"Sometimes you have to improve reality to get a better song," says Richard Thompson, musing on the writing process behind his new album, 13 Rivers. The master songsmith/guitarist has been making reality a lot more interesting for half a century now, from his days with British folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention to his legendary duo with then-wife Linda and his long, rich solo career.
Recorded live in the studio, 13 Rivers bears an urgent, visceral vibe and features some of the most hard-hitting tunes Thompson has turned out in a while. "I think the songs have an intensity to them," agrees Thompson, "which I’m happy about… I think that they parallel the emotions that I've been going through. Having said that, it's clear to me that you can start writing about your own life but it seems to go somewhere else, it seems to go into this fictional world that isn't always exactly about you, like a parallel world of music. That world becomes a kind of a mirror that you look in to see reality more clearly."
"The Bones of Gilead" is one of the album's most intense tracks, with a taut, ominous feel and a warning about the imminent arrival of an earth-shattering presence. "I see it as a song about this force that's coming," explains Thompson, "and it's not a bad force, it's like a benign force, but it's gonna rock you anyway. It's gonna shake you, but the consequence is gonna be good. So it's gonna take you out of your comfort zone, but at the end of it, it'll be a better place."
The most poignant moment on 13 Rivers is "My Rock, My Rope." Sung from a place of deep tribulation, it seems to be about seeking the seeds of salvation by digging down into one's own despair. "It's a song that's asking for help," Thompson confirms, "either from another human being or from a higher being. I think we all reach points in our lives, sometimes frequently, where we feel hopeless because circumstances seem to be stacked against us, and we can't do it on our own. And I frequently write at that point, where I just can't do things on my own and I have to ask for help."
In that song, Thompson longs for something to "heal me from my demons," and with his considerable catalog of songs that live on the darker side, it's tempting to look at his writing process itself as an attempt to deliver himself from his own darkness. "I think that's true," he says. "I think a lot of writers are driven by something from the past, some kind of demons that haunt you, really. And perhaps if you went to therapy enough you wouldn't have to write songs anymore [laughs]. But that would be a shame, so I avoid therapy and just write instead."
Perhaps even more crucial to Thompson's toolkit than personal angst is the British folk music that provided the inspiration for his earliest outings and has continued to be a touchstone throughout his career. So we asked him to muse on a handful of his favorite albums in that realm, for which he expanded the definition to encompass the entire U.K., as well as Ireland.
"Davy Graham was quite a pioneering guitar player, starting in the '50s. He was the first guy to really play a range of styles. He's influenced by traditional music, he's influenced by jazz, influenced by North African music, and he'd blend all these things together into this very hybrid style that he had. And he did this record with the wonderful English traditional singer Shirley Collins, and they would do interpretations of traditional songs, songs like 'She Moves through the Fair' and 'Nottamun Town.' In these interpretations you'd have kind of jazzy guitar influences coming in, and it really—it showed the possibilities to the next generation of what can be done with folk music. I think it's a hugely successful record. I don't know how many it sold at that time, probably not that many, but a lot of people who went on to have folk music careers really paid attention to that record and saw many, many possibilities on the horizon. As a guitar player he influenced people like Martin Carthy, John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, John Martyn—the next generation of acoustic guitar players all paid attention to Davy."
"This is Steeleye Span's first record. This is what Ashley Hutchings got involved in after he left Fairport Convention, and I just think it's a terrific record. I love the songs on this record, and I love the fact that there are two female singers, Maddy Prior and Gay Woods. A really interesting collection of songs beautifully performed.
The band didn't actually have a drummer but there are some drums on the record, so it's a real folk-rock record. I love the sound of it, I love the harmonies, the musicianly skill involved."
"I think it's a really strong collection. Kate Rusby is a contemporary traditional singer, also sings contemporary songs and sings a lot of traditional music.
But I think this is one of her strongest records, and it's one I'm very fond of. It has some great songs—there's a great version of a song called 'The White Cockade,' great version of a song called 'The Blind Harper.' She's a wonderful singer with a very bell-like crystal clear voice that's also very affecting, very moving."
"Planxty were a wonderful Irish band: Andy Irvine, Christy Moore, Donal Lunny, and Liam O'Flynn. I think this is kind of unsurpassed [in] interpretations of Irish music. Such great singers, such great instrumentalists. Because this album is a collection it's a distillation of other albums, so you really get the cream of the crop.
Wonderful songs like 'Pat Reilly' that Andy Irvine sings; Christy sings a song called 'As I Roved Out,' a very beautiful song. Just one of my favorite records."
"This is a record by Ewan MacColl with help from Charles Parker. It was part of a BBC radio series called The Radio Ballads. I think this [series] was Ewan MacColl and Charles Parker's idea. What they would do would be to interview people in a certain profession. In the case of this record it's the herring fishing industry. You'd have people talking about the work, talking about the traditions of the work, and Ewan MacColl would write songs that would link these recordings together, and you've have this half-hour radio program, which was just a terrific program. As I say, it's a series, there's one on mining, there's one on sports, and I think it was the first time on British radio that you would hear real regional working-class accents not done by actors. In the process of the series, Ewan MacColl wrote some fantastic songs, some of which became standards—people still sing some of those songs today."