Tracey Thorn – interview

By Guy Somerset In Books, Music

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Tracey Thorn: at 50, she would be “enormously sympathetic” to her 20-year-old self. Photo/Edward Bishop

I can’t help think Tracey Thorn was missing a trick when she abandoned singing from inside a wardrobe. Art-rock glory would surely have been hers for the taking had she persevered with what was to prove a once-only technique adopted to overcome shyness when her first band invited her to try out as lead vocalist during rehearsals.

It was an inauspicious start for a singer who would go on to be dubbed “the most beautiful voice in English pop” by an Italian newspaper when she first toured the country with Everything But the Girl, the duo she formed with partner Ben Watt after an early career that encompassed the post-punk Marine Girls (a small group with a big reach – as far as fan Kurt Cobain, Thorn would later be told by Courtney Love) and the solo album A Distant Shore.

But it is indicative of the life-long struggle with public performance evident throughout Thorn’s new memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star, as she recounts the ebb and flow of a 30-year career that has seen her go from recording inside a garden shed (bigger than a wardrobe, at least), through working with top musicians in Los Angeles (where, when they needed “someone who plays like Stan Getz”, producer Tommy LiPuma simply called in Getz), to in the past decade making solo albums at home in between being a full-time mother to her and Watt’s three children.

Along the way, there has been success, failure and success again (the latter in the wake of credibility enhancing collaborations with Massive Attack and Todd Terry); artistic focus and artistic drift; plus a life-threatening illness for Watt – all recalled from the wry remove of the 50-year-old that Thorn is now.

Those who remember the young Everything But the Girl as a painfully earnest group will be relieved to discover the good humour with which she looks back on such things as their involvement with the Labour Party-supporting Red Wedge movement:

“How prosaic our ambitions seem now, by comparison to today’s pop stars and their lofty pronouncements. Far from trying to end global poverty with one wave of a hand, we were simply trying to get a local official elected to a safe seat in Leicestershire.”

What, I wonder, would Thorn make of her 20-year-old self if she were to meet her today?

“I would be enormously sympathetic to her. There’s a bit where the book ends where I talk about meeting Lady Sovereign and how I sort of identify with her going through all this stuff feeling uncomfortable about it all. I can recognise that much of myself in her, and yet I feel just like her mum. If I met my younger self, that’s exactly how I’d feel. I would completely sympathise with all the stuff I felt and how seriously I took everything and how difficult I found it sometimes to compromise and just be comfortable in my own skin.”

And what in turn would the 20-year-old Thorn make of the 50-year-old?

“That’s harder to answer. I’d probably be a lot less forgiving,” she says, laughing. “But then at 20 you’re less forgiving of everything. Much more judgmental in general. For all the reasons I’ve just said. Because you’re trying to establish yourself and trying to make your point very clearly.”

Bedsit Disco Queen is published by Virago, much to the delight of Thorn, who completed both a BA and MA in English while with Everything But the Girl.

“For me, going with Virago was a slightly sentimental decision, because their books have meant so much to me. I was incredibly flattered they were interested.”

She was also chuffed when her mention in the memoir of an early song she’d written paying tribute to Julie Burchill elicited a Facebook message from Burchill saying “she was absolutely honoured and thank you very much”.

People have asked Thorn if the hardest bits of the memoir to write were those about Watt’s illness, when it was touch and go whether he’d survive Churg-Strauss syndrome,
an auto-immune disease that caused vascular inflammation.

“But, in fact, it wasn’t, because it was long enough ago and we have really talked about it a lot since. So I actually found it quite – cathartic is an overused word but I quite enjoyed the opportunity to express what it had been like from my point of view [Watt having written the 1997 memoir Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness].

“I think the bit that was harder to write was the section leading up to that, when I was talking about our career going a bit downhill and trying to work out what tone to strike when admitting to the fact we’d made records where maybe we weren’t sure what we were doing and looking back I’m not particularly proud of them.”

With Patient and now Bedsit Disco Queen, Thorn and Watt’s 15-year-old twin daughters and 11-year-old son are in the unusual position of having had both parents write books about their lives and relationship. Have they read the latest?

“They haven’t read either,” says Thorn. “They are in the unusual position of there being a book by each of their parents neither of which they have read.”

Maybe they’ll come back to them down the line.

“Maybe. But I do think for teenagers especially there is that sense they really don’t want to know that much about their parents. Your parents are just a necessary evil. I’m very aware at the moment… I don’t know – I think, ‘Oh God, is this being a nightmare parent, drawing all this attention to myself?’”

BEDSIT DISCO QUEEN: HOW I GREW UP AND TRIED TO BE A POP STAR, by Tracey Thorn (Virago, $39.99).

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