Linda Thompson can't sing her new songs. Her solution? 'Proxy Music.'
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Linda Thompson can't sing her new songs. Her solution? 'Proxy Music.'
Linda Thompson at home in London in May 2024. The singer and songwriter who rose from the ’60s British folk-rock scene lost her vocals to a neurological disorder — so she wrote a batch of tracks for others to voice. (Guy Bolongaro/The New York Times)

by Jim Farber

NEW YORK, NY.- For years, singer Linda Thompson faced a problem that, for someone in her line of work, seemed insurmountable.

Slowly over time, and then suddenly all at once, she lost the ability to hold a note surely enough to sustain even the simplest tune. “I first noticed something wrong back in 1972 when I got pregnant for the first time,” she recalled recently. “My voice became precarious — in and out.”

Consultations with doctors eventually brought a brutal diagnosis: spasmodic dysphonia, a neurological disorder in which the muscles in the larynx tighten or lapse into spasms, strangulating speech while making singing a significant challenge. (It’s an entirely different diagnosis from stiff person syndrome, which Celine Dion announced she has in 2022.) “It’s a progressive disease,” Thompson said of her condition. “So, for the first 20 years or so I could live with it. Up until my 60s, I could still sing in the studio, at least on good days.”

Now, at 76, that ability has withered entirely for Thompson, one of the most vaunted artists to rise from the British folk-rock scene of the ’60s and ’70s that brought the world Sandy Denny, John Martyn and Nick Drake. Between 1974 and ’82, she released six albums in tandem with her ex-husband, the master guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson, culminating in “Shoot Out the Lights,” a work consecrated by critics, in part because of its forensic dissection of the couple’s own crumbling marriage. Thompson’s advancing dysphonia made her subsequent solo career fraught and sporadic, though she did manage to release four LPs before falling silent 11 years ago.

Even so, losing her voice didn’t mean forsaking her songwriting, a talent that led to a resourceful strategy for a comeback. Because almost everyone in Thompson’s extended circle of family and friends is a gifted vocalist, she thought, why not engage them to perform the songs and make an album from that? “It wasn’t exactly a brilliant idea,” Thompson said. “It was the only idea.”

What clinched it for her was the pun-y name she devised for the result: “Proxy Music.”

To drive home the title’s reference to Bryan Ferry’s band, Thompson had the plucky idea to have herself dolled up on the cover to mimic the iconic shot from Roxy Music’s 1972 debut album, which featured a 25-year-old model in the pose of a Varga girl. “I thought what fun to play an ancient pinup!” Thompson said with a laugh. The original model curled her lip slightly, “But when I tried to do that, a kind of pre-rigor mortis set in that looked like a grimace, which just made it funnier.”

It helps that Ferry himself, whom she met years ago, loves the shot. The humor of the cover contrasts sharply with her po-faced image from the Richard and Linda Thompson days, underscored by songs of the time that she herself described as “music to slit your wrists by.”

“My mother has always been funny,” said Teddy Thompson, an accomplished singer-songwriter who both sings on the new album and co-wrote many of its songs. “Even her bleakest songs have a bit of a wink.”

Hewing to character, the Thompson matriarch kept things light during the interview, regardless of topic. “I just can’t take things too seriously, unless they truly, truly are,” she said. “People are riddled with angst about not very much, I find.”

She maintains an equally philosophical attitude toward her dysphonia. “When you have something like this, you tell yourself, ‘Well, at least it’s not cancer,’ just as, I suppose people with cancer say, ‘Well, at least I’m not dead.’”

For the interview, Thompson spoke for an hour by video call from her home in London (followed by some email exchanges). And though her voice frequently creaked, it did so in a way that suggested the warm floors of a long lived-in, and well-loved, home.

Over the years, her will to push through her circumstances has been tested enough times to end the creative life of many. She credits part of her fortitude to the “just get on with it” attitude of her post-World War II generation in Britain. It may help that the music that first inspired her boasts a historic lineage. Growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, she gravitated toward Scottish aires and laments, sometimes accompanied by a famously divisive local instrument.

“I love the bagpipes!” she declared. “That’s how my parents knew there was something seriously wrong with me.”

Her singing voice suited the austerity of the sound, marked by a tone so tawny, and a character so sturdy, it required little ornamentation. Moving to London, she sang in folk clubs where she met, and became best friends, with Sandy Denny, who died in 1978. “Sandy had the most ridiculously beautiful voice I’ve ever heard, even though she smoked around 100 cigarettes a day,” she said.

