Tracey Thorn – interview

by Guy Somerset / 14 February, 2013
Everything But the Girl singer Tracey Thorn recounts the ebb and flow of her 30-year career in a new memoir.
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?’”

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage


Artist Judy Millar creates a show-stopper at Auckland Art Gallery
77134 2017-07-28 08:53:07Z Arts

Artist Judy Millar creates a show-stopper at Auckl…

by India Hendrikse

A brand-new, puzzle-like artwork by Judy Millar at Auckland Art Gallery exuberantly fills a tough space.

Read more
Cat control and 'barking consultants': Is the council coming after your pet?
76916 2017-07-28 00:00:00Z Politics

Cat control and 'barking consultants': Is the coun…

by Bill Ralston

Councils must be barking mad to be considering spending millions more controlling cats and silencing dogs.

Read more
Filmmaker Raoul Peck: Karl Marx, James Baldwin and me
76930 2017-07-28 00:00:00Z Movies

Filmmaker Raoul Peck: Karl Marx, James Baldwin and…

by Helen Barlow

A film-maker focuses on two thinkers who questioned the social order of their day.

Read more
PayWave's great, but we're light years behind China's payment methods
76945 2017-07-28 00:00:00Z Technology

PayWave's great, but we're light years behind Chin…

by Sophie Boot

New Zealand is in the dark ages compared with China’s electronic payment methods and we need to upgrade if we want more of that country’s business.

Read more
Ain’t No Taco: Symonds Street gets a new taqueria with a twist
77130 2017-07-27 14:58:01Z Auckland Eats

Ain’t No Taco: Symonds Street gets a new taqueria …

by Kate Richards

Peter Barton, co-owner of Burger Geek, opens a taqueria a few doors down the road

Read more
Synthetic cannabis: The killer high
77113 2017-07-27 11:56:15Z Social issues

Synthetic cannabis: The killer high

by Susan Strongman

There have been eight deaths related to synthetic cannabis in just over a month. People know it's killing them. So why are they smoking it?

Read more
Winston Peters criticises use of te reo in Parliament
77102 2017-07-27 10:34:33Z Politics

Winston Peters criticises use of te reo in Parliam…

by RNZ

New Zealand First leader Winston Peters has criticised Te Ururoa Flavell for using te reo Māori in Parliament during question time.

Read more
NZ has done 'horrific job' protecting most vulnerable - commissioner
77095 2017-07-27 10:06:22Z Social issues

NZ has done 'horrific job' protecting most vulnera…

by Emile Donovan

Abuse of intellectually disabled people in state care over five decades has been brought to light in a new report by the Human Rights Commission.

Read more