Music interview: Teddy Thompson
Part of a folk dynasty, Teddy Thompson's latest album features country duets with Kelly Jones. Duncan Seaman reports.
If Teddy Thompson’s last album involved the complex task of reuniting his parents on record for the first time in 30 years, you might be forgiven for thinking that his latest project, an album of country duets with the American singer Kelly Jones, was a far more straightforward prospect.
Yet the 40-year-old singer-songwriter is quick to play down any thoughts of ease in the way he made Little Windows compared to corralling his divorced mother and father, folk-rock legends Richard and Linda, his sister Kami, her husband James Walbourne, half brother Jack and nephew Zak Hobbs into recording studios on both sides of the Atlantic for the 2014 Thompson Family album.
“Nothing’s ever a breeze, I don’t know why,” he ponders. “I think I thought it was going to be – it wasn’t quite. I wanted to write songs that were really light-hearted and do something that was a bit fun. The actual recording of the record was very fast; it was a reaction to making the Family record which by necessity was pieced together because everybody was in different places. It was recorded in four days and we recorded to tape so it was a breeze in that sense but making music there’s always a churning out of something process. It was more in the writing of this record, which we did over a period of a couple of years.”
Thompson, who lives in New York, first met LA resident Jones through mutual friends at one of his shows. Although they “only hung out together a couple of times”, the idea of making an album together appealed. “She came to New York and said, ‘Do you want to try writing some songs?’ and so we started doing that,” Thompson says.
So began a process that took two years to complete. Though they wrote quickly when in same the room, Thompson says: “It was just that there were huge gaps of months in between our three-day writing sessions.”
Further complicating matters, they decided to use a third co-writer, Bill DeMain, a musician songwriter and music journalist. “He lives in Nashville which again made the geographical challenges that much more difficult,” Thompson says.
Beyond a general idea that they were writing songs that Thompson and Jones would sing in harmony all the way through, there wasn’t much discussion between the three of them over the album’s direction.
“We never really explicitly had long conversations about what kind of songs we were writing, just bits here and there,” says Thompson. “We mentioned the Everly brothers at the beginning a lot, but it was nice because we didn’t have to talk about it too much, we found that the three of us had a shared sensibility, all of us just seemed to pull in the same direction quite naturally.”
Thompson admits the Everlys are a “point of reference for just about everything I do – that’s what I grew up with an it’s deeply ingrained”.
“I think was a record where I could really just follow my instincts. The Everlys and Buddy Holly have been the foundation for all music I’ve liked subsequently so making this record was quite natural for me, I just followed my gut.”
As well as classic 50s pop, Thompson is a longtime fan of country music.
“Just a little bit after I got the Everlys and Buddy Holly I got Hank Williams then I was off on a country jag,” he explains.
“Country music is the American version of folk music. It’s the same songs in a lot of cases, songs that were taken across the sea and played slightly differently with different instrumentation and evolved over time.
“That’s the music that my parents played and my grandparents a little bit too – English folk music – then I ended up being drawn to American folk music which has its roots in our folk music, so it makes perfect sense in a way that it’s somehow in my bones or my blood.
“Even though my parents were out playing music I never heard any of their music when I was really young, I didn’t go to a lot of their shows and they split up when I was quite young, so I didn’t have an English influence really vbeing played to me. I discovered American music at ten or 11 and there’s something wonderfully sweet about country music – don’t mean to make it sound pat because it’s not shallow. The instrumentation is somehow to my ear a little warmer maybe, something about pedal steel and banjos, fiddle even, that’s somehow a sweeter sound to my ear than perhaps English and British folk music.”
Little Windows clocks in at just 26 minutes long. Thompson likes its succinctness. “I’m sure that’s a result of being influenced by the Everlys, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, that I was so in love with as a kid,” he says. “Subsequently when I started listening to contemporary music it was very much pop music which was informed by that 50s music, every song was a similar length and had a similar form and that’s what I’ve always been into.
“I never really got into 60s and 70s noodling, jamming, extended solos, extended songs, so when we were writing these songs we would write a verse and a chorus, a verse and a chorus, maybe a bridge, it was just very natural, ‘OK, that’s the end of the song’, and they all ended up be about two minutes long but that just seemed like the right thing to do for these songs. We didn’t over-analyse anything.
“Then when we finished the record and saw the total running time we were slightly aghast,” he laughs, “but I think it’s fantastic, I think that’s a great length for an album. Less is definitely more.”
Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones play at Howard Assembly Room, Leeds on May 12, Pocklington Arts Centre on May 21 and Sheffield City Hall on May 22. For details visit http://www.serious.org.uk/events/series/thompson