Christmas, late 1960s-early 1970s.
In Brookmans Park, 20 miles north of London, Tracey Thorn has woken up and seen the stocking on the end of her bed. It will have a party blower in it, one of those puzzles where you move a little ball bearing around trying to get it into a hole, and, best of all, those Lindt chocolate animals.
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Thorn didn’t get a lot of presents. You didn’t back then. Not really. “My best present was the year I got a soft toy Yorkshire Terrier that had a built-in transistor radio inside it,” she says. “And for some reason my mum decided we’d go to church that morning. That’s the only time I can remember going to church in my life. We were a completely atheist family. So we went round to the Christmas service and I take my best present and I’m fiddling with it and of course the radio comes blaring out in the middle of the service. Tony Blackburn or something.”
Even then music was a constant. At home her dad loved big band music, while her mum liked Sinatra. Jack Jones. Crooners. “They hadn’t by any means kept up with pop music. They weren’t trendy parents.” But, come Christmas, her mum would stick John Lennon’s Merry Christmas, War is Over on the turntable. “Literally as you got out of bed on Christmas morning that would be slapped on.”
Tracey Thorn has hated that song ever since.
John Lennon’s festive song does not, unsurprisingly, feature on Tracey Thorn’s current Christmas album, Tinsel and Lights. But songs from the likes of Joni Mitchell and the White Stripes do turn up, all recrafted and recoloured by Thorn’s dolorous ache of a voice, perhaps the finest - certainly one of the most underappreciated - vocal instruments in British pop in the last 30 years. For much of this century stage fright and motherhood have meant that voice has been largely unheard. But for some of us who were students in the early eighties it provided the soundtrack to life in Calour Gas heated-rented flats, most notably, as the voice of Everything But the Girl, the Hull-based duo she formed with beau (now life partner) Ben Watt. Throughout the eighties and nineties she was a constant presence and, for many of us, a constant pleasure.
And then she got pregnant. Round about the millennium, she was just using her voice to shout at her kids. But thankfully in the last few years she’s returned to singing (if not the stage) with two solo albums that dissect life as a woman of a certain age. Even Tinsel and Lights, her current Christmas album, is freighted with a middle-aged melancholy. The opening track Joy is a song about celebrating life in the shadow of death. “We’ll gather up our fears and face down all the coming years,” she sings with a pure, sweet simplicity.
Tinsel and Lights is part of a double-pronged restatement of a talent that had been left to gather dust for too long. In February Thorn publishes her autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen, which, is a reminder that the eighties weren’t just about Madonna’s bustier and Michael Jackson’s Moonwalk. Both album and book have brought me to Camden Lock where Ben Watt keeps an office for his dance label Buzzin’ Fly. Thorn is trying to make me tea but she doesn’t know where anything is. She doesn’t come here a lot. Never mind. As if to put us in the mood, the weather outside is frightful. So we’re wrapped up snug and warm inside to talk about life and love and Christmases past.
Christmas late seventies
“There were teenage Christmases where I turned into the complete Christmas misery. Suddenly I turned into this teenager who hated everything and everyone. I felt misunderstood ... I wrote a song, Come On Home, years ago which has the line “Every day is like Christmas without you/It’s cold and there’s nothing to do”. My cynical, anti-Christmas line. And ever since then my family have held that over me. ‘You wrote that song about how much you hated Christmas. And now you’re making a Christmas record?’ So their image of me was someone who always hated Christmas.
“But at 16 I suppose it’s right you want to get your opinions out. But there’s a time and a place, and probably Christmas lunch isn’t that time.”
It’s easy to over-romanticise the impact of punk in British culture in the late seventies, but it’s also almost impossible to underestimate its ability to open the door for many of those who were teenagers at the time. Thorn was one of them. “As a teenager you’re grasping around for something to define yourself, maybe in opposition to your parents. Punk and post-punk offered a very clear way to define yourself.”
Most of that definition took place in her room, she admits. “I was never a confrontational teenager. So although I longed to be part of some scene that I thought I was happening somewhere where people were rebellious and punky and wearing these great trousers, I couldn’t do that. So most of it was going on inside my head, really.”
Eventually, however, it found its way out. Still, in 1979 she bought her first electric guitar. Soon she was auditioning as a singer for a band called the Stern Bops. From the inside of a cupboard. “There are some people who always say ‘Oh I’m most alive on stage. I sort of envy those people. But I always found it really difficult. I think during the years we were performing a lot I just steeled myself to it. The hard thing now is that I’ve stopped and so the idea of getting back into it is more difficult because I’m not braced and I’ve got very out of the habit of doing it.”
As a member of the Marine Girls, a group of ramshackle charm she formed with her best mates, fame - or NME interviews and John Peel sessions at least - soon beckoned. But it didn’t turn her head. She still applied to go university. In Hull of all places. “I never thought music was a career particularly. Maybe already I sensed that there were lots of aspects I wasn’t necessarily going to be very good at. I still think there was another life I could have led where I’d have been very happy being a teacher or a librarian following that other path of studies and a normal job.”
At uni, though, she teamed up with Watt. Soon, they started writing and playing together. When did it become clear that their relationship was going to be a bit more than that? “Not for certain, probably, until the second term of university. But, yeah, there was definitely something there very quickly. It was complicated by starting to make music together. ‘Hang on, are we forming a band or going out with each other?’ There was a bit of making it up as we were going along.” That’s why they ended up with the name Everything but the Girl. “I’d rather have been called the Smiths because it felt like a more honest, solid name.” Someone got there before you, Tracey. “Yeah.”
