Tracey Thorn writes lyrics that make everyday things worthy of pop immortalization and melodies that feel like old friends after only a couple listens. From her post-punk beginnings with Marine Girls to her jump into the international spotlight with Everything but the Girl and her subsequent string of stellar solo albums, Tracey is a master storyteller whose deep, expressive vocals manage to give both the text and the subtext equal weight.
With her new album Record, she’s going to make you dance with a collection of songs she calls “feminist bangers.” The lead single “Queen” wraps introspection and uncertainty in a glorious, shimmering pop package while stand-out track “Sister” is a defiant message to The Man, backed by seriously satisfying disco grooves and a mesmerizing outro that makes the 8-minute-plus track seem too short.
We had a chance to sit down with Tracey and talk about how music is like a needle, how clubbing is like food, and how Twitter should be approached with caution. Read the full Q&A after the jump!
Now that Record is finished, do you ever get emotional listening to the final tracks (or any of your other music)?
Well, sometimes. Not often, because when you’re making a record you have to listen to them so many times it becomes a bit workaday, and often you’re listening and going, “Is the bassline sounding right there? Hang on, is somebody dropping out on the snare?” You’re listening in this weird, technical way.
But if I’m caught off guard, and I hear something when I wasn’t expecting to, or I listen to something maybe I hadn’t listened to for a long time. Or when the record was just finished, I did listen to it a couple times with a slight sense of amazement, thinking, “Wow I didn’t really expect that I was going to be making a record this year. Where did this all come from? I’m really proud of it.” And that’s a good feeling.
How did your collaborations with Shura (on track 2 “Air”) and Corinne Bailey Rae (on track 5 “Sister”) come about?
Nothing complicated, really. With Shura, I loved her record when it came out last year. We made contact through Twitter, I think. We started following each other and chatted a bit on there. I reached out to her when I started recording. I didn’t know really which track she’d collaborate on, and asked her if she’d be up for doing something and she said she would. Eventually, we sorted it down to that one song and sent it to her. She came in the studio, she played a bit of synth, a bit of guitar, did her vocals, which was fantastic. She really contributed a lot.
With Corinne, I had actually recorded quite a lot of the song “Sister” with a backing track. I’d done the lead vocal, and I really wanted another woman’s vocal on there. I think Corinne’s the most amazing singer and doesn’t get referenced often enough as an amazing singer. I didn’t really guide her on what she had to do. I just asked her if she would provide some backing vocals. She actually did it in her own home studio and sent it back with all that on it. It was already sounding good and she made it sound fantastic. It was brilliant to get her.
When I listen to your new song “Dancefloor,” I feel it gets at the heart of the joy and community of club culture, like the warm and fuzzy side of nightlife. You wrote an article last year for your column in The New Statesman about spending Halloween clubbing in Brighton with your friends, and I was hoping you could talk about this song and how it relates to your experiences going out.
You know, I’ve reached an age where I don’t go out clubbing anywhere near as much as I used to, but for me there’s something about it that still represents something that can start to be missing from your life as you get older, which is those opportunities for real kind of euphoria and that sort of abandonment that you get on the dancefloor — that real joyous feeling — and I think you’re right; it has to do with community and with connecting with the other people around you.
I think when I wrote the song “Dancefloor,” it’s almost meant to be like a song about someone who maybe is older and is yearning for that kind of feeling. Maybe you get to that point where you get a bit stuck in your own relationships and those kind of mid-life crises that everyone goes through, and I think for me (and maybe for a lot of other people), the dancefloor represents something that you start to almost idealize. You think this could be the perfect escape from the drudgery of your life. It means all that to me.
Did becoming a mom change the rhythm of your nights out?
It does change things. There was a period in my life when I was much more tied to home. I remember when Ben used to be DJing at Lazy Dog when our twins were really small. It was before I even had a mobile phone, so we’re talking back at the very end of the ‘90s. I used to go out with a little pager clipped to my belt, so if there was an absolute emergency you could page me like I was a doctor on call. I don’t recall if I was ever actually paged on the dancefloor.
So I did try to keep going, and I still do try to. Inevitably you just slow down a bit. I find the late nights and drinking through into the small hours harder to recover from. It’s more difficult as you get older, but I’m the last to leave the party when I do go out. I’m very dangerous when I do get out there.
Do you have special memories associated with the songs you name-check in “Dancefloor,” like “Shame,” “Let the Music Play,” and the others?
