An Interview with Linda Thompson

Linda Pettifer was initially an observer and subsequently a part of the English folk rock movement initiated by Fairport Convention in the late 1960s and early ’70s. She often visited folk clubs with Sandy Denny and was romantically linked with singers Nick Drake and John Martyn. She also attempted some recording and sang jingles for commercials. In 1972, she married Richard Thompson, who had recently left Fairport and formed a musical partnership with her.

Their initial album, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, released two years later, made her pure and heart-breaking alto heard by the greater public in Richard’s compositions like “Withered and Died” and “The Great Valerio.”

The songs on this record and those on subsequent albums such as “For Shame of Doing Wrong,” “Dimming of the Day” and “Walking on a Wire” were a unique kind of folk. Despite the overwhelming emotion in Richard’s words, the music progressed slowly, just like a state procession. Linda’s singing was authoritative and unwavering.

Throughout their marriage, Richard and Linda Thompson created six albums, spent time in a Sufi commune, and had a famously difficult ending. Their final work, Shoot Out the Lights, was a hit when Richard announced his intention to leave Linda while she was pregnant with their child. They toured America regardless, and Linda’s emotional and heartbreaking performances are now the stuff of legend. In 1985, she released a solo album, One Clear Moment, with beautiful songs and flashy production–and then left the music industry due to a disorder called spasmodic dysphonia, which prevented her from singing.

It was an unexpected turn of events when Fashionably Late, Linda Thompson’s second album, was released in 2002. With her children, Teddy and Kamilla, both of whom are musicians, providing support and encouragement, Thompson was able to sing again, thanks to new vocal treatments. On Versatile Heart, released in 2007, Thompson blends together different folk generations, featuring a duet with Antony on a Rufus Wainwright song and also having Martha Wainwright and Jenny Muldaur, whose parents are folk legends, as her backup singers.

In late August, I had a phone conversation with Thompson, who is now married to film agent Steve Kenis and resides in London. At the time, she was visiting her family in San Diego.

— Peter Terzian stated


Do you recall the initial encounter with Sandy Denny?

At the Troubadour, a coffee bar in London, Linda Thompson remembers seeing a nurse who frequented the club during the late 1960s. Though she was an amateur musician, it was evident that she was truly remarkable.

BLVR: How would you describe your close friend?

LT spoke fondly of Sandy, remarking that she was a remarkable woman in a man’s world. She was twenty years old when she had her audition for Fairport, impressing Richard by asking them to audition for her first. Sandy was a gifted songwriter, and LT recalled being surprised when Sandy said she was going to write songs. The next day, she wrote “Who Knows Where the Time Goes?” Her voice, LT said, was something that had a really remarkable effect on him, and he still compares all the new people he listens to to her.

BLVR posed the question: Why was it that many of your fellow musicians from the 60s and 70s, like Denny and Tim Buckley and Nick Drake, had such early deaths, while you were able to persevere despite the same pressures?

When I was eighteen and relocated to London, I moved into a residence where I was immediately met with several people shooting heroin in the living room. Nevertheless, I had always had an aversion to such behavior, likely due to my Scottish heritage and the Calvinistic values instilled in me from a young age. I may be inclined to be self-destructive in certain ways, but I am aware of when to draw the line.

The passing of both Denny and Nick Drake must have been very impactful to you.

I recall feeling sorrowful for Nick due to the fact that interventions weren’t done back then and we let him be. I remember coming across him in the street shortly before he passed away. His nails were long and black and he seemed disoriented. After conversing with him, I realized I had to leave. At the time, mental illness and substance abuse were not seen with compassion and understanding. People would just say “Oh, pull yourself together.” Nowadays, this would never be said to a person with cancer.

Sandy was someone I was close to who passed away. She used to call me at three in the morning, and I told her that I could not talk to her at that time since I had two young kids. After that, I felt regretful for not speaking to her. I was aware that Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin were going through something, yet none of us said or did anything to help. I suppose that’s the kind of carelessness that comes with youth, you think, “Oh, they will be alright”. But, sadly, that wasn’t the case.

