DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, editor the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. We’re ending the year by replaying some favorite interviews of the past 12 months – some of them audience favorites, some of them favorites in the FRESH AIR office and some of them both.
Today we’ll hear an interview with the singer-songwriter Tracey Thorn, whose latest album “Record” is our rock critic Ken Tucker’s favorite album of the year. From 1982 to 2000, Tracey Thorn was one half of the duo Everything But The Girl with her boyfriend Ben Watt, who became her husband. She quit performing to raise their three children then returned to the recording studio as a solo artist. Thorn also writes a column for the British publication New Statesman and is the author of the memoir “Bedsit Disco Queen.” She’s also written a book about singing called “Naked At The Albert Hall.”
Terry spoke with Tracey Thorn in May and began by playing a track from “Record” – a song called “Sister.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SISTER”)
TRACEY THORN AND CORINNE BAILEY RAE: (Singing) Nobody ever loved (ph). Don’t mess with me. Don’t hurt my babies. I’ll come for you. You’ll find you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. You are the man, but I’m not your baby. I get so scared. I know you own the world. And I fight like a girl. But I am my mother. I am my mother now. I am my sister. And I fight like a girl. All I can do is all I’m doing.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: That’s “Sister” from Tracey Thorn’s new album, “Record.” Tracey Thorn, welcome to FRESH AIR. It’s really a pleasure to have you on the show.
TRACEY THORN: Hi, thank you.
GROSS: So what’s the story behind the song we just heard?
THORN: Well, I wrote it after I went on the women’s march in London, you know, the same day that those marches were happening around the world. And the one in London was huge. And I went off that day, you know, like a lot of people, feeling a mixture of frustration, desperation, thinking, you know, why are we still having to protest the same stuff? But I found the day itself really inspiring. And, you know, it made me feel very positive seeing that number of people out on the streets protesting and clearly feeling angry about the same stuff. And I saw a couple of people carrying a banner with the slogan fight like a girl on it. And I thought, well, you know, that’s a good lyric right there. So that’s my starting point.
GROSS: And what does the line, I am my mother now, mean to you?
THORN: I think it’s to do with that feeling of, you know, that bond, that sisterhood, between, you know, women who you are literally related to and other women who you just feel that sort of theoretical sisterhood with. I think as I get older, I feel more and more that sense of turning into my mother, absorbing some of her spirit. She’s gone now, so it’s partly me conjuring up her memory, I suppose, and feeling myself becoming ever closer to her.
GROSS: And you’ve become the mother. I mean, your children are grown now.
THORN: Yeah, I am. So, you know, I’ve stepped into those shoes.
GROSS: So in your memoir from 2007, “Bedsit Disco Queen,” it opens with a story where, like, you’re with your husband and music partner in the band Everything But The Girl, and you get a call saying that U2 wants you to tour with them to open for them. And you don’t immediately say yes or no. You think about it, and then at the end of the book, we find out that your answer to that is I think I want to stop now (laughter), and you just kind of stop performing then. And less than a year later, you give birth to twins, and you decide to become a full-time mother. Why did you make that choice?
THORN: Lots of reasons really. We tried touring for a little while, taking the girls with us, and that was very difficult, so I then decided to stop. But, honestly, beneath that answer, there’s a truer answer, which is just that I was ready to stop. And, you know, it happened to coincide with having kids, so that gave me the perfect excuse that I could throw at people, and it made some kind of sense to people.
But, honestly, I’d reached a point where I felt in terms of that side of my career, you know, the live performing, the sort of actually getting out there and competing, you know, on that stage as a pop star, I felt I’d sort of taken that as far as I was really interested in taking it. And I was happy to draw a line, retreat for a while, and then later, when I came back to music, it was on a slightly different level, which is something I’m happy with now.
GROSS: You know, you wrote that when you became a mother, you felt that you couldn’t be the person you were on stage and the mother you were at home, that somehow those two sides of you seemed incompatible. What were those two different versions of you and, why did they seem incompatible?
THORN: Well, you know, I see other women who are perfectly capable of doing that. So again I’d stress when I wrote this – I don’t want to make this into a sort of general point, but I found it really tricky, especially having the girls with us on tour and even, you know, having someone else around who was helping. Inevitably, the kids wanted me during the day, so I spent a lot of the day, you know, doing mom things, taking them out to the nearby park, trying to sort out their meals and then, at the end of the day, putting them to bed and getting back to the venue, being in a dressing room, putting makeup on, getting on stage.
And at that point, I suddenly felt that at stage, you’re required to turn back into this narcissistic pop star. And that’s the sort of essence of the job really when all day you’ve been being the self-sacrificing one. And that’s quite a psychological split. And for me, it was very difficult. I just found it too tricky trying to be both those things at different hours of the day.
