Analogue Music | Teddy Thompson

Teddy Thompson

By Matt Conner

Twenty years after his debut, Teddy Thompson is still writing from and about the heart.

Teddy Thompson's latest album, Heartbreaker Please, is steeped in love and loss—core tenets in the catalog of any songwriter. Even after two decades, Thompson is drawing from the familiar well because, according to him, it's central to not only all music but art as well.

Thompson's wonderful catalog attests to that fact, and the veteran artist has built a career on finding new textures and appreciating new facets of even the most familiar subjects. It's a testament to his craftsmanship that he stays true to what he knows and feels while laboring to avoid the cliched and tired.

We recently sat down with Thompson to hear about this latest set of songs and the creative journey he typically takes toward a new record.

Analogue: Your new album is all about love and loss, and I wanted to start with something I actually talked to another artist about. He mentioned recently that he didn't want to write love songs because he felt they'd all been done. It was the first time I'd heard that before since most artists do write them. But he referenced a fear there...

Teddy: I don't subscribe to that theory at all. I think everything, just about, every worthwhile piece of music and maybe art in general is about love and heartbreak and loss in some way. That's what resonates with people. That's why that's the main focus of art and music is because those are the most intense feelings that we have. I think it's an endless well.

This will sound very pretentious, but Patrick Stewart, the actor, has been reading Shakespeare's Sonnets every day on Instagram and it's such a good reminder... it's the same subject matter over and over again. The first 14 of those sonnets were not only about love but they were about the same exact situation. So I think it's just not something you can go to the well too often with. I think that's what it's all about.

'Heartbreaker Please' cover art
'Heartbreaker Please' cover art

There are obviously exceptions, such as people who've written really good political songs, but there aren't many. What else would you write about? [Laughs] It seems to me like that's the thing.

Analogue: Were you aiming to write in that direction on this set of songs?

Teddy: I don't think of it like that. I don't plan to sit down and write about something specific. I just sit and write whatever comes to mind, whatever comes naturally. As I said, once in a while, you might write the odd song that's a bit different, one about a particular situation or something funny. Those songs are usually a bit more light-hearted, songs about the noise on the street or trying to sleep or something. You might knock out a comedic song about something like that, which is great, but for the most part, if you're writing a proper song—if I can put it that way—it just tends to be whatever is on the mind or on the heart. That's what comes out.

Obviously, it's not that simple. Once you have the idea or some moment of inspiration, you still want a good angle. That's a big part of it. With love and heartbreak and loss and all of those things that go with it, there are a million ways to approach it. You're certainly looking for a new angle but it can be minute, even the tiniest twist on the same thing that can give you something fresh.

Analogue: To sit and just let something come out, like you mentioned, are you surprised by anything on Heartbreaker Please?

Teddy: Yeah, sometimes. I mean, from a sort of global viewpoint, sometimes I find I write something and it comes out and you might be pleased with it as a song. Then later on you see it slightly differently and you can be surprised by what you're saying because it's not exactly what you thought you're saying when you wrote it. But following on from what I was saying about finding a different angle, sometimes when you're trying to do that or when you have a moment of inspiration, you can come up with something that surprises you.

With the song "Heartbreaker Please," I think I had the tune and I was just strumming away and had a few lyrics. It had something to do with heartbreak in the chorus. I remember walking around the house singing the chorus over and over again and I sang 'heartbreaker please' by accident—well, not by accident but it just came out, the 'please' bit. That was surprising and it was a nice moment when you come up with something just a bit different. It was two words together I hadn't really heard in that way. It was pleading and it felt honest and slightly different than what I'd heard before. So that was a nice surprise.

"There's a skill to writing something that is personal but also universal."

Analogue: When you're sharing from the heart like, is it all fair game?

Teddy: To me, it's all fair game. I can't really remember having moments where I thought that I shouldn't say this exact thing or that I shouldn't talk about this issue or this person. But there's a skill to writing something that is personal but also universal. I mean, instead of writing "my girlfriend Jane Smith broke my heart," why would you use that name? And it's not even so much names, but anything that's too specific to you is often not that useful.

It's hard to explain, but you want other people to be able to relate to it, so you might not use some language that's totally personal to you or you and that person. Maybe it wouldn't make sense to everyone else, and you want it to be understood and related to. But that's what you might call poetic license or just poetry itself. You want to find a way to say something that has some kind of skill to it—a craft is the word I'm looking for.

Analogue: I was asking about lyrics earlier, but I was curious about the musical side as well. Is it the same approach or do you go in with a vision of wanting to chase certain influences or instrumentation?

Teddy: No, in a word. I know what you mean. There are certainly lots of people who have more of an overall vision for wanting to make a record in this sort of style, like 'I've been listening to a lot of jazz so I want this to have a Charlie Parker meets Stevie Wonder vibe.' Then they go and write a whole record that fits that style and they go in to record it and they try to use those influences. I'm not one of those people, though.

I tend to write whatever songs come out at the time. When I have six or eight of them, I'll think, 'Oh this could be the next record.' Then I'll start to think things like, 'Oh, are they all slow songs? If so, do I need to write something up-tempo to make it more interesting or cohesive.' You look at what you have and try to make something from it.

Analogue: By the way, it's been 20 years since I first heard your debut at a listening station at one of those bookstores that had headphones and you can just sit with an album. Are you celebrating that anniversary at all?

Teddy: God, no, I haven't even really thought of that. Thank you for making me feel old. [Laughs] No, you're right. I guess it is 20 years. That's a good idea. Maybe I can do a streaming concert of that record or something. But I haven't thought about it. Those things tend to really sneak up on you. I'm not that self-possessed to have that in my head, like 'Isn't it amazing it was 20 years ago?' It all goes by.

I think most artists or most musicians tend to think about what's coming up. You tend not to look back too much, because once you've made a record, it seems like old news when you're the artist. Yeah, you keep playing the songs. That's different. The songs live in when you play them live, but the records... I probably haven't heard that record for 15 years. I wouldn't even know what it's about.

VISIT: Teddy Thompson

Photo Credits: Gary Waldman