Considering that 17 years have passed since British folk-rock great Linda Thompson released any new material, the decision to call her brilliant comeback album Fashionably Late (Rounder) is both characteristically witty and very apt. The moody-blue vibe of her late hang-around pal Nick Drake has never been more popular, so Thompson couldn't have chosen a better time to return with an acoustic-based collection of darkly soulful and emotionally charged songs enhanced by the exquisite string embellishments of Drake's arranger, Robert Kirby.
Yet she didn't plan her long-overdue re-emergence to coincide with the Volkswagen ad campaign that touched off Drake-mania.
For much of the past 30 years, Thompson, who initially rose to fame in the mid-70s alongside ex-partner Richard Thompson with innovative, spiritually moving works such as I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight and Pour Down Like Silver (both on Hannibal), has found it difficult, at times even impossible, to sing.
There have been murmurings concerning her bouts with stage fright, and until recently Thompson herself was resigned to the idea that her difficulty singing was psychological.
"There was a time when I'd rather have eaten worms than be up onstage," shudders Thompson from New York City. "I thought the problems were all in my head, but it turns out they were all in my throat."
Thompson's plagued with what's called spasmodic dysphonia, which prompts the brain to send signals to the vocal cords to knot up. A doctor in New York injected them with Botox -- the same stuff people use to rid their faces of frown lines -- and that cured her.
"Mind you, I still get horrible stage fright -- I don't know of any singers worth their salt who don't -- but I can sing freely for the first time ever. It really is miraculous."
When asked how she spent her lengthy hiatus, the charmingly self-deprecating Thompson quips, "Ooh, I've been having a bit of a lie-down."
Actually, she's been busy raising her three children (singer/guitarist Teddy and singer Tammy Thompson are accompanying her on tour) in addition to selling antiques and participating in various theatre projects, including her ongoing collaborations with Pere Ubu's David Thomas.
And when not out getting loaded with Kate and Anna McGarrigle and their clan, Thompson was quietly developing her compositional craft, and it shows on Fashionably Late, particularly in the album's enjoyably grisly centrepiece, Nine Stone Rig.
"I don't think I would ever have considered writing as much as I did for this album if I hadn't had voice problems. If I couldn't sing, I felt I should try to keep a hand in by writing songs. It can sometimes be an arduous process, but the more I wrote, the more I enjoyed doing it. And hearing someone else singing something I've written is the biggest joy in the world for me."
As it happens, it was son Teddy's performance of Thompson's Dear Mary that led to her unlikely recording-studio reunion with Richard Thompson, who ended their relationship -- personally and professionally -- after touring their classic Shoot Out The Lights (Hannibal) album in 82.
"To be very honest, requesting his participation certainly wouldn't have occurred to me. Teddy told me that Richard really loved Dear Mary and had been getting up onstage with him to play on it.
"When it came time to record it, Teddy said, "There are things Richard does on guitar that I can't see anybody else doing.'
"So I called up Richard, saying, "You know that song of mine you love? Could you come to the studio and play guitar on it?' He just said sure. And that was that. He didn't even charge me for it!"
Those who love the heart-wrenching drama of Richard and Linda Thompson's classic moments like Withered And Died, Back Street Slide and Dimming Of The Day will be relieved to know that Thompson doesn't find the old favourites too troubling to perform.
"There's probably more emotional baggage with the new songs than the old ones. Although I did cry at a rehearsal recently while singing Dimming Of The Day.
"I can't help it, I've always been an emotional singer. So if I'm onstage and suddenly start sobbing uncontrollably, I'll just have to go with it. Just make sure you bring lots of Kleenex."
LINDA THOMPSON at the Phoenix Concert Theatre (410 Sherbourne), Wednesday (October 23). $20. 416-870-8000.