Like great rivers, some voices go further, deeper, wider than others. Wrap them around a great song and they'll take you places you don't ever quite return from. Once heard, the voice of British folk-rock icon Linda Thompson is not forgotten. And like a river half-underground, half in spate, Thompson's voice is all the more special because, so often, it is simply not there.
Afflicted by dysphonia since 1973, the condition has more or less guaranteed that live performances these days are non-existent, and records come every six years or so – there have been three solo albums since her return to the studio with 2001's Fashionably Late. Even today, as I arrive at her west London home, she is afraid of her voice – her speaking voice – giving up on her as we sit at a large dining table with a pile of her latest album's covers – Won't Be Long Now – awaiting her signature.
"My singing voice was great a couple of weeks ago in New York," she says. "Now I can barely speak. I'm just having a bad episode at the moment." I first met Thompson a decade ago, when the seminal albums she made with former husband Richard – the likes of I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight and Pour Down Like Silver – had just been re-released with extra tracks and live cuts that confirmed the power of her voice. Since then, she has released the excellent Versatile Heart, led a star-studded live show of music hall songs at the Lyceum and is preparing to release Won't Be Long Now.
The album is a family-and-friends affair. Ex-husband Richard Thompson even guests on the opening track, the starkly uncompromising "Love's for Babies and Fools". "I wrote it about Rufus (Wainwright) when Kate [McGarrigle] stayed here before she died," says Thompson, "and I played her a little bit of it, and she said, 'You've got to finish it, you've just got to,' and I did, and she died, and it was just nice to do it. Richard liked the song so he did it too."It ranks with the best she's done – and after five decades in music, that's no mean feat. "It's 30 years since their final, tumultuous tour for Shoot Out the Lights. "Musically that was very good. It was terribly difficult personally, but it freed me up a lot – I'd had a lot of health problems and suddenly they vanished." Three decades on, and what were once schisms are long-faded, well-trodden patterns in the family carpet.
The album's title song, penned by her eldest son Teddy, bears the discomforts of time and mortality. "Father Son Ballad", draws on his relationship with his father. "I like that," she says. "It's very integrating somehow, and brings the three of us close together. "Most of her family appear on it, – as well as Teddy, there's Kami and Muna, Richard's son Zak, and family friend Eliza Carthy. While the turmoil of her break-up with Richard has long settled, the four years spent in a dour-living Sufi commune in Norfolk have been tougher to shake off. It was a spirit-breaking rather than spirit-raising regime: "It wasn't good for me. And I hate to say it, and I've never said it in my life before, but Richard's a good man, but he was not good for me. That whole lifestyle just wasn't good. It shook me up."
While Won't Be Long Now suggests closure, there is, in fact, a lot more in the pipeline. "I've got an album of music hall songs that we did live at the Lyceum," she says. "Teddy's producing a family record, and we'll all write a couple of songs. And I'm trying to make a record with Ann Savoy and Emmylou Harris." Not bad for a singer whose voice spends half its life underground. "I'd like to work more," she says, "and not to be so afflicted by this thing, but I just try to battle through it."
'Won't Be Long Now' is out now