"One review I loved made me sound brilliantly edgy but at the same time kind of rational"
Tracey Thorn's memoir on her rise to pop success was terrific, her follow-up seeks to answer more of life's questions. She chats to Nick Coleman
Tracey Thorn has written a second book. The first one, Bedsit Disco Queen, was a memoir of her life in pop, from suburban Stern Bops to global Everything But the Girl and beyond. The new one, Naked at the Albert Hall, was conceived to answer one or two questions raised by the first book, such as: what is singing? Why do we do it? Who does it well? What does literature say about it? What purpose does it serve? And what's it like to do it well - as in, how does it feel?
It's a terrific book and, like its author, it is studious, thoughtful, sensitive and not given to poetic flight. It reads as she talks - fluently, methodically and with a settled-in-transit sense of conviction.
Can Tracey summon to mind a favourite description of her voice? "Hahahaha." Thorn sometimes prefaces the things she says with gales of laughter. "Well, there was a review of [Everything But the Girl's] Missing by a guy called James Hunter in Village Voice, where he talks about my 'radical mid-range rationality' - it's one of my favourite things anyone's ever said, because it makes me sound brilliantly edgy while at the same time being kind of rational…"
Maybe also a bit Roundhead?
"Possibly. Hahaha. But I think I am. It's a fair description, I think it summed me up in a new way. I've got over-used to people saying I sound mournful or forlorn or soothing. How many singers want to be described as soothing? Well, soothing and nothing else? Who wants to be that?"
One of the signal features of Naked at the Albert Hall is its scrupulous self-interrogation. Thorn is not afraid of the candid gaze, at least not where her professional gift is concerned. The book's subtitle is "The Inside Story of Singing" but it might just as easily have been "How I Learnt to Stop Worrying and Love My Limitations".
"I am very aware of my limitations," she says amiably, over the table in the office she shares in London's Clerkenwell with her husband and Everything But the Girl bandmate Ben Watt. For an anxiety sufferer, she is a relaxed and confident interviewee. "Limitations like the narrowness of my range and my tone. There are lots of kinds of singing I can't do and I suppose I register those as absences rather than failings. It's not that I do what I do wrong - I'm quite confident about those things, like being in tune and other technical aspects. It's just that I'm aware of what I can't do." She smiles and the twin arches made by her eyebrows go up, as if to say, "Well, there it is."
Thorn's journey has taken her from Brookmans Park, Herts, via Hull University (a first in English), to an extended period of modest, on-and-off international pop celebrity, followed by health trauma, more modest celebrity and a passage of full-time motherhood, to the place she finds herself in now, ensconced with her family in north London, with two books out as well as the occasional new recording and a column in the New Statesman - and no live performances. She's climbed up the foothills and fallen down the holes and done it all with an abiding resistance to the charms of rock.
She was born in 1962, she likes pop and soul, she hears voices and tunes in music - "the top line", not the bottom end. Her (much) older brother was a Led Zeppelin fan and she couldn't stand the sound of Robert Plant. "His voice was like nails on a blackboard to me," she says. "I think he's probably a really nice guy. I respect him a lot. I saw him with his new band on Later… not so long ago - a proper musician and not just a rock-star idiot. And I still thought, God, I can't stand his voice: off! OFF! And I'm sure that's from growing up and having to listen to him all the time - the epitome of singing I just hate…"
And so when the 14-15 year old Tracey was first assailed by the earliest rumblings of punk in 1976-7 she was instantly taken by what she describes as its "anti-singing" - the sort of mordant vocalisations that any shy, suburban, bookish schoolgirl might aspire to. The kind where you find a disenchanted voice in what nature has endowed you with, however unsingerly, and then add yelp.
The earliest experiments took place inside a wardrobe, so that the rest of the band might not observe Tracey yelping. And then, in the first democratising fervour of the post-punk indie moment, she found herself not singing much but certainly playing guitar in that most classically democratised of early-1980s all-female indie groups, the Marine Girls. Then Hull University to read English and… Watt.
The rest is Bedsit Disco Queen history, including a whimsically eclectic approach to making EBTG records, which required the pair of them to turn to face a new sun every time they darkened a studio door. "We had a rule that every record had to be different to the last one," she says, not at all ruefully. "Which meant that people found it confusing. Audiences go back to a band because they like what it gave them last time and we kept not doing that."
