Old men with young women
Linda Pettifer was first a witness to, then a participant in the English folk rock scene that sprouted up around Fairport Convention in the late 1960s and early ’70s. She frequented folk clubs with Sandy Denny and dated singers Nick Drake and John Martyn. She dabbled in recording and sang some commercial jingles. In 1972, she married and formed a musical partnership with Richard Thompson, who had recently left Fairport. Their debut record, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, released two years later, brought Linda’s pure, heart-piercing alto to the larger world on such Richard-penned compositions as “Withered and Died” and “The Great Valerio.” These songs, and the ones that followed on subsequent albums—“For Shame of Doing Wrong,” “Dimming of the Day,” “Walking on a Wire”—were a different kind of folk. For all of the violent emotion of Richard’s lyrics, the music unfurled slowly, like a state procession. Linda’s singing was regal and unwavering.
The marriage encompassed six albums, a long spell in a Sufi commune, and a famously rocky ending. Their final work, Shoot Out the Lights, became a commercial success just as Richard revealed that he was leaving the then-pregnant Linda for another woman. They toured America anyway; Linda’s devastated, damning performances are now legendary. She made a solo record, One Clear Moment, in 1985—beautiful songs, flashy period production—and then retired from the music business, the victim of a condition called spasmodic dysphonia. When she opened her mouth to sing, nothing came out.
So it couldn’t have been more surprising when a second Linda Thompson album, Fashionably Late, appeared in 2002. New vocal treatments allowed her to sing again; she reentered the studio with the collaborative encouragement of her two children, Teddy and Kamilla, both musicians in their own right. On 2007’s Versatile Heart, Thompson continues to bridge past and present folk generations. She duets with Antony on a Rufus Wainwright song, and is backed up by Martha Wainwright and Jenny Muldaur, children of folk greats.
I spoke to Thompson, who lives in London and is now married to film agent Steve Kenis, by phone in late August. She was visiting family in San Diego.
THE BELIEVER: What’s it like to work so closely with your kids? Do you ever pull rank on them?
LINDA THOMPSON: Ah, no, vice versa. They pull rank on me. They go, “What do you know? You’re old!” It can be fraught, but there is an absolute comedy and joy in families singing together. In traditional music circles, people have always worked with their families. Families have always sung together. People who are related sound good together. We live in a different world now. It’s very insular and people go into their own bedrooms and watch TV. I can tell you that if more families sung together or even went bowling together, things would be better. I’m lucky because when your kids grow up you don’t get to see so much of them, and it’s wonderful to be able to be in the studio with them. I mean, if I was in an office with them, I think that would be a bit difficult. But to be creating something is fun. And Teddy and I tend to do things on the phone—I give him something and he gives me something—and then we get into the studio and we throw it all out and start again. We don’t sit down in a room together and write songs. That would be a bit Norman Bates–ish.
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