Tracey Thorn is a singer, songwriter and writer. After forming her first band, Marine Girls, while still at school, she delivered her breakthrough debut mini solo album, A Distant Shore in 1982. She then spent 17 years with partner-now-husband Ben Watt in Everything But The Girl. After a self-imposed hiatus to focus on family life in 2000, she returned to her solo work in 2007. Since then she has released three further solo albums, one movie soundtrack, a clutch of singles, and two books, including the best-selling memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen. She currently writes a twice-monthly column for The New Statesman. Her new record, Record, was released this year.
There have always been pretty sizable gaps of time between your records. Was there ever a time when you thought you might not make another record? And was that OK with you?
Yeah. Sometimes it goes a bit dormant, and sometimes I just can’t figure out what kind of thing I want to do. The record I’ve just made is a bit in reaction to the last thing I’ve done, which was the soundtrack for a film, which had been very low key, very low-fi, very minimalist, one take of everything, and really short songs. I just thought, “What if I could do the complete opposite?” I could make a pop record. I could work with someone who can program the drums, and we can have synths and big choruses. Once I started to think like that, I got excited again. I think you just need a kind of motivating central idea to get you going.
When you do go back into the studio, do you fall back into old habits or do you find that you need to change your process to keep it interesting?
It’s a bit of both. When you’ve had a break from it, it definitely feels fresh, and I do think that’s really good. It reminds me of the feeling you have at the beginning, back when I was first making records and I really didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know what it was going to feel like or what it was going to sound like. Again, when I’ve had a break, I get something of that feeling again, that excitement of it just feeling new. I do think that’s a good thing. It’s the thing that stops me from feeling, “Oh, I really ought to keep up a regular output of music.” I think I actually need to retreat from it for a while and come back to it sort of feeling revived.
That puts you back in touch with the reasons you had when you started out making records, because you didn’t start out with a schedule in mind. You just had a burning desire. I think if you can approach everything with at least some element of that burning desire again, then that’s a good thing. That’s a good frame of mind to be in. If that means taking very long, sometimes indefinite seeming breaks from it, then so be it.
You describe your new record as “Nine feminist bangers,” which feels very appropriate considering the cultural climate right now. How do you make what is ostensibly a political record without making art that feels too dogmatic or heavy-handed?
I think the current cultural climate just made me very determined not to do anything that felt depressive or depressing. Because I was in a bit of a depressed mood, and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to try and do the absolute opposite, try and make a record that’s full of upbeat songs.” I was thinking literally just in terms of the tempo of the songs; I tried to keep as many of them up-tempo as possible, whereas in the past sometimes I’ve made way more down-tempo records than this. So this was literally pushing every track going, “Okay, can this one have a beat? Can this one be fast? This doesn’t have to be a ballad.” I was just trying to keep a feeling of assertiveness to the record. It was as simple as that. I didn’t want to overthink it.
There’s that strength in feeling like, “Yeah, we’re making something positive.” I’m not being cajoled. I’m refusing to be weighed down by this atmosphere. I don’t want to feel crushed, and I don’t want to make a record that seems to come out of that mood. I want to really make something that feels positive and good and alive. I think there is something defiant about that. It’s to do with that kind of resilience that’s been there all the time. Rock and roll and dance musicians, they’ve always had that sense of embodying a sort of resilience of spirit in the face of politics and culture that might be oppressive. That’s essentially the history of gay dance music. There’s a sense of pushing back against forces that are trying to keep you down by refusing to be kept down. That was the informing spirit this time.
You lead a kind of creative double life as both a musician and a writer. Is there a relationship between those two things or do they feel like totally divorced processes?
I think they are quite separate in a way, and it’s more that doing both has allowed me to feel like I can express the whole of who I am rather than just a part of it. I feel like through the music I can express a certain part of myself, whereas with the writing, there’s other things you can say. You can use a different tone of voice in the writing, perhaps, than in the songs.
