"Comfortable Just Being Me": An Interview with Teddy Thompson
With the release of his acclaimed new album Bella, Teddy Thompson talks to PopMatters about the joys of Tom Jones and why he never wants to be compared to Michael Bublé ...
Although Teddy Thompson has often been labeled as a folk rocker -- no doubt as a result of being the son of noted musicians Richard and Linda Thompson -- his current sound shares much more in common with the classic rock of the late '50s and '60s. One can clearly hear resonances of past work by Norman Petty, Phil Spector, Steve Sholes and other notable producers from the glory days of rock singles on the new disc, Bella, which was recently released to rave reviews. . That's a deliberate choice, Thompson told PopMatters over the phone from England where he's on tour. He took some time from his busy schedule to discuss the disc and the songwriting process.
Although Thompson now lives in New York City, the British-born musician still speaks with a slight English brogue. He articulates his words carefully, and takes time to think before answering questions. His vocal intonations also carry a hint of laughter that suggests while he takes himself and his music seriously, he doesn't take himself too seriously.
PopMatters: Why did you call the album Bella, as it isn't the title of a song or even from a line on the disc?
Teddy Thompson: I usually have a song or an essential theme that I name the record after, but in this case nothing leapt out. Most of the songs here are about my relationship with my ex-girlfriend, Bella. Besides, Bella is Italian for beautiful, and that was the ideal we tried to create on the record. We wanted it to sound beautiful.
PM: Has Bella heard the record? Does she like it?
TT: She liked it. [silence]
PM: How is Bella different from your previous records?
TT: Well, the greatest difference isn't so much in how it sounds, but in the manner of how we produced it. Usually you start with scratch vocals and start building the tracks. Then when you get to the end you put the vocals on it and try to integrate them into the framework. The big decision this time was to start by recording the vocals first and making them the most important thing -- the centerpiece -- of the album.
PM: Some songs, like "Take Me Back Again" and "Over and Over", evoke the classic rock productions of the early 60s, but you are too young to have heard that music growing up, how did you discover it?
TT: That's what I grew up listening to, American 50s music. When I was 12 years old I discovered the joys of Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, and the girl group singers. Those songs had such a strong flavor to them and made a deep impression.
Some people have criticized my songs like "Home" and "Tell Me What You Want" because their lyrics are simple and straightforward, but that was exactly what I was going for. That's not a negative. That's their core strength.
PM: Jenni Mulduar does such a great job singing the duet on "Tell Me What you Want" -- how did that come about?
TT: We have been friends for about ten years. I wrote this song with her in mind as an old fashioned duet in the style of Mickey and Sylvia. She has such a strong and distinctive voice.
PM: How about that line on "Over and Over" about "sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows" -- was that an intentional reference to the old Lesley Gore song, or just something from your subconscious that came out?
TT: Oh, that's deliberate. That song is the ringtone on my cell phone. I've heard it about 10 times a day for the past three years. Every reference you think you hear was probably written that way for a purpose. I worked hard on all 11 songs. There are no cover songs on the album, because I wanted people to pay attention to the songwriting. Cover songs can distract listeners from what else is on the record because people already have vague notions and opinions about them and how they want them to sound.
PM: Are there any more modern influences on the record?
TT: Not really, but a large part of that is because there is already so much great music out there. What I hear tends to blow right past me and not stick. That's not to say there aren't good new musicians out there, have you heard Krystal Warren? She's great -- her voice has sort of a female Little Jimmy Scott quality to it -- kind of a woman and man's range combined in a lovely fashion.
PM: Where do you get the inspirations for your songs?
TT: I write mostly in the first person about me. There's a good piece in the new Keith Richards' autobiography where he talks about when he and Mick first became songwriters. It changes you as a person. You become somewhat detached as an observer and see the world as the source of ammunition for your songs. Most songwriters tend to be distant people because we are subconsciously always looking for material for a song.
PM: Are there any personal topics that you would not write about?
TT: No. Nothing I would shy away from because it was too personal. I wouldn't write political songs, because I am not that kind of songwriter. Maybe I will when I get older and lose interest in the romantic life. But don't expect any songs about Egypt this week.
PM: Your song "The Next One" is reminiscent of some of your father's music, and I read a review that called you the folk-rock Michael Bublé? Is there anyone you never want to be compared with? Have you ever not recorded a song because you thought it sounded too much like that person?
TT: I would never like to be compared with Michael Bublé. Ewww. I rarely hear what others say they hear when I get comparisons thrown at me. Some critics used to say Jackson Browne, but I never understood that. The comparison seems way off. Most comparisons seem lazy, as if the listeners don't connect the music to the lyrics.
Some people have said that I sound like Roy Orbison on the new record, but that is only because of the arrangements and the production -- and maybe our shared use of falsetto. I find it flattering, but it is utterly absurd and ridiculous. I couldn't even shine his shoes.
PM: Jon Langford has called Tom Jones' "Delilah" the unofficial Welsh national anthem? Were you worried about writing a song with the same title?
TT: No, there's not too much danger of confusing our songs. It's too bad if someone downloads mine by mistake. I wrote the song because of the way the name scans as a lyric. I never considered another name. By the way, I love Tom Jones. He is one of the greatest singers rock has ever produced. I will ask him about this next time I see him. Maybe he will cover mine!
PM: Some of the best musicians from where I live in the Midwest, such as Pieta Brown and Lissie, seem to release their records first in England and have important tours there before performing in the states. Even though you recorded Bella in New York City, isn't that true for you as well? What is it about English music fans? Are they smarter on a cultural level?
TT: The kind of music I make maybe is too country, or Americana, or I am not sure of the term, for many American audiences. But there is a real hunger for it in England. If I tour America, it's a big country and I might have to drive for two days between gigs, while in England, I can just go two hours away and play another show to a different crowd.
Also, England is easier to make a splash in because it is a small country. It might only take you a month to get the press and the business side moving, while in America, the same thing might take a year. Therefore, England's a good place to start a tour before playing the States.
PM: In closing, I hope you don't mind a silly question. You are the only rock musician named Teddy that I know, with the exception of the late Teddy Pendergrass. Did you ever want to have a different name?
TT: Nope. I'm comfortable with it. The name is part of who I am, and I am comfortable just being me.