"That's so lovely," exclaims Linda Thompson, sitting in the front room of her elegant house in Chelsea. I've just told her how a friend of mine described his first encounter with the music of Richard and Linda Thompson, back in the Seventies. He was driving on the motorway when "Withered and Died", written by Richard and sung by Linda, came on the radio. Before the song had ended, he had pulled over, unable to see to drive through his tears.
Linda Thompson has one of the most beautiful voices ever to grace a rock album. Ranging from a declamatory ring to aching passion, it is a voice that makes the voices inside go quiet, an instrument of great tenderness and warmth, yet with an undertow of pain and heartache. Her reputation rests largely on the albums she made with her then husband, Richard Thompson, beginning with 1973's I Want to See The Bright Lights Tonight and concluding with 1982's Shoot Out the Lights.
With their first three albums now remastered for CD for the first time, and released with extra live tracks, the dark theatricality of Bright Lights, the music-hall jauntiness of Hokey Pokey, and the stark, unflinching Pour Down Like Silver, the couple's last album before their conversion to Sufism in 1975 are a stunning reminder of just what the word "classic" means.
Born Linda Pettifer and brought up in Glasgow, Thompson came to study in London in the Sixties, but abandoned college for folk clubs such as the Troubadour, where she began singing professionally - mixing Bob Dylan numbers with traditional Scottish and English tunes. "I grew up with people singing around the house," she says. "They were all good singers in my family. But I was one of the best."
She met Richard via her friendship with Sandy Denny, then the singer with the band Fairport Convention.
"Richard was still with Fairport but becoming disenchanted with that and wanting to leave and do folk clubs, and I said: 'You're mad, it's a nightmare, you're not going to like it.' But that's what he wanted to do and he did it. And he actually did like it."
So for the best part of two years the couple toured the folk clubs as an acoustic duo, playing the songs that would later appear on Bright Lights, and which have since entered the lexicon of British folk-rock. They added an eclectic repertoire of covers in the spirit of doing whatever took their fancy.
Bright Lights was recorded for Island in three days on a tiny budget and with friends such as the accordionist John Kirkpatrick, and members of Fairport and the band Fother-ingay, to expand the textures of Richard's powerful, bleak and haunting new songs. The resulting album has entered many a top 100, yet, at the time, sales were minimal. "We had a pretty loose way in the studio," recalls Linda. "You'd just point to someone for a solo and then the chorus would come back in. It was more like a singalong."
Yet being in possession of such a powerful voice came with a price, and, as Linda put down the classic tracks on Bright Lights, she first suffered the debilitating problem with her voice that would plague her throughout her career, even bringing it to an apparent end in the mid-Eighties (she finally broke the silence with 2001's acclaimed Fashionably Late).
The problem, dysphonia, made it physically impossible to sing a note. "Whether it was some subliminal thing I don't know. The doctors now tell me I was breathing the wrong way when I was pregnant, and it went from a physical thing to become a psychological thing."
The only time she was free of vocal problems was when her marriage ended, shortly before a US tour to promote their final album, in 1982. "By the time we got to do Shoot Out the Lights, it was really bad, but when we split up and did the US tour I didn't have it at all. A broken heart takes precedence. I didn't worry about my throat." And the music was astonishing, with "Dimming of the Day" and "A Heart Needs a Home" receiving the definitive treatment. "Musically, that was a very good tour. It was horrible personally, but it freed me. I'd had lots of health problems and they vanished."
None of these performances has had an official release. Instead, the re-releases come with a selection of contemporaneous cuts, including a superlative version of "Dark End of the Street", with only Richard's guitar as accompaniment. "I don't feel I'm this great singer," says Linda, "so what I do is try and put myself into a song, and that's hard." She certainly does inhabit it , making it one of the most beautiful performances they ever put on tape.
"I got really scared of microphones," she says, recalling the sessions for Bright Lights. "I still don't like them. They get in the way, coming between me and the audience." Even the thought of recording constrains her. "I like the ephemeral thing of, 'you had to be there'." It's the philosophy of an artist not given to musing on post- erity. "Immortality is a very male thing: 'How am I going to be remembered?' - Who would be arrogant enough to think like that?"
'I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight', 'Hokey Pokey' and 'Pour Down Like Silver' are out now on Island/UniversalReuse content