Interview with Teddy Thompson
It’s rough to make it in the music business when everyone figures you only got your foot in the door because both your parents held it open for you. In the case of Teddy Thompson, whose parents are British folk legends Richard and Linda Thompson, it’s a terribly unfair assessment, indeed. Teddy did his time backing his father on a few tours, as well as spending time as part of Rosanne Cash’s road band. By the time he got around to releasing his debut album in 2000, it hardly mattered who his mom and dad were; Teddy was quite an accomplished musician in his own right. Bullz-Eye had the opportunity to chat with Teddy about his belated sophomore effort, Separate Ways (probably not a Journey reference), his famous parents, his love of the Everly Brothers and “Batman,” and his feelings on breaking America via radio. (Let’s just say it ain’t exactly love.)
Teddy Thompson: Hi.
Bullz-Eye: How are you?
TT: Good, how are you?
BE: Not bad. Well, I love the new album…
TT: Thank you.
BE: I guess this is your second full-length release…
BE: …but your first for Verve Forecast.
BE: What happened with Virgin Records? Was that just a one-album deal?
TT: Um, no, no, no. It was… (Laughs nervously) You know. They dropped me.
BE: Oh. Eek.
TT: The usual. So, um, yeah, it’s not an unusual situation. It wasn’t great. A whole new bunch of people came in and everybody was fired, and they cut a big part of the roster.
BE: With the new album, what’s the so-called “emphasis track” that’s being pushed to radio?
TT: (Dismissively) Your guess is as good as mine; singles on the radio are a joke. I think, at the moment, the next one they’re pushing is “Altered State,” but…erm, can I get you to hold on just a second?
Teddy’s muffled voice can be heard as he talks to someone else in the room with him.
TT: I’m sorry about that.
BE: No problem. I was just going to observe that I’m partial to “I Should Get Up,” but I didn’t know if that was something that was being pushed as a single or not.
TT: That was actually the last single…the first single here in the States, the current single in the UK…but I think they’re about to come out with “Altered State” here. It’s a confusing thing, the single world. It’s so…radio’s such a…jeopardy.
BE: I was going to say, I was sensing something less than happiness about radio in America, which I’m not terribly surprised by.
TT: It’s not even a lack of happiness. I just feel very…it doesn’t really pop up on my radar. I mean, they put a lot of effort into it, but it’s such a shot in the dark that I tend to not even think about radio. I just sort of mosey along, doing other things, and if something happens at radio, it would be a huge surprise and a nice bonus, but I don’t count on it at all.
BE: I stumbled upon the cover of the Everly Brothers’ “Take a Message to Mary” – a duet with your mother, Linda – that appears as a hidden track on Separate Ways. I walked out of the room after “Frontlines” (the last song listed on the disc), and when I came back in, there it was.
TT: Oh, yeah…
BE: Why did you decide to make it an unlisted bonus track? Did you just decide that you wanted to include it, but it didn’t fit in with the rest of the album?
TT: Yeah, pretty much. I did it on my first album as a bonus track…an Everly Brothers track again, with Emmylou Harris…and it’s just that the Everly Brothers was my first big musical passion when I was a kid. It was the first thing that I really loved, and I have a real soft spot. And it’s a nice duet, so I just wanted to do it. And, yeah, all the rest are my songs, so it doesn’t really fit in with the rest of the record, so it’s just an excuse to put it on there.
BE: So I take it your mom and dad were playing the Everly Brothers around the house all the time when you were growing up?
TT: Uh, well, there was a tape in the car or something, and it was just one of those things I heard. But it was the first kind of musical awareness that I had about something I really liked.
BE: I know this wasn’t the first time you’d done so, since you co-produced and appeared on her 2000 album, but how was it working with your mother on this cover?
TT: It was great! It was a very last minute thing to do – the record was pretty much done – but it was great. A nice thing to do, both personally and professionally.
