overdubbing the rest of the tracks. Before recording, we played the songs until everything fit together. We sent the demos to Steve and the band, and allowed everyone to put their own stamp on the arrangements.” 

“I’ve known my brother all my life and I’ve played in bands with Carwyn for 20 years,” Walbourn says. “We let them play what they wanted. Steve finessed the sound a bit. He suggested adding a chord, or building up to a chorus, but everything always fit the song.” 

With the album about to come out, Thompson and Walbourne are turning their eyes toward the US, getting ready to play some dates to support its release. “Sadly, we can’t afford to bring the whole band over, so it’s just the two of us on guitars,” Walbourne says. “It’s unbelievable how much it costs to get on a stage. We hope to come over with the full band later in the year, but I’m not complaining. As long as I can remember, all I ever did was play guitar. I always wanted to write songs too, but couldn’t figure out how it’s done. Along the way, I backed up a lot of great songwriters – Jeff Tweedy in Uncle Tupelo and Chrissie Hynde (The Pretenders) and Ray Davies (Kinks). I started to gain more confidence in my early 20s and, once I figured it out, it became easier. It was daunting at first. The first time I heard ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ I hung on every note and kept thinking, ‘Jesus, how do they do that?’”  

 

AUDIO: The Rails – Cancel The Sun (full album)

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j. poet

j. poet has been writing about music for most of his adult life. He has contributed to the San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, Harp, Paste, Grammy.com, PlanetOut.com, American Profile, Creem, Relix, Downbeat, Folk Roots, New Noise and more national and international publications and websites than he can remember. He wrote most of the Musichound Guide to World Music (Visible Ink, 2000) and had two stories in Best Rock Writing 2014 (That Devil Music). He has interviewed a wide spectrum of artists including Leonard Cohen, Merle Haggard and Godzilla. He lives in San Francisco. 

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