GROSS: So I want to play another track from your new album, “Record.” And this is the song “Babies,” and I think it’s the first song I know that’s about using birth control, and the fear of getting pregnant when you don’t want to have a baby and then the urgency of having a baby when you do want to have one. How did you come up with that idea as the premise for a song?
THORN: I was on a walk one day, and the opening lines of the song just appeared in my head with that tune – every morning of the month, you push a little tablet through the foil – cleverest of all inventions, better than a condom or a coil. And it made me laugh out loud as I thought of it. I thought, that’s great; that’s an opening line. And then when I got home, I started trying to turn it into a song. And, you know, it is funny. It’s meant to be humorous, as well, but it contains a lot of urgency, I think, in terms of feeling – you know, the desperation you feel when you’re young, the terror of getting pregnant when you don’t want to, and then again, the urgency later on when perhaps you do want to, and that’s an equally strong feeling.
GROSS: OK, so let’s hear “Babies,” and this is from Tracey Thorn’s new album, “Record.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BABIES”)
THORN: (Singing) Every morning of the month, you push a little tablet through the foil – cleverest of all inventions, better than a condom or a coil – because I didn’t want my babies until I wanted babies. And when I wanted babies, nothing else would do but babies, babies, babies. Every touch was…
GROSS: That’s Tracey Thorn from her new album, “Record.” The song is called “Babies.” And she used to be half of the group Everything But The Girl with her now-husband, Ben. So, you know, part of this song is about the anxiety that can surround sex when you’re a woman worried about getting pregnant and having to take hormones or putting foreign objects in your body to prevent pregnancy. I think men don’t always comprehend what that means.
THORN: No, I think that’s true. And obviously, for girls, it starts pretty young. One of the things I referenced in the song is, like, all my knowledge from Cathy and Claire, which, to American listeners, won’t mean as much, but to British listeners, they were the kind of agony aunts on the teenage magazine that we all read when I was a kid.
GROSS: Oh. Yeah, I didn’t what it meant.
THORN: So I can just remember those teenage years of – long, long before the Internet – so having access to almost no information about my body and no real understanding of how this thing worked – so, you know, this sometimes ridiculous, unnecessary terror that you’d done something that was going to get you pregnant, and actually, you hadn’t. But it was typical at the time that girls used to write to the Cathy and Clare page saying things like, I’ve sat on a toilet seat, am I going to be pregnant? You know, a boy has put his hand down my trousers, am I going to be pregnant? And it just reminded me how ignorant we were and how we had to just try and manage without knowing anything.
GROSS: Well, why don’t we take a short break here? And then we’ll talk some more and listen to some more of your music. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Tracey Thorn. She has a new album called “Record.” It’s a solo album. She used to be in the group from, like, 1982 to 2000 – in the group Everything But The Girl, which is basically her and her husband, Ben Watt. So we’ll be right back after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL SONG, “WRONG”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you’re just joining us, my guest is singer and songwriter and musician Tracey Thorn. From 1982 to 2000, she along with her now-husband, Ben Watt, were in the group Everything But The Girl. They were the group. And since then, she’s been recording solo albums. Her new one is called “Record.” She’s also a columnist for the British political magazine the New Statesman.
So I want to play another song from “Record,” and this song is called “Guitar.” And it’s a song about having a crush on a boy and thinking he was really cool because he played guitar, but he was cruel, you say in the song, and that you realize at some point that he was just the catalyst because he had your guitar. You had a guitar, and you could sing, and you could play. And it reminds me of something Joyce Johnson once wrote. Jack Kerouac had been her boyfriend. And in a memoir about that period of her life, she wrote that guys had adventures, and girls like her fell in love with the guys who had the adventures. And the girl’s adventure was falling in love with the guy who had the adventure, as opposed to the girls having an adventure of their own. Being in love with the guy was the adventure.
GROSS: This song made me think about that (laughter).
THORN: I remember reading that book.
GROSS: Oh, really?
THORN: “Minor Characters.”
GROSS: “Minor Characters,” yes. Did you love that book?
THORN: I loved it, and it rang lots of bells with me. Yeah. You know, I’ve resented that idea for a very long time – the notion that, you know, the biggest adventure you are going to have is falling in love with a boy who is having adventures. And, you know, the song “Guitar” is me looking back and realizing that there was a period of my life when I did buy into that – but not for very long – only maybe for a year or so, I think, in my teens. And it was when I first started getting into music. And, you know, a lot of the other boys I knew especially had formed bands. And I watched them do that. And it looked exciting.
And my first instinct was, you know, these boys are really attractive. They’re doing exciting things. And then I bought my own guitar. And I thought, well, hang on. I can do this as well. You know, it looks like they’re having a load of fun. I don’t just want to actually watch them have that fun. I want to have that fun as well. So the first band I joined, I was the only girl. And I remember immediately feeling a little bit like I got kind of secret access into this boys’ gang, you know. And after rehearsals, we’d go off to gigs together. And it was brilliant. I loved that feeling.
