Siobhán Kane talks to Tracey Thorn about her music, melancholy & the ‘war zone’ of middle age.
From starting out in 1980 in the Marine Girls (contemporaries of The Raincoats) to forming Everything But the Girl two years later with Ben Watt, and working with everyone from Jens Lekman to The Unbending Trees, Tracey Thorn has always been interested in collaboration, but as early as 1982 she released her first solo record A Distant Shore, which serves as a kind of companion piece for this year’s Love and Its Opposite.
Her latest record is about the “war zone” of middle age, and, like much of Thorn’s work, her interest lies with the mainly melancholy, hidden corners of ordinary people’s lives. Inbetween these two records she has recorded twelve albums with Ben Watt (in perhaps her most famous incarnation as the other half of Everything But the Girl), worked with The Style Council and Lloyd Cole and The Commotions, and reserved some of her most creative work for Massive Attack; from their collaborative soundtrack for Batman Forever to the eerily beautiful song Protection. In her career so far, she has surveyed everything from dance to folk music, with her inimitable vocal and artistic sincerity as weighty anchors. Siobhán Kane talks to her.
When you first started working a solo artist around 1982, do you remember it being something that felt absolutely compelling for you creatively? It was very much to do with my role in the Marine Girls, and the fact that I wasn’t actually the lead singer there. I shared vocals with Alice [Fox] and often she sang songs I had written. When I wrote the songs that became A Distant Shore, I knew I wanted to sing them all myself. I just couldn’t imagine Alice singing them. And that would have been very difficult within the band. So I just set about recording them on my own. It was a kind of practical solution to a problem.
You and Ben [Watt] have achieved on so many levels. Did you almost instantly feel that he was a kindred spirit musically when you first met at university? Yes and no. We had very few records in common when we met – we both owned the first Durutti Column album, and the Vic Godard album, and maybe a couple of others, but that was it. My tastes were more indie and pop, while Ben was a bit more avant garde, ranging from electronica stuff and jazz through to esoteric singer-songwriters like Kevin Coyne. He had lots of records by people I’d never really heard. He had more albums than me, I had more singles than him. But that said, we shared a kind of attitude about music, and we managed to establish and bond over our definition of what we didn’t like. Then we set about sharing our respective records with each other, and that was interesting and informative for both of us.
How early on did you really feel that you were going to be involved in music, or that it was going to be a huge part of your story? Oh not early at all. I’d say not really until it actually happened. I had gone to university in order to put off having to make a career decision, and I had no idea what I was really keen to do. Possibly something like journalism. Music didn’t seem like a job, or a life, just something I was doing as a teenager.
Your music has always been so eclectic, were your music tastes very eclectic growing up as well? No, I was a pretty standard teenager. I liked chart pop music until my mid-teens and then punk happened, and that was my gateway into the sort of alternative side of music. What happened after punk was influential though – it was a real period of music opening up to lots of different influences, and there was a reaction against the conservatism of rock orthodoxy. That was something that stayed with me, and Ben.
What would you say some of your favourite collaborations have been, and why? I’m most proud of the Massive Attack stuff. I was surprised to have been asked in the first place, so that makes it stand out for me – and then, it was such a challenge to begin with. They sent me a cassette with some music on. The first thing was basically the backing track to Protection. But if you listen to the song, the backing track to Protection consists of very little. And so I listened to it over and over again, trying to work out how to write a song over it. When it came, it came in a real moment of inspiration, and I wrote it very quickly. Still think it works really well.
You collaborated with Jens Lekman on The Magnetic Fields song Yeah! Oh Yeah! for the Merge compilation and on your new record. He is such an interesting artist, and seems to have such a grasp on the melancholy aspects of life, as well as appreciating the joyful.In your liner notes on this record you thank him for “being some of the lyrics”. Hopefully you will work on more things together. Yeah, I hope so. The reason I thanked him for “being some lyrics” was because I, rather cheekily, use him and his songs in the last verse of Oh, The Divorces! He’s younger than me and so I took him as an example of how, when you’re young, even though you think the end of love affairs is an absolutely devastating and melancholy thing, you just can’t really imagine how much worse it is once you’re older, and have kids. I’d watched friends going through divorces, with kids involved, and I just thought, this is really so much more painful than you can ever understand when you’re younger.
