OK, so maybe it was not the best day to be chatting with Teddy Thompson. Not about his sterling new (fifth) album of string-endowed "countrypolitan" pop arias and snappy folk rock, "Bella," or his show tonight at the Tin Angel, let alone his intriguing backstory as a second-generation performer. The kitchen cabinets in his New York apartment had come unhinged. And repairmen banging loudly in the background during our phone chat had uncovered a mess more trouble. "It's the gift that keeps on giving," Thompson growled.
Fortunately, I'd done some information gathering already. In a recent interview/performance streamed from Santa Monica, Calif., public station KCRW, TT had spelled out his complicated relationship with his divorced parents, Richard and Linda Thompson, both legends on the British folk rock scene. While he's played in recent years in his father's band and co-wrote a comeback album for his mom, Teddy was long estranged from his father. He only started listening to Richard Thompson music in his late teens "as a way of trying to be close to him."
So in our conversation, I jumped in with a less-traumatic question.
Q: I hear the influence of Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly in your work. I've got a theory that performers gravitate to the kind of music that goes best with their voice. So how much of what you do is "nature" and how much "nurture"?
A: It's largely just personal taste. As a kid I was always really enamored by American country music and rock and roll, 1950s music especially. I do think it's probably true to a certain extent that you tend to sing music that fits your voice. If you're Lou Reed, you're unlikely to become a country singer.
Q: Career-wise, what's the best thing about having parents in the business?
A: You understand the realities, have a better idea than most. I never really believed in hitting the gold mine, of having a big hit. Maybe I wasn't being ambitious enough, or maybe my [parental] examples were different. My understanding of this life is that you tour and play for years and years, have some longevity and a steady career. That may sound boring, but I always thought that was less depressing than being a one-hit wonder.
Q: I have heard songs of yours played on the WXPNs and KCRWs of the world, like "Looking for a Girl" from the new album, that I think could be a hit for you or somebody else. Wouldn't you like that?
A: Of course. I don't want to sound like I'm not ambitious. My label [Verve Forecast] does try to pick a single and work it, but they don't have the resources to try that hard with me, that they can put into more mainstream music that gets millions of sales.
The state of radio is not great. It's like playing the lottery. The chances of hitting are mind boggling slim. Internet radio stations like KCRW do take you everywhere, yet that's just one of a hundred small things you have to do to succeed. It used to be, if you just got on the cover of Rolling Stone and a spotlight on "The Tonight Show," that was enough.
Q: You work a lot with Rufus and Martha Wainwright, just last week at the New York tribute concerts for their late mom Kate McGarrigle. And you've got another second-gen talent, Jenni Muldaur, guesting on "Bella." Is there an active social scene out there for performing offspring?
A: It's not like we're some kind of movement. It's just mathematics - all kids born at the same time from the same kind of parents. I'm sure the same thing will happen with Rufus and Martha's babies, and maybe mine. It's just a similar upbringing with similar taste, a common aesthetic.
Q: Are you bringing a band tonight of going solo? And which do you prefer?
A: This time it's just me. It's a completely different experience, more like me with the audience as my accompaniment. In a certain way that's more liberating. I don't have to think as much. I'm more free to make mistakes and don't have to worry about how others are expecting me to hit specific marks. Also, I'm not limited to the material we've rehearsed.