Richard Thompson talks craft, creativity and cutting 13 Rivers
Richard Thompson’s new album, 13 Rivers, is a turbulent ride, inspired by darkness and turbulence occurring in the British folk-rock legend’s own life.
The edginess of the material is matched by the no-nonsense approach to recording—the tunes were laid down live at L.A.’s analog-based Boulevard Recording Studio, formerly The Producer’s Workshop, which witnessed the birth of everything from Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours to Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Handling production chores himself and utilizing a small, powerful band, Thompson turned out a punchy, potent record that feels simultaneously spontaneous and carefully crafted. “I always use a fairly direct approach when I record analog,” says Thompson. “I try to get things in the first couple of takes. We don’t usually labor much in the studio. If something doesn’t work we’ll come back to it the next day or something.”
It turns out the choice of studio had little to do with the place’s storied past. It was picked more “because it was cheap,” laughs Thompson. “I really like the engineer, Clay Blair. We’d done some tracks there previously, so I like the way it sounds as a room. I kind of found out about the history of it more after the fact. It’s been neglected for the last, I don’t know how many years. The décor is peeling and its heyday as a studio was probably in the ’60s and ’70s, so it hasn’t had a lot of love since then. But it’s just a great-sounding room.”
Naturally, this being a Richard Thompson record, the tracks overflow with stunning guitar work, from the angular, barbed-wire licks of “The Rattle Within” to the lyrical, bluesy lines of “The Dog in You.” But even though Thompson is trumpeted far and wide as one of rock’s greatest guitar stylists, capable of death-defying fretboard feats in concert that mere mortals wouldn’t dare attempt, he never shows off his chops more than he needs to on 13 Rivers.
“I think in the studio you’re always conscious of time,” says Thompson. “You’re kind of aware that the clock is ticking and there’s a tendency to be more economical. You probably get more carried away live and you feel less constrained timewise. In the studio, it’s good to have a feeling of economy. I think sometimes if you’re thinking that your solo is gonna be shorter, perhaps you’re more economical with your phrasing. Perhaps you phrase better, in fact. You can be less self-indulgent, less showboating.”
That said, the spontaneous nature of the recording lends a loose, live feel to Thompson’s guitar work that adds to the albums’ appeal. “All the solos on this record are live anyway, so it’s kind of what happened,” assesses Thompson. “There are sloppy notes here and there, which I’ll just have to write off as being extremes of emotion rather than actual wrong notes,” he offers wryly. “But I think to get the feel of something, sometimes you sacrifice accuracy.”
Of course, a performance that sacrifices accuracy in Thompson’s view might well be a near-flawless execution for most guitarists. But even when he’s practicing to keep his six-string skills sharp, it’s always in the service of the song. “I do play just scales and things I find difficult [as practice],” he says, “but all the time I’m also working on song ideas, I’m working on how I’m gonna interpret those song ideas on the guitar, what voicings I’m going to use, what tunings I’m going to use.”
Considering Thompson’s triple-threat status as singer, songwriter, and guitarist, which of those roles does he identify with most strongly? “I probably prefer to think of myself as a songwriter,” he reveals, “and the other skills I have, singing and guitar playing, I bring into the songwriting area. If I play guitar, then I play guitar within the structure of the song. When I wake up in the morning I pick up a guitar, but it’s always with a song idea to work out, rather than starting scales early in the morning.”
“I probably prefer to think of myself as a songwriter,” he reveals, “and the other skills I have, singing and guitar playing, I bring into the songwriting area. If I play guitar, then I play guitar within the structure of the song. When I wake up in the morning I pick up a guitar, but it’s always with a song idea to work out, rather than starting scales early in the morning.”
But even though Thompson is a master songwriter who’s spent some 50 years perfecting his craft, with 13 Rivers containing some of the most penetrating tunes he’s crafted in years, he doesn’t seem to feel any closer to understanding how his creativity really works. And that’s probably fine. “The creative process is weird,” he admits, “and I don’t understand it. So I start out with intentions and I end up writing stuff that I don’t really understand, but it seems to have the same emotion as what I’m trying to say. Some of the creative process is clearly not totally conscious. I think you switch off some faculties in order to be creative.”