Interview: Teddy Thompson
Congratulations on the success of your new album, A Piece Of What You Need: not only your first Top Ten entry, but also the first of your four albums to chart.
I think everybody was pleasantly surprised. We all put quite a lot into the set up, so we were hoping for something in the Top Forty – but not quite as high as we got, which was great.
You have described the mood of the record as “happy”, and there are certainly a lot of uptempo tracks – but lyrically, things seem to tell quite a different story.
It seems happy to me, but only relative to my previous work! (Laughs) It is more uptempo than before, but not necessarily happier in terms of subject matter. I’ve always loved happy tunes with sad lyrics. A lot of country music employs that tack. It was something I was always trying to do, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do it. It doesn’t come naturally to me!
The lyrics of Turning The Gun On Myself leapt out at me. On paper, they read as bleak in the extreme, but something about the arrangement suggests we shouldn’t be taking them too seriously.
Exactly – it’s supposed to be tongue in cheek. I was trying to dip my toe into Randy Newman territory – not that I claim to be at that level – but it’s dark humour. It depends what your perspective is, because people in America didn’t find it very funny.
Well, it does happen quite a bit over there…
We had the sound effect of a gunshot at the end of the song, which they made us remove. The promo copies in America had it, and they had some complaints from, I don’t know, Wal-Mart or something. Who sell guns, but refuse to carry music with the sound of a gunshot. Actually, the percussion on the track is a slowed down gunshot, so there’s gunshots on every beat. We slid it in there!
The lyrics of the title track have something of a jaundiced quality to them. You talk about a “drop dead gorgeous teen” who’s singing bad diary entries, and there’s a “soulless boy” who’s making us feel “pretty blank”. Did you have any particular individuals in mind?
Well, I’m not going to touch that! Probably at the time, but I’m not going to mention names. Not that they’d care what I think. It’s more of a general comment on the music business: traipsing around America and feeling like you’re banging your head against a wall, and why bother, because people don’t really want to hear this sort of thing; they want to hear disposable pop music. ‘Twas ever thus…
On my first listen to the album, I thought: this is all very pleasant, but maybe a bit on the mainstream Radio Two side for my tastes. I’ve since reassessed that initial knee-jerk reaction. There are some sly lyrics, and there’s some great and sometimes surprising orchestration – particularly as the album progresses, on tracks like Jonathan’s Book and Can’t Think Straight. It feels like you’ve placed the straight-up pop tunes at the front, and then as the album progresses, you stretch out and take things in new directions.
To be honest, I’ve been trying to make a real pop record for the last three records (laughs). I just hadn’t quite been able to do it, and so they turned out as slightly more home made and a bit less sparkly.
Things lined up this time. I was able to get a producer I wanted to work with for a long, long time (Marius De Vries), and so it just fell into place. I thought we had some really good pop tunes, but I knew that he would bring some interesting quirky production moments.
I didn’t change the way I wrote the songs. It was more a question of recording them in such a way that they were fully realised pop moments. We really tried to take each idea to its conclusion. I hadn’t really done that before.
If you look at the sleeve notes, Marius is credited with strange things like “lushness”, “can-do attitude”, and “general showing off”. But how did the collaboration work? What did he bring to the table?
Marius is a bit of an old school producer. He’s a bit George Martin-esque: tall and English and proper. I called him to make my first record, eight years ago, but it never worked out. I then met him about three years ago, because he was working with Rufus Wainwright, and we became friends. So it all came around, and I was able to get my man!
I’ve worked with different people, and some are more hands-on than others. Marius is very hands-on. You really feel like it’s money well spent by the end of the project – no matter what the result – because he works very hard.
He does a lot of pre-production, and a lot of thought goes on between the two of us before we even got in the studio. Once we did, he played a lot of things, and he arranged a lot of things in the studio. After we finished he did a lot of work, physically engineering and tweaking things. So he really did everything that I didn’t do, which was… well, he did a lot more than me! (Laughter)
Which is as it should be, you know? I’d written all the songs and done all the work, and it’s right and proper that the producer should come in and take over and make your dreams come true. Which he did.
Why did you call him “Mr. Bounce” on the sleeve notes?
I found some Mr. Men books at a book store on my way to the studio one day. I got Mr. Bounce for him, because he literally bounces into the studio every morning, no matter how little sleep he’s had. I think I got Mr. Worry for me, because I was constantly fretting over things.
There’s also a curious, and perhaps not entirely serious credit to Sir Elton. Have you met?
No, I just had to write that very quickly, so I don’t know where that came from. But I did read that he mentioned me somewhere, a few months ago. I think he mentioned me, Justin Timberlake and The Killers as his favourite new music, which was incredible. But I was just messing about, and looking to curry some favour with the movers and shakers! (Laughter)
Well, you do seem pretty well connected anyway. I’ve seen your name popping up on various credits over the years – most notably with Rufus Wainwright, who even has a cameo in your new video, dressed as Elvis. Are you planning to work together again?
I should think so, yeah. It’s all quite family-ish now. We’ve been friends for a long time, and our families all know each other, and I’ll be at his Christmas show in New York with lots of other friends and family. So I’m sure we will – but to what extent, who knows?
You’ve participated in a number of Leonard Cohen tributes. Have you seen him on tour this year?
Yes, I saw him at the O2 Arena a couple of months ago.
What did you make of the show?
I can’t imagine seeing him at the O2, I have to say.
I’m trying to think of a superlative, but I can’t think of one quite lofty enough. It was really brilliant. He played very quietly, which was a way of trying to make the O2 more intimate. Everybody was sort of leaning in, which made for a wonderful atmosphere. I’m not ashamed to say that I cried for a good portion of a couple of the songs – but everybody, even the people in the friends and family box, couldn’t hold their tears for the whole show.
I saw him at Manchester Opera House and there was a sort of soft weeping, going round the room.
Yeah, very square jawed, tough looking guys were crumbling. The ladies went first!
I notice that you’ve covered Roger Miller’s King Of The Road (on the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack). I have to tell you that my partner absolutely cannot listen to that song. He actually has to leave the room, because he finds it incredibly emotionally upsetting, for reasons that I cannot fathom. Have you ever known anyone who’s had a similarly extreme reaction?
No, not to that particular song. That seems as if there are some underlying emotional problems!