At the time, did you have any thought that Nick Drake’s music would be remembered in such a profound way?

LT’s response was a definitive no.

Did anyone actually do so? BLVR asked.

LT expressed that he didn’t believe Joe Boyd when he said he knew Nick Drake would go on to be successful. Every week LT would visit Sound Techniques to hear Nick, John Martyn, Richard and Sandy record, and he knew it was great, but he didn’t predict the music would carry on. He pointed out that Nick was a very underrated guitarist and that he was unable to perform live due to his shyness. He described Drake as a gentle and troubled individual, who was almost too good for this world. LT went on to say that he was a translucent person.

BLVR: Did you become familiar with him?

LT: We dated briefly and he’d often come to my place to play music for hours without speaking much. He rarely said more than a few words. He was the very embodiment of a silent type. He’d either play his instrument or sip on tea. He never did any drugs when I was around, but I’m sure he indulged in marijuana and taking pharmaceuticals. However, I never got to witness that part of him.

BLVR: Was there any kind of rivalry among the folk music circles during that time period? Were there any divisions among the different groups of artists?

LT commented on how there were hardcore traditionalists who wanted Mike and Lal Waterson to make a “proper” record when they released Bright Phoebus with songs they had written themselves. He noted that there were still those who felt like one should not use an American instrument if they are English. He then spoke about how he and Sandy were friendly with people in the music industry and that Led Zeppelin were fans of their music. Robert Plant and Jimmy Page were very supportive and many guitar players admired Richard’s work.


I think that the term “folk” is often used to refer to a person who is performing on an acoustic guitar.

LT agreed that what was said was accurate.

BLVR: Something that’s of interest to me is that the songs you compose are heavily inspired by traditional structures, such as the ballad. Would you mind sharing when you were first exposed to this kind of music?

LT: Way back when I was a child, around forty years ago, I was taught a lot of lame and shallow stuff in school. But, luckily, I got to know some amazing Scottish folk singers – Matt McGinn (who has since passed away), Archie Fisher (who is fortunately still alive), and Hamish Imlach (who is no longer with us). I think you either appreciate this kind of music right away or you don’t – with 74 verses and no chorus, I was immediately hooked, whereas most of my friends just wanted to know where the bar was.

BLVR: How has folk music influenced your life? Not in terms of your professional life, but more on a personal level. Has it had any sort of impact on your being?

LT: It had never occurred to me until now, but I think this has impacted me in some fashion. It’s quite evident that I have a darker side. Traditional songs such as murder ballads and other similar works are rife with universal themes such as family issues, incest and even infanticide, as well as older men marrying young women. When I consider it, having been exposed to those songs at a young age of twelve or thirteen likely gave me a unique approach to life in comparison to those who listened to more saccharine music. In many ways, it has made me very accepting of the worst eventualities, and if something positive happens, it’s a bonus.

BLVR: Was your mom a vaudeville dancer? Did she impart any knowledge of the performing arts to you when you began your career? Did she have any words of wisdom to share with you?

LT: That’s so funny! You’re too young to have seen me perform live, but my stage presence is comparable to a totem pole. I’m one to close my eyes. My mom used to joke and ask why I couldn’t sing more upbeat tunes, but she never gave me any advice on performing. She was always a bit perplexed by folk music, I’m sure.

BLVR: It was the passing of your mother that motivated you to start performing once more.

LT explained that although his father had passed away a while ago, when his mom died it had a much bigger impact. He wanted to have the chance to express his feelings but he was concerned that if he spoke too much about his mother, it would be too emotional and he would start crying. So he made the conscious decision to get his thoughts out there.

BLVR: Can you recall the moment when you became aware of a significant longing to start singing?

LT: I was around ten or eleven when it happened. I was singing in the Brownies, and the song I chose was “Tammy” by Debbie Reynolds. Everyone in the room became quiet and I felt like it was incredible. I didn’t think about wanting to make this a career at the time, I just enjoyed it and sang whenever I got the chance. Now, I find it difficult to sing but back then, I knew I had a good voice.

