“I definitely disassociate a lot and tune out, which is a defence mechanism,” admits the eloquent Teddy Thompson. “If I don't like the way things are going I just stop paying attention.”
The New York-based singer-songwriter, who is thankfully very attentive when we meet up in north-west London, is recognised for his deeply personal, sometimes self-lacerating alt-country songs (witness “Depression looms/ I'm such a miserable fool” on “I Should Get Up”) and he talks quite a bit about “being uncomfortable”. It might have something to do with being the son of English folk royalty, the axe maestro Richard (former Fairport Convention) and singer Linda Thompson, and being part of a “musical dynasty”. Although Thompson insists that he doesn't feel that pressure: “God, if there was pressure it would mean our family were selling a lot more records, and we were a bit more famous.”
For his latest project, the 40-year-old's music has gone in a markedly different direction, collaborating with LA-based pop artist Kelly Jones for the “breezy”, Buddy Holly/the Everly Brothers-inspired Little Windows. “Buddy Holly's music is deeply ingrained, it's part of my musical DNA,” Thompson enthuses.
The new record, which comes in at just under 26 minutes, delivers 10 jaunty, 1950s-styled pop songs, that recall Holly gems “Words of Love” and “Everyday”, and Roy Orbison's “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)”. The 10 exquisitely crafted tracks, which were co-written with Oregon's Jones and US songwriter Bill DeMain, are described as “fantastic” by the normally reserved Thompson.
“The songs are about love and heartbreak and all the usual things, but they're a little bit more universal,” he stresses. “Songs that can be sung by anybody, like Cole Porter. It wasn't just me, me, me; you couldn't be too obtuse about anything. The other two people would say, 'I don't really know if that speaks to me?'.”
Thompson and Jones, best known in the US for 2010's power-pop SheBANG!, haven't known each other that long (they've only played three gigs together) and are still working out how their voices blend together.
“I think we sound really good together, but it's not perfection by any means,” he confesses. “The only people who achieved perfection were the Louvin brothers and the Everly Brothers, technically perfect harmony singers. The only way to do that is if you're related to each other.”
His parents famously sounded terrific together, especially on 1975's Pour Down Like Silver, but Thompson's tenor voice complements Jones's country twang beautifully, especially on the album's vibrant opener “Never Knew You Loved Me”, heartbreak ballad “I Thought That We Said Goodbye” and standout track “As You Were”. They make quite a contrast to previous Thompson songs, such as “Everybody Move It” (from 2005's Separate Ways) where he laments “Sat in the corner you could pass for dead”.
“I'm a bit of a watcher, not uncommon, a lot of writers and artists feel this way. I always felt a bit uncomfortable. The easy way at parties would be to sit down and not dance, because I felt so awkward, then you end up as that person who's watching things happen and you get into that mind-set. You roll along like that and that becomes your identity. That's how I coped with a lot of things, feeling like I didn't fit in.”
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Thompson was born in a commune in Maida Vale, which housed 30 squatters who sourced their power from next door. His parents converted to Sufi Islam before he was born and Teddy was raised in the religion until they divorced when he was six. Linda married an American agent and dropped Sufi Islam, while Richard still practises. Teddy isn't religious. He was educated at the “progressive” Bedales School in Hampshire (“I'm a bit spacey frankly, which definitely affected my learning capabilities at school”) before, in his late teens, hanging out with Rufus Wainwright, and sort of finding his mojo.
“When we went to parties to LA it worked out really great for me because I was quite shy and introverted, and Rufus is really extroverted,” he maintains. “We became really good friends and would go to gay bars and hang out with Rufus's cool, interesting friends. I felt so much more comfortable in that environment, with these people I could relate to. It sounds strange but I felt more comfortable with these people who felt uncomfortable in mainstream society because I felt marginalised and different with having red hair and growing up a little bit ginger... I say a little bit,” laughs the redhead. His 2000 debut, Teddy Thompson, was critically acclaimed but it wasn't until his fourth, 2008's A Piece of What You Need, that he hit paydirt, entering the UK's Top 10 and featuring his most obviously poppy song, “In My Arms” .
Thompson, who is chatty, easy-going company, will be going back to his more “personal” albums after this collaborative adventure, and he admits it'll be “the usual, me, me, me, more obtuse, more personal, a bit less universally accepted as songs.” Whatever genre he tackles, Thompson always proves a challenging and complex musician.
Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones's 'Little Windows' is released on 1 April; they tour the UK from 4 May, including the Bath Music Festival on 24 May. Tickets are available here.
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