TAS Interview: Tracey Thorn
Tracy Thorn's supple, patient contralto and smart, insightful lyrics have earned her an ardent fanbase through a nearly 30-year career that has spanned Marine Girls, Everything But The Girl and her recently revived solo career.
Thorn, who took time off a decade ago to focus on raising her three children with her EBTG partner (and now husband) Ben Watt, returned in 2007 with her sophomore solo album Out of the Woods (her solo debut was 1982's A Distant Shore) and on May 18, she'll release her third record, Love and Its Opposite, on Merge and Watt's own label, Strange Feeling.
Produced by Berlin's Ewan Pearson, who worked with Thorn, 47, on her last record, the new album features a duet with Jens Lekman on a cover of the late Lee Hazlewood's "Come on Home to Me" and contributions from Al Doyle of Hot Chip, Nashville singer and drummer Cortney Tidwell, The Invisible's Leo Taylor and Lost Valentino's Jono Ma. Yet it's Thorn's own songs examining the complexities of quotidian life - collapsing marriages ("Oh! The Divorces"), argumentative mothers and daughters ("Hormones"), the uneasy search for middle age romance ("Singles Bar") and her own family's past ("Kentish Town") - that render Love and Its Opposite as finely detailed and candidly observed as a Vermeer painting.
For eighteen years. Everything But The Girl straddled the enviable position of being both a cult favorite and even, gently, mainstream hitmakers. After releasing a string of more acoustically-based albums in the 80s and early 90s and achieving moderate success in the UK, they soared to the top of the US and UK charts in 1995 on the heels of a Todd Terry's propulsive house remix of their 1994 song "Missing" from Amplified Heart. That left-field hit was a serendipitous turn of fortune that spun Thorn and Watt further into the realm of dance and electronica. Post-EBTG, Watt now runs the dance/house label Buzzin' Fly and eclectic Strange Feeling labels, has his own radio show and is a renowned international club DJ.
The duo, who always boldly experimented with disparate soundscapes ranging from bossa nova to drum and bass, has deeply influenced scores of musicians and vocalists; the xx have enthusiastically cited Thorn and Watt's nuanced approach as a catalyst for their own quiet storm of songwriting. Thorn has also lent her distinctive vocals to songs by The Style Council, Massive Attack, Tiefschwarz and the underrated Hungarian group The Unbending Trees, who Thorn also covers on Love and Its Opposite.
The soft-spoken, quick-to-laugh Thorn recently spoke to The Alternate Side in a telephone interview from her north London home where she was decorating a bra - yes, really - for the upcoming Playtex Moonwalk this weekend. She revealed that she and Watt were talking to the xx about a possible collaboration and reiterated why it's extremely unlikely that EBTG will tour in the near - or distant - future.
She also explained her fondness for Twitter. Thorn is extremely funny, crafty and efficient with her tweets; after pre-taping Friday's "Later ... with Jools Holland" this week, she sharply tweeted, "Great. My first tv performance in 10 years and it's gonna happen under a Tory govt."
TAS: Since it's coming up this weekend, what is the Playtex Moonwalk that you're doing on May 15?
Tracey Thorn: Well, it's basically a power-walking marathon. So the full walk is 26 miles. I'm doing the half-moonwalk which is 13 miles. [We're] raising money for breast cancer research and [the walk] is done through London in the middle of the night. So you start at midnight, hence the moonwalk title, and you're supposed to do it in a decorated bra to raise breast cancer awareness. I'm doing it with a team of friends, we're trying to raise money online, and I'm actually sitting here [at home] today decorating my bra. They do a different theme each year and this year's theme is "Showtime." So I'm basically sewing on fringing and marabou feathers and sequins and you wouldn't believe it! (laughs).
TAS: Your songs on Love And Its Opposite remind me a bit of the American writers Richard Yates and John Cheever who wrote about American suburban life during a particular generation. You examine north London families, wives and husbands; your songs are a microcosm of people in their forties.
Tracey: I find it really interesting. A lot of people say, well, this is unusual subject matter for pop songs and such. It surprises me in a way, given that people carry on making records now until they're a bit older. Some of those people have missed a trick, really. There's a lot of interesting stuff that keeps happening to people into their forties and on and on. You don't suddenly run out of plot. I get a lot of inspiration just from a lot of what's happening around me.
TAS: I found it very amusing that you have a song called "Long White Dress" on the album and you recently got married to Ben [Watt] after being together since your college days, over 28 years ago! Did you write the song before or after your marriage?
Tracey: Yeah (laughs). I wrote it before and some of those lyrics had been knocking around for years. I had this idea that there was a song to be written there. When I was a child, I'd always dreaded the idea that you had to have a wedding and had to get married. I never had that little girl's dream of wanting that big day. So I thought that was an interesting song to write and, finally, I pulled it all together. To me, it's a song about being terrified of the whole romance, the overblown nature of what love's supposed to be about. I don't know whether maybe having written that and getting it out of my system, it then just cleared the deck a little bit.
