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Tracey Thorn On 'Tinsel And Lights' (And Boxing Day Quizzes): WFUV Interview

by Kara Manning
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Throughout her career — from Marine Girls to Everything But The Girl to her solo work — Tracey Thorn has quietly rebelled and diverted from predicatable routes. While a Christmas album of mostly covers might sound like a surprising choice for her, especially for a fourth solo record, the unconventional path Thorn has chosen for her beautiful new release, Tinsel and Lights, is evergreen, extending far beyond the holiday season and edging its way towards spring.

Thorn's thoughtful song selections, from the White Stripes to Scritti Politti to Sufjan Stevens, are wise and wintry walkabouts of reflection, redemption and regeneration, the journey of long, dark days spent adhering to expectations or tradition, yet uneasily pondering the future. It's an album unafraid of loneliness, finding real comfort and joy in moments of solitary abandon, far from the relentless bustle of December.

As exquisitely curated as the covers may be, the heart of Thorn's album is found with her two original songs: the powerful, lucid reality of "Joy," steeped in sighs of relief and aching doubt, and the sparkling New York stroll, "Tinsel and LIghts," framed through a filter of old memories. Both songs are gentle reminders that the holidays are often the chance for a clear assessment of our past, present and future, a yearly culmination of pleasure and pain, bright hope and harrowing despair.

Nestled betwen lyrically rich and restless songs like Dolly Parton's "Hard Candy Christmas" or Low's "Taking Down the Tree," a shivery duet between Thorn and Scritti Politti's Green Gartside, the inclusion of two very familiar holiday standards — Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and Joni Mitchell's "The River" — seems piquant and oddly transformative.Thorn smartly finds a keep-calm-and-carry-on fortitude to "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," reclaiming it from syrupy excess and shifting the song from a forlorn sigh to a crisp fresh start. "The River" is carried to the side of the Thames, with a crookedly charming brass accompaniment.

Tinsel and Lights, produced by Ewan Pearson and also featuring some guitarwork and other contributions from Thorn's husband and EBTG partner Ben Watt, is available now through Merge and Strange Feeling. In early February, Thorn — who is a funny, observant and candid writer — releases her autobiography, Bedsit Disco Queen.

The Alternate Side had a chance to chat with Tracey Thorn over email from London this week. Not only did she discuss her new album, but revealed some of her family's Yuletide traditions, from clementine cake to slightly inebriated Boxing Day quizzes:

Kara Manning: I was so moved by the first line of your new song "Joy" which begins the journey of this beautiful album: "When someone very dear/Calls you with the words, 'Everything's all clear'/That's what you want to hear/But you know it might be different in the new year." Was this song the real starting point — and heart — of this album?

Tracey Thorn: Yes, I wrote this song last Christmas. A family member was waiting on medical test results, and it was looming over the whole of Christmas. It made me realise how these things just become such a normal part of life as you get older, and they make you really need the moments of celebration even more. The song is about Christmas being a sort of defiance of darkness - that we have to strive for joy even in the face of its opposite. (PS: the test results finally came back in the New Year and were all good, so it has a happy ending!) Once I'd written the song I knew I could do the whole album, as it seems to be a justification for Christmas, and for taking it seriously.

Kara: The songs you chose — and I read you began with around 50 — seem to be quite specific about the emotional import of this time of year. What was behind your decision to record a full album of holiday songs?

Tracey: I did start off with a big list — also on it were all the more traditional Christmas album songs, [like] "Winter Wonderland," "Santa Baby," "Baby It's Cold Outside" — but I thought I would probably end up finding that a bit boring, so I extended the list to include songs about winter, snow, ice, cold, skating, etc. It just became a theme for me to hang the songs on. Then I just sat down a tried all the songs on the list, and chose the ones which worked — because I was able to sing them, or had an arrangement idea for them, or something. Quite practical considerations.

Kara: Christmas albums and songs can become iconic — part of our traditions — and some even have longevity that far outlasts the bands or artists that recorded them, like the Waitresses or the great Kirsty MacColl. For you, what makes a great contemporary Christmas song? And in making choices for this album — and writing your own songs — were you more ruled by your heart or what made sense musically?

Tracey: I think I was ruled by my heart in making the initial list — they all had to be songs I had some love for — then it came down to musical decisions when I made the final choices, just which ones worked best. The thing I quite like about Christmas songs is that there are certain rules to be adhered to, and you have to decide how strongly to adhere to them. It seems to be that in order to work, a Christmas song HAS to mention certain things — snow, lights, the tree, cold, lights, candles, the list goes on — but it's how you use those elements that then makes each song individual.

Kara: What were you determined to avoid, either thematically or otherwise?

Tracey: I was trying to avoid irony. I didn't want to make a record that was either too kitsch, or too knowing, or seemed to have an air of ironic detachment about it by trying to be too cool or alternative. I wanted to choose some slightly alternative or unusual songs, but do them all in a very sincere way, to show that I really meant what I was doing.

Kara: You worked with your longtime collaborator Ewan Pearson again. Was he surprised by your determination to do this?  

Tracey: He wasn't surprised, he knew I wanted to do this! Also I think we understand each other in terms of realising that a Christmas record from me would inevitably have a certain melancholy undertone to it, and we both understand and like that mood.

Kara: "Tinsel and Lights," another original track, is set in New York. You and Ben once lived in the city for a spell.

