Inside the brilliant mind of Tracey Thorn who tells the story of every woman on her new album Record
It's probably not a wise thing to claim to be an expert in the writings of Tracey Thorn, for they are far too vast. But one thing that it is safe to say is that the album Amplified Heart by Thorn's electronic duo Everything But The Girl is largely focused on Thorn wanting to get inside the head of another. Maybe it was a lover, maybe a crush, but in 1994, the singer and songwriter from Hatfield wanted to see, and indeed be, in this guy's head. Fast forward and twenty odd years - filled with music, babies, memoir and more - have passed, and Thorn doesn't seem to be as interested. Maybe she conquered his mind, but one thing remains. Back then until now, Tracey Thorn has always let her listeners inside her own head. And here we are today with the release of Thorn's fifth studio album Record.
A self-professed collection of "nine feminist bangers", the album is the sum of the years of wanderings and wonderings of Thorn's brilliant mind along with her respective experience of being a woman - dancer, sister, lover, mother, music obsessive, and less poetic, voter.
The production is restrained mid-tempo beats, and the songs carry minimal chord changes and thoughtful, limited, spacious movement in the melodies - but it's hooky as all get out on all the tracks. This minimalism throws a spotlight on her masterful lyricism and musings. Words have always been Thorn's strength. And though it's been seven years since we heard new music, she has kept exercising her writing muscles as Thorn authors books and columns in the time that has past.
The aforementioned bangers' themes are timeless and universal, easily accessed through a generous unveiling of her mind; philosophical ponderings as, once again - just like we have done in Walking Wounded, Amplified Heart, Love and its Opposite and other albums - pace around Thorn's brain, catching glimpses of her heart and emotions, but always firmly from the vantage point of Tracey Thorn's mind - which is brilliant, poetic, empathetic, and ultimately feminine.
The environments in which these songs take place are key here - dancefloor, bedroom, loungeroom, protest march. She is the every woman tackling the political with, and because of, the personal, as she gently grapples with intimate relationships at various times of her life, from her crush as a teenager to being a mother of teenagers. On Record Thorn has solidified her place as the every woman. Here she stands as a woman telling her stories. Thorn as a teenager with a crush in Guitar. As the mother of a child who is ready to leave home in Go. Taking control of her fertility in Babies. Thorn on the Women's March 2017 in the eight minute fist pump epic anthem Sister - recorded with the help of her sisters Corinne Bailey Rae and Warpaint's Stella Mozgawa and Jenny Lee Lindberg. It is in this song that Thorn intercedes for and empathises with other women in areas she may not have lived herself. Another example of this is Face, a clever word play about the women who have to live out their break ups and can't avoid their exes because of Facebook. Finally there's Thorn as she grows older and becomes curious about her past in the song which she is most present and is most indicative of this time of her life - looking back beyond who she has grown from, to where she came from in a fascinating track called Smoke. Which is where this phone conversation with Thorn in London begins. Record is simultaneously future focused and nostalgic, but the heart of this art is absolutely embedded in the here and now.
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You have a song called Smoke and from the very first note, you're telling us a story and it's so compelling.... I wanted to know more about that song.
I did some research into my family tree and I found that my ancestors - those characters at the beginning, Miriam and Job - they were like my - I don't know, great, great, great, great grandparents or something. And they moved from a little village in the countryside into London about 200 years ago. And my family have been there then ever since. They stayed in London two generations living mostly in one area - quite near to where I live now.
Then my parents moved out of London just after the war, you know when there were bomb sites everywhere, so I grew up in the suburbs. But then I was keen to move back as soon as I could and I suppose the song is about that thing of feeling like you're really connected with London... I kind of idealised London. I thought it was the place to be, and for me it represented freedom and creativity and diversity and all those things that a great city should be.
And then it's just about me worrying about what's happening to it now, as with a lot of other cities. It's becoming a bit hollowed out, it's becoming so expensive that it starts to lose that creativity and diversity... it's just a song about my love of London."
It's such a beautiful song and I was wondering, from the stand point of your creative process, whereabouts, when you were writing the songs, did that song come in? Was it right in the middle, one of the first, one of the last....?
It was one of the first. I'd actually had that song sitting around for a couple of years. I had that song and Babies.
Oh, I love Babies.
I just wasn't sure what to do with them. I just thought.... having two songs is no use, you can't make an album with that. And they both seemed to tell quite specific stories. So they sat there for a while. And it wasn't until I got a couple more songs - I think the next one I wrote was Dancefloor. And then I began to think, okay, there are kind of themes emerging here. Now I can see how these all tell these kind of stories. I could actually start weaving this together and almost do a kind of through line telling a story of a woman's life from different marker points... Some of it could be personal to me, some of it more universal and relevant to other women. And once I had thought then I was off and I started writing really quickly.
The song Face is also really compelling because you're actually talking about social media, and actually singing about the medium in a really direct way. But you do it so effortlessly and so.... cool
(Laughs). Well I thought it would be really interesting. I feel that I've been quite lucky in that I haven't had to conduct my relationships in the era of Facebook. It just occurred to me one day - what must it be like when you break up with someone and you just can't properly escape them? You can't properly put them in your past.
