“How to be an adult” is not a pose we often ask our favorite pop musicians to strike. But what if they’ve just written a memoir and recorded a Christmas album – is it an appropriate set of questions to ask then? Three decades-plus into a life in the spotlight, Tracey Thorn is one of the few stars creatively well equipped, possessing the depth of experience and a publicly honest-enough disposition to give answers that won’t sound like PR bullshit.
Maybe it’s the practice. She started the twee-folk Marine Girls at sixteen; helped guide Everything But the Girl through nearly twenty years of musical changes, before quitting pop for parenthood with partner Ben Watt; and has, in the 21st century, balanced being a mother of three and a singer-songwriter as comfortable making house music as she is country, with a serious-ass Twitter habit to boot. In other words, she’s exactly the kind of person you’d want to record a holiday album and write a memoir – because she can invest each with some long-term sense and perspective. The former, Tinsel and Lights, features two great new originals alongside interpretations of songs by Dolly Parton, The White Stripes, Low and Scritti Politti (whose singer Green Gartside comes out the woodwork for a guest duet); the latter, the deliciously-titled Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star (to be published in February 2013), is a frank stroll through her accidental career. And, considering the season, we are seriously digging this advent calendar Thorn put together, too. All this is just the sort of activity that made this a perfect time to chat to this self-described “natterer” about issues more pressing than the “new album”... Though, of course, we did that too.
The Daily Swarm: Can you tell me about your relationship to holiday records in your life? Did you have any favorite ones? How did they affect making Tinsel and Lights?
Tracey Thorn: When I was a kid, I did not have any Christmas albums, but there were always Christmas singles. It was kind of a big deal: bands would release Christmas singles, and there was a competition for who would have the Christmas number one. I’m talking about the ‘70s Christmas musical landscape here – groups like Slade and Wizard. I didn’t own a Christmas album until I heard Phil Spector’s, which I bought in my late teens and thought was amazing. Recently, people have rediscovered the idea of doing them: there was that record Low made a few years ago that I really liked; then the Sufjan Stevens records started coming out. That opened my eyes to the fact that you could approach Christmas music in a sincere, serious way. It didn’t have to be a kitsch, jokey novelty record – you could actually make a proper album around the theme of Christmas, and use it to explore some interesting things musically. From that point, I started thinking, “You know there’s a lot of songs out there I like.” The great thing about making a Christmas record is that it gives you your theme before you start, and that’s often the hardest thing about a record. The story’s there – you just have to pick the songs that fit the theme. It was kind of easy to do, fun, wasn’t too grueling – just a little project that I could set myself up with, and enjoy doing. I made a long list of songs. At the top of the list were ones with “Christmas” in the title, then all the ones with “winter” in the title, then any that mention snow or even it being cold, or people ice-skating; I had a very long list. At that point, it became fun just to pick and choose the ones I most wanted to sing. It gave me an excuse to sing them all, with this thematic link that glued them all together.
The Daily Swarm: Was there anything on the list you really wanted to do but didn’t make it?
Tracey Thorn: Probably the biggest was Wham’s “Last Christmas” – that was near the top of my list of songs I wanted to do. I struggled with a few versions, and just couldn’t think of how to do it. Then I began to wonder, “Are people going to think I am being ironic or clever about it?” I love the original so much that I don’t want to do a lesser version. So I put it aside with a slightly heavy heart.
The Daily Swarm: Everything But the Girl had at least two songs that already broached Christmas themes, “Come On Home” and “25th of December.” Had you previously considered doing a project like this? And how did the writing of the Christmas originals for Tinsel and Lights differ from your approach to those older songs?
Tracey Thorn: Back in the past, making a Christmas record would never have occurred to me at all. Ironically, “Come on Home,” which has the line in it “Every day’s like Christmas Day without you/It’s cold and there’s nothing to do,” that was held up by my family for years as the great evidence that I hated Christmas. [laughs] I was never forgiven. I’ve had to live that down ever since, as someone who wrote an ironic lyric once about it.
Whereas “Joy” is the whole reason this record exists at all. I wrote it last Christmas. I do this sometimes, when songs just come into my mind fully formed. I was sitting in a café while my kids were ice-skating, with a hot chocolate or something, and looking out at this Christmas-y kind of scene, and “Joy” just came into my mind. I was scrambling for bits of paper to write it down on. And when I got home, I thought, “That’s it – now that I’ve just written this song, I can hang the rest of the record on it.” Because it was my song that says everything I wanted to say about Christmas, what it means to me, and why I like it. “Joy” was really the trigger point.
