'I'm Not Dead Yet'

Richard Thompson isn't doing live interviews to promote this new set, but he did graciously agree to answer a few questions from NEWSWEEK's Malcolm Jones via e-mail. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Is it still a pleasure to perform? To write? To play music around the house, with friends? Put another way, if money was of no concern, what would you do with yourself?

Richard Thompson: Music is absolutely the center of my life. I suppose if I could afford to tour less, I would write more. And a bit more gardening.

In the United States, and maybe in the U.K., a songwriter who writes and performs using traditional song forms is usually penned into one sort of box or another. The underlying assumption seems to be that writing and singing with traditional song forms is not the natural thing to do but some sort of tic or gimmick, the musical equivalent of blacking out your teeth and wearing overalls on stage. As someone who has both seriously and wryly contemplated the last thousand years of pop, does this ring true to you? Do you feel pre-labeled, or boxed into a genre?

It seems to be human nature to label everything—I do it myself—but however bad it is in the United States, it is way worse in the U.K., where indigenous music is treated as a novelty and is disconnected from the mainstream of popular music; so not only are you shoved in a box—folk, traditional, etc.—but you are also sidelined into the "quirky" or "eccentric" category for presuming to play something with local roots. But fashions come and go, and somehow I'm still here.

In the booklet accompanying your new boxed set, it is reported that as a young man learning to write songs, you threw away a huge amount. Is that still the case? Does songwriting get easier, harder? And does instrumental virtuosity help you as a writer?

I might only throw away about 70 percent of finished songs, and a lot more half-finished songs. Some stuff gets recycled—that nice bridge from that otherwise clunky ballad could go into another song, and the juxtaposition could be rather surreal. I think I'm getting better at knowing when I'm wasting my time, and when to go for a walk.

Instrumental prowess can be a help or a distraction. I dislike large chunks of music because it seems merely flashy. But technique can certainly open doors.

Throughout your career, you have proven yourself one of the premier instrumental interpreters of traditional songs, not to mention the odd Ellington number, and yet there is a notable absence of much material of this sort in this box. Is this a side of your musical self that you discount, downplay, don't care to promote?

I'm not sure that it is what I care about most; I think my main love is songs, and whatever I can fit into them. I enjoy playing dance music, but I probably get a little bored with it.

Let me begin this question by saying that if anyone deserves to have his or her career surveyed in a sumptious boxed set, you're the man. And yet, do you feel a bit abashed at this sort of midcareer canonization?

I accept it as another medium, rather than as a slap on the back—it's become a pretty standard form for anyone who's been around the requisite number of years. I would like to emphasize that I'm not dead yet.

Creativity is a blessing that seems to descend upon a person without warning and then often depart just as suddenly and inexplicably. Musicians in particular seem to have their moment where they can't stop writing great songs, and then suddenly it's over. You seem to have somehow escaped this curse, writing and performing great material nearly all your adult life. How'd you do it?

I have months where I write turgid nonsense. I'm glad to say I can bounce back, usually. There seem to be different creative curves—some people have a youthful burst, and then fade quickly, others manage to do it for life. Perhaps we should no longer see rock as a young man's sport, burning out (or dying) at 25; a novelist, a film director—these kinds of artists would not be expected to get rolling until their 40s—let's expect more from our 60- and 70-year-old rock stars, and perhaps they'll deliver something more worthy of their maturity, instead of trying to squeeze into those ever-tighter pants.