THOMPSON – Family
Teddy Thompson hadn’t prepared a follow up to his fifth studio album Bella (2011), but he came up with a more ambitious project in Family. As its title indicates, Family consists of contributions by members of what has become one of the most artistically significant families in contemporary music.
It starts, of course, with Teddy’s parents, Richard and Linda Thompson—Richard being one of rock history’s greatest singer-songwriter-guitarists, Linda being his ex-wife and singing partner, and an extraordinary solo artist in her own right. Both came out of England’s legendary folk-rock scene, and each contributes two songs to Family. Teddy was born in 1976, six years before his parents separated. He also has two songs on the 10-track album, as does his younger sister Kami Thompson (one of them with her husband James Walbourne, with whom she performs in The Rails). Richard’s son Jack Thompson has one song, as does Zak Hobbs, grandson of Richard and Linda and Teddy’s nephew.
“I thought it was just an interesting idea,” says Teddy. “To be honest about it, I wasn’t ready to make another record, and was wondering what I was going to do for the next few months. I sent an email to everybody asking them all to come up with two new songs. I thought it would be fun and easy, and not too much work for anyone. Only two songs each! Easy.”
The reaction to Teddy’s directive “ranged true according to people’s personalities,” Teddy reveals. “My mom came back about two minutes later. My dad said, ‘That’s interesting.’ My little sister Kami was a bit slower. She can be a bit reticent about all musical endeavors. Especially those involving family. Then there was a long gap: People had to write two new songs, which I reminded everybody periodically. And I didn’t have my pedal to the metal myself for a while. So it all took some time. But everybody came back with great material in the end.”
Per Teddy’s instructions, the Thompson Family members wrote and recorded their songs where they resided. “Part of the concept was that everybody lives in different cities—and can’t get together in one room very easily. So I was thinking of it as a game of Telephone.” Teddy explains. “Everyone sent in finished basic tracks, and it was exciting to hear what everyone did. Then when I had the songs in my inbox and ready to go, I thought about how to musically cross-pollenate.”
Long a New York resident, Thompson returned to his hometown London to do some overdubs with his mother, sister, her husband James, Zak and even got some amazing backing vocals from his elder brother, Jesse Thompson’s wife, Paulina Lis. Subsequently, there was a day doing the same with his father in Los Angeles. “Everything was done very, very quickly, and I came home with a full hard drive. It was then left to me to sort through it and put everything together—which proved quite a job.”
One of Teddy’s songs is “Right”…“I think I was conscious that there might be a lot of ballads, because that’s what my family does!” he says. “So it’s kind of a countryish rocker—and a good opportunity for guitar solos. We have a lot of guitar players in the family–my dad, obviously, and my nephew Zak, and Kami’s husband James. These are three pretty shit hot lead guitarists, and I had t divvy up the solos. Also trying to not have them play lead on their own songs. For a bit of fun.”
Teddy’s other song is the album’s intensely personal title track “Family.” “As the songs came in, I had trouble figuring out my second one,” he concedes. “I just wasn’t feeling creative or writing much and it was getting down to the wire. But it turned out to be a good thing because I was able to see what was missing tempo-wise and feel-wise. So I wrote a song in ¾ (waltz time). That it ended up being a song about family was unintentional, but that’s what came out of living with these songs for months and dealing with some intense emotions.
He returns to his original concept. “The brief was only for everyone to send in two songs, but it was really telling how everyone interpreted it. My mum she sent in a very emotional song, a stunning ballad, ‘Bonny Boys’, about kids and grandkids and family. My dad pretty much wrote two ‘Richard Thompson’ songs! But he’s pragmatic. One had a singalong chorus [‘That’s Enough’], which I’m grateful for, because it gave everybody the opportunity to sing. And they’re both fantastic.”
Kami’s compositions, Teddy says, “are classic Thompson-style twisted assessments of love and relationships,” while nephew Zak’s “Root So Bitter” is the first song he’s ever written: “He was 17 when he recorded it and did really well don’t you think?”
Although Teddy specified little in his brief to his family, he is inevitably asked if in fact his finished Family parallels the complicated Thompson Family. “My experience with my family may be contrary to what people believe,” he asserts. “I did not grow up with a lot of music. My parents split when I was very young, so if anything, it’s a family that was personally and musically very fractured. We never played music together or sang together growing up. So the experience of being in our family is a musical version of any divorced family–that I’m sure a lot of people can relate to. People all over the place, who feel a bit broken and alone. But the upside is that as adults, we can use music to bring us closer together and maybe repair some of the damage done.”
Teddy admits to being surprised by his true motivations for undertaking this project. “I didn’t realize how much I was trying to get my family back together,” he says. “I was six when my parents divorced, and my world was torn apart. It has affected everything in my life since. How could it not?
Looking ahead, Teddy is working on an “Everly Brothers-style” duets album of original material with singer-songwriter Kelly Jones, which Jerry Douglas is producing in Nashville.
Meanwhile, Family has already won approval from two major participants. “I think my kids and my grandson are brilliant,” says Linda Thompson. “My son-in-law, too! And Jack and Richard are ace.”
“Somehow it all seems to work,” adds Richard Thompson. “I’m really glad Teddy came up with this concept, and he followed through and pushed us all along to completion. It’s such fun to sing with my kids. I am of course deeply proud of them all.”