The Daily Swarm: Was the idea of playing a song that was completely yours at home during the holidays with the kids a factor in the making of the record at all?
Tracey Thorn: [laughs] What – you think they’re going to let me play my record here in the house? [belly laughs] They may have to listen to music that is on in the house, but if it was my music, I think that they would really put their foot down. It was recorded in a little studio we have in the basement of the house, just downstairs from the kitchen. So even with the doors shut, you can easily hear what’s happening in that room. And there were days when I would come up at the end of the day, and they would just be sitting stone-faced at the kitchen table going, “Have you stopped singing that song now?” So I imagine that they don’t want to hear it again, any time soon.
The Daily Swarm: You’ve now been making music almost continually for over thirty years, since you were a teen. What were your expectations of your music career when it started and when it was progressing? Did you think you were going to be a musician your whole life?
Tracey Thorn: I was in the Marine Girls already by the time I went to university. But really, it was very much a hobby. It was a time when the whole DIY scene was really exploding and there were lots of kids who wouldn’t normally have gotten involved in music who were drawn into forming a band and thinking they could make records. It was just what you did. We were not career-minded at all. I don’t think we looked at it in that light. When I went off to university I was deferring having to make the decision of what my career was going to be. I enjoyed studying English literature and I thought that would be a useful thing to do and maybe I’d wind up in, I don’t know, journalism or the media or as a teacher. I wasn’t thinking that music was how I was going to earn my living. It became my career largely by accident, just because once I met up with Ben and made a couple of records, they became successful.
The Daily Swarm: I ask this within the context of how your career has progressed and swerved pretty uncompromisingly. You and Ben made a conscious decision to stop the band and have a personal life – a strong, very clear-headed decision that not a lot of people make. It seems like it was always within your character to ask, “Is this really what I want to be doing?” Did those kinds of thoughts come up?
Tracey Thorn: A lot of the time I used to agonize over the career I found myself in. I thought that I was a square-peg in a round-hole. In many respects, I wasn’t cut out for the job. For a lot of people, what motivates them to get into music is a desperate urge to perform and to be in front of an audience. You hear people say they feel most alive or most themselves on stage, and I was just the exact opposite. I was someone who felt more alive in the library. I enjoyed writing songs very much. I loved being in a band. But the whole flamboyant pop star part of it – I never quite fit it. Some of the time, I was trying to move towards becoming something like that; some of the time, I would turn my back on it completely. But it was an ongoing conversation that I was having for years and years. In the end, I think I made peace with it, and I learned how to be largely myself and still do music. But the point that we stopped and had kids came at the end of a time where we were very successful, in the wake of “Missing.” That stretched me to my limit: I was very glad to take a complete break from it and say, “I’ve achieved an awful lot, and much of it was fun and great. Now can I stop for a while, please?”
The Daily Swarm: Did you feel the period before the international pop stardom hit full blast was in some ways easier for you?
Tracey Thorn: [pauses] Probably it was. That is not to say that I did not enjoy the stardom when it came. You’d have to be churlish not to find some of it enormous fun, and none of us are so puritanical that we don’t enjoy people making a fuss over us, telling us we’re fabulous. I suppose what I am describing is not a total dislike of it but a genuine ambivalence of it, a feeling that I was struggling to live up to what this required of me.
The Daily Swarm: Do you think this was as much due to your personality as it was to your indie/post-punk background and upbringing?
Tracey Thorn: It was entirely a personality thing. I outgrew that feeling that music should only exist at a more indie level quite quickly, and I felt that musically, Everything But the Girl did have a rightful place with a wider audience. I did have ambition in that regard. It was more of being able to live up to being a pop star – being somebody who feels happy on stage and enjoys making videos, and can actually present themselves as a star-type figure.
The Daily Swarm: Well, it’s a mask, is it not? As a writer, you can wear a mask when writing your song characters all the time, but not so much the one that was required of you to embrace being a pop star.
Tracey Thorn: Maybe. It was, I felt, a phony kind of mask. In the songs, I was trying to tell genuine, quite true, quite detailed stories that had subtlety to them – and obviously the one thing that you can’t be as a pop star is subtle. [laughs] In other performers, I enjoy a lack of subtlety. I enjoy larger than life, two-dimensional characters. I can totally see how that works. I just can’t really do it myself.
The Daily Swarm: Because I follow you in Twitter, I know that you are a huge fan of [the music reality TV show] X Factor. Can you talk a little about reconciling this derision of pop phoniness and the fascination of watching others reach with all their might for it?
