Linda Thompson’s voice is a powerful instrument. Her singing on Versatile Heart (Rounder), her fifth solo album in 22 years, brims with melodic grace, crystalline enunciation, and emotional resonance. But it’s shy, too. So shy that Thompson, a giant of the folk-rock world, has almost entirely sworn off the stage, where the tensions of performance can be enough to make her throat weaken or fail.
DEEP ROOTS: Linda’s singing goes to the heart of traditional British folk, but she also conjures the weep-and-moan power of Tammy Wynette.
Thompson struggles with hysterical dysphonia, a disorder that causes her voice to retreat under pressure. It was worse in the ’80s and ’90s. She recorded her solo debut, One Clear Moment (Warner Bros.), in 1985, following the break-up of her 10-year musical partnership and marriage with guitarist/songwriter Richard Thompson. After that, flare-ups caused her to leave the music biz for long periods. For a time she ran a vintage-jewelry story on London’s Bond Street. Botox injections in her throat have helped some, but Thompson, over the phone from England, describes that as an “inexact science” that she’s abandoned. “It’s a weird thing that starts as psychosomatic and quickly becomes physical. So if I’m going to record or perform, it needs to be under as optimal conditions as possible.”
Conditions must have been just about ideal for the sessions that yielded Versatile Heart, which continues an artful comeback that Thompson began with 2002’s Fashionably Late (Rounder). The presence of her son Teddy, who sings harmony and co-wrote “Do Your Best for Rock ’n’ Roll” and “The Way I Love You,” and her daughter Kamila, who wrote and sings on “Nice Cars,” warmed the experience for her. “Recording with them is really quite amazing, because it amplifies that kind of wordless rapport that musicians have, since we have even more than music in common. Of course, it can also be fraught sometimes, because it can introduce the dynamic that parents and children have between them.”
Two members of the Wainwright clan also contributed. Martha Wainwright sings on “The Way I Love You,” and her brother Rufus wrote “Beauty,” an ode to beauty’s cruel seduction. Thompson sings the latter, which has a melodramatic string arrangement, with Antony Hegarty of NYC’s Antony and the Johnsons.
Thompson’s roots run deepest into folk music. She learned to vocalize by emulating British Isle legends Matt McGinn and Jean Redpath. Their fluttering, sing-song style is clearest in her voice when she wraps it around numbers like the traditional “Katy Cruel” and her own “Whiskey, Bob Copper and Me.” But she can also nail a country heartbreaker like “Do Your Best for Rock ’n’ Roll” with the weep-and-moan power — if not quite the range — of Tammy Wynette.
“I’ve always loved country music, which has roots in the traditional folk music that came from England. The truth is, every good singer I know wants to make a country album. Country music — I mean the great stuff, not what’s done as country music today — is so powerful.”