The sound of the broken hearted

What's in a voice? Plenty, if you're Linda Thompson, the former folk-rock diva who lost hers completely.
Click to follow
In late 1972, the folk singer 'Linda Peters' married the guitarist and songwriter Richard Thompson, fell pregnant and promptly lost her voice. It went completely. She'd open her mouth to sing and nothing would come out. She says now that the sensation she had was not of her voice being taken away, but of a blockage: "It was definitely as if something had got in there - a bit like a stone in your shoe."

Over the next 10 years, the voice came and went irregularly, contingent, it would seem, on Linda's emotional state. During that time, she had children, took the Sufic veil, fought with Richard and shared credit with him for some of the most beautiful, if gloomy, pop music of the period.

Richard and Linda Thompson released six albums, none of which troubled the scorers much but did at least demonstrate that the English folk-rock experiment of the late Sixties and early Seventies had legs. All of the records had their moments, but three in particular - I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight (1973), Pour Down Like Silver (1975) and Shoot Out the Lights (1982) - were models of passionate musicianship restrained and sharpened in the cause of emotional clarity; parochial English melancholy without the fog. It could be argued that Richard never wrote, arranged and produced as well again; certainly, Linda dropped from view after their final output in 1982, her voice troublesome, her interests modified, her toecaps buffed to a sheen on her husband's shins. She did a solo album in 1985 and turned up unexpectedly in the National Theatre's The Mysteries, but that was it, apart from an unreleased album cut in Los Angeles for Columbia. In 1988, she gave it all up and now lives in Pimlico, married to an American movie businessman. She doesn't sing anymore.

It was an extraordinary voice when it worked. It was neither big, nor muscled, and it wasn't, to be frank, terribly mobile. But it was lucid, deep, unaffected and unfathomably sad. Thompson seemed to emit her voice rather than project it so that even in rare rumbustious moments - such as the title track of the duo's first album in which a provincial maiden yearns for an end to ennui among the lights of a town painted red - it clings to its emotional subtext like vapour round a pipe. Thompson was a great singer not because of the vastness of her capacity but because, within the limits of her capacity, she never, ever missed the point.

The house in Pimlico is rather posh - not the sort of place you'd expect to find a dismal ex-folk-rocker. Thompson herself is warm, bright-eyed and breezy, issuing hugs and cranberry juice preparatory to a chinwag upstairs in a bower of family photos. It's hard to square this vision of domestic cultivation with the studied Islamic/bohemian aesthetic of her past. The Linda Thompson recalled in Hannibal's new retrospective album Dreams Fly Away is on the face of it as tangential to Linda Kenis of Pimlico as she is to wee Linda Pettifer, who grew up on a Glasgow council estate in the Fifties, the daughter of an ex-variety girl and an electrical shopkeeper, both of whom were hardcore Americanophiles. Hank Williams, Snow and Thompson, Patsy Cline, Elvis, the Everly Brothers and Connie Francis ("I liked the sob in her voice") - these were Linda's early inspiration. American films were her vehicles of fantasy, American cars her parents' vehicle of choice.

"I was completely enchanted by showbiz," she says. "I was always told I was going to be a singer or an actress. And whenever we went to parties and everyone did their turn - which shows you just how ancient I am - I always sang." She found that whenever she sang sad songs, people would be quiet.

It's also not that easy connecting the sparky, garrulous figure of "relentlessly cheerful disposition" on the sofa opposite with the troubled soul of legend whose voice would go walkabout at moments of inner trial. Conventional medicine diagnosed her condition as "hysterical dysphonia", and failed to do much about it. Alternative therapy failed, too. In the end, Thompson "fixed things for herself", as far as she could, and learned to live with it. Even now, she finds she can't speak when she's very upset, particularly on the phone.

"It fascinates me in a repulsive way," she says. "I'm overawed by it. As well as feeling awful about it, I also feel... thrilled by it. It's so amazing that your brain can do this - hit you where you live, so to speak. In the end, you wind up thinking, thank God it's not cancer, thank God it's not weeping eczema."

Oddly, the one time you'd have expected the singer to be struck dumb as the void, she "sang like a bird". This was on the notorious 1982 tour, the last Richard and Linda outing following their private separation. Lurid tales have circulated about it for years. Linda has vivid memories of getting stuck in to Richard, live onstage, in front of rows of gobsmacked folk-rock devotees, and then trashing the dressing room for pudding. Mayhem can be a fine purgative, so perhaps the singer's sudden vocal lucidity was not so odd, all things considered. Linda likens it to having an anvil dropped on her foot, the discomfort of her immediate circumstances taking her mind off the deeper "grief".

The folk-rock generation threw up its fair share of troubled souls, chief among them being the remarkable Sandy Denny, who wrote and sang with Fairport Convention and then essayed a solo career in the Seventies that failed to connect with the mainstream market that might have changed her life. As it was, she fell downstairs at the end of the decade, clocked her head and expired an unfulfilled talent. Linda spent a lot of time with her, evidently engaged in the sort of emotional foraging that traditionally gets overlooked in the dedicatedly masculine world of rock. She says that Denny is the person from those days she thinks about most.

"Sandy was an amazing person," she says. "Nice isn't the word you'd use to describe her. She was like a tornado. You didn't like Sandy, you loved her to death or you couldn't stand her, or often both. Extraordinary person, and such a wreck. She seemed robust. She was a big girl. But she had such a breakable heart. I don't know why. She was a chubby teenager... She'd say to me, 'Oh Linda, you're so pretty and all the boys fancy you.' And I'd say, 'But... but Sandy, they fancy you too... and you're such a genius.'" Linda pauses and sighs. "Maybe Sandy did secretly want to be a pretty thing..."

On Dreams Fly Away, there is an unreleased Thompsons version of Denny's classic lament "I'm a Dreamer". It's a desperately sad, self-lacerating song about frustration, opening with the lines, "You make me nervous when I see you/ I can't imagine what it's like to be you". Denny's version is operatically wistful. Thompson's is cool, slightly weary, bleak, neither wistful nor self-pitying. Same words, completely different song. Its singer has a straightforward take on vocal authorship. "Singing isn't about having a great voice," she says, "or great technique or a professional attitude. Singing is about what goes on in your head."

'Dreams Fly Away' is out now on Hannibal