Singer-songwriter-guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson has been wowing audiences since the late ’60s and his newest album 13 Rivers (out 9/14 on New West) adds another thrilling chapter to his multi-genre sonic story. For our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, we talked with the legendary musician about the songwriting themes on 13 Rivers, recording in Liberace’s old studio, finally playing “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” on stage with Del McCoury earlier this year, and much more!
NoiseTrade: You’ve titled your new album 13 Rivers and – perhaps not coincidentally – there are 13 songs on it. What’s the songwriting connection you’re making with that title and what are the lyrical and inspirational themes that tie these songs together?
Richard Thompson: It’s a slightly pretentious title. I was thinking the songs are a bit like rivers – fast, slow, straight, winding – but it doesn’t really bear deep intellectual analysis. The themes are all over the place. There are some personal songs and some songs that might be considered political. It seems to have been a stressful couple of years for me, so I’m sure that is reflected in the music.
NT: You produced 13 Rivers yourself, which is something you’ve not done for quite a few years. What made you decide to retake the recording reins again and what are your favorite (and least favorite) parts of producing the sessions yourself?
Thompson: I had a producer in mind for this record, but he dropped out at a late stage. So I thought, “Well, what the heck. I’ll just do it myself.” I suppose the upside of that is that you get something closer to your own vision for the record, but there is an advantage to having a producer. It’s always good to have someone to bounce ideas off. It’s always good to have another pair of ears.
NT: Your NoiseTrade sampler features three of your new songs: the rumbling album opener “The Storm Won’t Come,” the snappy rocker “Bones of Gilead,” and the reflective “My Rock, My Rope.” Can you tell us a little about the story behind each of those new songs and how you came to write them?
Thompson: “The Storm Won’t Come” is about a desire for change, but it seems that if you try to bring it about yourself, it doesn’t work. Change has to come from the outside. “Bones of Gilead” is apocalyptic subject matter, but it’s a good apocalypse. It’s a loving apocalypse. It may be uncomfortable to live through, but good will come in the end. “My Rock, My Rope” is about when there have been times in my life when I’ve needed help – either help from another human being or help from a higher power – and the listener can make up their own mind what the song is about.
NT: Being that 13 Rivers was recorded in just 10 days – a much quicker pace than the average studio timeline – to what do you credit the speedy process and how does it feel to be able to capture a collection of new songs that succinctly and masterfully?
Thompson: 10 days is about average for me. If I spend longer on a record, I tend to start second-guessing myself and I lose the live feeling of the music. We record fairly quickly, just a few takes of each song usually. We didn’t have any real stumbling blocks. Also, the whole thing is recorded analog.
NT: You recorded 13 Rivers at Boulevard Recording, a famed studio location that has played various roles in some classic rock albums (Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, Steely Dan’s Aja, etc.) and also turned out some pretty great ‘80s-‘90s punk records from bands like NOFX, Bad Religion, and Rancid. What was the recording experience like for you there and do you think any residual sonic spirits found their way onto 13 Rivers?
Thompson: We never saw the ghost of Liberace, but the studio has a vibe to it. Perhaps that’s the result of all that good music. In terms of décor, the studio is fairly shabby. I’m always suspicious of shiny studios. I like seeing the money spent on equipment rather than curtains.
NT: Finally, having been in the room myself a few times when you’ve unloaded a roaring version of your legendary folk ballad “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” (including your gorgeous 2012 performance of it at The Ryman), I wanted to close things out by asking you about your thoughts on finally playing it with Del McCoury earlier this year. What did you think when you initially heard his 2001 cover and what was it like for you to play his “Americanized” bluegrass version with him and his band at Delfest 2018?
Thompson: When I head Del’s version of the song, I thought it converted very well into the bluegrass genre with the tweak of a word or two. It’s always nice when one’s songs can be covered by other artists, especially in other genres. When I played the song with Del and his band the biggest question was, “What key are we going to play it in?” He does it in C and I do it in B flat. When Del attempted to do it in B flat, he looked very uncomfortable. So it was obviously easier for one musician to switch instead of five. I think our version sat nicely in the middle.