Tracey Thorn: [sheepish laughter] It’s true, I am completely fascinated by it. Some people are appalled that I watch it. [assumes another voice] “Oh, it’s killing music – it’s the absolutely worst aspect of the music industry and you’re just lowering yourself by watching it.” I think people make a terrible mistake to regard all the contestants as being the same. They aren’t. They all come from someplace slightly different, with something slightly different to offer. And they are all at least partly deluded about what they think they’re going to get, and what they think it’s going to be like. So, as someone who’s been in music all this time, to watch other people engage with music and potential stardom, of course I’m fascinated [laughs]. It’s a human drama going on – people yearning for something they don’t even really know what. And then just on a fundamental level, I love hearing people sing who aren’t yet familiar voices – that moment from the auditions when someone walks on stage for the first time, opens their mouth, and you really don’t know what they’re going to sound like. I genuinely identify with that moment when a mic is put into their hand, they’re pushed out onto the stage, and they sing.
Now, there is absolutely no doubt that the show has a downward trajectory. You get these people who are sometimes really raw talents, and they’re given a mentor who is supposed to train them, and without fail the contestants get worse. It’s a shame; I wish the producers could find a way to actually enhance the raw talent. But that’s not what the program is good at.
The Daily Swarm: Is there one thing that you, with your experience, would want to tell all these contestants – a piece of advice you think they could all use?
Tracey Thorn: The only thing I would say – and I sort of hope they know it, but I don’t know if they do – is that they are walking into the lion’s den. They’re often very young; I expect they think it will be a slightly kinder environment than it is, and they’re probably not prepared for that. On the other hand, it’s just a microcosm of what the music industry is, and if they genuinely want to have a go, they might as well find out now. It’s a brutal introduction to that knowledge, and sometimes I do watch it feeling protective towards them. They seem vulnerable and you think, “Wow, they’re not old enough to take on board what’s about to happen here.” They have such high hopes, and you know that, in the vast majority of cases, none of those hopes will ever come to fruition.
The Daily Swarm: You’ve got an awesomely titled memoir about to come out. One of the things I find interesting about your career, and you alluded to it earlier, is that your biggest success came with music that was built more for the club than your previous music, and was recorded when you and Ben were already in your thirties – not old by any stretch, but older than the club culture of the past two decades expects its participants to be. You also continue to work around dance music with kids who are teens. So, tell me, how does being a Bedsit Disco Queen work in your life creatively and logistically?
Tracey Thorn: There’s a level at which these things connect to what I was saying earlier about the performance thing. This isn’t really a reason why we did it, but one of the things I really enjoyed about the point when our records started getting played in clubs is that it gave me a presence in front of an audience which did not require me to be present. Before that, when we did gigs, audiences were seated, people would listen, and it would be quite respectful and great and appropriate to the music we were making. But after a few years, that become a little tame, and you start thinking, “We’re getting older and our audience is getting older with us – is this it, now?” It was a whole new, exciting, active context – people were actually dancing to our songs, but I wasn’t required to stand up on the stage being a big-time performer. I could do my bit back in the studio, and with the right production on the track, the song had an existence beyond me. I really liked that: it made me feel the music could go out into the world and do something, and do it without me.
The Daily Swarm: Around the time of Todd Terry’s remix of “Missing” became a hit, did you find yourself going to the clubs to see the context in which it was being played?
Tracey Thorn: Yeah. Ben started DJ’ing around the same time, so that when I did go out, it was because he was DJ’ing at some point, and it was quite exciting. Again, because we were inevitably older and because we thought life was going to start quieting down a bit, it was like a new lease on life: Ben was playing records, and I was on the dancefloor. People were around me whispering, “Oh, that’s Tracey Thorn,” so I felt ten years younger than I actually was. It was reinvigorating. But it couldn’t go on forever, and I have to admit that I don’t do that now.
I still do feel that connection though. And at the moment, as I am at a point of thinking what to do next; the last couple of things I’ve done have been more acoustic based, and Love and Its Opposite was a more downbeat kind of thing, I’m thinking that maybe the next thing I do should be a lot more electronic again. I still find it quite inspiring: it’s a kick up the pants having to work to that level, and it makes you write slightly differently, because there are different requirements. Although our songs have always been very song-y, even when they were on the dancefloor, there are still different demands if they’re going to work there. You make more use of repetition and refrains. When I write acoustic songs, they’re more pieces of prose really that I happen to set to music. They have different functions.