BE: Were you friends with Rufus and Martha Wainwright before they showed up on Separate Ways? Were there, like, Thompson/Wainwright cookouts every summer?
TT: (Chuckles) Well, we’ve been friends for awhile. I’ve been friends with Rufus and Martha for about ten years, and we met through our parents, but we hadn’t been friends when we were kids…so, no, none of that! But, yeah, we have been friends for awhile.
BE: And I know you’re on the “Brokeback Mountain” soundtrack, dueting with Rufus on a cover of “King of the Road”…
BE: …and you’ve also got one of your own tracks on there. How did you come to be a part of that soundtrack? Did they approach you, or…
TT: Yeah, actually, it was my record label that put out the soundtrack! (Laughs) I had an inside edge. But, um, yeah, they had approached Rufus, and it just made sense that, since we were friends, we should do something together.
BE: I saw your dad play at an arts festival in Bath in, like, 1992…and when I told a friend of mine that I was going to be chatting with you, she said she’d seen you play with him on a previous tour.
BE: Was it hard for you to step out of his shadow and into your career in music? I mean, I know he’s on both of your albums, so it’s not like you’re that far out of the shadow, but was it hard to make the leap?
TT: No, not really, because I don’t think of it very much that way. Yeah, I’ve played with him, and I have him on my records, and the same with my mom. It’s kind of a folky tradition, the playing together and singing together. It’s more collaboration than competition, you know.
BE: I was on your MySpace page, and there were two influences you listed that didn’t ring a bell, so I looked them up. How did you come to be introduced to the Comedian Harmonists?
TT: Um…I can’t remember. I think through Joe Boyd, who’s an old friend and, y’know, produced my parents. And I think he had something to do with it when they reissued their albums. I’m not sure how I heard it, if my mom gave it to me or something, but whenever that sort of came back around…it was probably seven or eight years ago when it was reissued or redone…somehow, I heard it, and it was pretty staggering stuff. (Chuckles) I don’t know that it’s really a direct influence; it’s just something that I really love, so I threw it in there. I don’t know that there’s a lot of close barbershop harmonies in my music!
BE: (Laughs) And then I also saw that (Leonard Cohen’s daughter) Lorca Cohen was listed as an influence.
TT: (Hesitates) Oh, I was just kind of messing around with that one. We’re friends.
BE: Oh, okay. I know she’s a photographer, but I didn’t know if she was a musician as well.
TT: Um, she dabbles. But, no, we’re just friends.
BE: That live album that you and your dad are on (Celtschmerz), where you do “Persuasion” and the Left Banke’s “She May Call You Up Tonight”…
BE: That was taken from the acoustic tour you did with him, right?
BE: Was that something that you co-headlined, or were you just part of the band at the time?
TT: No, I was just along for the ride. It was like an apprenticeship.
BE: Is your Blunderbuss EP ever going to come back into print again, or be available for download?
TT: Uh, yeah, it’s there, you can get it on the website. But it’s only on the website…and at shows. You can’t buy it at record stores.
BE: Okay, because I’d gone to CD Baby, and they said it was permanently out of stock, so I just presumed it was out of print.
TT: No, we just switched it so that you could only get it through the website.
BE: And that was something you just sort of did as a stopgap measure between the two albums?
TT: It wasn’t even that, really. It was more just a matter of blowing off steam. It was right before I finished this record, and we were working on it, and it was just kind of, let’s take a break. There were a few songs that weren’t going to fit on the record, and it was just something light and fun to do. Just me and Brad Albetta, who produced the record. We probably did it just a weekend, and we played all the instruments ourselves. It was just kind of a fun project to get away from the album for a minute.
BE: What are your thoughts on breaking in America? I know you do the press rounds, you were on Conan O’Brien’s show, but do you feel like you’re making headway, as far as making a name for yourself in America?
