Heartbreaker Please, the latest album from singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson, arrives on 29 May via Thirty Tigers. The record is Thompson‘s first under his own name since 2011’s Bella, though the London-born musician has busied himself with other projects in that time, including reuniting his parents, Richard and Linda Thompson, on the 2014 effort Family (credited to Thompson) and collaborating with singer Kelly Jones on Little Windows (2016). He also produced Not Dark Yet, the excellent 2017 collaboration from sisters Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, further displaying his considerable talents.
But a singer-songwriter must write and sing songs and Heartbreaker Please finds Thompson doing that with aplomb. His appreciation for soul music is on display more fully this time out, via “Why Wait” and “Record Player”. His long-noted ability to channel country greats remains intact throughout, as does his uncanny ability to capture, with exquisite accuracy, the longing and resignation of heartbreak.
Thompson’s latest single, “Brand New”, exemplifies this uncanny talent as he lays out a vocal that momentarily stops the heart with its stark beauty and emotional honesty. There is no one writing songs quite like him at this moment in time, and the reason is simple: No one can. It’s rare to find and artist who carves out a territory so distinctly, unmistakably, their own, and this particular corner of the human condition belongs to Teddy Thompson.
Speaking with PopMatters just before the release of the single, he recalled “Brand New’s” origins. “I played the wrong chord early on in the writing process, and it led to a much more interesting melody and progression,” he says. “So mistakes can be really good. It’s the result of a happy accident. That song is pure emotion. I didn’t have to agonize over structure. I just wrote what I felt. Those are often the best ones.”
This is your first album under your name since 2011, although you’ve made records with your family, with Kelly Jones, and as a producer. What was the thinking behind putting the solo records on pause for a moment?
When I was writing songs with Kelly for Little Windows and beginning that whole process, I realized that that was me holding out on another solo record. I had some of these songs rolling around from that time. I’m not the type to finish anything unless I absolutely need to, so I didn’t have to think too much about, “I’ve got to have these songs ready to go!” I thought, “Let me turn towards this other thing, and I’ll get back to these songs afterward.”
Do you remember the spark for this making this record?
I don’t think things through in such a calculated manner. I write songs as something I do on a day-to-day basis, and some of them become more finished without me having to think too much about it. I get to the point where I say, “Ah, I have a few good songs there”, and when it gets to about five, I might say, “Ah, this is the beginning of the next record.” I find that there’s usually one song in that process where I say, “This is a meaty song.” It’s like an anchor to build the record around. For this record, it was the song “No Idea.”
I’m glad you mentioned that tune. I was struck by the directness and honesty of the lyric. When something like that comes to you, are you ever surprised? “I don’t know where this came from” or are you usually pretty aware, pretty purposeful in what you’re writing?
It depends. Some songs are written more quickly than others. They feel like they just popped out. That song wasn’t one of them. I probably had some of the tune, and I think I had the first words, “no idea”, and I liked that. Then I remember, very clearly, spending a long time writing the bridge section, which was no easy. It was arduous. There are often songs that feel like they came to you in some lovely, unconscious divine manner, and then you buckle down and try to finish the rest of it. It’s the inspiration/perspiration ratio.
You write about heartbreak so well. When you were beginning to write songs was that apparent to you or did you search around for a time trying to find the best source material?
I tried writing some songs about kitchenware and appliances, but they really didn’t have the emotional impact I was looking for! [Laughs.]
I just don’t know how to write about anything else. I don’t see that there is anything else really impactful to write about. I would hazard a guess that 95 percent of great songs are about heartbreak or love but usually heartbreak, the downside of love. That’s what people care about. That’s what people relate to. That’s what’s the most impactful and arresting. There are a few notable exceptions. I would love to be Stevie Wonder and write great happy songs, but there are ten great, purely happy uplifting songs, and he’s written six of them. I would make the same argument about political songs.
What made “Heartbreaker Please” the choice for the first single and the title tune of the album?
From a musical standpoint, I think it was the most obvious because it has a good tempo, a good hook, a good chorus. From a songwriting point of view, it was one of those nice “Ah-ha!” moments where that title, those words, just sort of popped out. I think I was singing something else with heartbreak after it. I’ve had a little bit of experience now with teaching songwriting, and I advocate this method, which is this: When you’re writing something, and you have a bit of an idea with a word like that is to wander around your apartment singing it. Even when it’s not finished. Get to the point where it’s unconscious. I had the tune, the chorus, and “heartbreaker”. Without thinking too hard about it, I just sang it. When I got to “heartbreaker please”, I thought, “That’s really good. Has anybody else done that?” I did a Google search to see if there was another song with that title. [Laughs.]
Am I correct that the R&B and soul influences we hear on this record are the most pronounced they’ve been on one of your records?
I would say so. It’s just as surprising to me as it might be to somebody listening to it because I didn’t go into writing these songs thinking I wanted to be more R&B or something. But I have always listened to a lot of that music, ’60s American soul music. I wrote those few songs that have that feel, and it was just obvious to have horn arrangements on them.
What do you take away from producing other artists?
Somebody asked me if I enjoyed the process, and I said, “Yeah because I’m making records and going home and being able to sleep at night.” Which is something I’d not experienced before. When you’re making your own record, it’s tough to come home and not stew over it. It’s you. It’s personal. As a producer, I was pleasantly surprised by being in the studio, working on music, then being able to leave and have that be over. I’ve tried to carry that over into my record-making and try not to obsess too much.