Being the progeny of famous musicians isn't always a guaranteed ticket to stardom. For every Rufus Wainwright (dad, Loudon Wainwright III; mom, Kate McGarrigle) or Jakob Dylan (son of Bob), there's an Adam Cohen, whose band, Low Millions, didn't quite produce the same genius lyrics his dad, Leonard, did. Or there's Sean Lennon and half-brother Julian, who have yet to come close to the impact their Beatle dad had on pop culture.
Now, that's not to say that these offspring don't have the requisite talent to succeed; in fact, most of these musicians weren't even given a solid chance to grow beyond their indelible monikers. Take singer-songwriter Teddy Thompson son of folkies Richard and Linda Thompson who was dropped by Virgin Records after the release of his 2000 self-titled debut, even though the album's dusky twang and Thompson's velvet-touch croon seemed perfect for Triple-A radio.
Looking back now, Thompson is pragmatic about the whole experience. "Basically, they didn't get what they were expecting," he says via phone from New York City, his precise English accent formal yet lighthearted. "They would have liked a more commercial-sounding record." But in fact, being dropped from his label was a blessing in disguise for the 30-year-old, who laughs and says with typical deadpan humor that he then grabbed a chance to "expand his horizons."
"There was no point sitting at home and thinking you're going to write a whole record by sitting in your bedroom," Thompson says. "So I decided to get out and do some other things. I went on tour with Rufus [Wainwright], did some work with my mum on her record [2002's Fashionably Late]. That sort of thing. Work begats work.
"It's good to play with different people and soak up some other influences. Rufus is a great person to play with, and my mum is pretty great too. It all contributed to helping me make the next record."
But despite these numerous collaborations which also included a stint in Roseanne Cash's backing band Thompson deliberately set out to write and record what would become this year's Separate Ways by himself. He didn't seek out a label, manager or booking agent; instead, he chose to record songs in small batches and came back to them whenever he had the money or wasn't on the road. While he eventually settled on Brad Albetta as co-producer, Thompson's goal to record an entire album and then shop around the finished songs didn't change.
"I just figured it was a much better way to get them the finished product already, rather than what they might be getting," he says. "It's like, 'Here it is. Do you want to put it out or not?'
"I was very intent on having songs that I really loved, believed in, so I wouldn't get sick of playing them," he continues. "When I was throwing things away and doing songs again and changing bits and listening to things endlessly, even when I hated the guitar sound and the way I sang it, I never got sick of the song, which was really a good litmus test. Most of them I didn't get sick of, and those are the ones I kept on the record, 'cause I figured that meant something."
His instincts and piecemeal approach proved correct. Ways is a cohesive album full of moody barnstorming and sandpaper folk that conjures Crowded House's meticulously orchestrated vignettes and the intricate guitar work of Dire Straits and that's just for starters. On the crunchy, vaguely glam "You Made It," Thompson eerily cops the trembling yowl of Thom Yorke, while haunting cello matches the stormy mood of the title track, a searing tale of breakups and heartbreak.
Even more impressive are the album's guest stars: tourmate Rufus and his sister Martha, Fairport Convention drummer Dave Mattacks and Band keyboardist Garth Hudson. Teddy's parents even jump aboard; Linda contributes vocals to an Everly Brothers cover, and Richard lends guitar to several tracks, including the rootsy highlight "I Wish It Was Over," a tortured take on the end of a relationship.
"Usually when you have people come in to add backing vocals or sprinkle their fairy dust, as it were, the finishing touches are usually what they're there for," Thompson says about the cameos. "That's the best part of it, it's great to have people come and do that. You've been listening to it awhile and working on it, you've done your parts and it sounds good, and then you get really great people, and all of a sudden it sounds a thousand times better. It's always the most exciting part, I think."
Despite the genetic predisposition, Thompson's interest in music as a career didn't fully crystallize until he moved to Los Angeles at age eighteen and started writing original songs and performing live as a solo artist. (In fact, his original record deal with Virgin came about because of his visibility there.) But his first real performance-dabbling came as a teenager in boarding school, where he and some classmates formed a band.
"I don't even think we really had a name, we only played at school-band things," he recalls. "I was into pop music and country music and that sort of thing. We played really bad covers, basically. Whatever the hit songs were at the time, we played those.
"We went to the studio one time and did some recording; we had a couple of songs that we wrote for that. I suppose it was quite bluesy which makes me shudder now, because I'm English and white, what do I know about the blues?" He laughs. "Everybody was into that sound, 'cause Stevie Ray Vaughn was big, he was kind of a guitar hero, that was bluesy. We didn't know anything, really, about it."
Judging from the musical maturity on Ways, Thompson's learned a lot since then. In fact, he's adjusted quite well to life as a musician who also happens to have legendary parents; just ask Thompson what he would do if he weren't a musician.
"This was kind of my only option, so I had to make the best of it," he says dryly. "I don't have another real talent or anything. I can't draw. It was this or welfare." 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 21. Mississippi Nights, 914 North First Street. $12 to $14. 314-421-3853.