TT: Ummmm…a little bit, yeah. I mean, I’ve been doing better in England because I’ve been spending a lot of time in England, so it’s a little bit where I’ve come back to America and I’m remembering just how big this country is and how much work there is to do. I don’t really feel like I’ve made much of a dent; I just feel like I’m at the bottom of a huge mountain that I’ve to climb! (Laughs) Which, y’know, is fine. I’m happy to go ‘round and tour. You just have to hope that that’s still…I mean, I can tour on my own, but, then, y’know, if I want to take a band, it gets expensive. I mean, I’m happy to do it the old-fashioned way, and I think that’s the best way to do it, but you just hope to be able to keep that doing. And, then, like I said, you usually need just a bit of luck, whether it’s radio or a movie thing or something, to sort of give you a lift up, a leg up. Otherwise, it’s just a big slog.
BE: Has MySpace helped you, as far as bringing new fans in?
TT: (Sounding totally flummoxed) I dunno, actually! (Pauses again) I dunno! I’m not really sure how it quite translates to…I like MySpace, I’m on it all the time, you can get addicted to it!
BE: You and me, both!
TT: Yeah! I mean, it hasn’t has a massive impact on me, I’m not the odd MySpace phenomenon who makes a huge impact just because of that, but I’m sure it’s helped. I just don’t know to what extent.
BE: Okay, and just one last MySpace question, I promise. I saw that your quote on your page is, “We’re dressed to investigate, let’s investigate!” What’s that from?
TT: It’s from…I was watching “Batman,” and…
BE: (Excitedly) That’s what I thought, actually!
TT: (Surprised) Really? Good guess! It was, like, 3 in the morning and I was jetlagged, and I just turned on the TV, and it was one I hadn’t seen…the old Adam West “Batman.” And I guess it was one of the later ones, because it was more campy than usual. I don’t know if they were getting more and more aware of themselves or something. But, anyway, there was just a moment where they go to the scene of a crime, and the crime’s already over, and Batman says, “Well, should we investigate?” And Robin says, “We’re dressed to investigate, let’s investigate!” They look each other up and down in their outfits. “Let’s investigate!” It was one of the campiest moments I’ve ever seen.
BE: I’m actually in the middle of doing an article for Bullz-Eye about TV shows that aren’t yet on DVD, and that’s one that’s on my list.
TT: Oh, really? That, and “The Wonder Years”!
BE: Right! And I guess that one’s being held up because of the rights to use the music.
TT: Yeah, I was just talking to someone about that, and they said it was never going to happen because the music was too high-profile.
BE: That, and “WKRP in Cincinnati.” I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that…
TT: Oh, yeah!
BE: …but it’s the same problem with that. You know, it took place in an American radio station in the late ‘70s, and they didn’t think in terms of having problems with using the music later.
TT: Right, yeah.
BE: How did you hook up with Lee Feldman? (Writer’s note: Feldman is a NYC-based pianist whose new album features Thompson on guitar and backing vocals.)
TT: Oh, uh, through Ed Haber, who’s my mom’s producer. He was doing that record, and he just asked me. I didn’t know him before that.
BE: I wasn’t familiar with him ‘til I saw your name on his credits, but I’ve heard comparisons to Ben Folds, so that bodes well for me.
BE: And you’re currently opening for Mason Jennings on tour, right?
TT: Not quite yet. But I will be in a week or two weeks.
BE: And then will you be doing any headlining shows, or have you already been doing them?
TT: Well, I’ve been doing them in England. As I said, coming back here, I’m a few rungs down on the ladder…but it should be a good tour; he’s playing good places and everything, so it’s good. And then I’m doing festivals in England during the summer, so I don’t know when there’ll be another headlining tour of America. I would imagine somewhere toward the end of summer or early fall.
BE: Alright, well, I think that’s everything for me.
BE: It’s been a pleasure talking to you…
BE: Like I said, I love the album, and hopefully I will be able to catch you when you’re on tour.TT: Yeah, I hope so. Thanks!