The prolific songwriter spills the deets on his latest record.
Gaining attention as Jools Holland’s support act in 2014, RJ Thompson has fast become one of Britain’s finest contemporary songwriters. Releasing his debut record Illogical Life in 2011, his skills saw him go on tour around the UK with The Proclaimers, Sandi Thom and Gabriella Cilmi before grabbing the gig with Jools.
Grafting for a number of years, his hard work is evident in his latest album, Echo Chamber. Taking on politics, Brexit and narrow-minded opinions, the record is an accomplished first full-length studio LP and shows the prolific songwriter venturing into other genres as he takes on synth sounds and electro-pop melodies.
Eager to find out more, we caught up with RJ to chat new records and his latest vid.
What’s your musical journey been like so far?
I’ve been making music in one guise or another for 10 years, but it’s only in the last couple of years that I’ve truly focused my attention on making music that really interests me. In the past, I’ve been way too mouldable, falling into a very stereotypical singer-songwriter cliché. I grew very bored of it, so I put down my instruments and took a break for a while. I wasn’t excited by making music anymore. Stepping away from it altogether for a year, I sat back, listened to the artists that made me fall in love with music in the first place, and then started to work on becoming the artist that I really want to be.
You wrote your first song after going to a U2 concert. What was it about the gig that inspired you?
Whether you love or loathe U2, seeing them live is a really powerful experience. It’s probably the anthemic nature of their songs, but I just remember being in awe of Bono’s presence and the band’s ability to move the crowd in one direction or another, to one emotion or another. It’s a rock ‘n’ roll show, in it’s true sense: an experience. I had already been playing guitar in bands for a year or so before that show, but I left feeling as if I had something to say myself.
You’ve been in the biz for over a decade. How has this shaped you as a songwriter and musician?
Despite what I said before, my earlier years making music weren’t in vain. It just so happened that it took me a bit longer than some artists to find the music that I really wanted to make. During that time, I was lucky enough to tour with some really inspirational artists – people like Midge Ure, John Martyn, Joan Armatrading… People who have written genuinely legendary songs. I learnt a lot from them. Particularly how to recognise when a song isn’t working. I find myself writing far fewer songs these days because I can tell if something is going to be good a lot earlier in the writing process.
You just released your latest album Echo Chamber last month. How did the record come into being?
It was the result of stepping away for a while and falling in love with music again. Listening to those old Jackson and Prince records. Developing a love for analogue synthesizers and intricate percussion. When I sat down with my producer, Adam Sinclair, with the first batch of songs, we were both immediately on the same page.
“Whether you love or loathe U2, seeing them live is a really powerful experience.”
Theme wise – is there one that runs through the album? You’ve said previously that it’s quite political?
I wanted to make a record that really delved into the weird 18 months we’ve all just had. How was the political landscape affecting my family, my friends, myself? The album is political in the sense that it attempts to hold a mirror up to society. There’s a few storytelling moments in there about people close to me who have been badly affected by the division that is growing, particularly in the UK. There’s references throughout to political games. Ultimately though, I wanted the album to be about people overcoming division.
You’ve also said that “Skimming Stones” is your favourite song. Can you tell us a bit about why this is?
Ironically, it’s one of the only songs on the record that isn’t political. The earlier part of the record is all about the wider community and societal issues, and then all of sudden it pulls in to “Skimming Stones”, which is essentially about the age-old story of a love lost. It feels raw and emotional. I just really love the vibe we managed to capture in the studio.
And you’re about to release the video for it! Can you tell us about the process behind making it?
I’ve been working with Ian West (Director of Photography) for the past few years, and we’re very in tune now with what we like and don’t like. All of my music videos start with a brainstorming session, usually in the pub. Every idea I come up with is usually way too complicated, way too expensive, way too time consuming. So Ian reels me in until we find something that we can realistically do.
Where did the idea come from?
The song is essentially about a relationship ending without either person realising that it was falling apart. I wanted the video to expand on that story. I wanted it to be raw. Jarring in places.
You directed it yourself. Did you prefer being in front or behind the camera?
I really don’t enjoy looking at myself on camera (who does?), so I’d happily take an off-camera role on every video I make. That’s not always possible though, and this song needed me in it to hit the lyrics home.
It seems to have quite a lot of symbolism with the blindfolds and interpretive dancers. Can you tell us a little bit more about the thought process behind this?
The blindfold / handcuff theme has been running through the whole album – they feature on the album artwork as well as in the “London” video – in those instances, however, they are used to represent people feeling helpless while the political shitstorm gathers pace around them. But in this video, they are there to represent the two people in the relationship being bound together but blind to their problems. The interpretive dancers represent the relationship that they think they have. It starts out romantic and tight, but as the video progresses, that starts to fall apart too.
What else are you up to this year?
I’m on tour supporting Jools Holland around the UK at the minute. Last two shows coming up just before Christmas. They’ve been a lot of fun so far! Jools is music royalty, and it’s an honour to be invited on tour with him.