And then I thought, well hang on this is an interesting idea for a song, and the way to get inside is, okay, imagine yourself inside the head of this woman. She's sitting up late at night, she's having a glass of wine, you know, and you just go down this kind of rabbit hole.
It's funny because normally poetry, lyrics and prose... somehow I feel like it has not been affected by technology, but then to write about it in a way where you're actually talking about the technology, and the way you do it is so genius and it is poetic.
Well, I think that's one of the classic 'show don't tell' kind of songs. Instead of saying, 'Right, now I'm gonna talk about Facebook,' you just dramatise something. I almost think of it as a dramatic monologue, that song. It could be that point in a musical where the lead character is solo on stage just lit by a single spotlight and just delivers a dramatic monologue of what's happening in her life right now.
Yeah, it's really cool. Your lyrics are incredible. Obviously you are an amazing writer with your memoirs and your columns, and I wanted to know what was the very, very first time you wrote anything? Do you have a conscious memory of the time you picked up a pen or a pencil and wrote something down as a matter of self expression?
The very first thing would have been my diaries which I started in my early teens. Although at the beginning they're not very expressive at all! They're just lists of what I'd done that day. And then I started writing songs. Before that, I hadn't written any poetry or prose or anything.... I wrote songs from the age of about sixteen or something. And the link between my songs and my diaries at that point was quiet close. They were events that went into my diary and you know, I'd write a song about them as well. They were quite closely linked at that point.
I've been thinking a lot as I knew I was going to interview you - I'm a very big fan, and have been since Everything But the Girl.... And there is definitely something to be said for music that makes you feel nostalgic and takes you back to a formative time, and that's what Amplified Heart was for me. For the sake of the exercise and the [next] question I'll say that a few weeks ago I saw [X artist] in concert and obviously she was just this artist who defined a certain era and a certain attitude and a certain anger, and I was annoyed at the crowd who were looking through their phone, or going to the toilet, or going to get another drink, and waiting for [hit song X] to come on so they could sing along, and I thought is this the logical conclusion of someone who has made such an impact? And not to talk about [the artist] at all, but rather the impact revisiting old material again and again has .... You have evolved - you do your column and you're constantly creating in different ways. And I wanted your comment on nostalgic music.
Both [Everything But The Girl and Thorn's life partner] Ben [Watt] and I have tried really hard to avoid going down any of those nostalgia paths in our work. It would be very easy for us to. Obviously people ask us to reform. We get offered money to reform and play a big gig somewhere. It would be very easy and very tempting to. It just doesn't seem to us that it would be a route to having a happy life now. I think both of us feel that we're living our lives right now, still. Still time's moving forward. You've just got to stay connected with your present. We all get nostalgic occasionally, obviously and when I do that, I put a record on that I love and that seems to be fine. But I don't have any great desire for the bands I loved to reform so I can go and see them, in a way it would make me feel sad. I'd probably turn up and they'd look older, I'd look older, and we'd all stand there thinking, why are we so old? (Laughs) I don't see how that makes anyone feel better. Whereas if you look at your life and you think I'm doing this new thing now, or I heard this new record today, you know that feels to me that time's still moving forward and you're still engaged in your present and that's exciting. So that's just the thing that keeps us both ticking along really. I can't see it changing. I don't think I'm suddenly going to want to get into the whole nostalgia trip.
And it's the imperative of the artist, isn't it, to keep creating? But how do bring people on that journey? Do you think people's attention spans get shorter over time and they only want to connect with the songs from the past? How do you manage to bring your fans on that journey?
I think inevitably you lose fans along the way and that's fine for me. For a lot of people music is something that's really important to them when they're younger. They bond with their friends over it, they've got a busy social life, they're going out clubbing or to gigs, and music is massive when you're that age. And so inevitably there comes a point for a lot of people when they stop buying new records and those records from their youth just remain precious to them.
So I just accept that. I think, look, that's absolutely fine. I completely understand. I'm a musician so for me music is totally central to my life all the time but most people aren't, and music is central to their life for a part of their life, but not for their whole life. I kind of just accept that the people who have come with me for the journey are people who are as nutty about music as I am. The kind of people who still want to hear a new record from someone they liked back then.
They're still curious too about what I might do that's new. So I feel, look, I share that with them - we're this little group over here now. We're still interested in what's new and what I'm doing and what other people are doing now, and that's great. That's the audience you want to have.
That's wonderful. And lastly I wanted to know who is an artist that you are absolutely obsessed over at the moment?
The record I liked last year was that Lorde album which I just thought was amazing and whenever I see her I just think, wow she's just doing something new and doing it in a new way and I love her stuff. I loved the SZA album last year, I think her singing is amazing. There's loads of people. I'm always trying to listen to playlists people make and come across new things and hearing a new voice is always exciting.
Record is out Friday