As the son of folk-rock legends Richard and Linda Thompson, Teddy Thompson recognizes the influence of his famous parents’ genes, but he’s also carved a pretty successful musical path all by himself.
By Steve Houk
It can be a blessing and a curse, being the offspring of a famous person. Expectations can be unrealistically high, and the pressure can be enormous to follow in their footsteps. In music especially, the comparisons can be daunting and more often than not, the results fall way short of the famous parent’s accomplishments and talent.
For folk-rock rising star Teddy Thompson, having revered parents like father Richard Thompson (one of folk rock’s founding fathers and a renowned singer/songwriter and astounding guitarist) and mother Linda Thompson (a highly respected singer/songwriter in her own right) could be a difficult road to hoe, but to the younger Thompson, well, it could be worse.
“I’ve never really felt the need to try too hard to [surpass their fame]. I’m lucky in the sense that my parents aren’t too-too famous. I think that’s a much harder road, to be Jakob Dylan or Sean Lennon, it’s just a whole different kettle of fish. My parents are not quite in that same league fame-wise, although musically I would argue that they’re just as good. But it hasn’t been a big struggle for me, all along the way it’s not something I paid much mind to, it never worries me.”
Teddy Thompson feels comfortable being the son of, OK, we’ll call them ‘pretty darn famous’ parents then, but luckily for him, he’s got a pot full of talent himself and a style all his own, and the trajectory of his career success shows that he’s sure doing something right, good genes or not. Thompson just released his fifth CD, Bella, to critical acclaim and it debuted at No. 6 on Billboard’s Heatseeker Chart. He also just appeared on Conan O’ Brien‘s late night TV show, and right now, he’s on a national tour supporting alt/country faves Old 97′s. Thompson appreciates that he’s got the right DNA for musical success, but knows success has to be on his own merits, too, or really, what good is it?
“I think that there’s a certain amount of blood that comes into the equation, genes play a strong part, it’s passed down and there’s definitely a big chunk of that,” Thompson told me this week from the road. ”I do believe that being able to sing and have some kind of aptitude to music is a God-given talent and that it comes through the blood. That’s certainly true. And I certainly share mannerisms with my Dad just as I do with my Mom, certain vocal stylings and that kind of stuff, and part of it is through nature, and part of it’s through nurture, just being exposed to that music and listening to a lot of it, it becomes part of who you are, and what you do musically. Just like any other influence though, everything you listen to melts into this big pot, and then hopefully if you’re an interesting artist, you come out with something on the other end of that that’s influenced by all those things, but it’s still an individual, you know, it’s gotta be YOU.”
You’d think with parents like the amazing Thompsons, with music around you all the time, it would be a foregone conclusion that any kid of theirs would be destined for a musician’s life. But it wasn’t really the standard parents-as-musicians childhood, and Thompson feels glad he could come about his musical journey largely on his own.
“The perception may be that I was brought up in this hotbed of music around the house, and going to gigs, and hanging around all these great people. It wasn’t the case at all actually, my parents divorced when I was six, so I have only very early memories of music being played around the house, and after they divorced my Mom essentially quit the music business, so there was no singing around the house, there was no getting together around the piano, we weren’t that kind of family. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion, it wasn’t instilled in me at an early age, I didn’t have to learn harmony parts and get up on stage when I was 10 like Rufus and Martha [Wainwright, fellow singer/songwriters and Teddy’s close friends]. It came rather late, I found it on my own really.”
Thompson may have found his eventual career path on his own, but his Dad did introduce him to some seminal artists who would become his major musical influences and shape his sound and style.
“My primary influence is definitely kind of country music, 1950’s country music, the Everly Brothers and Hank Williams and Chuck Berry’s rock and roll stuff, and Buddy Holly…that’s where I began, musically, that’s where I started out learning. That music did come from my parents, probably my Dad, because we used to take road trips when I was 9 or 10 or 11 and he had a couple of tapes in the car, and those were the tapes that we listened to, that’s what he liked to listen to, it was something me and my sister liked as well, it was what we all liked.”
“When I got older, and became aware of contemporary music, I started playing the guitar when I was you know, 10, 11, 12, 13, that music was still really what I cared about the most. I always sort of struggled to listen to anything that was on the top of the pops because it didn’t sound good to me, compared to Hank Williams. So I stuck with that for a long long time, I was really obsessed with older American music. Then I remember Crowded House being one of the first sort of bands that were around that had records out that were successful that I liked, because it was melodic and it had good singing and good playing and I could relate to that, I remember being sort of turned on at that point, and finding some other things that I liked that were happening at the time.”
Thompson did start out in his late teens/early 20′s playing with his father as part of Richard’s backup band on three of his records and on tour, but luckily for him, he did find that elusive opportunity to head out on his own, although his success did not happen overnight, and dues needed to be paid even for this blessed musical offspring.
“I played with my Dad for a little bit, and it was like an apprenticeship, and then I went back to LA and I started writing a bit more and playing a bit more around town in LA, and things happened fairly quick at the start. I think I was 22 by the time I was playing gigs every week at a place called Largo which was a very cool place to play and a very sort of ‘tastemaker’ spot to play in LA, it was almost like at that time if you played Largo, you got a record deal. That’s how it was going, everybody who was anybody cool was playing there. So the suits would just come down and sign everybody up, and I was one of them. So I made that first record (in 2000) and that didn’t go very well and I got dropped very quickly and the record was barely released, and then I kind of moved to NY and started again in a way, and it took me a good few years to make my second record which was 2006, so it probably wasn’t until I’d made that record that I felt I had some kind of career and that this is what I was gonna do.”
Like that of the material on Bella, Thompson’s style is based in wry, very personal songwriting, with a sound that can be described as lush folk rock, but his country influences are still evident, maybe even more than he was aware of.
“It’s interesting that depending on where I go, some people will listen to this record and go ‘Wow, this seems like full-out country record’, which I’m kind of baffled by, but that’s just the way I sing. I think if you took all the vocals off the record and just played the instrumental tracks, there’s nothing remotely country about it. It’s really a pop record with me singing, which makes it sound a little bit twangy.”
Some of Thompson’s vocal stylings on the new record have been compared to the late great Roy Orbison, a comparison Thompson is humbled by and can smile about, but doesn’t necessarily agree with. “To me, that’s like a basketball player being compared to Michael Jordan or Kobe Bryant, you feel sort of unworthy, but of course it’s a lovely thing to hear. I don’t have nearly the power or the facility that Orbison did, but that’s a nice thing to hear, yeah.”
Steve Houk is a freelance music writer who lives in Annandale VA with his beautiful blended family. He is also living a midlife rocker’s dream as lead singer of Northern Virginia classic/modern rock cover band Second Wind, check them out here, as well as Steve’s blog, midliferocker.com.