Music Interviews

Teddy Thompson: “I don’t really know what confessional songwriting is” – Interview

Teddy Thompson

Teddy Thompson (Photo: Gary Waldman)

Whether it’s true or not that musical genes run in families, it is certainly a truism for Teddy Thompson. The son of Linda Thompson and Richard Thompson has just embarked on a tour to promote his second album, the country tinged and beautiful Separate Ways.

musicOMH caught up with him for a chat as he prepared to go on stage at London’s Dingwalls…


Starting at the beginning, how much of an influence on his music were his iconic parents? “I had classical guitar lessons when I was about 10,” says Teddy. “I picked it up on my own and then I went to boarding school and set up a band… we didn’t really have a name, and we didn’t really have any gigs either! But we were only 14. I was left to my own devices musically really.”

Were they pleased at their offspring’s early dabblings? “My parents encouraged it and there always a lot of music played at home,” he says, “but my dad didn’t teach me guitar and I wasn’t really involved in the music ‘scene’ when I was in London at all. I hadn’t really gotten into it like that, I was also living with my mum, and she wasn’t in the music business at this time.”

How then was it that he became a professional musician? “I went to LA when I was 18 and it was a couple of years until I started writing and doing gigs,” he says. “I started playing on my own and doing some demos – the usual route. There was a little clique in West Hollywood and some cool clubs…”

Thompson had found something of a scene, “but it’s very much about business in LA. There’s lots of people there playing but there is always the feeling that people want to make something of themselves. It’s all very ambitious. It’s not like everyone was just playing and jamming away. It wasn’t really my kind of scene.”

“Sometimes I mean what I say, sometimes not” – Teddy Thompson keeps us guessing…

Did he take anything from LA-la-land? “It’s a strange place to be on your own and develop as an artist. I’m also not much of a sun worshipper and that’s a big part of the scene! But some of it was fun. I lived right behind this club called Largo in Fairfax Avenue and there would be lots of interesting people around. There was a time when it was quite small but quite prestigious to play there, and if you were cool enough to play there, then you were cool!”

Thompson signed to Virgin when he was 23 and released his debut album Teddy Thompson in 2000. The labels tracked him down. “I was playing at Largo and did some demos and some labels found me! I was playing there every week and after a couple of weeks, they started coming down and I signed with one of them.” All was not sweetness and light, however. “I didn’t have a fan base then though. And that was a bit of a problem frankly! I made an album without that support and suffered the consequences I think,” he recounts. “The record company didn’t support the record at all, which is the norm. With 90% of acts signing to major labels, nobody ever hears from them.”

Thompson was unceremoniously dropped by Virgin after the release of his debut. “It was a bit of a blow to be dropped, but I wasn’t particularly happy at that time with them anyway, and as soon as that happened, I pitched up to New York. That’s much more my scene.” Why so? “I knew a few people, fortunately. NYC is a tough town, but there is a big difference between the music scenes in LA and NYC. People are really interested in music without wanting a cut of your royalties!”

Did he find it easy to get signed again after his disappointment in LA? “In New York, it seems that the record industry finds out about you fairly quickly, and if you’re in a position of trying to get their attention, they don’t really respond to that. They seem to respond to you ignoring them! I wasn’t really that interested in signing again to a major label, so I didn’t really care one way or another.” What did he do differently this time? “I had finished my new album before I signed it. I decided to do it the other way around – it seemed the more sensible way to do it and they either want to sign it or not.”

During his time in New York, Thompson also produced the very well received Fashionably Late, his mother Linda’s first album in 17 years. “I had been touring with Rufus Wainwright and Roseanne Cash, and was writing as well, and I think Mum got quite excited by the stuff that I was doing. We’re very close, and that got her interested again. She wasn’t really known as a songwriter but she had lots of really good songs, and that record came about quite slowly. It took a couple of years.”

“I thought it was nice and it looked really good, but I thought no-one would get it. I’m really glad it’s doing well, it’s great” – Teddy Thompson on Brokeback Mountain, on the soundtrack of which he features…

Most recently, Thompson released his own second album, Separate Ways on Verve Forecast, and it has garnered positive reviews for his well crafted and mature songwriting. “I’m quite a slow writer, and I operate on the survival of the fittest. I have a lot of songs in the works and allow the ones that get finished, to get finished. I just pick the guitar up and mess around. It’s quite hard to finish things but you have to work to flush the songs out.”

Thompson’s songs are personal, displaying open and honest emotions. Confession by music? “I don’t really know what confessional songwriting is, I’ve never been into that whole thing. I just write what is on my mind. I was never that into the whole California confessional thing, I feel very English, my sense of humour is very English but I just happened to like the sound of American country music from an early age, I’ve always loved Hank Williams and The Everly Brothers.”

The first track on the album is Shine So Bright, and it begins: “I wanna shine so hard it hurts.” Does he hurt? “Well, sometimes. It’s all true and not true, like most things, I can’t make up my mind! Sometimes I mean what I say, sometimes not.”

“People are really interested in music without wanting a cut of your royalties!” – Teddy Thompson prefers New York City to Los Angeles…

There are a lot of friends and family playing on Separate Ways, and although this is quite natural, when friends and family are famous, it adds another dimension to a record, “I don’t really think about it. It’s beneficial to have family and friends who are really good musicians and that’s part of the fun of doing it, I’m not one of those people who likes to be locked away and do everything on my own, I think it’s nice to have people come and join you and it’s great to work with my dad, he’s a great guitarist, but I never think about things like that in commercial terms.’.

Thompson is also featured on the film soundtrack for Brokeback Mountain and sings two songs, one a duet with friend Rufus Wainwright. It’s a career coup – the film won four Golden Globes, including Best Song for Emmylou Harris, and has been nominated for eight Oscars. “To be honest, I didn’t think it would do that well! I saw a rough cut screening six months ago and I thought it was nice and it looked really good, but I thought no-one would get it. I’m really glad it’s doing well, it’s great.”

As Thompson gets ready for his London gig he seems remarkably calm. “I don’t get terribly nervous, but there’s a lot going on tonight and it’s always hard to come back to your home town. I start getting a bit freaked out. Nerves are only good – it gets you going, and I just jump up and down a bit and have a few more drinks.”

This is the start of the tour and he is heading over to the US soon. “The album isn’t out there yet, so we hit the road over there and it’s just more touring all year really. I might fit a small holiday in somewhere!”

Perhaps he could holiday back in London? “Not really no, although I seem to be working my way back slowly. You know, LA, NY… I’ll stop off at Iceland or Greenland or something and then come back! We’ll see.”

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Teddy Thompson: “I don’t really know what confessional songwriting is” – Interview
Teddy Thompson @ Dingwalls, London