TAS: I'm assuming you did not wear a long, white dress?
Tracey: I didn't (laughs). I did think for a moment, "well, I wonder if I'll actually overcome even that," but when I thought about it, I was like, "no!" That's just so freaky to me, to put a white dress on!
TAS: On the other side of that, there's the track "Oh, The Divorces." It seemed to have evolved from many conversations with friends. Was that a particularly difficult song to write?
Tracey: It was difficult to finish. The idea of it came quite suddenly. I remember literally putting the phone down on another conversation with someone telling me they were about to split up and thinking, I've got to write about all this. It's forming a little repetitive beat in my head. So I sat down and started writing it, but I did take a long time. It's quite unusual for me to go back and keep fiddling with a lyric. Usually I write them and let them be, but this one I really did tinker with quite a lot. I wanted it to be right. I didn't want it to get too sentimental. I didn't want it to get too indulgent emotionally. I wanted it to hang on to almost a sense of detachment, that I'm the one outside this situation, looking on with a feeling of mild anxiety and world-weariness about it.
TAS: The decision that you made to stop touring after you and Ben had children seemed not only helpful for you personally, but artistically as well.
Tracey: I think that's true. There's a really artificial nature to your life if you live it completely as a musician. A lot of the time you're very looked after, all you have to do is get on the tour bus every morning and someone drives you somewhere and someone else feeds you. As long as you turn up onstage in the evening, nothing else is really required of you. And I think I actually did reach a point of thinking, "that's quite infantilizing." When I stopped and had kids, I felt quite empowered, strangely, that I was living a more responsible and grown-up life doing that then being just a pampered pop star (laughs).
TAS: There was something rebellious your decision!
Tracey: Yes! I think so. Some people queried it, saying, "oh, you're doing this stay-at-home mum thing." It never felt like that to me. It felt like I was taking part in an interesting, quite vivid life.
TAS: Your song "Hormones" is quite funny - are your twin daughters are almost teenagers?
Tracey: Yes, they're twelve.
TAS: In a recent BBC interview you mentioned that when you were 15 years old, you got lost in London when making your way to see The Clash play an anti-Nazi rally. When you look at your nearly 13 year-old daughters, do you feel that it might have been cooler to be a teenager when you were a teenager?
Tracey: I don't know. Whenever you're young it feels that what's happening to you is the most exciting stuff. Certainly everything is very different for them. I do think - I wouldn't say this to them because the last thing I want to be is the moaning, old mother - but their lives are very mediated these days and controlled, though they don't feel that's the case. The amount of stuff that surrounds them, all the phones, gadgets and Facebook which in some ways is great and they love it ... but I do feel that unwittingly they've been co-opted by a very corporate version of what teenager-dom should be about. It's probably more difficult for them to experience a truly separate, anti-authoritarian, rebellious stage of life. I think I'll notice that they'll miss that. They probably won't notice because they have nothing to compare it to.
TAS: I'm assuming that because of you and Ben, music is always playing in your house ... or not? Or do you like to step back from it?
Tracey: I do go through phases when I don't play music much at all. Ben plays music a lot more than I do; it's more of a constant soundtrack for him. I think for the kids they've gotten used to music always being around, but they kind of ignore it since it's just in the background. It means that they've been exposed to, through Ben, a lot of cutting edge dance music because that's what he's listening to for [Buzzin' Fly] and for his radio show. The thing they haven't heard much of is chart pop music because we're not the kind of family that just has popular radio on, compared to their friends who get in the car with their parents and the radio just goes on to [stations with] pop hits. I think [my kids] have gotten to realize that they have to do some catching up on that front (laughs). They might know the new Vampire Weekend record but they don't know what the latest Lady Gaga single sounds like (laughs). So they've been trying to move away a bit and discover the pop groups that their peers are all listening to.
TAS: It's awful to think that their rebellion could be The Pussycat Dolls.
Tracey: Yeah, well, that's horrifying. And they've got me ranting and raving in the background as counterpoint (laughs). Not the music particularly, but the presentation. That's what I object to.
TAS: You might be one of the funniest people on Twitter. You and Ben compete about how many followers you have?
Tracey: I know! (laughs). There was a great moment when he was kind of waving it in my face! But I've passed him, he'll never catch me now!
TAS: Weirdly, there's almost a symmetry between the brevity of Twitter and lyric writing.
Tracey: I think there is! I like being quite concise and that's the way I write lyrics. I don't write long, rambling, streams-of-consciousness lyrics. I couldn't if I tried. I would just look at it on the page and go, "oh my God, too many words." So when I heard about Twitter, I though, well, this sounds like the kind of thing I love. I like sitting there and if [the tweet] is seven characters too long, having to fiddle with it to make it fit. I like the neatness of it. I started out [with it] thinking I could inform people about the record, but I didn't really realize I'd get hooked. And I didn't realize how much fun it would be. There's this community of people out there who are being funny all day long on it.
