The latest album from Richard Thompson was called “Electric,” so naturally he finds himself on an acoustic tour.
Electric, acoustic, it doesn’t matter, because fans are still going to get fireworks from the British folk-rocker widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. What has always separated him even further from the pack is that he can also sing and write far above the norm.
What his career has lacked — besides widespread popularity, hit records and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (hello?) — are those peaks and valleys generally associated with artists who have maintained careers for almost 50 years.
He’s produced at a consistently high level, from his teenage years as the guitar-slinger with Fairport Convention, to his rich collaborative work with former wife Linda (1974 to ’82), to the prolific and varied solo career that picked up again after the breakup in 1983.
“Electric,” recorded in the spring of 2012 with producer/guitarist Buddy Miller and released early last year, was yet another solid outing, mixing clattering rockers (“Stony Ground,” “Stuck on the Treadmill”) with slow burners (“My Enemy”) and jangly folk in the ancient tradition (“Salford Sunday”). As always, his angular guitar work is jaw-dropping, whether he’s playing fluidly or shooting out the lights.
We reached the 64-year-old in Chicago on a father-son tour that features Teddy Thompson as the opening act.
Your latest album is called “Electric,” and now you’re on an acoustic tour.
Well, I do both things. For the last 35 years, I’ve been doing acoustic tours and electric tours. And, in some cases, acoustic albums and electric albums. It’s fun for me to have two different aspects to what I do, and it’s expensive to tour the band. So I can’t always afford to do that. So if I tour solo, it’s much more affordable, so it helps to pay the rent. I think it’s also nice for the audience to get a contrast so I’m not always returning in the same guise.
Is the acoustic tour a harder night’s work for you?
Yeah, I suppose so, because there’s no one else to blame when it goes wrong. If there’s a disaster on the band show, I can just turn around and glare at the drummer or something. That usually works. Acoustic, it’s kind of insanity, really, because you’re up there totally naked, not literally naked, but musically naked. It’s a very vulnerable position to put yourself in. I think the audience appreciates that when it goes well. When it goes badly, they just throw rotten fruit at you.
I talk to a lot of artists who, when they get to your age, feel like “why bother” when it comes to making albums. Do you feel like the albums get out there, get circulated, get appreciated? Are they important to you?
They’re important to me. And if that translates to other people, I think that’s a good thing. I like to be writing new songs, and I like to be recording new songs, and I’m not sure I could live with myself if I wasn’t doing that. I might go insane or something. So, I’m glad that I’m able to do that. And if people are along with the ride, that’s great. If they’re not, I might have to do it anyway and play to an audience of five or three or seven people. I’ve always been fortunate that I have an audience and can earn a living from what I do. I’m hoping I can keep doing that.
Do you still take the lunch-pail approach of waking up in the morning and going right to work writing songs?
I do, yeah. It’s kind of a disrupted lifestyle. If I’m at home I can work office hours and that’s great. If I’m on the road, life is a bit more disrupted and I have to work when and where I can. But you get used to seizing opportunities.
What type of songs are the biggest challenge for you now? For instance, is it kind of hard to write the simpler rockers like “Straight and Narrow”?
That’s actually a fairly complicated answer to that question. You’re performing in a genre. So the genre is popular music or it’s folk music, whatever you want to call it. So there’s a certain recipe for how you write and what you write and a certain expectation, a certain style the audience comes to expect. It’s a genre laden with love songs, songs of social commentary, political songs. I tend to write songs in the genre and try to layer them with things I like to say. The things I want to say aren’t always on the surface of the song. I try to write about who I am, and the things I see now. I do write songs about being an older human being and what that means. I kind of feel driven now by an awareness of time running out. You only have a certain window of life in which to work, and there are a few more projects I’d like to get to before I drift off into another realm.