Thursday, May 13, 2010

Tracey Thorn (Everything But The Girl) interview: 2010


Tracey Thorn recently married her life partner Ben Watt after many years as lovers, parents and the musical duo Everything But The Girl. It's a symbolic move however, as their careers as solo artists have taken them in totally different directions since Everything But The Girl's hiatus in 2002. While Watt - who discovered drum'n'bass in the mid-'90s, continues to tour as a DJ - Thorn has returned to her singer/songwriter beginnings. Yet she has smartly avoided the trap of comfortable familiarity on her new album Love and Its Opposite, approaching it instead with the wisdom and wit of a woman who's been making music her entire adult life. The singer's experience however, didn't make her over-confident when re-emerging as a solo artist on 2007's Out Of The Woods.

"I felt a bit of trepidation to be honest, because I hadn't done anything in music for a few years at that stage and I wasn't completely sure what the outcome would be." Thorn begins from her London home. "Thankfully there were still enough people interested to make it worth my while doing." It's hard to gage exactly where interest in Thorn and her music began. There are artists who claim Marine Girls' (Tracey's first band) as heavily influential; and while it was acoustic period EBTG that drew a considerable following, many die-hard fans baulked at 'Techno-Tracey' on the later, more successful club albums. "At least nobody could accuse me of repeating myself." She shrugs. A constant focus for many fans however is not the vehicle for the songs, but the identifiable situations within. Thorn could always articulate the bit that comes in between the giving of red roses and the slamming of doors, where only the best songwriters dare to tread. Tracey's forte is the day to day happenings of an individual, a significant other and the thoughts many would deem less impressive to build a song around than say, a good break-up story. "I'm usually a very biographical writer, but that doesn't mean the songs are all about me." Tracey explains, "Certainly I take stories from people around me or from things I've read that have an impact on me somehow. At the end of the day, I'm writing stories that are true in the sense that they say something true even if it isn't directly linked to myself. I think that helps make my songs at least relatable." One of the new tracks, Singles Bar - a first person account of a mature woman out on the prowl - stands out in the wake of Tracey's recent marriage. I wonder could it be seen as an aural 'last fling' for the songwriter?

"Well some of the details in that (song) are taken directly from friends' experiences." She offers. "Women who have found themselves in the position of being single again at a time in their life they didn't expect to be. It's harder for them to be out there dating again now they're older and I wanted to acknowledge them. On the other hand," Thorn adds with a twist "It's also a bit of a fantasy. It could be that the woman isn't single and she takes off her ring as she enters the bar. The fantasy of being single again after many years in a relationship is something I think a lot of people have." It seems a safe bet that living and working together with her husband Ben as one of music's most enduring couples - such a fantasy is relevant to the author also; "Living together for so long, Ben and I both know when each other has our songwriter's hat on." Tracey asserts, "There's a line between your actual life and your work and we have enough respect for each other to not be self conscious about what we say in our songs. We give each other's work room to exist outside of what we do together and that's really important."

The last album Watt and Thorn made as Everything But The Girl was 1999's Temperamental. After seventeen years making music together, they mutually agreed early this decade to give the band a break. Tracey eventually began seeking out new partnerships for making music so as to avoid a possible 'EBTG Mk 2' situation. On Love and Its Opposite, Thorn has worked with artists from the dance and rock fields, adding a wider breadth of influences. "There are many ways you can make a record and people often slip into patterns of behaviour I think," she confirms, "But if you step back from that and make a few different choices then you don't quite know what you're going to get and I think that's an interesting state of mind to be in when you start work on something new." One of the stand-out collaborations (on a cover of Lee Hazlewood's Come On Home To Me) is with Swedish troubadour Jens Lekman. I wonder wouldn't his often dry-humoured ballads and spontaneously observed prose be at odds with Tracey - a self-confessed over planner? "It's funny you should say that, because the stuff we've done together came about really spontaneously actually", She laughs, "I met up with him in London a couple of years ago and we got on really well so we decided to try working together. The first thing we did was a cover of a Magnetic Fields song for a compilation, and the recording was just done in one take in his hotel room in London." Tracey exclaims, "We just sang it into his laptop! It was about as spontaneous as it could be." She adds "He's got a very relaxed spirit about music which is just brilliant."

Also appearing on the album are Al Doyle from Hot Chip, Leo Taylor from The Invisibles and members of Lost Valentinos. Yet despite the guest list, Tracey and producer Ewan Pearson have avoided over indulging any collaborators. In fact, Pearson's stark production, following on from his recent work with Delphic and Goldfrapp, is itself an indulgence avoided. Tracey discusses, "That really appealed to me actually, taking a producer and getting them to do the very thing they're not used to doing. Ewan loved the idea too because he was keen to show people that he can do more than just dance music." The partnership developed naturally after the realisation that both artists, Tracey explains, could help each other move in a new direction; "Ewan worked with me on some tracks for the last album (Out Of The Woods) and although I had several different producers work on those tracks, he ended up mixing the record and pulling it all together. In that time we'd gotten to know each other well and I had come to really trust his judgment. At the start of making this album, I ended up going to Berlin were his studio is, and we just did some basic acoustic demos but at that point we both just looked at each other and thought, well this could be really interesting if we actually make a whole album together, but not an electronic dance record. So for both of us it was a step sideways, but it was good I think to get out of our comfort zones a little bit."

On the subject of collaborations, Tracey has publicly hinted at a desire to sing on a Pet Shop Boys track, but has refrained from asking the guys directly. "I have met them a couple of times and I'm sure they know I'm a huge fan." She laughs, "I mean Neil (Tennant)'s done some amazing collaborations over the years and written many songs for women to sing, and I'd be very happy to be added to that list of singers." Tracey's love of the 'Pets' extends to feeling of kinship, she explains; "I have always thought that they, along with us, were kind of outsiders in the UK music scene, which was so steeped in the rock tradition. The Pet Shop Boys seemed to get their influences from a different place than many of their contemporaries, like with writing songs for Dusty Springfield - who I admired so much - and writing these kitchen sink dramas with quite simple, but beautiful melodies. So I did feel a kind of kinship with them even though they were making these very slickly produced disco songs. But then, that's just a detail really."

Living in a three child house-hold, I wonder in closing what Thorn's greatest critics - her children - make of what their parents do for a living? "To be honest they're not that interested really." She laughs, "They're at that age where they only want to listen to what their friends are into, but I think they see it as a little bit interesting that I make music and their dad does too, but really we're their parents and so we're just old and don't know anything." Tracey jokes, "I'm sure as they get older they might take an interest and be able to understand the music a bit better, but it's fair to say the music I'm making now, no 12 year olds are going to get into. I mean every so often one will come in and go 'oh that's nice mum' but you know, the simple fact is I'm just not poppy enough!"


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