The Daily Swarm: It’s fair to say that you’ve had an unconventional career: in the underground, in big-time pop and club music, stepping away to have kids, and now being a working-mother musician. There was an article that came out in The Atlantic last summer that re-started a new conversation around the very loaded topic, “Can women have it all, careers and families?” So I’d be interested in hearing your take on what you’ve seen change from a gender perspective, and how you’ve approached it.
Tracey Thorn: The thing is, I’ve been around for a long time, so I suppose I’ve seen lots of different changes. The era I started in, in the wake of punk and post-punk, we were very much a ‘70s generation, dogmatic in our politics: vehemently anti-racist, anti-sexist, right-on lefties. It became increasingly difficult to hang onto that during the ‘80s because, by the mid-‘80s, those kinds of ideals got swept aside; a more ambition-based, commercial approach to pop music started to take over, even among bands. So you began to seem out of date hopping on about sexism when you discuss Madonna or something, because it sounded like an old-fashioned argument that you were having. And it felt like the era I’d come from, the women who inspired me – whether it was Patti Smith or Siouxsie Sioux – were quite unconventional looking. I had plenty of role models when I started for the idea that you could be an unconventional-looking woman but still have your place on stage; you had a right to be there, and you got on with it. But from the mid-‘80s on, the more conventional idea of what women performers were supposed to look like began creeping back in. For a while, I felt out of step from the way things had gone, still a remnant from a previous era.
The other thing that I think affected my experience was that I was operating as part of a duo, with Ben. At times, I was protected from some of the expectations because I wasn’t seen as being something representative on my own. I think that spared me some of the speculation. Most of the time, I wasn’t expected to be sexy in videos, because I wasn’t regarded as being in that area of music.
The Daily Swarm: That speaks a lot to the significance of the appearance of women in music. Could you talk a little bit about your career arc, about consciously choosing one life path as opposed to another, and how people in the music industry who were in the business of Everything But the Girl met that decision? That’s a pretty unique case for somebody who was as popular as your group was.
Tracey Thorn: Well, certainly no one ever said to my face, “That’s appalling – you can’t do that.” I can only speculate what was said behind my back. We had a woman manager, which made it easier, and she was having kids at the same time. To be fair, I think people saw it coming. In the last year, I was becoming increasingly reluctant in the work I was doing, starting to say no to things, and withdrawing a little bit from the promotional stuff. People saw I was slowly starting to pull out of it. I imagine there was a great deal of annoyance that happened because of the timing. The point at which I actually announced to people that we were stopping was when were offered the support slot of the U2 tour in America. It almost crystallized for me that we either got on this treadmill properly and went with it wherever it was going to take us, or it was time for me to be honest and say not just the fact that I want to have kids, but that I don’t really want to be doing that. Stopping and having kids was what I actually wanted to do, but it also gave me the perfect excuse to stop. I took that as an opportunity to change my life completely.
You asked about women “having it all” in this business. The thing that made it particularly difficult for us was that we were a couple in the band: once we have those kids, we both have those kids. It wasn’t even a question of being able to leave the kids with the other parent and go back on tour. We actually did a tour where we took the girls on tour with us when they were eighteen months old. It was hell, you know? It was just horrible. [laughs] The thing is, we took a nanny, so logistically it all worked; I got myself on stage every night, but kids just want your attention every waking hour of the day. And I found that the split I was talking about before, being a self-conscious performer anyway – this was thrown into relief: I found I was really happy with the kids during the day, when I was being mom, enjoying that role. At the end of the day, I’d put them to bed at the hotel, go back to the gig, and get on stage; I found that I didn’t enjoy being that person as much. I never had totally, and now I was confronted with this slightly schizophrenic experience of being mom and a pop star. I thought since I enjoy being mom, maybe I should concentrate on that instead of feeling like I’m not doing either one of them really well. At that point, I said to people properly, I’m going to stop now.
The Daily Swarm: And now with a recording studio beneath the kitchen, and a memoir coming out, it seems like you have almost a novelist’s lifestyle.
Tracey Thorn: It is a little like that. Sometimes I get cross with the kids because they think I don’t work at all. I try to do most of it in the hours that they’re at school, and I don’t go off on tour, so that doesn’t infringe on their life. But that suits me. That’s the choice I’ve made. People sometimes say, “Your kids are grown up now – you can get back to touring,” and I think, “There’s obviously a reason why I’m not doing that.” It’s not really down to how old the kids are.