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New Writing South: In Conversation With Tracey Thorn
It has been more than 12 years since Tracey Thorn sang live onstage at the Montreux Jazz Festival.
Now the former frontwoman of Everything But The Girl and cult indie-pop band Marine Girls is back on the road to promote her new autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen (Virago, £16.99).
“I’m beginning to get a bit anxious about this book tour,” she admits from her home studio in London.
“I’m wondering what I have let myself in for. I don’t like to think I will never sing live again.
“There was a period a few years ago when I thought I had retired completely from music and the desire to make music and write songs came back to me.”
It was writing her memoirs that encouraged Thorn to return to songwriting.
She had stopped in 2000 after the release of Temperamental, the last Everything But The Girl album made with her husband and bandmate Ben Watt, to raise her family of twin girls and a baby boy Blake, who was born eight months after that final show.
“I thought I had stopped making music completely,” she says. “People kept asking me why. I decided to go back and have a look at what I did all those years ago and make some sense of it.
“It reminded me how much I enjoyed music and songwriting, and how much it meant to me.”
So Thorn put the manuscript away and started writing music again, releasing three solo albums starting with 2007’s Out Of The Woods.
The book remained hidden away in a desk drawer for more than four years, only rediscovered when Thorn and Watt were about to move house.
“It’s not like I write books for a living,” she says.
“I had invested so much into it I couldn’t see whether it was any good or not. I thought maybe the story is only interesting to me and so put it away because I couldn’t make a decision.”
The reaction to the book’s release has proven this certainly wasn’t the case.
Bedsit Disco Queen, which has the self-deprecating subtitle How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Pop Star, follows Thorn from her discovery of punk, chart success with Watt, the pair’s reinvention with the smash hit remix of Everything But The Girl’s Missing, through to her recent solo work.
Along the way it takes in her debut attempt at singing with her first band the Stern Bops (inside a bandmate’s wardrobe), her time as “Popstar Trace” at the University Of Hull as a member of two bands and with a single in the top 20, involvement in the political Red Wedge movement, Top Of The Pops appearances, working with Massive Attack, and Watt’s life-threatening illness which changed everything both in her home life and as a band.
Running throughout the book is an almost painful honesty – including a brutal analysis of what she sees as her limited vocal range, the doubts and frustrations Thorn felt when records were released in a pre-Twitter world when music critics and record label sales figures were king, and the heart-rending experience of waiting by her lover’s sick bed to see if he would survive the night.
Researching the book allowed her to re-examine her time with Marine Girls, who broke up acrimoniously in 1983 as Everything But The Girl began to take off. The band became posthumously feted by the likes of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love.
“We [Marine Girls] were so young – I think that people forget that about a lot of bands,” she says. “You don’t know what you’re doing.
“People try to turn you into something significant – the honest truth is we were girls at school who made a couple of records and did a few gigs. I don’t think we ever expected what came along afterwards.
“We never had a chance to make any mistakes, or to progress or branch out. We couldn’t disappoint the people who liked those records. Everything But The Girl lasted a long time and we went through changes.”
One thing which had amazed her was the youthful energy she had, which allowed her to keep two bands going while studying for her English degree at the university where she had first met Watt.
“It makes it sound like we had 28 hours in the day,” she says. “I can’t quite remember how we crammed it in. You don’t notice how much you’re doing.”
Her lyrics are reprinted throughout the book, reflecting how her life experiences found their way into her songs. “I talk a lot about becoming a songwriter, so I thought it would be nice to have the lyrics right there for reference,” she says.
“The subject matter moves on as I get older – I have only ever been able to write in a direct way about things I have personal knowledge or understanding of. I feel uncomfortable if I write about things far removed from my experience – it feels fake.”
She admits she doesn’t know whether Everything But The Girl will ever reform, although Watt, who runs his own dance record label Buzzin’ Fly and its alt-rock offshoot Strange Feeling, has played on her solo albums.
“We lived together and worked together for a long time – it’s not easy having every single aspect of your life connected with the same person,” laughs Thorn.
“We are that much older now and have three kids. It’s demanding on a relationship to add into the mix working together every minute of the day. We’re both slightly reluctant.
“We could be pushing our luck!”
- The Old Market, Upper Market Street, Hove, Wednesday, February 13. Starts 7.30pm, tickets £10. Call 01273 201801