TAS: On this album you worked with producer Ewan Pearson again and there seemed to be a conscious effort to strip out a lot. And even, it seems, a small alt-country lilt filtering through some of the songs.
Tracey: Yes, I think so. Not particularly strongly not making too definitive a statement, but definitely that creeps in on a couple of songs. That kind of style suits this kind of lyric writing: slightly prosaic, kitchen-sink drama sort of lyric. It lends itself well to those sorts of arrangements. We decided that it would be the unifying thing of this record, a less-is-more ethic of leaving out as much as we possibly could without suffering for it. That was the atmosphere that we wanted to create.
TAS: You've worked with The Unbending Trees in the past, on "Overture," and chose to cover their song "You Are a Lover" on this album.
Tracey: They've written some amazing songs and because, as yet, they haven't come to that much wide attention, I just don't want those songs to be lost. It's me partly saying, "c'mon everybody, look at these songs!" But they're writing incredible songs and I think I could happily sing an album of those songs.
TAS: The xx have mentioned you and Ben in interviews, saying that you and Ben were influences on their sound. Are there any other up-and-coming or young bands that you especially like?
Tracey: I have to say I was very thrilled to hear the xx mention us. When I first heard them I immediately thought, "oh my God, that sounds really resonant." Actually we've been in touch with them in recent weeks with the hope and possibility of trying to be able to, maybe, hook up on something. It's really great when you see people coming on who you just feel and you identify with what they're doing. It makes you think about the ideas we started out with when [we began]. There are still people who can see that; the idea that they have as well of quietness and understatedness being really intense and it doesn't have to mean something that's very easy-listening. I'm thrilled when I see people who can do that.
TAS: For nearly 30 years, you and Ben have done what few musicians can do successfully: you constantly reinvent yourselves, yet still maintain what is good about what you do. What do you think made you both survive where so many musicians fall by the wayside?
Tracey: At different times, we've either been very ambitious in terms of wanting to push ahead, but - and this sounds like a contradiction in terms - we've also been free of a certain kind of ambition which I think has given us a certain freedom to experiment with things. We haven't been desperately hung up on the notion of a kind of career trajectory that's aiming at a kind of stratospheric, world domination (laughs). If you can get your head around that, musically and artistically, you can be very ambitious. [You can] always try to do something new and not repeat yourself, yet you're prepared to accept that there might be a ceiling on your sales figures and you might not build up a core, solid audience that just gets bigger and bigger because you do the same thing every time. I think that's what liberates you to keep everything fresh.
Ben was asked about this a couple of days ago and we were talking about one of the things that stops us from reforming Everything But The Girl on tour is that there would be a lot of pressure on us now to play a lot of old stuff. We could probably do quite big concerts and understandably people would come and want to hear lots of old songs, but for both of us, that's not a very appealing thought. We're both thinking of what we're going to do next and we'd both rather do something that was new and possibly small (laughs), rather than something that might be old, but big and really successful. It just depends on what motivates you. Both of us, I think, are just too impatient and curious about new things to want to always get stuck in recycling the past.
TAS: You have such an extraordinary voice that has been described in a thousand different ways by reviewers over the years. But do you tend to be self-critical about your singing? What is the relationship you have with your own voice?
Tracey: I feel good about it in certain controlled circumstances, I think is the honest answer. I've lived with it for so long that I feel I know very well what it can and can't do. I think that's why I've now reached the point where I much prefer studio work. I like to sing in the studio because I know exactly how to do it and I know that its suits my voice very well, being able to achieve that kind of intimacy and singing directly into the mike. I do really enjoy that and feel very confident that I know exactly how to sing the way I want to sing. But when I'm stuck into a live context, it's a very different matter because my voice struggles a lot. I don't find it easy to achieve the kind of volume that's needed when you're singing at a gig. So then I get filled with self-doubt because I think that I can't really do this. There's a physical limitation. That was always more difficult for me, when it came to being put in a live context; I used to have a lot of angst about my voice.
TAS: You're a very avid gardener and I have to ask - what are you planting this spring?
Tracey: We've had a really nasty cold spell of weather these last ten days so I'm an anxious gardener at the moment! (laughs). I've got beans and tomatoes that I've planted outside and it's getting very cold at night so there's a lot of me rushing in and out, putting things back in the greenhouse and taking them out again. But it's just the usual with gardeners. Nothing's ever perfect, you wish you could control the weather, kill the insects. I'm doing all of my usual tomatoes, carrots, lettuces, aubergines and peppers.
TAS: You must be a very good cook.
Tracey: Yeah! I love it. There's nothing better than coming inside from the garden with fresh vegetables to cook. It's the best feeling.
Tracey Thorn's Love and Its Opposite will be released on Tuesday, May 18 in the States, May 17 in the UK and elsewhere