Richard Thompson Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel was originally published in Pioneer Press and the Chicago Sun-Times on September 1, 2011.

In case you doubted Richard Thompson’s impressive credentials as a singer, songwriter and guitarist, he now has an official stamp of approval — from England’s Queen Elizabeth.

The British musician … received the Order of the British Empire in a June 28 ceremony at Buckingham Palace. Thompson spoke with us in a phone interview.

Q: What was the OBE ceremony like?

A: You get to dress up like a 19th-century British prime minister — a top hat and tails. You get your 15 seconds with the queen. She said, “Oh, you’re a musician. That must be marvelous for you.” It’s a great honor.

Q: So this doesn’t make you “Sir Richard”?

A: No, that’s up another three levels or something.

Q: Of course, you’ve had had other awards — and Grammy nominations.

A: I’ve been nominated two or three times, but I haven’t won yet. I’m in the wrong category. I knew I should’ve stuck to polka.

Q: Richard Thompson music is almost a genre unto itself.

A: Exactly. There should be a category just for me, so I can win every year.

Q: Why did you record your most recent album, “Dream Attic,” live?

A: A lot of the feedback I get from the audience is that they prefer the live performance to the recorded performance. So I thought, ‘Well, what if we just cut out the middle process here?’ It’s quite a hard thing to do. The band has to rehearse and learn 80 minutes, flawlessly — or well, a few flaws, just to show we’re human.

Q: Your current tour is solo. How is that different?

A: You can create more stillness in the room. You can pull the audience in towards the music more. And you can put across lyrics better.

Q: You’ve written 400 songs?

A: I think so. Compared to some people, that’s good. Compared to Cole Porter, who wrote 2,000, that’s a bit lazy.

Q: What are the differences between how you play acoustic and electric?

A: If I’m playing solo, then I’m trying to be as orchestral as possible. What I’m trying to do is to render a band performance from a record in a solo format. I’ve never been happy with just going, “strum strum strum.” I’ve always thought the acoustic guitar should hold more possibilities than that.

Q: Is it possible to put in words how you create a guitar solo?

A: Uh. How many hours do you have?

Q: We’ve got about three minutes.

A: That’s tough. That’s a very large question. A small, quick answer would be: You practice shorter phrases. And then when it comes to soloing, you’re putting those bits and pieces together. And you’re inventing links between them. And then if you’re inspired, you’re also playing new things that you haven’t played before. You have the basic vocabulary that you learn through practice. And then when it comes to the actual solo, you’re applying some of those — you could almost call them clichés, but they’re your own clichés. What you’re trying to do is pile these clichés on top of each other in a new and interesting and meaningful way.

Q: Are those the special moments for you, when you realize you’re playing something new?

A: Yes. It’s when you feel that the music is playing itself or the music’s just flying, without you really having to think about it. But we’re talking about very intangible stuff here. The difference between success and failure in a solo is very, very subtle — and possibly can’t be described in our allotted three minutes. (Laughs.)

Photo by Robert Loerzel (2014)