Yeah, they’re things I can remember dancing to at various different times. “Shame” is one of my all-time favorites; it’s Evelyn “Champagne” King, and I used to dance to that at discos when I was very, very young so I really remember that. Also I remember when I was writing the song I thought, well I want to actually name-check some songs, and sometimes you almost go into a trance-like state when you’re writing and I just started singing and those four just came out and they just kind of fit, they scanned in the lines, and I just thought, “Yep, those are the ones! Don’t know quite where those ones came from, but they were obviously calling out to me to be name-checked.”
That kind of sudden inspiration reminds me of that famous letter Nick Cave wrote after refusing some award, where he talks about nurturing his muse. Do you have a muse, or could you talk more broadly about your creative process and the “trance-like” state you mentioned?
It’s really mysterious. I absolutely can’t just sit down and think, “Right. Okay, I’m going to start working on a song.” Almost nothing will come, but a lot of my ideas come to me when I’m doing something else. If I’m out walking, I’ve always got my phone with me now so I note things down if I think of lyrics, but it is really mysterious. You don’t know where ideas come from. Lyrics pop into your head.
I think the trance-like thing comes once a song is actually on the go, once you’re working on it. And then, when it’s working and it starts to flow, again that’s quite mysterious. You know it sort of takes on a life of its own.
But I’m not sure, you know the idea of you nurturing your muse, I’m not sure there’s anything you can do. I think it’s just a question of being receptive to ideas when they do come, and also not worrying too much about a first idea. You know you might get an idea of one line and think, “Well, what good is that? That’s not a song.” But I try and note everything down and it might lead somewhere, it might find a home somewhere. You’ve just got to allow all your ideas to come in and gently sift them. You edit things. A lot of writing is editing. You can write a lot of rubbish sometimes, just to cross out ten lines and the eleventh line you realize is quite good. So, editing is a big part of it.
I started seeing an acupuncturist a couple months ago, and on a recent visit (after a hard day), I had an intense emotional reaction to one of the needles. I was thinking about it, and the only other time I’ve had that kind of involuntary welling up is listening to music. I can think of a couple instances where I’ve had emotional moments listening to your music in particular, songs like “Grand Canyon” or “It’s All True.” Are you going for that effect when you write?
For a start, I know exactly what you mean. I actually went for some acupuncture yesterday, because I’m still trying to get over my flu. It’s interesting: I was just lying on the table yesterday having needles stuck in me, and what it is, I think, is that you are kind of opening yourself up in that moment. You’re quite vulnerable when you’re having acupuncture. You’re trusting this person, you’re lying on the table, usually trying to relax, but maybe not feeling relaxed because you’re not well or you’re anxious.
So there’s quite a lot resting on it, and then they stick a needle in you, and sometimes it feels brilliant and sometimes it feels weird, but what I mean is I think there’s something about opening yourself up at that moment, and I think when you listen to music the same thing happens. You’re allowing yourself again to just be open to the sensations and irrational feelings. Songs aren’t just rational things. They impact you in an emotional way.
I do think that there is some kind of alchemy happening in your music. The quality and sensitivity of your singing, the hooks, the lyrics, the body sensation of the production; it’s like a magical recipe.
It’s so personal. I think it’s brilliant it has that effect on you and that’s the effect you’re kind of going for, but you know it’ll only have that effect on some people. On some people it won’t work at all. I suppose I make music in the way it would have an effect on me. Anyone who shares maybe a similar sensibility to me, then maybe it’s going to work on them, too.
— Tracey Thorn (@tracey_thorn) February 25, 2018
You wrote in one of your books that you wished Twitter had been around in the ’80s so you could have had a better sense of who your fans were. Do you still feel that way?
When I think back to writing that, I think it was back when Twitter was still such a lovely, positive place. Because now, what Twitter’s become, it can be a really dangerous place as well. You get caught up in arguments or people can attack you. Sometimes I now look at it and think it’s got a downside as well that’s quite scary. I think I’ve been really lucky. I mostly interact with people in a really positive way on Twitter. I like the fact that I can have direct communication with people, and I don’t feel like the version of me that’s out there now is a particularly edited version. I feel it’s quite true to who I am because I can say things directly. I do think it’s mostly a good thing.
Do you feel like you have a better sense of who your fans are now because of that connection?
Yeah, I guess so, and also that they seem like real people. When you’re just being given sales figures from the record company saying “this many people bought your record,” it’s just numbers. It’s hard to remember sometimes that each of those figures represents an individual person who’s made the decision to buy your record. On Twitter, I can actually see that each one of these people is someone different, and out of all the amount of stuff they could be buying or listening to out there, they’ve chosen to buy it. So, I think it gives you a sort of respect for your fans that they’ve bothered.
