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Linda Thompson, 2004
WITH STEVE LAFRENIERE
PHOTOGRAPHED BY JULIANA SOHN
The six albums Linda Thompson made with her husband Richard in the '70s and early '80s were startling amalgams of guitar rock, traditional British folk, and pristine, soulful singing. Shoot Out The Lights , from 1982 stands as an influential marker in music history. But by the following year Richard and Linda were no more. After a painful divorce and an ill-starred solo album, Thompson lost her voice to a rare disorder. Unsure if she would ever sing again, she has slowly worked her way back to the studio. Last fall she returned to wild acclaim for Fashionably Late, her first recording in seventeen years. It's an album of stark melancholy and grisly details, perfectly in tune with the zeitgeist. But it's her voice that startles you, rich as ever, as if merely awoken from a long sleep.


STEVE: I don't cry easily, but I start bawling whenever I hear you sing "Miss Murray" or "Withered and Died." I get the feeling you really enjoy singing dark songs.
LINDA
Very much. But that's the kind of traditional music that I like.
STEVE: With misery, incest, revenge, and death as the subject matter.
LINDA They're just your standard, run-of-the-mill murder ballads, mate. [laughs] It's what happens every day.
STEVE: You channel it so credibly.
LINDA You know how they say comedians are the most miserable people on God's earth? I'm the opposite. I'm very easygoing in everyday life, but I've obviously got the soul of Ingmar Bergman.
STEVE: Murder ballads are like the gangsta rap of earlier centuries, they're so cold-blooded. Where did you first hear that kind of traditional folk?
LINDA It was Annie Briggs. She was like the wild woman of Borneo to me. I loved her.
STEVE: They're re-releasing her albums now. Her voice was lilting, yet she sang such harsh words. She sounds so tough.
LINDA Shirley Collins was hardcore, too. So were the Scottish singers like Archie Fisher and Sheila Stewart. I come from Scotland, and my parents hated anything English. It was all about the Yanks to them, so I heard American pop as well. When I first moved to London in the early '60s there was a lot of folk stuff going on. Phil Ochs was around, and Tim Buckley. Dylan was in town at one point doing "Madhouse on Castle Street,' a play on the BBC. They all played at the Troubadour and dingy basements around town. There was a brief moment in the '60s when everything seemed to be a folk thing. Like everything's a Starbucks now.
STEVE: Can you describe a night out at the legendary Troubadour club?
LINDA On a typical night Sandy Denny would be there, or Annie Briggs, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn. Nick Drake sitting in the corner. Alan Lomax was around in those days, too. Didn't stay open that late. Maybe one-ish, and then we would all go to people's flats.
STEVE: Sandy Denny was such a great singer. Did you know her when she was in Fairport Convention with Richard Thompson?
LINDA Indeed, I knew her before that. I knew her when she was a nurse. She used to come down to London to sing. She was brilliant. She was my best friend.
STEVE: I first heard her on Led Zeppelin's 'The Battle of Evermore.' I think she's the only female vocalist they ever used.
LINDA Well, it didn't matter to Jimmy and Robert what genre she was, they just heard her sing and thought, 'holy shit!' And she was a real hellraiser. She was like Ozzy, but with a better voice. There were mad nights with Sandy and John Bonham at Jimmy Page's house, which had once been owned by Aleister Crowley, the Satanist. Oh my god. Drinking, drugs, debauchery! [laughs]
STEVE: Pentangles?
LINDA Pentangles!
STEVE: You're often compared to Sandy, but I think there's a difference. She had an emotional reticence to her singing, always holding something back.
LINDA I tend not to do that, yes. But Sandy was one of those people who ... there's always a veil between you and them. She had tremendous mood swings. She could be imperious or she could be really, really warm. Sandy also had a lot of problems with drink and drugs. But those were the days when people were out of their minds all the time. You never thought to intervene.
STEVE: She died after falling down a flight of stairs ...
LINDA It was horrible. I rushed to the hospital and she was wrapped in a foil blanket to keep her body temperature up. She looked beautiful, not a mark on her. She never came around.
STEVE: I'm curious about this medical condition that kept you from singing for fifteen years.
LINDA At one point it was even hard to speak, especially if there was any peripheral noise around me. I had particular difficulty with vowels.
STEVE: I can't imagine. And there was nothing you could do about it?
LINDA Well, you develop coping mechanisms. I would only speak to the person nearest me, etcetera. It's kind of nightmarish, but you just tell yourself that it could be a whole lot worse.
STEVE: Does it have a name?
LINDA It's called hysterical dysphonia. For a long time they thought it was psychological, but it's now been found out to be something else. To cut a long story short, I recently had a Botox injection in my throat. I'm as wrinkled as ever on the outside, but the dysphonia is gone. I couldn't have done the Letterman show, let alone the U.S. tour, without it.
STEVE: Before this tour, you hadn't performed since 1983. Why did you decide to start your tour in the U.S.?
