Never judge a book by its cover, or a record by its title.
Richard Thompson's new album may be called simply Electric, but in reality it runs the gamut of musical and emotional textures. Beyond its rather reductive name Electric is as comfortable coaxing tears from a series of heartsore acoustic ballads as it is cranking out raw, bass-heavy stomps. "It's a record company title," says Thompson with a shrug. "It's some sort of bizarre marketing exercise." He laughs drily. "I'm sure in weeks to come it will all become clear."
Thompson (below) has long seemed above such matters. Invariably clad in dark denim and trademark beret, he simply gets on with his work. Electric was created with less fuss than ever, recorded in a mere four days and rooted in a desire to take his recent live shows as "a folk-power trio" into the studio. Though primarily performed with his regular stage cohorts Michael Jerome and Taras Prodaniuk – "We've been playing together enough now to know each other's disgusting habits" – it also finds room for contributions from bluegrass star Alison Krauss, Anglo-Irish vocalist Siobhan Maher Kennedy and fellow guitarist, songwriter and producer Buddy Miller.
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Miller has recently produced key works for Robert Plant, Shawn Colvin and the late Solomon Burke; Electric was recorded at his Nashville home. "I listened to the records he had done and thought that was the kind of sound I wanted," says Thompson. "Slightly rough and garagey; a record that sounds like it has been recorded in a house. Funny that! It was great fun. Buddy is a really good musician and producer, and he tends to leave his ego at home – oh hang on, he was at home. He tends to leave his ego in the shed. Whatever a track requires he will bring it. He's very flexible and has a good pair of ears."
Thompson, of course, is one of the treasures of British music. Now 63, he has been making a living from playing, writing and singing for almost half a century. Electric is "something like" his 15th solo studio record; then there are the five albums he made with folk-rock pioneers Fairport Convention in the late 60s, the six he made between 1974 and 1982 with his first wife Linda Thompson, as well as numerous live albums, fan club and boutique releases, film soundtracks, collaborations, side projects. In 2010 he curated the multi-form musical festival Meltdown. Can he make sense of it all? Does he want to?
"No, I don't really need or want to," he laughs. "If you're a performing singer-songwriter then you revisit the whole spectrum of your career every night in a way that a painter or novelist or playwright doesn't. It's a strange thing. If I sing a song like Meet on the Ledge I'm thinking, I wrote this when I was 19 years old.
"It's juvenile, it's naive, and I wouldn't write it now, but I can't really change the lyrics because it is too much in the public domain. So I have to find a way to relate to the lyrics in a way that has meaning for me now to sing it convincingly and give it emotion. It's an interesting problem."
Thompson grew up in London in the grey 1950s listening to early rock and roll, folk and jazz. With a displaced Scot for a father, for want of anything better to do on long Sunday afternoons he would immerse himself in the books of Border Ballads, Robert Burns and Walter Scott that littered the shelves. "It's fairly dark stuff," he says. "There's a lot of murder, a bit of incest, lots of magic and strange supernatural things. I just grew up to think that was normal." Only now, he says, can he "really see the roots of my music, which go back to then, when I was nine or 10 years old. To me, pop music is this fluffy stuff, whereas traditional music is just normal." Certainly, his own music has always displayed a pronounced leaning towards the darker, more melancholy side of life. From past classics such as The End of the Rainbow to several (OK, almost all) of the songs on Electric, there has never been any shortage of what he cheerfully calls "the bleaker stuff".
It's one way for an exile to stay connected. Despite having lived for the past 30 years in Los Angeles, not only does he keep in touch with home via the internet – "I have Radio 4 on my laptop and I read the papers online" – but his music rarely travels far from a deep-rooted sense of Britishness.
"I like that landscape," he says. "I always picture a windswept moor as the setting for the characters in my songs, or a grey suburb in the 50s or the 60s. I like the cadences of British speech, the things you hear on the street in Glasgow or London or Liverpool, and they tend to sneak into songs.
"I'm less influenced by what I consider the outside stuff: where I am physically. I'm more concerned with this inner landscape where the drama happens. It all helps to put the picture together. A lot of my songwriting is trying to address those questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? How come my parents were the way they were?"
Vibrant, varied and moving, Electric is simply the latest instalment in Thompson's compelling search for the answers.
Electric is released by Proper on Monday. Richard Thompson plays Usher Hall, Edinburgh, on February 28