PITTSBURGH — The latest album from Richard Thompson is Electric, so naturally, his latest tour finds him on an acoustic tour.
Electric, acoustic, it doesn’t matter, because fans are still going to get fireworks from the British folk-rocker widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. What has always separated him even further from the pack is that he can also sing and write far above the norm.
What his career has lacked — besides widespread popularity, hit records, and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (hello?) — are those peaks and valleys generally associated with artists who have maintained careers for almost 50 years.
He’s produced at a consistently high level, from his teenage years as the guitar-slinger with Fairport Convention, to his rich collaborative work with former wife Linda (1974-82), to the prolific and varied solo career that picked up again after the breakup in 1983.
Electric, recorded in the spring of 2012 with producer / guitarist Buddy Miller and released in early 2013, is yet another solid outing that mixes clattering rockers (“Stoney Ground,” “Stuck on the Treadmill”) with slow burners (“My Enemy”) and jangly folk in the ancient tradition (“Salford Sunday”). As always, his angular guitar work is jaw-dropping, whether he’s playing fluidly or shooting out the lights.
We reached the 64-year-old in Chicago on a father-son tour that features Teddy Thompson as the opening act.
Q. Your latest album is called “Electric,” and now you’re on an acoustic tour.
A. Well, I do both things. For the last 35 years, I’ve been doing acoustic tours and electric tours. And, in some cases, acoustic albums and electric albums. It’s fun for me to have two different aspects to what I do and it’s expensive to tour the band. So I can’t always afford to do that. So if I tour solo, it’s much more affordable, so it helps to pay the rent. I think it’s also nice for the audience to get a contrast so I’m not always returning in the same guise.
Q. Is the acoustic tour a harder night’s work for you?
A. Yeah, I suppose so, because there’s no one else to blame when it goes wrong. If there’s a disaster on the band show, I can just turn around and glare at the drummer or something. That usually works. Acoustic, it’s kind of insanity, really, because you’re up there totally naked, not literally naked, but musically naked. It’s a very vulnerable position to put yourself in. I think the audience appreciates that when it goes well. When it goes badly, they just throw rotten fruit at you.
Q. Is there a focus to what you’re doing with the set list?
A. I think it’s fairly loose. I just finished recording an EP, so I’ll try to play some things off of that. I’ll play some stuff off of “Electric,” a lot of which I can do acoustically anyway, and I’ll range back through the decades, all the way back to the ‘60s. People tend to shout out requests. So I’ll try to honor those as well.
Q. I talk to a lot of artists who, when they get to your age, feel like “why bother” when it comes to making albums. Do you feel like the albums get out there, get circulated, get appreciated? Are they important to you?
A. They’re important to me. And if that translates to other people, I think that’s a good thing. I like to be writing new songs and I like to be recording new songs, and I’m not sure I could live with myself if I wasn’t doing that. I might go insane or something. So, I’m glad that I’m able to do that. And if people are along with the ride, that’s great. If they’re not, I might have to do it anyway and play to an audience of five or three or seven people. I’ve always been fortunate that I have an audience and can earn a living from what I do. I’m hoping I can keep doing that.
Q. Do you still take the lunch pail approach of waking up in the morning and going right to work writing songs?
A. I do, yeah. It’s kind of a disrupted lifestyle. If I’m at home I can work office hours and that’s great. If I’m on the road, life is a bit more disrupted and I have to work when and where I can. But you get used to seizing opportunities.
Q. What type of songs are the biggest challenge for you now? For instance, is it kind of hard to write the simpler rockers like “Straight and Narrow”?
A. That’s actually a fairly complicated answer to that question. You’re performing in a genre. So the genre is popular music or it’s folk music, whatever you want to call it. So there’s a certain recipe for how you write and what you write and a certain expectation, a certain style the audience comes to expect. It’s a genre laden with love songs, songs of social commentary, political songs. I tend to write songs in the genre and try to layer them with things I like to say. The things I want to say aren’t always on the surface of the song. I try to write about who I am, and the things I see now. I do write songs about being an older human being and what that means. I kind of feel driven now by an awareness of time running out. You only have a certain window of life in which to work, and there are a few more projects I’d like to get to before I drift off into another realm.
Q. What’s it like working with Buddy and having another good guitarist on board with you in the studio?
A. It’s just super fun. He records at his house, which is a big house in the Nashville suburbs, and the downstairs is the recording studio. One of the great things about Buddy is his lack of ego. If you say to him, “I’d love to have you play on this song. Can you play a rhythm part?” he’ll say, “Fine, I can do that.” If you say, “Can you not play on this song,” he’ll say “That’s fine. I’m happy with that.” It’s a very relaxed experience recording at his house, that feeling that you’re sitting around playing with your friend. There’s no red light going on.
Q. Do you keep track of who’s keeping on the folk / folk-rock tradition, and do you think it’s in good hands?
A. It’s hard to keep up. I think I stopped trying to keep up with music about 1972, so I struggle.
Q. Except for the occasional Britney Spears song …
A. Yes, yes, the voice of folk-rock, I suppose. There’s always great artists out there. Sometimes they get signed and recognized, sometimes they don’t. Also, I think the number of records that get released is about 20-fold what it was in the ‘60s when I started. In the ‘60s I knew everybody personally or by reputation. You kind of knew everybody. It’s just so big now it’s hard to keep up.
Q. What’s it like touring with Teddy, and how much does he look to you for guidance?
A. It’s great being on the road with Teddy. At age 18 we did some stuff together and after that he was in my band for a while. Then, consensually, we said, “You really need your own audience, so you should have your own career.” So we didn’t work much after that. So this is a nice thing to do now and the audience seems to enjoy the whole evening. Does he look to me? He’s always been very level-headed about things in the music business. A lot more savvy than me, ever.
Q. Just to backpedal, you said you were working on an EP.
A. It’s a five-track project. I’m hoping it’s going to come out in June. It’s a band project, so me and my trio. It’s just a bunch of songs. It’s called ‘Variations,’ or ‘Variations on a Theme,’ not sure which and it’s taking existing songs and twisting them into something new — twisted to the point where you wouldn’t know what the original was unless I told you. For instance, there’s a track called “Variations on a Theme by the Troggs,” which takes a very basic Troggs chord sequence but then changes it into something completely different.
Q. Are you a little less collaborative these days in terms of other people’s projects? At one point, you were with the Golden Palominos. … Do you get a lot of offers to play on other people’s albums?
A. It’s hard to find the time to do things. What happens more and more is someone sends me the file and I do it at home, which is not always the most satisfying thing, but at least it can work and be successful. I’ve done a couple of those recently. I used to have more time or more energy or something to do that kind of thing.