I’ve been able to be more humorous in some of the things I write, whereas in the songs I was always perceived as having a sort of melancholy tone, or it’s that I’m very good at expressing sadness that way. That’s fine. I’m cool with that, but I think once you have other outlets, you can express perhaps a broader range of different aspects of your personality. I’ve enjoyed that, actually. It feels like I’m able to be more the whole person I am rather than just showing a part of it.
I think the lesson I’ve learned from writing a bit about myself, writing both the books and the columns, is just how much writing is about being the person in control of the story. It’s very easy to regard memoir as an exposing art form or as being confessional, but it only is up to the point that you want it to be. You’re the one deciding exactly what you want to say and how much you want to give away. You’re shaping a story. You’re not just literally writing down everything that’s happened to you. You’re molding it into a narrative that’s got a shape to it that you’ve decided on. I felt that was very true when I wrote Bedsit Disco Queen. I felt for the first time that I’m really telling the story of [my old band] Everything But The Girl. It’s my version of events, but there’s no way it’s the definitive version of events. If Ben wrote it, he’d write a different story. It was fascinating for me to realize how much control you have when writing. There’s a lot of power in that… and that’s enjoyable.
The story of Everything But The Girl, as you tell it, reads in some ways like a cautionary tale about the music business, but it’s also a book about what it means to make music. I appreciate the fact that you ended that project on your own terms. It’s a testament to the power of saying no when you need to.
All I can do is tell that story and say, “Well, look, here’s my example; this is what I did; this is what worked for me.” Whether it would work for anyone else, who knows? There are a lot of performers, I think, who get into performing for all sorts of very compulsive reasons, and what drives a lot of people onto the stage isn’t necessarily the calmest, most rational approach to living their life. I think sometimes people do carry on doing things, which do them good in some ways, that express certain aspects of their personality that they need to express, but in other ways can be destructive towards them or make their lives a mess. It’s a complicated business being a performer.
Even for me, there were years when I was doing the touring when I wasn’t really enjoying it a lot of the time, but it felt like that was what I did, that’s what I had to do. I wanted to make music and I wanted to be in a band, and therefore, I had to work out a way of doing the live performances even though it wasn’t always exactly what I wanted. I think one good thing about getting older was feeling that maybe I had paid my dues. I was allowed to stop.
Have your parameters for what success looks like changed radically over the years?
I think for me, they have changed pretty dramatically over the years. At the beginning of our career, I didn’t particularly have any dreams of success at all. I wasn’t ambitious for stardom or anything. Then, having been in it a few years, I think that kind of thinking sort of built up in me. When you’ve been making records a while, you suddenly think, “Hey, it would actually be cool if loads of people bought this record. That would be really exciting.” Then having had the experience of that really happening, even if it took a while to get there, it was enough. With the experience we had in the ’90s with the massive success of “Missing” and the album that came after that, Walking Wounded, it felt like any degree of ambition I might have had was really thoroughly fulfilled. My ambition didn’t really go any higher than that.
Now it’s really easy for me to look at anything I do and judge its success or failure on quite personal terms that are specific to me, because I just don’t feel like I have anything to prove or that I need to achieve. There’s nothing I’m hankering after or that I’m worrying away at thinking, “I never got to do this.” It feels like, “Well, I did do all that, so now any work I do I’m just really doing on its own terms and for its own sake.” It’s got to feel respected in itself and enjoyable in itself. I want to be enjoying it right now. I think that’s another thing about getting old, if you’re lucky enough to be in that position, you just want to enjoy what you’re doing. That’s the goal, right? It’s that feeling that I don’t want to do anything I don’t want to do, you know?
That being said, I don’t think you could or should ever say to young people, “Look, you will never have to do anything you don’t want to.” That’s just an element in any job, especially when you are just starting out. The idea is to work hard at things and then the rewards you get at the end of it make it worthwhile. It’s a luxury to reach a point where you can say no to things, and maybe you can only reach that point after years of working. Then it feels worthwhile. It feels like you’ve earned it.