BLVR: Could you explain to me the workings of spasmodic dysphonia?

LT: On the other hand, how it does not operate.

BLVR: At the peak of your vocal difficulty, was it only an issue of not being able to perform in public? Could you still sing when you were alone in your residence?

LT: I didn’t really sing much in my day-to-day life. I’d do some theatre, but that was it. On the rare occasion, when I was really relaxed and close to sleep, I’d sing in bed. Unfortunately, my son’s room was right next to ours, and he would interrupt with a knock at 3am saying, “Mum, stop singing!” It was the only time I could really belt out a tune.

BLVR: Has this had any kind of lingering impact on you?

LT stated they were feeling good while talking on the phone and acknowledged they could not ensure they could do their best in concerts thus they typically avoided performing live. LT then went on to explain it was like an alopecia of sorts, a mental and physical struggle that was hard to manage.

BLVR: I heard that Botox injections had a positive effect for you.

For the past four or five years I haven’t used them, but I had positive results when I did. There were negatives, however – the injection left me hoarse for a couple of weeks before my voice returned. Additionally, the effects were short-lived, usually only lasting three months. I decided it wasn’t worth it, and getting a needle stuck in your throat is certainly frightening.

BLVR: Was there a longing for the stage when you were away from it for such a long time?

LT shared that she was not a fan of touring, saying she had a “diva-like” attitude towards it. She and Richard were better received in larger cities due to the urban nature of their music. Consequently, LT did not enjoy playing in smaller cities or towns, unlike someone like Willie Nelson who is on the road for 50 weeks a year. Her ex-husband, however, is a fan of touring and would have missed it more than she did.

Is songwriting a straightforward process for you or a challenging one?

LT commented that he does not find the process of songwriting as difficult as he thought it would be. He noted that the received wisdom was to write a little each day, but he had also read in a magazine that Bob Dylan once carried a pencil and paper and wrote down interesting things that caught his attention. He mentioned that some of his songs take a long time to create, while others come together in just five minutes, such as the song “Perhaps You Can Sleep”.


Did you ever let your children listen to the music you had created with Richard while they were growing up, even though you weren’t performing at the time?

LT: That’s not likely.

At some point, BLVR assumed, the people must have heard them.

LT expressed that those who know their stuff well must have heard the songs he played, such as Bob Dylan, Buddy Holly, and Sam Cooke. Although LT completed his duty, he did not receive credit for the music.

BLVR: You have a lot of people from a different generation in the studio right now–Teddy and Kamilla, Antony, Martha and Rufus Wainwright. How has creating music changed for them in comparison to your generation?

LT stated that it is still a difficult situation for performers such as Rufus and Antony, who are compelling and have a unique sound respectively. Teddy is unshowy and reminds him of Umm Kulthum, someone who never grandstands. Teddy had read somewhere that it is better to sing for yourself and have no public than to have no self and sing for the public. LT’s generation never expected to sell records because they were folk musicians, but the record companies stuck by them as they were a prestige act. However, this is not the case nowadays.

What is it like to collaborate with your children? Do you ever need to exercise your authority over them?

LT remarked that it can be a challenging experience when his kids pull rank on him, but he also noted that there is often a lot of humor and pleasure to be found in families singing together. He went on to explain that this is something that was more common in the past, but in modern times, people tend to be more isolated and go into their own bedrooms to watch TV. He suggested that if more families spent time singing or even going bowling together, things would be better. He then mentioned that it is a special treat when he gets to work with his children in the studio, as opposed to an office setting. Finally, LT mentioned that he and his son Teddy usually collaborate over the phone, and then come together in the studio to start the creative process anew. He humorously stated that it would be too “Norman Bates-ish” to sit down and try to write songs together.

Have Teddy and Kamilla’s music been altered in any fashion due to their work together?

