English Singer-Songwriter Returns to Sing Like Hell
Englishman Teddy Thompson certainly knows a thing or two about musical wandering, and not just because he and Rufus Wainwright were kings of the road upon the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack. Shifting his life between London, Los Angeles, and New York, the singer-songwriter maintains a rigid touring schedule to promote his second album, Separate Ways, and still finds time to do Leonard Cohen tributes, as evidence in the recent doc I’m Your Man. On Saturday night, September 9, Teddy Thompson and his band will meander into Sings Like Hell at the Lobero.
How important is the selection of the people you are working with? It’s massively important. Like most people who record, I am very dependent upon on how good the musicians around me are. If they’re good, they make their part sound better. And, if you’re playing with really good people, you tend to lift your own game. Getting the right drummer and the right bass player, for instance, is such a massive thing because that’s going to influence what you’re going to get.
And I suspect the guest players, like your father, are a different consideration again. It’s almost the opposite approach. He is so good at sprinkling the fairy dust. When the song is almost done he can come in and add something that is totally unexpected and beautiful that lifts the level of the recording dramatically. But presumably you already have an idea where you want a song to go?
Of course, but it only works if it’s someone really exceptional. Someone like my dad is great because he always plays the right thing. And, if he doesn’t, it is usually great anyway! You know what you’re looking for and you know what they’re capable of. That’s why you ask them in the first place. I certainly wouldn’t be calling in Ladysmith Black Mambazo to play on my acoustic ballads!
How conscious are you of your musical heritage? Is it is something you have tried to distance yourself from so as to stand on your own?
I played with my dad when I was younger. He took me on tour before I made my first record, when I was still figuring things out. So I did have that family encouragement and help, which was great. But obviously I was also anxious to do my own thing, but not at the risk of not using these amazing assets that I have available to me. I like my father’s guitar-playing better than anyone else, so it would be a bit perverse for me to go out of my way not to use him if that was the sound that I wanted.
You seem to have moved about a lot, but mostly between big cities, I notice.
I am a real city person and, for me, that has had a big effect on the music because I have never been one for the quiet or solitude of the country. And I have no idea what would happen if I was out in the middle of nowhere for a while and tried to write songs. I need to be in the middle of the hustle and bustle. … When you go out in the street in New York, it is packed. Everything is so alive and there is so much happening all the time. It makes me feel as though I should be working and doing something, and that’s good for me. If I am wandering around aimlessly and not doing anything, I feel like a real loser! Whereas, in Los Angeles, everyone seems as though they’re lounging around all the time.
So that’s the cause of my current lack of productivity! It’s the city, it’s not me!
Maybe! But then again, you’re probably a lot healthier than we here in New York are.
It has been six years between your two albums. What affect did that time frame have on your music?
Obviously, I grew up a lot in that time. And I spent more time on this album than I did on the last, so I think it’s more fully formed. First albums are always interesting. There are people who are right there from the get-go but, for me, it took a little while to get going and I think that first album was more of a stepping stone. I haven’t listened to that recording for years and I think it will take a few more years before I can listen and go, ”Aw, isn’t that sweet,” and just appreciate it for what it is.
There is a tremendous honesty encapsulated within your songs. Are they a result of you thinking out loud?
I really have no idea what I’m doing! I really don’t! I don’t even think that I’m a part of what’s happening. The lyrics just seem to come to me as they are and that all seems quite normal. So the only thing I tend to analyze is the structure of the song—whether it needs another verse or should I cut the solo? But I’m not really sure how the words come about. They just come and sound right. It’s not something I have to think about.
Speaking of honesty and song, what’s it like to be on stage in an opera house singing a Leonard Cohen song?
It was nothing but fun. It was such a rare collaborative opportunity to sing songs from one of the ultimate writers around. He is the perfect person to cover because he wasn’t a singer so, when you think of a Leonard Cohen song, you aren’t thinking, “Well, I can’t top the way he sung that one.” It’s the words and their poetry that are the draw. So you can really work with them.
Who were some of the standouts from that experience for you?
I was the best! By such a long way! Everyone else was rubbish! The best on film were Martha Wainwright and Antony (Hegarty). And they were the ones that really stood out all around. At the time, some of the bigger numbers, like the ones by Nick Cave and Rufus, sounded great because they had quite big arrangements. But I liked the quieter moments more myself.
4•1•1 Sings Like Hell welcomes Teddy Thompson to the Lobero this Saturday, September 9. Visit singslikehell.com or call 963-0761 for tickets.