Do you feel a lot of love from your LGBT fans on social media?
Yeah. That’s quite apparent, and I think it’s mutual. It goes back and forth, because I’ve been quite open in things I’ve said and things I’ve been supportive of; there’s a sense of connection. People know that we’re all on the same side. There is that feeling of shared values and shared ideals. When people know that about artists and artists know that about their fans, know that they share the same things, it’s a real bond. I feel quite close to those people.
Thinking about your longrunning collaboration with producer Ewan Pearson, has your process evolved over the years?
This time around was slightly different. When we did Love and Its Opposite, it was a fundamentally more acoustic record, where I turned up with a guitar or at the piano, and a lot of the songs had fairly simple arrangements. And with the Christmas album we did, we were doing other people’s songs, so there is a sort of template of how they might sound when we started it.
But with Record, I just got in touch with [Ewan] and said, “Right. I’ve written some songs. I want to get in the studio with you and do some demos, but I’m not really certain where it’s going. We’re just going to start each song and try and work out where it’s going. I know I want it to be more upbeat. I don’t want to make a downtempo record. I don’t think I want to play any acoustic guitar.” At this point his eyes are lighting up, and he’s thinking, “Yay!”
So we went into the studio, we plugged the synths in. I would sort of start playing the songs, do really basic versions just singing it to him, and say “Right. Come on. Set a drum machine going.” He would punch in something really quick and simple and we started building a lot like that. We did two days of demos, and we demoed seven or eight of the songs that ended up being on the album. By the end of those two days, I thought, “Okay. Now I’ve got an idea. Now I know what we’re doing. It really took off quickly once we started.”
I think he was excited as well to have the opportunity to do lots of programming. I was saying to him, “We want lots of synths on this one. Think Pet Shop Boys. Think New Order.” And he was getting more and more excited.
What are some of your favorite feminist bangers by other artists?
“Formation.” And then probably “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!” by X-Ray Spex. Those can be my feminist bangers.
You’ve been writing a column for The New Statesman since 2012 covering a range of topics. Do the editors pretty much give you free rein?
When I do my columns, they don’t tell me at all what to write about. Some weeks I kind of wish they would, but they give me free rein. I try to mix it up. One week I try and do something about music, then something about books, then something more personal so it doesn’t get into too much of a rut.
It’s very exciting to be able to have an outlet for whatever thoughts you’re having, or if you’ve seen something amazing and want to tell people about it. I’m really grateful to have a place where I can write this stuff.
Your beautifully written 2014 review of the Kate Bush concert at the Hammersmith Apollo piled on the FOMO I already had for missing that show. Did seeing Kate come back to live performance after such a long time inspire you to tour again?
No. It really didn’t. I’m not going to be touring with this record, so I still haven’t changed my mind on that one. In a way it almost made me more convinced that I’ve made the right decision not to do, because the kind of show [Kate] did was so incredible, and so not the kind of thing I do. I almost sat there thinking, “Unless you’re going to do something like this, don’t bother!”
I don’t mean that entirely seriously. But it was the most amazing event. It didn’t make me change my mind. I’ve got my own reasons. I said to someone the other day, “You should think of me now as a film star, not a theatre actress.” I do my work on film now, not on the stage.
Any remixes in the works for the new record?
We’ve had a remix done of “Sister” already by Andrew Weatherall, so that’s pretty amazing. And I think we’re going to try and get a couple remixes done of “Dancefloor.” I love getting things remixed; I think it’s really exciting. Now that the record is finished and we’re getting it out there, there may be more to come.
Do you collaborate on remixes at all?
I just hand it over. I think that’s the fairest thing, to let someone have a completely free hand. I think if remixing is going to be something creative, then the person you’re giving it to has to have that creative freedom to take it wherever they think would be interesting. Then you get a surprise back.
What’s the biggest surprise you ever got back?
The most famous one, obviously is the Todd Terry “Missing” remix. When we first heard it, we thought, “Wow! He hasn’t really changed that much.” You imagine that someone is going to completely deconstruct the song, maybe take half the vocal out and just have one hook going round and round. But he actually left the song completely intact. He always said he just made it dance. He made the rhythm track dance more. In a way, we were quite surprised. When we first heard it, we thought, “Has he done enough? Does it sound different enough?” And of course, history proves that he had done enough. You never know quite what you’re gonna get.