Turning on the lights: Linda Thompson rediscovers her voice

By Mark Guarino

Among the lore surrounding the history of British folk duo Richard and Linda Thompson is this story: When they finally broke up, it was before a show. Stepping onstage together, Richard had blood smeared down his face due to the bottle Linda smashed over his head a few minutes before.   

Twenty years later, she continues to stoke the famously contentious relationship with her ex-husband. “I play it up now,” she said recently. “If (fans) say ‘was that deliberate?’, I say ‘oh, yeah.’ I’m shamelessly getting all the votes I can pull in.”   

For myth seekers, Thompson’s first album in 17 years includes conscious references to her former life in the ‘70s when she was considered folk rock’s finest female singer. She and husband Richard released six albums together, culminating with “Shoot Out the Lights” (Hannibal), a 1982 collection of songs about scarred relationships performed with an undertow of tension and defeat. It led to their first U.S. tour and also their divorce. Still, it remains one of rock’s greatest albums that crystallized the many shades of love and loss.   

Richard Thompson briefly makes a cameo playing guitar on his ex-wife’s new album, “Fashionably Late” (Rounder). But he looms largest on “Dear Old Man of Mine,” a song he doesn’t even perform on, but is entirely about him.    

“I don’t know why I’m crying/maybe it’s because we can’t go back/and there’s no use denying … many a heart has proved untrue,” Linda sings, backed up by — get this for a strange family outing — their two children, Teddy and Kamila.   

“You write about what you know best,” she said. “I’m certainly not devious but it’s very obvious ‘Old Man’ is about Richard. It’s kind of bitter, it’s kind of sweet, it’s a bit of both. I’m just at an age now I just say whatever I think.”   

Thompson is 54 and, unlike her ex-husband who stepped into a flourishing solo career, she only managed to make one album a few years after their divorce. Even though it was well received with one song receiving a Grammy nomination, Thompson soon disappeared from public life. She was diagnosed with hysterical dysphonia, a psychological disorder that induced panic whenever she tried to sing in public. With her musical career scrapped, she devoted her energy to raising her children, travelling, writing songs for other performers and even doing book reviews for the BBC.    

Not singing, though, felt like cruel punishment. “I wasn’t making records. If people said, ‘what do you do?’, it would have been stupid to say, ‘I’m a musician.’ Because you’re not a musician if you’re not musician-ing,” she said. “That was the thing I liked best.”   

The dark drama in her and her ex-husband’s old records was due to her seductive, leathery voice, a touchstone for female singers ever since. In her early years growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, Thompson first heard traditional folk music in her home. Her parents were “fairly poor” and she grew up in state-assisted housing. With no television separating them from each other, family members would stand up and sing during gatherings, passing a particular song around until everyone had a turn. “I love amateur musicians,” she said. “The Latin meaning of the word is doing it for the love of it. You used to get great people who would get up in a pub and sing. It was very much a part of day-to-day life.”   

She left home to attend London University but soon ditched her studies to dive into the burgeoning folk rock scene of the late ‘60s that had taken London pubs and coffeehouses by storm. Her peers included Sandy Denny, John Martyn, her future husband Richard (who then was playing in the folk rock group Fairport Convention) and Nick Drake, the singer-songwriter who died in 1974 of a prescription drug overdose at age 26. More than two decades later, Drake’s melancholy folk pop posthumously received its biggest commercial success when Volkswagen licensed his song “Pink Moon” for a commercial. His music quickly was rediscovered and, thanks to the eeriness in the songs and the question whether his death was an accident or a suicide, he was transformed into a cult figure among alternative rockers.   

“It’s amazing that at Safeway, you can hear Nick on the sound system,” Thompson said. “He was very strange, very beautiful, very talented, very quiet and as it turned out, he was pretty ill. But who knew about mental illness in those days? It was difficult. We didn’t know what was wrong with him. We left him alone. It turned out he took prescription drugs to control his depression. These days he would have gone to rehab.”   

Thompson’s new album retains the slow sadness of that era. Sparse to shine a white light on her voice, the new songs are elegant story songs with colorful harmonies (some with Rufus Wainwright) and graceful guitarwork by both her ex-husband and son.    

The record evolved after her mother died about three years ago. “It hit me hard. It shouldn’t have because she was old but it did,” she said. “And with my kids grown up, I wanted to say something. I had to be able to sing again.”   

She discovered that by taking her time slowly, she could sing in stops and starts. The record became such a labor of love, she entered the studio before she had a record deal and many of the songs were written on the fly. “I’m not comparing myself to Picasso but someone once asked him, ‘how come you do these (paintings) in five minutes and then sell them for millions of dollars?’ and he said, ‘I may do them in 30 minutes, but I’ve been thinking about them for 20 years’. That thought process was there. Whether subliminal or deep down in my psyched, I guess they came up,” she said.   

Once it was finished, Thompson’s immediate thought was “who’s going to put this out, I’m an old person.” But the three labels that heard it all offered her a deal.   

Another welcome surprise came recently when Thompson learned she was misdiagnosed, after years of believing she was suffering from a problem that was purely psychological. What she suffered from all along, she learned, was a special throat infection that formed 29 years ago when she was pregnant. It created an extra flap of skin in her throat that later struck pain when she tried to sing.   

“I always felt like I was tensing up but it was actually physiological,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. After thirty years of thinking I was crazy.”    

She now undergoes routine botox treatment that has aided in bringing back her voice back to full form. Her first tour in 20 years brings her to the Old Town School of Folk Music tonight.   

“I walk along the street singing now,” Thompson laughed. “People tell me to shut up.”

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