She became involved with Denny’s bandmate in Fairport Convention, Richard Thompson, whom she married in 1972. Reflecting his interest in Sufism, a mystical interpretation of Islam, the two joined a commune in ’73, and though she now describes that group as a cult, she stayed with them for nearly a decade. “I was young, and maybe I thought the suffering would do me good,” she said, punctuating her recollection with a loud “Ha!”

She had three children during the family’s time there. Creeping disillusionment led the couple to eventually leave, and soon the marriage itself disintegrated. Even so, the duo went through with a cringe-evoking U.S. tour in which the audience was fully aware of the turmoil. “I was taking lots of pills and drinking lots of vodka, so I don’t remember a thing,” Thompson said with a laugh.

At the same time, she “kind of enjoyed the experience, because I knew I was getting out of the relationship.”

Her indomitable attitude came in handy since she was left to raise the kids at a time when neither she nor her soon-to-be ex-husband had much money. Consequently, she sought a solo contract, which she secured with Warner Bros. Records for her debut album in 1985. For the project, titled “One Clear Moment,” she wrote songs, a talent she had never explored in her work with Richard, not because he held her back, she said. “It was just a case of me being frightened of not being able to measure up.”

One song she co-wrote for the album, “Telling Me Lies,” was recorded by Linda Ronstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris for their “Trio” album, resulting in a Top 10 country hit. Unfortunately, her dysphonia soon spiked, keeping her from recording for the next 17 years. It was Teddy who pushed her back to work. “She was treating it more like a hobby, doing things in her own sweet time,” he said.

In the years between, songwriting became an unexpected forte.

“If I hadn’t lost my voice, I never would have started to write at all,” she said.

The songs she wrote for the new album cover a wide range of characters and situations with pith and wit. “Darling This Will Never Do,” a ’30s-style ballad archly delivered by Rufus Wainwright, chronicles an intergenerational romance, inspired by Cher. “Her boyfriend is, what, 40 years younger?” Thompson said. “God almighty, I can’t imagine it.”

“I Used to Be So Pretty,” sung by young English songwriter Ren Harvieu with guitar support from Richard Thompson, captures the regrets of aging. “It’s horrible,” Thompson said of the process. “Everything kind of hurts, you can’t do as much as you used to, and you look like [expletive] most of the time.”

“The Solitary Traveller,” rendered by her daughter Kami, idealizes a loner life its author has never experienced. (Mere months after the end of her marriage to Richard, she met Steve Kenis, an American who was head of the William Morris talent agency in Europe, to whom she has been married for the last 42 years). “I feel like I’ve been married and had kids my whole life,” Thompson said. “I think it must be great to be on your own.”

Two songs on the album have a meta dimension. One, written for singer-songwriter John Grant, whom she befriended a few years ago, is actually titled “John Grant” and is sung by the man himself. Its lyrics cover the emotional dilemmas of Grant’s life as a gay man, including the death of his mother, who condemned his sexuality. When I reached Grant for a comment and read back the song’s lyrics to him, he choked up. “She really got my number,” he said. “That’s why it’s so emotional for me. She saw this broken creature and took me under her wing, which is incredibly comforting.”

Another new song, cheekily titled “Those Damn Roches,” could serve as the ultimate meta folk-family anthem. It chronicles the spats and bonds of the famous singing dynasties in her circle, including the Roches, the McGarrigle-Wainwrights, the Waterson-Carthys and, naturally, the Thompsons. “She captured something that I’ve never heard in a song before,” said Terre Roche, who has known Thompson for years. “People think, ‘Oh, I wish I could sing with my family.’ They don’t understand the complexity of doing it professionally. The music we create is just the flower in a thorn bush.”

Thompson covers both the stirring and the vexing angles of the situation in the song. “We can’t get along ’cept when we’re apart,” she wrote of her clan, only to follow it with the proud declaration “when we are singing loud and strong, who can take us?”

The latter line reflects her spirit as an individual as well. “It’s not easy to make art without much feedback or remuneration,” Teddy Thompson said. “A lot of people just stop doing it. But she found a way to keep being positive and creative.”

She captured some of the philosophy behind that in her new song “Mudlark.” The title refers to those mad souls who spend their time sifting for hidden treasures in the muddy banks of a river. “It sounds pretentious to say it, but a lot of life is like that,” Thompson said. “Gold amid the dross: That’s what you’ve got to look for.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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