Acoustic talks to RJ Thompson – a singer-songwriter making waves with his latest EP House Upon The Hill and one who opens the debut edition of our CD: Acoustic Magazine Presents…
‘It’s my professional name,’ RJ Thompson starts with a laugh, ‘because my name is Richard Thompson which is a pretty big clash with the other Richard Thompson. I used to go under the name Richard John Thompson, but it turns out that Richard Thompson’s middle name is John as well, so that was out of the question,’ he laughs.
RJ found himself in a lucky position in his career when Midge Ure’s sound engineer heard him play at an open mic night. ‘I was doing a spot at this club in Newcastle and the guy who was doing sound was the same engineer who was going to be doing sound for Midge Ure’s gig at the Town Hall the following night, and he knew they needed a support for Midge’s gig, so he recommended me. That led on to a big German tour with Midge, so it was a great break.’
RJ has gone on to develop a successful career in the UK and in Europe, supporting not just Midge Ure, but also Jools Hooland, Gabrielle Aplin, Sandi Thom, and the Proclaimers. So what guitars will we find in his touring rig? ‘I am currently in between two Taylors. The main one that I use is a 410ce, but I also have a little GS Mini mahogany that I really love. I am pleased with the excellent sound that I get out of it for a guitar of that size, and that price as well; it has revealed itself to be a wonderful guitar. I got it with an Expression System pickup, so I have been using that on a lot of recent gigs, and quite a lot of recordings as well. It has a real character about it, and it has a really good acoustic sound, but it also has a sort of crunch about the sound if you hit the strings hard enough, and I really like that combination of sounds. That sound makes it easier to cross over to electric guitar on my live shows, because I do play a Fender Stratocaster, and a Telecaster on occasion as well. The GS Mini has been on tour with me to Europe and to America, and it is on the new EP – House Upon The Hill – simply by virtue of being the guitar that I have with me most of the time right now. I just sling the GS Mini on my back and away we go.’
Like most of us, there’s a dream guitar on his wish list, too. ‘I think my favourite right now is the Taylor 700 series. I do also dream of owning a nice Martin one day – there is something very special about them. When you play a high end Martin, you can just feel the work that has gone into making it, and the history of the wood, it really comes out in the playing experience. If I had the money, I would think nothing of paying £5,000 for a guitar knowing that I would love it and play it every day forever.’
RJ’s latest EP House Upon The Hill offers up some wonderful arrangements and striking melodies, but they all start off with just the acoustic guitar – and 2015 will see RJ release an EP of stripped-back tracks. ‘All of my songs are arranged acoustically before I take them to the band. The melodies and the chord progressions are all mine, but the little intricacies that crop up are usually from people in the band making suggestions as we work on the songs. For example, my piano player James Peacock is an amazing player, and jazz and blues influence him, so you’ll find his influences cropping up in his piano parts. Input from other people always makes for a more interesting recording.’
‘I used to be one of those writers who would finish every single song, no matter what, and then I’d have 50 songs for one EP, and just choose the ones that I liked the best. I have gotten much better at figuring out early on in the writing process if I don’t like something, or if it is going to need more work – or even scrapped. So, for the latest EP which has five songs on it, I think I only wrote eight songs because I am getting much better at scrutinising and analysing what I am doing, as I am doing it. Lyrically, I am very keen to make sure that the song says exactly what I want it to say. In songwriting, you go through phases where you feel as though you really haven’t got anything to write about. I go through patches for a month or two where I can’t think of anything that moves me enough to want to write about it. For the title track on House Upon The Hill, I had the melody and the chord progressions together for a long time, probably a couple of years, but never had something that I thought sat really well with it lyrically. That was the last song to be written for the EP, it was finished around August 2014, and it just happened – I found that I did have something that I wanted to talk about.’
Support slots are a great way of reaching a ready-made audience – and RJ Thompson has enjoyed a number of prestigious slots, the latest being with the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. ‘I have been in and out of the studio over the last year, mainly because of financial restrictions, and I felt like I needed to get back out on the road, so I tried to land a good support slot. We contacted Jools’ management about a place on the tour, and they were kind and encouraging. Jools’ tour supports usually go to artists who are looked after by his management company, but there is always room for a newcomer on the bill as well, and I was delighted to have been asked to go along. They offered us a couple of gigs with him back in May 2014 and said they’d see how those went on – and they went very well, so we got more dates on the 2014 winter tour. I think my music goes well with his, because we have a sort of bluesy, jazzy influenced sound as well.’
‘I think you have to study performers like him – especially people who have been around for a long time like the Proclaimers who I’ve also supported. They have a knack for audience interaction; they know exactly what to say, how to deal with rowdy crowds, and you pick up quite a lot of pointers by watching them. I found that after I went to Germany on tour with Midge Ure, I had become a much better performer without really realising it. I have never been good at talking to audiences. I am fine playing my guitar and singing, and I don’t mind introducing the songs, but as soon as the song finishes, my confidence level seems to drop. Going on tour with people like Jools and Midge has taught me how to build my stagecraft. I am lucky in that the majority of the audiences we have had have been great, but everyone gets occasional nights where it just doesn’t work how you want it to, and you start to think that it’s not going as well as you would like it to go. A couple of years ago, that would have really affected my confidence, but I have learned to work my way thought it. A few nights ago, I thought I was heading into a bad night, but I got them onside because I made a couple of jokes, and that loosened everything up. I do enjoy a crowd with a bit about them, though – it’s nice to have something to feed off of.’
RJ Thompson’s EP House Upon The Hill is out now.
Here’s what we think about RJ’s EP House Upon The Hill (from issue 100):
There’s an unexpected “retro” feel to this first release by this Newcastle singer-songwriter, and as he’s been lined up for a support slot on Jools Holland’s autumn tour, he’s clearly a guy to watch. ‘House Upon The Hill’ and the numbers that follow, with their sparse guitar and rock steady drums, suggest that RJ’s enigmatic pop songs and guitar hooks might have been more tidily accommodated in the indie tsunami of the mid-90s. That said, the simple synth riff that crops up on ‘The Numbers’ is the kind of thing that will either have you singing in the bath, or tearing your hair out. Gary Numan’s got a lot to answer for here, and although the murderous tale spelt out in ‘Cannery Row’ lacks any spell binding quality, it’s an impressive stab at concocting a song of epic proportions. The future looks bright.