Reading Bedsit Disco Queen is to be reminded of a very different music world, a world of student politics and fears of selling out, a world of anti-apartheid demos and earnestness and a music press that actually mattered. Even the haircuts were different. “Young people don’t have haircuts any more. They have long, straight hair. It’s a shame.”
Saves on products though. There was an awful lot of hair product being used in the early eighties. “Earth-destroying amounts really,” she agrees. “Environmentally unfriendly amounts of product. Very old-fashioned hairspray as well. Really gluey.”
For a while around the release of their first album Eden, Everything but the Girl were flavour of the month. Then they weren’t, but carried on anyway and even had some hits. It didn’t help that they kept changing their approach with every record. From slinky bossa nova inspired pop to straightahead indie pop on Eden’s follow-up, Love Not Money. By the time they reached Idlewild they had arrived at AOR. “I do think the path we followed is quite unique. We did follow our own noses for better or worse. Sometimes it led us in completely the wrong direction. But we did make good records that were a bit out of sync and a bit individualistic. I like people who don’t completely fit in. I get bored sometimes with the rock story. It’s very generic and very orthodox. ‘These were the people who were important.’ And often I’ll look at them and think, ‘I don’t like that Stone Roses record’.”
The rest of EBTG’s story is pretty standard. Fallings out with the record company. The pressure to conform. The desire to be successful set against the desire not to conform.
And then Ben got ill.
In June 1992 Ben Watt went for a doctor’s appointment, one of many. An hour later he called Thorn. “They think I might be having a heart attack. D’you think you could come over?” Before she knew it, Watt was in intensive care. Eventually he was diagnosed with Churg-Strauss syndrome, an auto-immune disease. Much of his small intestine had to be removed. He had a relapse in October. He was in hospital again in November. That Christmas both their parents came to their house and Thorn cooked a very low-fat Christmas meal. “It’s his birthday in December as well so I’d thrown a big party for him. ‘Let’s celebrate Ben’s survival’. And in retrospect it was the worst thing I could have done. Mentally, he was in no state at all to be celebrating a birthday and I don’t think he was particularly in the mood to celebrate Christmas either. I think the rest of us were all feeling like ‘we want to get together and hug’, but actually the person in the middle was miles away, mentally. Miles away for quite a long time.”
How does the notion of love change when you’ve been through that experience, I wonder? “Well it kind of brings to the fore the part of love which is about really simple things, like caring for someone. And I think that can be difficult. Ben had often been the dynamic, charismatic slightly louder one. My role was often the foil to that. Suddenly for him to be struck down and me having to be the one in charge, talking to doctors, taking decisions, it threw everything into a completely different balance. Some relationships might not have survived. Luckily we worked it out. But I do think it’s a strain. It’s not a lovely bonding thing.”
There was a grace note though. Not too long after Thorn was recording Protection with Massive Attack and having a monster hit with the Todd Terry remix of the EBTG track Missing. While everyone else was raving about Britpop Thorn and Watt were mixing with the real cool kids. And they become cool again themselves. Their album Walking Wounded even sold more than a million copies when it came out in 1996. And then she got pregnant - with twins. The end. Almost.
“We were due to be going over to my parents that Christmas and then at the last minute I cancelled because I was getting very close. They had to be delivered emergency C section much sooner than they were supposed to be because one of them wasn’t growing properly. I remember cancelling everything and staying at home and just feeling enormous lying in the bath on Christmas day just groaning.”
For the next few years Tracey Thorn wasn’t interested in being a musician. She had a new job. “People would go ‘so are you doing any singing?’ And I’d go ‘no’. They’d say ‘why?’ ‘I’ve got kids’. To me it seemed so obvious that I was doing this now. I just thought all I had to say would be that and people would go ‘of course’. I was just completely absorbed in it and I really did put music aside.”
And then in 2007 she picked it up again. She made an album, Out of the Woods, and then a couple of years ago she made another one, Love and Its Opposite. Both are full of songs about life in the middle of life, the kind of life that no one in pop writes about much. It was a conscious choice she says. “I think I was almost defiant about the fact that these things didn’t get written about. I’ve got friends who’ve got divorced and gone off internet dating and all this stuff and I thought it was brilliant. The implication is when you hit middle age everything settles down and becomes calm and boring. Well, it’s not my experience. Everyone seems to me to be having a really rich, vivid, interesting life and going through experiences that are just as extreme as a teenager’s or a twentysomething’s. So I was determined to tell some of those stories.
“When it comes to writing about children people often writer about their babies - all fine and great, never really wanted to do it myself - but I didn’t hear many songs about older kids or about being a woman going through the menopause when you’ve got teenagers.”
Tracey Thorn has started her sixth decade on this planet. This Christmas will be very cosy and homey and domestic, she says. “I am quite traditional. I do like getting up with the kids, everyone opening their stockings,. wrapping paper everywhere. A bit of champagne. Cooking goes wrong because you’ve had too many glasses of wine. Silly TV, endless eating. Egg nog for breakfast yeah. Maybe she’ll put on the Spector Christmas album while wrapping the presents. Maybe the Sufjan Stevens album. Maybe even Sinatra. Music and Christmas go together for Tracey Thorn. They always have. With the exception of John Lennon.
Tinsel and Lights is available now. Bedsit Disco Queen is published by Virago in February.