LINDA I have a bigger fan base here, even after all this time. The sound systems are better here, too — I could hear myself. We had so many standing ovations on this tour, just loads of love.
STEVE: And in the U.K.?
LINDA In Britain there are no venues. Music is an ephemeral thing there, much more of a five-minute wonder. We've got no Bottom Line, no Fez. It's all dance clubs, big rock halls, and giant festivals. Minority music — folk music — doesn't really fly.
STEVE: I have to confess, I've never thought of you as a folk singer per se. The records you made with Richard Thompson seemed almost punk to me.
LINDA I'll buy that. It's funny, at the time that punk exploded, Richard and I were working at Sound Techniques. Johnny Rotten was always around because Siouxsie Sioux was making a record there. I used to sit with her at the pub and have a drink. I remember once Richard and I were waiting to go into the studio because Siouxsie was running overtime ahead of us. When we finally got in, I said to her, "I thought you punks only did one take," which didn't go down too well. Our album, on the other hand, took two days to record. [laughs]
STEVE: You must be talking about Shoot Out the Lights. Years later it ended up number nine on Rolling Stone's 100 Greatest Albums of the '80s list. Not bad for two days' work. Speaking of Johnny Rotten, weren't you compared to the Sex Pistols once?
LINDA I was unfavorably compared to the Sex Pistols, I'll have you know, by a club manager who said that I trashed his dressing rooms worse than they did.
STEVE: Was that the infamous U.S. tour with Richard, in the midst of your divorce?
LINDA Yes.
STEVE: I've heard stories that you would kick him onstage every night, or you would just go AWOL.
LINDA At one point, yes, I went missing for a couple of days. I stole a car, got arrested. I had to be slaughtered to get through the tour. I was living on vodka, orange juice, and antidepressants. People will come up to me now and say, "I saw you in Boulder on that tour. You were so great!" I have no recollection of ever being in Boulder. I do remember missing the L.A. gig, but only because Linda Ronstadt came along and literally lifted me out of the gutter outside of the Roxy.
STEVE: And now Richard is playing on your new album. Fashionably Late received over-the-top reviews. Does that mean that you're starting to get offers to do other things?
LINDA I got a call from Martin Scorsese's people. They liked the record so much they wanted me to sing something for Gangs of New York.
STEVE: What did you sing?
LINDA 'Paddy's Lamentation,' a nineteenth-century Irish song.
STEVE: And a great anti-war song, too. And now I hear you're doing a play written by David Thomas of Pere Ubu in L.A. this winter.
LINDA Yes! David's a great singer. Not to everyone's taste. Do you like him?
STEVE: Very much.
LINDA Ah, well, people who like David are very special. A few years ago he just knocked on my door and said, 'I'm not leaving until you agree to perform this piece.' But I said I didn't think I could sing, and he said, 'Fine. Just speak the lyrics.' If you had to pick two polar opposites, it would be me and David. So I said, alright, I'm going to do it.
STEVE: What's it about?
LINDA Well, it's called Mirror Man. Let's just say it's a vignette of small town American life ... strangely perverted by David and I.
STEVE: I knew him years ago. He turned me on to you and Nick Drake. By the way, did you know Nick Drake?
LINDA I went out with him. But it was funny — I haven't said this to anybody, but fuck it — I think he was probably gay and couldn't deal with it. I had as much of a relationship with him as anybody, this kind of semi-fumbly blah blah blah. You know, at that time people didn't come out of the closet until after they were married. It was hellish for gay people then.
STEVE: Was it hard having a relationship with someone so introverted?
LINDA Well, he wasn't difficult to talk to — he didn't talk. He was one of these impossibly beautiful people, too. You've seen the pictures. He didn't really need to talk. He would just sit and play the guitar, and run things by you, like "Hazey Jane" or whatever. [laughs] One time he helped me dye my hair. Stuff like that.
STEVE: Is there any music that you really dislike?
LINDA [pause] I wish Gilbert and Sullivan had never met. It's so poker-up-your-ass English. What else? Not much. I'm not very fond of lounge jazz, or Sade. I mean, it's fine. But I'd rather have raw or offensive or filthy or loud. I'll tell you what I really fucking hate is old people like me going on about ... Tom Petty did an interview where he said, 'Young musicians today, they know nothing.' Ridiculous. There's as much great stuff today as ever there was.
STEVE: Such as?
LINDA: I'm listening to a guy called Robert Randolph, a young black steel player. He's a gospel musician, but plays pedal steel. It's beyond good. Also a really great English band called The Coral. And I absolutely love Eminem. To me he's Lord Byron. Great oblique rhymes, and cute as he can be. There's always good coming up, and there's always shite, and it was ever thus.
STEVE: So there must constantly be music playing around your house.
LINDA: Actually no. Because I can't bear music as background. If I'm listening to music, that's what I'm doing. I'm not watching the TV. I'm not talking. I'm not driving the car. Anyway, I'm liable to crash — I'm not going to pay attention to the driving if some great guitar solo comes on. If you're listening to Robert Johnson, you don't really want to be doing anything else.