Talking to Teddy Thompson
In just a few days, on 25th January, the Cathedral Quarter’s Out to Lunch Festival welcomes Teddy Thompson back to Belfast. If you haven’t yet had an opportunity to see this superlative performer live, I suggest that you do. Early signs indicate this is likely to be another standout, sold out gig.
Teddy’s music falls somewhere amid folk, country and pop, but whatever you call it, stating it simply, he has one of the most beautiful voices that I have ever heard. With a seriously distinguished musical pedigree and seven studio albums under his belt to date, he is in my opinion an underrated performer – I can’t quite understand why he’s not a household name.
Ahead of his arrival in Ireland later this week, I chatted to Teddy from his base in New York and I asked about his experience of Ireland and his plans while he’s here. Over the past fifteen years, he told me, he has visited Dublin and Belfast each probably ten times. Unsurprisingly, he thinks that the audiences in Ireland are among the best in the world. “They are very appreciative – no, not just appreciative – it’s more that music is still part of the fabric, it’s a big part of life there.” What’s even better he says, is that because of that, fans will come out and come to shows, which he says is not true everywhere, in places where music is not such a huge part of life.
His plans this time though, are of a “bromantic” nature. The weekend that he’s here, happens to hold a special significance. “Co-incidentally, it’s the 30th anniversary of my meeting one of my oldest friends, which is quite sweet. I’m in Belfast and he’s in London, so we’re planning to make a weekend of it, though we’re not sure exactly what we’ll do yet.” So, watch out Belfast!
Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones
The last time Teddy was here, it was to promote his 2016 album Little Windows which he wrote and recorded with Kelly Jones, (no, not that of Stereophonics fame). The album reached the number one position in the UK country charts, and it’s little wonder since it is a collection of perfect little 2½ and 3-minute country gems and a sheer delight from start to finish. I asked Teddy how this exceptional collaboration came about. “Well it happened very organically actually; we were friends, and she was also friends with Bill DeMain, and she suggested the three of us trying to write songs together.” This song-writing triad felt to Teddy like an unusual way to work, but in the end had the effect of producing songs which Teddy believes sounded more classic. “When you write with other people like that, it can’t be overly personal, what you write has to speak to everyone, and so the songs come out sounding more standard I think.”
And he’s right, that’s exactly it, they sound just like country standards. I put it to him that I could easily imagine any one of them being sung by Patsy Cline, sixty years ago, which pleased him. “Well thank you,” he gushed, “I can think of no greater compliment.”
If you aren’t familiar with Teddy Thompson’s vocal ability, you could do worse than having a shufty at the 2012 recording on YouTube of his performance of Kate McGarrigle’s “Saratoga Summer Song”, which was filmed right here in our own Ulster Hall. Having been there on the night, I remember what an incredible performance it was, and I asked Teddy if he had any sense that something special had happened that night. He acknowledged that it’s a very special song, which he first learned for a benefit for McGarrigle, and which her son Rufus Wainwright had then asked him to perform every night on his tour. “It is a very beautiful song, and it had particular significance because he was there and it was his mum’s song, so I did feel a sense of responsibility to do it justice every night. I guess that night was just a particularly good one.”
Thompson’s charmed connection with Rufus, and the Wainwright dynasty in general, is long established. Teddy often accompanies Rufus on tour, he and Martha Wainwright provide backing vocals on Rufus’ albums, together Teddy and Rufus covered “King of the Road” for the soundtrack of Brokeback Mountain, and Rufus has reciprocated by recording with Teddy and making a brief but hilarious cameo appearance in Teddy’s “In My Arms” video. I wondered how that lasting friendship first came about, and it transpires that even celebs can have over-protective mums.
Teddy moved to LA at eighteen, and when Rufus moved there a year later, his mum, the celebrated folk singer Kate McGarrigle phoned Teddy’s mum, the equally celebrated Linda Thompson to arrange a meeting. “I first met Rufus 23 or 24 years ago. Our mums set us up, which I suppose is quite sweet, and we became firm friends.” That friendship has endured for the last quarter of a century or so and has often been very fruitful; the magic of their voices in harmony is a rare and beautiful thing.
Much like the Wainwrights, Thompson’s own family are a something of a musical superpower. Back in 2014 he managed to persuade his mother out of retirement and together the whole family wrote and recorded an album entitled, aptly enough, Family. Teddy’s parents Richard and Linda Thompson are well known in the music world, for their solo work, for their recordings as a duo, and Richard for his time with Fairport Convention. Also appearing on that record are his sister Kami, his half-brother Jack, Kami’s husband James Walbourne and their son Zak.
I asked if there were any plans for any future Thompson family collaborations, live or recorded. “Not exactly”, he told me, “at least not like before, that was a very specific project. But there are so many musicians in my family, that there is always something happening.” Teddy admitted to me that twenty-three years ago when he was in LA with Rufus, he didn’t want anything to do with his family, at least not musically. He wanted to distance himself from them. He thinks that’s true of most families though, whether there’s music involved or not. However, his feelings on that have changed as he’s gotten older. “Now I enjoy it and embrace it, but then everyone is doing different things… my dad still works a lot so when he comes through town I’ll get up and do a song with him, or vice versa.” His mum no longer tours but does occasionally like to record music which Teddy likes to work on with her. “So, there’s always something going on, but no firm plans as such,” he explained.
After more than two years since the release of his last album, I asked Teddy what was next, and he did disclose that the new album is all but ready to go and that he is currently in the process of looking for a record company to distribute it. Like many musicians though, he finds the business side of things to be a drag: “It’s uninspiring because music is devalued nowadays. It still costs money to put a record out, but people want it for free, which makes it hard for musicians.” However, with any luck, Teddy Thompson fans will have a new album in their hands later this year.
Since Little Windows was his most country album to date, I wondered whether the upcoming album would be somewhat different. “No, it’s the same old crap,” he joked. I did want to know though, if as he gets older, he finds himself wanting to write about different things. “I don’t really think I am writing about different things, just maybe from a different viewpoint,” he pondered. “In my kind of music, pop-country, I think you’re always going to be talking about the same things – love and loss – the things that move people, that move me. No-one is really re-inventing the wheel.”
With the Black Box show coming up, I wondered if we would get the chance to hear some of the new material in Belfast. He assured me that while the set-list wasn’t totally finalised, we could expect to hear a bit of everything; new songs combined with favourites from across all the studio albums.
Concluding our chat, I asked if Teddy had any other message to share with the Irish audiences. ”Not really; I have no political agenda – I am just really looking forward to it. It’s a great part of the world, when you travel around the world you find you often go to the same places, and Ireland is always a good stop on the road.”
Well Teddy, we are all looking forward to it too! So, Teddy T fans, grab a ticket, if you’re lucky enough to find that there are any left, otherwise, check out all things Teddy Thompson related here.
Teddy Thompson performs at The Black Box, Belfast on Friday, January 25th 2019. For more information, click here.