Linda Thompson leads a salute to Britain’s music halls of days gone by

Linda Thompson publicity photo by Annabel Vere

By Bruce Sylvester

In the 1970s and early ’80s, dusky-voiced Linda Thompson with her singer/writer/guitarist husband Richard won cult status for their dark discs echoing trad folk amid the rock.

She was born Linda Pettifer in London on August 23, 1947. When she was six, her parents moved the family back to their native Scotland. After growing up in Glasgow, she returned to London for university. Gravitating to its folk clubs, she sang as Linda Peters. She and Richard (whom she wed in 1972) had three children: Muna, singer/writer/producer Teddy, and Kami, who sings with her husband James Walbourne in the Rails.

Shoot Out the Lights (1982) marked the fiery end of her and Richard’s marriage and musical collaborations. The breakup fed into pain-drenched songs each subsequently wrote. In 1984, she sang in National Theatre’s production of medieval mystery plays. Her solo debut album, 1985’s One Clear Moment, included “Telling Me Lies” (her co-write with Betsy Cook), which garnered a 1987 Grammy nomination for Best Country Song after Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, and Emmylou Harris covered it on Trio.

Then dysphonia (a condition impacting her voice and ability to sing) kept her from putting out albums until drolly titled Fashionably Late in 2002. Her most recent solo, Won’t Be Long Now, came out on Pettifer Sounds in 2013.

Flashback to 2005, when she organized My Mother Doesn’t Know I’m on the Stage, a salute to Britain’s music hall entertainment of the 19th and 20th centuries offering plenty of laughter with tears too. On stage at the Lyric Hammersmith in London, its performers included son Teddy, son-in-law Walbourne, and family friends such as Martha Wainwright, actor Colin Firth, and, from the trans community, Justin Vivian Bond. Now, fashionably late, a CD of the show has been released on Omnivore Records.

Here Linda Thompson talks with Goldmine via email about music halls and more.

Goldmine: Is the CD’s humor especially British (say, the title track and “I Might Learn to Love Him Later On”)?

Linda Thompson: Let’s take “I Might Learn to Love Him Later On” about a young women marrying a rich older man. Is that British? Ask Melania.

G: Might its matrimonially ambitious parlour maid be the little beggar girl on 1974’s I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, only by now she’s found a job indoors?

LT: That’s funny. You are the only one to have cottoned onto that. She found a cushy job!

G: Has much of your earlier work hearkened back to Britain’s music hall days (Hokey Pokey from 1975, for example)? Its influence is on some of The Kinks’ tracks too.

LT: Richard and I both grew up on music hall, vaudeville stuff. The ’50s and maybe early ’60s was the last gasp of that particular kind of entertainment, though it never really dies.

G: What’s special about the music hall heritage for you?

LT: I loved the performers from those days. Most of them could sing, dance and crack a joke. Jimmy Cagney was a vaudeville performer before movies. A lot of those old film stars were. It was also the only platform for being a bit risque. Lots of double entendres and cross dressing.

G: What do you think is your best work ever over the decades?

LT: I’ll leave that to my fans (Sid and Doris Bonkers) to answer.

G: Traditional folk ballads clearly influence your music as well as Teddy’s and, within The Rails, Kami’s. What are trad balladry’s strengths and appeals to you?

LT: I love trad ballads. No hooks. No choruses. Difficult to sing. Dark and ominous. Right up my street.

G: Any advice you’ve given your children about music or the music industry?

LT: Run.

G: Are there any current musicians, other than your family, whom you think we should be hearing?

LT: I like Will Pound.

G: Were your and Richard’s Scottish heritages a factor in your partnership?

LT: Maybe they were. We have very similar sensibilities to this day. Hoots!

G: The reserve in your vocals makes your deliveries more powerful, as was true of your fellow Scot Jean Redpath. Is that a part of your Scottish background?

LT: Reticence. I like it. Like Om Kolsom said, “Always keep something in reserve for God.” I’m an atheist, so I keep something in reserve for Dave.

G: You and Richard both write cynically. Did that help your partnership?

LT: I think being cynical may have fueled our divorce. Ha.

G: You open Won’t Be Long Now with “Love Is for Babies and Fools.” Do you really feel that way?

LT: You never really feel that way for long. Songwriting is about capturing a feeling when you have it. That said, I’m no romantic.

G: Are you still involved with the Sufi branch of Islam, which you and Richard embraced in the 1970s?

LT: Hell no.

G: Do you have any kind of relationship with Richard these days?

LT: Richard and I have a good relationship. He has a new girlfriend, and seems to be extremely happy.

G: What’s your day-to-day life like now? What do you do for fun?

LT: I still write, and buy and sell art and jewelry. I eat a lot! Oh, and a lot of travel, while I still can.

G: Anything you want to talk about?

LT: Only if I can pay you a shrink’s fee.

About Bruce Sylvester

Bruce Sylvester is a regular contributor to Goldmine magazine.

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