“Bedales is remarkably similar to the way I remember it,” reflects Teddy Thompson, as he takes a short break from an engagement-packed day back at his alma mater. Interrupting his multi-date tour of Europe, Teddy has followed a series of workshops with some of Bedales’ brightest aspiring musical and song writing talents with a bite to eat with the students. Now, his sound check completed, Teddy is about to go on stage at his old school, two decades after leaving it, to show Bedales the talents that have allowed him to carve his own distinctive niche as one of Britain’s most respected singers and writers. “Some of the buildings have changed, but there is still the same kind of vibe among the students that there always used to be,” Teddy continues. “If anything, they seem more accomplished than we were in our day. They have such poise and appear so mature for their age.”
Teddy’s time at Bedales only encompassed a three-year spell between the ages of 13 and 16, but his memories of the school remain infectiously warm. “I was a shy, reticent boy – ‘sensitive’ was a word that was regularly applied to me – but Bedales was a place that allowed me to be that way,” Teddy recalls. “The early teen years are such a formative time in everyone’s life and at that point, you’re just trying to find your own place. I remember Bedales as the place that introduced me to Shakespeare, Byron and Keats, and being blown away by the discovery. I wasn’t thinking consciously of what I wanted to be when I was older, but music had always been a part of my life, and I was able to do it a bit more under the radar at Bedales than might have been the case at a different school. It’s even possible that if I hadn’t been at Bedales, but somewhere like Eton, I might not have gone down the musical path at all.”
It was Teddy’s own decision to leave Bedales at the age of 16, one that he now says that he regrets. “I can see what opportunities I had when I was here, and I think that I should have stayed,” he reckons. “At the time, though, London seemed to be where it was all happening, so back there I went. Truth is that I’ve always been an urbanite - I’ve only ever lived in London, LA and New York and I could never imagine settling in the country - but strangely, it still seems very natural to be back at Bedales today.”
By the age of 18, Teddy had formed his own band and moved to Los Angeles to learn his trade. The son of legendary folk-rock performers Richard and Linda Thompson, it was, perhaps, an inevitable career choice for him, but tracking such powerful footprints can be an onerous task, even for the wisest among us. “Quite early on, I learned that I wanted to pull my family closer to me in my career, rather than push them away. I felt that very strongly,” Teddy explains. “I admire them, after all. I look at the way in which my father has always been able to work and has always been great at what he does, I look at his longevity and I realise that longevity is what I’m after from my own career. The idea of having overnight success and nothing beyond scares me to death, not least because I wouldn’t want to do anything other than music.”
Even Teddy, by some distance his own harshest task-master, would have to concede that he has at least made a fair start in the longevity stakes, having now operated in the music business for exactly half of his 36 years. Five studio albums, numerous tours, the respect of his peers – enshrined in the UK by the almost papal blessing of an appearance on Later….With Jools Holland – are achievements worth celebrating. Teddy partially concedes the point: “I like to think of myself as a perfectionist, but also a pragmatist, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction,” he says. “I need to have a bit of organisation and control over what I’m doing; if I’m not happy with something I’ve written, I throw it away, rather than try to improve on it at some point in the future. I’m never that pleased with something the moment I’ve finished it, because I’m conscious of the ways in which it could have been better. Having said all that, I realise that art can’t be, and probably shouldn’t be, perfect. I think that you have to look at perfection as a series of peaks in a mountain range, rather than a single summit to be scaled just once.”
Teddy does come close to admitting that mastery of his craft is coming closer as he gets older. “I like to think that I can chart my improvement over the years,” he says. “For me, it’s been a long, slow arc, and I hope that I’m nowhere near the downward side of it yet! By contrast, my friend Rufus Wainwright, with whom I’m touring now and have collaborated for many years, came out fully formed and ready to go at age nineteen.” Rufus and his sister Martha are, like Teddy, scions of a noted musical dynasty and Teddy acknowledges that these similarities have played their part in cementing their close personal and professional relationships. “It’s not that common and it’s fair to say that our shared understanding counts for a lot,” he agrees.
An Englishman, resident in New York but constantly living the peripatetic lifestyle of the touring musician, Teddy appears to be a good fit for the role of the outsider that he often assigns himself in his songs. “I do quite enjoy the part of an outsider and I’d say that a lot of song-writers would have the same point of view,” he suggests. “It means that you’re often more sensitive to what’s around you, which can only be of benefit to your writing. It’s very satisfying, although I have a long way to go before I’ll ever feel properly satisfied with what I’m doing.”
That self-deprecating nature again. Surely Teddy must by now feel at ease with the niche that he’s dug out for himself? “It took me a very long time to become comfortable in my own skin,” he begins. “With that in mind, coming back home does make me feel quite proud of where I’ve got to, I guess, yes.” What would his sixteen year-old Bedalian self think of what Teddy has gone on to achieve twenty years later? Teddy hesitates and smiles: “I think he’d be quite proud of me, too.”
Teddy Thompson was interviewed by James Fairweather in November 2012.