I don’t want to be presumptuous, but I can see more of his father’s musical style and personality in Teddy. It’s funny because they don’t collaborate that much. It’s only natural for children to be impacted by their parents. When Teddy was little, I used to play him Annie Briggs and he would say, “This is terrible!” because it’s an acquired taste. But a few years later, I visited his apartment in New York and Annie Briggs was playing. Hal Willner mentioned to me that Teddy was into Shirley Collins’ music, which can be hard to get into because it’s so plain and plain-spoken. But it’s worth it when you do.

I’ve attempted to give her my full attention, however, I still don’t feel like I fully comprehended her.

LT: She has been my closest friend for a long time, but I was slow to appreciate her singing. I never thought she was particularly flamboyant. But, when I listen to her, especially the songs she performed with Dolly, who is no longer with us, I’m taken away–it’s like a spell has been cast.

BLVR declared their intention to attempt once more.

LT suggested giving a particular work a try, noting that it was not for everyone. He himself tried reading “The Red and the Black” by Stendhal and, after two weeks, ended up throwing it in the sea since he couldn’t make heads or tails of it. Nevertheless, LT recommended looking into Shirley Collins and Annie Briggs, as they are worth listening to.

What type of reading material do you enjoy?

At present, I’m reading The Duty of Genius, a book about the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Just before that I finished The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears, which I thought was splendid. Generally, I enjoy reading brilliant works of literature.

BLVR: Has writing literature impacted your music composition in any way?

In my opinion, reading is essential in order to compose anything of value. It is possible to produce a piece of writing without reading, however the output will not be of the same quality. Thus, if you aspire to be a successful writer, you need to read quality material; otherwise, the outcome of your writing will not be up to par.


Fans have a tendency to glorify relationships between rockstars.

LT exclaimed, “Oh my goodness! That’s certainly true. People often romanticize anything and everything.”

BLVR: Does it frustrate you that outsiders interpret your collective albums and promotional tours in a certain way and make presumptions about your association?

LT: My opinion is that if people interpret things that way, it’s valid for them and that’s good. As long as they’re paying attention, it’s okay. I recall someone telling me a while back, “The guy from Squeeze said that you left Richard for another woman.” I said, “Fantastic! How awesome. Even though it’s not true, I’m glad it’s circulating. It makes me seem more exciting than I am.” I even make up stories about it sometimes, altering the facts because it happened such a long time ago.

BLVR: It can be difficult to accurately analyze a past relationship, since certain details and memories will stand out more than others. This causes the entire picture to be incomplete, and ignores some of the other elements in the experience.

LT: It can be quite a challenge. You might find yourself saying to your children, “Can you believe it? I almost married Richard Branson!” It’s very humorous how as you age, you have these thoughts of what could have been, like “I could have been a singer!” Most of it is not true, yet you can make it feel real for yourself, don’t you think?

Was there a difference in the backgrounds from which you and Richard Thompson originated?

LT: We had a lot in common, both of us having one Scottish and one English parent, and sharing a strong Calvinist background. We also had the same taste in music and literature. It’s almost uncanny how much alike my husband and Richard’s wife are. Both of them coming from California, they have remarkably similar natures. It’s almost strange.

Do you think what the public believes about your marriage to Richard and the work that you two do together is an exact representation or has it been distorted in any way?

LT commented that his dysphonia began shortly after he got married, but it wasn’t a terrible thing that happened when the marriage ended. He went on to say that personal attacks such as claims that he left his partner for another woman or that he couldn’t stand religious fasting can be amusing since they are not true.

BLVR: When you and Richard both changed your religion, he stayed with Islam. Is there a particular religion or belief that you adopted?

LT asserts that money is an integral part of life, but there are other things that are more important than it. He believes in pursuing work that one is passionate about, regardless of whether it is artistic or nonartistic. His motto is to not let the “bastards” hinder anyone from achieving their dreams.

Our writing staff is varied and passionate about arts, literature, film, travel, music, and entertainment.

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