But that was Thorn and Watt: rules and self-criticism and analysis and the politics of music, running in tandem with excruciating performance anxiety and an abiding desire to reach their listeners' tenderest parts.
Thorn is a very engaging presence and pleasing to gaze upon while she talks, dipping and nodding her vivid features across the office table, pulling faces and deprecating like mad. Where once she looked in press pictures like a Byzantine princess dressed for a Dennis the Menace convention, today she cuts an altogether soignee figure, all neo-dusty, mini-bouffant and curt 1960s-style print dress, every inch the hip academic who knows whereof she speaks.
Indeed, perhaps the most telling line in the new book is a derivation from Wittgenstein: "Songs allow us to sing what we cannot say." It's a phrase that surrounds the heart of the Thorn ethos like a motto, especially when you consider that she suffers from trenchant stage fright and has done so throughout her long career. She finally gave in to it in the 1990s and hasn't sung in public for 15 years.
But the self-criticism has never abated and, despite her awareness of the aching, feather-trimmed beauty of her soft contralto, she used to worry herself sick about its narrow range and dynamic limitations, and her tendency to run out of puff, which is down to asthma and a congenital respiratory weakness. She writes movingly and sensibly about this in the book and seems to have come to the realisation that stage fright isn't itself a thing to be frightened of.
It comes in two parts, the fright. There's the psychological stranglehold imposed by innate shyness, which makes any form of public utterance a trial. Although she is not depressive herself, she cites by way of explanation Matt Haig's recent book about the trials of depression: "He writes in his book that to write anything at all worthwhile you need to be a thin-skinned person who feels everything - but as soon as [the work] is out in the world, you have to grow the hide of a rhinoceros to cope with it. Well, that's me: I'm terrified of everything, so I write songs to make sense of it, and then have to cope with the terror of performing them…
"But there is another side to it all, which I think of as the rational side: I genuinely have a problem with the physical prospect of singing for an hour-and-a-half at a certain volume. I genuinely fear I won't be able to do it."
So she doesn't take the risk any more, just makes small-scale domestic recordings, such as the new EP of soundtrack songs composed for Carol Morley's new film The Falling. And she writes and listens.
Perhaps the most surprising chapter in the book is her defence of The X Factor and the "Simon Cowell sausage machine". She has no problem with music expressed in this ruthlessly competitive, hyper-consumerist mode and she watches "the talent shows" keenly and not at all ghoulishly.
"I genuinely want them to do well, the participants, and I absolutely love it when they do. I certainly don't have my professional cynical hat on when they walk on stage with that look of utter enthusiasm on their face. I share some reservations, though, of course. I don't like the cruelty and the finding of people who clearly aren't well, so that they can be broadcast for our general hilarity. But on the other hand, what's going on is not that different from the reality of the music industry. I mean, everyone's competing to have hits, aren't they?"
For her, the experience of listening to music is all about finding points of identification: when she listens to singing, she is looking to connect with a person, not be transported into the self or locations beyond - just as her own singing is not for her a form of existential transport ("I've never been able to shut off that little voice in my head passing comment while I sing"). We discuss the possibility that the activity of listening itself might be gendered, but come to no firm conclusion.
What is clear, though, is that whereas the nail-scritching rock tradition is the baddie in her story, the goodies are mostly heroines. Dusty Springfield is the greatest of them all, of course, but others crowd in: Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux, Bjork, Lesley Woods, Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell, Scott Walker, Kate Bush, Shirley Collins, the Cocteau Twins' Liz Fraser (another stage-fright victim whom Thorn describes as her "shadow" counterpart in the world of 1980s indie singing: "Here were two different ways of doing it: the rational and the non-rational - I was one, she was the other").
And there are others in the book who turn up for a chinwag in Thorn's kitchen about what it is to sing: Alison Moyet, Linda Thompson, Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, Kristin Hersh and Romy Madley-Croft of the XX. They all have something worthwhile to say and they all clearly enjoy being with Tracey.
And what about Thorn's inner "belter", the extrovert, Gospel-trained, vibrato-toting, melismatic shatterer of windows in the neighbouring borough? What of her? The singer that she could never be because of all her limitations? "Oh," she says, quite rationally. "I'd have liked that of course. I would really like to have been a belter, just for a while. But not for ever. I think I'd like to try it on for size and then go back to how I actually am."
- Naked At the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing is published by Virago, priced £16.99. Songs from The Falling is out now.