October 1, 2004

Richard Thompson on Thinking Visually

As one of the world's most celebrated and prolific singer-songwriters and guitarists, Richard Thompson knows a thing or two about crafting a good tune. His latest CD, The Old Kit Bag [SpinArt], showcases a muse brimming with piercing wit, dark romanticism, and evocative imagery. Thompson's intricate, distinctive guitar playing remains the foundation on which his songs are built, but he often begins the songwriting process without the instrument in his hands.

"I visualize playing the guitar when I'm not playing it," he explains, "and I tend to visualize hand positions. The fingers of your imagination aren't quite as hidebound as your real fingers. Your real fingers fall into patterns a lot. The fingers of your imagination are less patterned, so, in your mind, you can find new ideas more easily."

After more than 25 albums, Thompson's consummate knack for engaging, timeless storytelling remains intact. But even he struggles to avoid repeating himself. "Someone very wise once said, 'Copy everyone except yourself,'" he says. "Looking at other peopl ideas and twisting them to fit your own style is a good thing. You can also catch yourself traveling down the same road you've gone down before, and nip it in the bud right then and there. You can say to yourself, 'I've used the same chord sequence before-how can I twist it slightly to make it into a different chord sequence? Can I do something no one has ever done before?' It's important to keep searching, and not go for the obvious idea."

Once Thompson has finished a song, the next step is playing it for an audience. "They'll let you know if it communicates," he says. "I think a song can be a good song, yet be too personal or obscure for an audience to get hold of. In those cases, you might think to yourself, 'This will be a song I'll just sing to myself in the bath. It means a lot to me, but it won't mean much to anyone else.'"

Though Thompson is often painted as being a dark and brooding songwriter, he disagrees with that assessment. "I think I'm a serious songwriter. If you're going to do justice to some topics, you have to dig a bit deeper and longer. As you get deeper, things can get more serious. For instance, to write a love song that does justice to the subject, you have to get pretty involved. And for me, it's not always about happy endings."

-Anil Prasad,


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