teddy thompson CD release with rhett miller at the Horseshoe (370 Queen West), Tuesday (March 14). $10.50. 416-598-4753. Rating: NNNNN
Growing up the kid of a famous musician can be like getting an automatic VIP pass to a club in which you never asked for membership.
Along with the fishbowl existence of living in a world where paparazzi camp out beside your backyard swimming pool and the likelihood of the coffee table at your folks' house parties holding bowls of pot and blow instead of pretzels and mixed nuts, you've gotta figure that if you opt for a career in rock - a natural choice for anyone raised in a house filled with recording gear and musical instruments - everyone's waiting for you to do the family name justice.
It's a helluva lot of pressure - for every Petra Haden or Rufus Wainwright, there's a Kelly Osbourne or Nikka Costa - so it makes sense that rock offspring would cling to each other for dear life... or at least to diffuse the focus.
That's what I figure is going on when I hear the Wainwright kids' soaring vocals backing up the gentle folk-pop tunes on Teddy Thompson's (son of Brit folkies Richard and Linda) brand new album, Separate Ways (Verve Forecast).
"I think collaborating with them has more to do with the fact that we're friends," argues Thompson, who's done stints opening for and singing backup for Rufus on tour. "I mean, obviously we met through our parents, and I'm sure our friendship has a lot to do with our backgrounds, but I don't think our parents influence whether or not we'd sing and play together. Musically, I don't think there's anything to be gained by working with other second-generation musicians."
So it's not a birds-of-a-feather situation like, say, the Like, that pop trio made up of the teenage daughters of Mitchell Froom, Tony Berg and Pete Thomas?
"The Like? They were recording in the studio beside me when I was finishing my record," Thompson begins, neatly sidestepping the question. "I'd always see them beside the coffee machine, these pubescent waify things distracting me from my bagel. I have to say I heard a couple tunes that weren't so bad. Their drummer [Tennessee Thomas, whose dad plays drums with Elvis Costello] was pretty good.
"I suppose we should reserve judgment till after we see them live," Thompson adds wryly, "shouldn't we?"
That duck-and-cover technique - bone-dry quips and subtle evasiveness - is a Thompson signature trait. Despite the fact that it's a typical quarter-life crisis disc, shot through with warmly produced tunes about breakups, agoraphobia, drugs and finding oneself, Separate Ways is saved from being straight-up Adult Alternative Radio fare by the singer/songwriter's glimmers of self-deprecating humour.
He can pen a song about wanting to achieve massive stardom and "shine so bright it hurts," but turn it around with a punchline about how acolytes won't talk back "cuz you'll never know when I might snap." Zing! He can wax poetic about illegal substances in his tune Altered States but, unlike his pal Rufus W., Thompson, takes the piss out of himself for using drugs as an escape without resorting to self-pity.
"I suppose that's my Englishness. Most people would sit down to write a song like that and take it more seriously. I guess it represents a slightly dark situation," he says, "but I can't really say those things without a pinch of salt."
He's just as matter-of-fact about changing labels from Virgin, which released his self-titled debut in 2000, to Verve Forecast, whose roster of smooth pop artists for "mature" listeners (Jamie Cullum, Brazilian Girls, Rhett Miller) seems like the perfect home for Thompson's lush steel-string strumming.
"Virgin dropped me, and that's that. It's the usual situation: for them to have any real interest, you need to be capable of selling a million records, and they, totally fairly, looked at my record and realized there was no way that'd happen. I wasn't happy there, though it's never nice to be told you're not wanted."
Though it seems likely that Verve Forecast signed him hoping he'd become their answer to Blue Note's "male Norah Jones," Amos Lee, Thompson claims he didn't give much thought to achieving Cullum-style soccer-mom-heartthrob success with the label.
"I guess I'm being sort of jaded, but it doesn't really matter what label you're on these days. I suppose Verve is a jazz label, but they're still owned by Universal, which is a big corporation.
"Labels used to have individual personalities," he continues, "like people used to buy Atlantic Records cuz they'd sound a certain way, but that doesn't exist in today's major-label world. I suspect it still happens within the indie sphere, but there's no difference from one major to another.
"It's a business transaction, and I don't really care," he proclaims, then catches himself a few seconds later. "No, I mean, er... I love them. They're great to me."