And so around that time, you know, there were a couple of boys in bands who – whilst I maybe thought for a brief moment that, you know, they were the ones doing the exciting thing, actually what I was also doing at the same time, once I’d picked up a few chords on the guitar, was I was starting to write. And I think what the song “Guitar” is about is that moment in my life when – playing a guitar, realizing I could sing just was the beginning of everything for me. You know, everything that followed came from that moment. It was the moment that opened up my ability to communicate, you know, and make art. And, you know, that’s become so much of my life.
GROSS: Well, I really like this song. So let’s hear “Guitar,” written and performed by my guest Tracey Thorn from her new album “Record.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “GUITAR”)
THORN: (Singing) Hey, boy, you taught me my first song. The air was warm. The night was long while Leonard Cohen sang “Suzanne.” We kissed and kissed, but then you ran. The song was “Teenager In Love.” Oh, God, you couldn’t make it up. Hey, that’s no way to say goodbye. So you didn’t even try.
I wanted you. I watched you from afar. And I thought you were cool because you played guitar. But you were cool and maybe still are. Thank God I could sing, and I had my guitar. I had my guitar.
GROSS: That’s Tracey Thorn from her new album “Record.” So you describe that once you started playing in a band with boys, it felt like you’d gotten this secret access to this kind of boy gang (laughter). But then you formed a group with other girls.
GROSS: How was it different?
THORN: Well, I think I realized pretty quickly that the access to the boys’ gang was always going to be slightly limited. And there were times when I began to think, OK, they’re sort of implying that they, you know, know more about this stuff than I do. But when I came to think about getting another band together, my next thought was, OK, I think maybe this time I’ll do it with other girls. Let’s see if that works differently. So I formed a band with some girls at school called the Marine Girls.
And, yeah, it was different. I think we felt quite a defiant sense of proving that we could do this, that we didn’t need boys to show us how to do it. We broke lots of the rules of what a band was supposed to be doing because we didn’t really know what those rules were, and we were not very respectful of them. So you know, we never had a drummer because we didn’t know anyone who had a drum kit. And I think we just had this attitude of, well, who says you need a drummer, you know.
We were just kind of thinking, we’re going to do what we can do. We’re not going to sit around worrying about what’s been done before and what you’re supposed to copy. We’re just going to think, right, what can we do? How can we write songs? And so there was a real sort of combination of naivety and innocence about it but also a defiant spirit. That spirit does shine through. And I think that’s what has made them actually last much longer than I would have imagined at the time.
GROSS: You wrote a column in the New Statesman about your reaction to younger feminists and how at first you were troubled about how the generation who came after you in the 1990s – you found them discombobulating and that, you know, in your feminist literature class when you were young, you’d all thrown the “Story Of O” across the room. But this new third wave of feminists seem to be OK with strip clubs and porn. Describe what was disturbing you at the time when you were thinking that.
THORN: So that was in the ’90s, so I was sort of getting into my 30s at that stage. And I was very aware that there was a younger generation. There was also – I don’t know whether this was true in America, but in the U.K., there was the emergence of what we called this new lad culture. So there were new magazines started, which – you know, largely written by and for men, which seemed to – in a slightly ironic, they would claim – in a slightly ironic way went back to what seemed to me to be obviously sexist tropes of, you know, girls in bikinis on the front cover, lads talking in a very laddish way about girls. And there was a generation of women who, perhaps because they were part of that same generation, seemed to absorb some of those kinds of attitudes towards things like sex and porn and, you know, styles of behavior.
And again, it made me suddenly feel, wow, I’m out of step with the times. You know, it made me feel like I’d been – the feminism I’d grown up with was very sort of puritanical, you know. I just began to question and think, well, hang on, how do we – how do we reconcile these separate things which seem to be saying quite different things about what your approach should be? And it took me a while.
And then – you know, then obviously another period of time passes and, you know, even that wave of feminism from the ’90s gets swept away, and you get a whole new wave again. And so I look at the, you know, generation who are younger now, and they seem again to have a different set of priorities, perhaps a slightly different set of values, you know. But somehow, we need to all work out, you know, what are the shared common values and, you know, work on what we have in common I think and not obsess too much about, you know, slight differences.
GROSS: I think part of the lens through which you’re seeing the younger generation of feminists is through your daughters who you say formed a feminist club in college. What are you – what are you learning from them?
THORN: Yeah. I mean, they both got into a feminist club when they were still at school, so aged about 15. And they were – just seemed very aware. They seemed to pick up a lot of stuff obviously from being on the Internet. So, you know, sometimes I think, right, OK, I need to talk to them about this and then, you know, have a conversation and realize that they were way ahead of me and, you know, had already got quite sophisticated levels of understanding about things.