Tracey: Yeah, this song is about a Christmas we spent in New York with two close friends, quite a few years ago. It was a lovely Christmas, and full of quite iconic Manhattan moments for us Londoners, so it has an almost magical resonance in my memory. The song is really about how much time has passed since then, and how much has changed, and only I really know the full details of all that has happened to the four of us since that Christmas.

Kara: You cover one of my favorite Scritti Politti songs  — "Snow in Sun" — and you also collaborated with Green Gartside on the Low duet "Taking Down the Tree." What is it about Green's sensibility — lyrically and otherwise — that matches your own?

Tracey: We don't know each other well, but have been in contact over the last couple of years, trying to get together to work on something - and then this idea came along and I asked him to sing with me and it just worked out! The thing I love about his "Snow in Sun" song, and the reason I wanted to include it, is that it's such a sad but brave song. It's about feeling very down and low about yourself, and yet trying so hard to keep thinking positively and believe that things will get better: "There'll be something good about me soon." That fits in with the mood of this record.

Kara: Your choices on the album range from the White Stripes to Sufjan Stevens to Dolly Parton. What did you love about these songs ... and are they any that you regret not recording?

Tracey: I think I like them each for different reasons, they each have a slightly different mood and meaning - the one I most wanted to record but didn't is "Last Christmas", which I love, but I just couldn't work out an arrangement to do it justice. Maybe next year.

Kara: You cover two very well-known classics — "The River" and "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas." As a vocalist, especially a vocalist with such a unique, emotional voice — what was most challenging for you in tackling both of those extremely well-known songs?

Tracey: I think as with any cover, just to try and forget the original and sing it like it's your own song that you've just written. I always try to believe that I've written the lyrics, and that they are about me, so that I can be inside the song.

Kara: What are some of your favorite - or most cheerfully eccentric - family traditions around Christmas?

Tracey: I get together with the whole of my family on Boxing Day now, and there are quite a lot of us, and we all congregate in my Dad's flat, which isn't large, so we're using every single chair and still some of us are sitting on the floor. We all bring whatever food is left over from the day before, and then we cook more just to be sure. So there's loads. Too much. And the tradition is that once we've all had plenty to drink, we have a family quiz, which has been prepared by either my brother-in-law, or sometimes Ben. We get in teams, and have pens and paper, and answer the questions the quizmaster asks. It gets competitive. Everyone's a bit drunk. We're trying to remember when was the Battle of Bosworth, or who was number 1 at Christmas in 1984, or what the capital of Estonia is.

Kara: As a gardener, you must have a big say about the tree — what is the perfect sort of tree? How do you enjoy decorating it?  

Tracey: For a few years I went mad and we had an artificial tree. Then a couple of years ago I suddenly came to my senses and we have gone back to a real tree. I've found a great company in London who deliver, and they are great - the guys all turn up in elf hats and are really friendly and helpful. I do enjoy decorating it, yes, but I have to stop myself getting too controlling about what colour baubles go where. The kids are supposed to help, but sometimes I MOVE things after they've finished. I say sometimes, I mean always.

Kara: You have tweeted extensively (and quite amusingly) during the Great British Bake-Off — do you love to bake? What's your favorite kind of Christmas biscuit, pudding or pie?  

Tracey: YES. Nigella Lawson's clementine cake is the best Christmas thing ever. I make it every year for the Boxing Day gathering, and it is amazing. Also last year I made florentines and they were delicious. [Ed. note: see Tracey's recipe for a Yule Log below].

Kara: What is the most meaningful gift you've ever received or Christmas and why?

Tracey: Oh I don't know about meaningful. I usually get gardening gloves.

Tracey Thorn has also been keeping an advent calendar for fans, including special videos, a Spotify playlist and her recipe for a delicious (slightly complicated) Yule log with reindeer and Santa galavanting across the chocolate frosting (recipe below). Head here for the balance of Tracey's countdown to Christmas.

Tracey's Yule Log

First you have to make a chocolate Swiss roll. You need:
50g self-raising flour
20g cocoa powder
4 eggs
65g caster sugar

Sift the flour and cocoa powder together. Whisk the eggs and sugar in a bowl until the whisk leaves a trail. Fold in the flour mixture. Turn the mixture into a lined and greased Swiss roll tin, about 20 x 40 cm and smooth the surface. Bake in a preheated oven, 200 deg C (400 F) gas mark 6, for 12 to 14 minutes or until springy to the touch. Turn out onto lightly sugared greaseproof paper place on a slightly damp, clean tea towel and remove the lining paper. Roll up tightly from the short edge with the sugared paper inside. Leave to cool for about 20 minutes.

While this is cooling, make some chocolate butter icing. You need:
125g unsalted butter
250g icing sugar
sifted 2 tablespoons cocoa powder blended with 2 tablespoons boiling water
then cooled 1 tablespoon milk

Beat the butter with half the icing sugar until smooth. Add the remaining icing sugar with the milk and chocolate flavouring. Beat until creamy. Unroll the sponge, and remove the sugared paper. Spread with some of the chocolate icing and roll up again. Now cut a short diagonal wedge off one end of the roll and join in to the side of the log with icing, so that it looks like a branch. In the picture above I did two branches, but that was just showing off. Place on a cake board, and cover the whole log with icing. Make lines on it with a fork to resemble the bark of a tree. Sprinkle with icing sugar for snow and decorate with all sorts of novelty Christmas items.

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