Melancholy is something I associate with your work, in that you often write about the hidden corners of life, the things people don’t want to talk about, or face up to, does that come naturally to you? Yes, it does. I love celebratory pop music as much as anyone, but it’s not something I have a natural talent for creating. And trying to force that kind of music is awful. I find it much easier to write lyrics that take a situation of some kind of conflict, or difficulty, or lack of resolution, and make that the starting point. I seem to find more to say.
Your vocal is incredibly unique, do you think it has changed much over the years, and do you look after it? Strangely I think it was a bit deeper when I was younger, certainly on the very earliest records. But I think that’s maybe because I was singing very quietly as I was so shy about it. I don’t “look after it” at all any more, I just live a normal life. When I was touring it was a bit of a nightmare though, always worrying about colds, and trying not to talk too much or do too many interviews and get tired. Worrying about air conditioning etc – really really boring stuff. I hated it, made me feel really neurotic.
On your latest record, it seems like you have almost gone back to your first solo record A Distant Shore but in an even more powerful way, almost revisiting that first raw impulse to create and express, but years later, with so much more experience. I was aware that I hadn’t ever again made a record as stripped-down as A Distant Shore. And this record isn’t either, but it comes close! I thought it suited this bunch of songs, and the lyrics I was writing. Stripping down the arrangements made the lyrics even more stark, which was what I wanted.
Did working again with Ewan Pearson impact the making of this record, or did you have quite a strict idea of what you wanted to create from the beginning? I did have a strong idea of what I wanted to do, but I wanted to work with Ewan because I am very relaxed around him and I knew he’d understand what I was after. He didn’t pressure me at all, and the record was made over a period of about two years, so there were long gaps in between recording, when I wrote more songs, and tried different things. But he was very easy-going about it all, which was perfect.
You have also worked on various covers over the years, both solo and with Ben, what do you think your favourite cover/s has/have been and why? Oh I don’t know really, there are too many to trawl through them all. I’m always most interested in the most recent thing I’ve done, and so there is a cover that has just been recorded, but I can’t say what it is yet or what it’s for – but it’s my favourite at the moment!
I remember reading in an interview earlier in the year, where you said that when you were bringing up your children when they were small that you didn’t really create music, as you felt that because you were enjoying it so much “there wasn’t even a story of interesting conflict to tell” and you felt that would “have made for the worst pop music”. Do you mainly think that pop music, and any good music thrives on a sense of melancholy, or lack of fulfilment, or just lack of…something? Yeah, see my earlier comment about celebratory pop music! I need something to get my teeth into lyrically. And certainly, lyrics about how adorable your children are should probably be banned. I was never tempted for even a single second to write a song like that.
When you weren’t creating music in that period, I believe you essentially wrote a memoir of sorts, though you don’t want to publish it, was that in some way to order your thoughts, and remain connected to the creative world? Do you think that helped with your 2007 record [Out of the Woods]? Yes, it did. It reminded me of who I’d been before I had the kids, and I had slightly lost sight of that person.
Your solo records have held conflict central to brilliant effect, and with your latest record especially. You have likened middle age to a “war zone”, do you think that people lose faith and often stop listening to their instinct because they are in a mire of so much else? Oh everything just gets more complicated. It’s that word “baggage”. Everyone has more of it, and instinct isn’t that much help, as it’s not always obvious what is the right thing to do. But when I said that middle age was a “war zone”, I didn’t just mean that therefore everything’s awful. I also meant it in a positive way, in that the fact that it has proved to be full of drama and incident, means that it’s also still full of inspiration. When you’re young, you have this awful prejudice that you’re living the only possible interesting life, and the lives of those older than you are basically just drudgery and routine and nothing ever happens and it must be awful. And then of course once you get there yourself you feel that the lives of young people must be so shallow and boring, and lacking in interesting complications!
Do you think that you will play live again? Possibly not.
Who are some of your musical heroes, from the past and the present day? I’ve never really been someone who uses the word heroes. I just don’t think about people like that. Other than in a jokey way. There are lots and lots of people I admire, of course, but an exhaustive list would be boring, and I hate singling people out.
Are there any other projects you are working on at the minute, that might evolve over the next while? Having just come to the end of one record, I’m on a little pause now, before deciding what to do next.
Tracey Thorn’s latest album Love and Its Opposite is out now on Strange Feeling Records.