Teddy Thompson talks to Northern Soul about working with Kelly Jones
You’ve got to feel a bit sorry for singer/songwriter Teddy Thompson. Just when he’s finally at the stage where he’s sufficiently well-respected to no longer endlessly answer questions about his famous mum and dad Richard and Linda Thompson, he now has to explain that the Kelly Jones with whom he shares singing and song-writing credits on the terrific new album Little Windows isn’t that leather-lunged Welsh boyo out of Stereophonics.
She’s female for one thing. In fact, this Kelly Jones is a Los Angeles singer with whom Teddy harmonises sweetly through a pop-country album that owes more than a little to the likes of such classic duos as the Everly Brothers, George ’n’ Tammy or Porter ’n’ Dolly.
“I warned her,” he laughs, “but she just said ‘I don’t think it will be a problem’ because she hadn’t really heard of them. Nobody in America has, really. At least it’s a change from getting asked about my mum and dad every interview.”
Ah, just you wait…
But for the time being let’s hear how you two came to make such a charming, live and straight-to-tape, old-fashioned in the best sense, record in this age of ‘flown in’ guest stars whose management representatives might have met, but that’s about it.
“I was touring with KD Lang and opening for her in California,” he explains. “Kelly had some friends in her band so she came along to a show and we were introduced. She had heard me on the radio and thought we had some similar sensibilities. Later Kelly came to a solo show I was playing at a Los Angeles club called Largo. I sprung a George Jones song on her and away we went. That was maybe three years ago. Then she suggested we write a bit together in the vein of the songs we both loved – Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Buddy Holly, Cole Porter or Irving Berlin, role models like that.
“But Kelly lives in LA and I’ve lived in New York for 15 years now. In fact, I’ve lived in the USA for 21 and a half years, which is more than half my life. But I definitely don’t feel American. If anything I feel more English. New York isn’t really America anyway, it’s a thing unto itself. So although the actual time sitting round the table to write all these songs was only about ten days, months went by in-between. We would know we only had a few days and so our approach was ‘let’s bang ‘em out’, the way that the songs that we were referencing were all written. I know that sounds dispassionate but thousands of wonderful songs that we all know and love were written just that way. It doesn’t stifle creativity, it makes it flourish.
“Also I was writing with Kelly and a third writer Bill De Main from Nashville, so you couldn’t get away with doing anything that didn’t resonate with the other two. We were really trying to write songs that were more universal and like old-fashioned pop songs instead of me writing my usual ‘me, me, me’ stuff.”
When it comes to the pair of them playing together live, as in this month’s UK tour, Thompson acknowledges that “if we just played the actual record live it would be a very, very short show. But we had a few more songs than we needed for the record, so we’ll do a couple of those, do a couple of covers and you can’t not play the older songs too, so I’ll do some of mine, Kelly will do some of hers, and that will make a whole set.”
So is it a temporary side project for both of them?
“At the time when we started doing it, it was just something enjoyable and we liked the music, so we thought ‘yeah, let’s make a record’. It was only after we finished it that we started thinking about things like ‘how is this going to fit into the rest of both our careers and how long are we going to do this, all of those things’. It was a toss-up for me whether we put out this record first, or my own new album, which is coming along. In the end, we thought there was nothing we could do other than put it out and we’ll just do it for as long as it’s going well. But if we got to the end of this year and we were still doing Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones gigs, that’s a nice problem to have.”
That next solo album, he promises, “will be finished pretty soon but I think it will probably be released early next year. Hopefully this experience on Little Windows will help me move faster on my own things because I’ve always been one to have 10 to 15 songs on the go at the same time, half-finished things that I have a hard time finishing.”
Somewhat controversially, he contends that “there’s a real up side to record budgets having been slashed, at least for a certain type of musician. People are going back to making records, or at least a certain type of record, very quickly and very live. It’s good for the music because it forces you to already have the songs when you go in to the studio, to work harder and be good, with no cheating. None of my friends or the people I like and listen to are trying to compete with pop music, what we do have offer if that we can play and sing and we can do it live, so let’s just do that.”
What he really learned from his parents and their contemporaries in the golden age of folk-rock, he remembers, was “don’t worry about the recording too much, that’s just a moment in time. What’s really important is that the songs are good. That definitely stayed with me.”
A lot of people, I remind him, were very surprised that he managed to get his long-estranged mum and dad to sing together again, along with his sister Kami and her husband James Walbourne (aka The Rails), plus various other musical offspring on the album Family a few years ago. Did he feel in retrospect that the project was doomed to failure, if only by the high expectations that fans would inevitably bring to it?
“I had some kind of mid-life crisis early and was having a real hard time with personal stuff, so I came up with this project to get everyone back together. I was really trying to heal some wounds for myself, but I dragged everyone along with me.”
Kami commented at the time that “the whole album is like a family song-writing competition, it’s a bloody nightmare. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?”
Thompson responds: “I wish I could say that I was successful enough that I had to worry about how things I do would be perceived by my audience. So I certainly don’t think about that, although I suppose eventually someone, like a manager or a record label, has to. But at the time, it was just an elaborate form of family therapy. I haven’t listened to it in a while but there was some good stuff on there and it was fun for us. It was difficult too in lots of ways but ultimately rewarding.
“But I don’t really listen to records I’ve made anyway. I’m truly amazed when I make another record and people buy it and come to the shows. Maybe I’m just insecure.”
By Kevin Bourke
Teddy Thompson and Kelly Jones play at The Sage, Gateshead, May 11, 2016; Howard Assembly Rooms, Leeds, May 12, 2016; Glee Club, Nottingham, May 15, 2016; City Memorial Hall, Sheffield, May 22, 2016: Music Room, Liverpool Philharmonic, May 26, 2016; and RNCM, Manchester, May 28, 2016.
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