So, yeah, it has been interesting watching their generation and, you know, watching them try to make sense, again, of the different landscape that they are growing up in, you know, because much as they’ve learned things from the Internet, they’ve also had to grow up, you know, working their way through that and what that means, especially for a young woman. You know, how do you cope with the pressures that are on you in terms of appearance and living up to a sort of required standard of what you’re supposed to look like? So, you know, I think that’s been a whole added pressure that they’ve had to face.
BIANCULLI: Singer and songwriter Tracey Thorn speaking to Terry Gross last May. We’re ending the year by replaying some of our favorite interviews of 2018, and this is one of them. After a break, we’ll hear more of Terry’s conversation with Tracey Thorn and end the show with a bonus piece of music performed in the FRESH AIR studio years ago by another favorite singer-songwriter, Loudon Wainwright III. I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “DAMAGE”)
THORN: (Singing) Here I go again, down that road again. I haven’t solved it yet. What happened if we never met – if I’d just ignored those sliding doors, if I’d turned instead from your bed? Am I queen?
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry’s interview from last May with British singer-songwriter and guitarist Tracey Thorn. It’s one of our favorite interviews of the year. Her latest album called “Record” is her first solo album of original material in seven years. And our rock critic Ken Tucker chose it as his favorite album of 2018. From 1982 to 2000, Tracey Thorn was half of the duo Everything But The Girl with Ben Watt, her now-husband with whom she has three children. She gave up performing to raise their children. When we left off with her conversation with Terry, Tracey Thorn was talking about the bands she was in before Everything But The Girl, including an all-girl band called Marine Girls.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So after being in a band with guys and then forming a band with other girls, you ended up going to college. And at college, you soon fell in love with Ben Watt who became your music partner and your life partner. You’ve had children together. You’ve been together since – what year?
GROSS: OK. And so together you formed the band Everything But The Girl. And you write that this was the time when you discovered feminism. And it made you question, was it the right decision to be in a band with your boyfriend? Was it even cool to have a boyfriend? Was monogamy inevitably awful and oppressive? And should you really try to be a lesbian?
GROSS: So some of the questions you were asking yourself at the time – how did you work through those questions?
THORN: In the way you do when you’re young, which is, you just kind of live your life – and, you know, the questions sort of answer themselves on a day-to-day basis. You know, I think if I was going to be giving advice to, for instance, one of my daughters now who was doing what I did – you know, moving in with a boy who she’d met on the first day at university, forming a band with him, you know, throwing everything in, hook, line and sinker with this person – I’d say that’s really risky. Don’t do that. Or, at least, if you do, keep lots of other options open. You know, don’t shut any doors.
But, you know, I was reckless in the way that young people are reckless. And I was in love, and I just thought, what could possibly go wrong? So while I was asking myself these theoretical questions, on the other hand, I was just carrying on living my life in the way you do when you’re young. You know, you just crack on with things.
GROSS: So some of the questions you asked yourself about having your boyfriend, now husband, be in the same band with you was, would the relationship take precedence over work? What if you had a fight? What if they stopped being a – what if you stopped being a couple? Would there still be a band? Did you have to confront any of those questions?
THORN: Not seriously, but I do think one of the reasons that when we stopped in 2000, one of the reasons we haven’t gone back to it is because I think we both have looked at each other and said, do you know what? We did quite well there. We got away with it that many years. And it might be pushing our luck to try any longer, especially now we’ve got kids, you know? Our relationship now is even more complicated. When we were working together, we were working together and we were a couple. So there’s those two relationships.
Now we’ve got that shared relationship of being parents, and that in itself brings a whole other level of complexity into a relationship. And, you know, now we have to navigate that thing of, OK, how do you carry on being a couple once you’re parents? And that takes some work and some effort. And again, you know, so far we’re managing to make that work. But I don’t think either of us want to risk bringing back the working relationship so that, you know, there’s this kind of three-pronged approach going on. It just feels like too much. And, you know, now we’re doing – we’re working separately, and that seems to me to work very well now.
GROSS: One of the things that you did have to confront when you were with Ben in Everything But The Girl is that he got this rare autoimmune disease whose name I can’t pronounce.
THORN: Yeah. Churg-Strauss syndrome.
GROSS: Thank you. And it apparently causes vascular inflammation, and a lot of his small intestine had to be removed. You weren’t sure he would survive. I mean, he was literally deathly ill. What kind of scenarios did you play in your mind when his life was in jeopardy?
THORN: You know, the moments when his life was in jeopardy, again, it’s that sense of you’re just completely wrapped up in the moment. I don’t think during those – and it was weeks in hospital when, you know, things kept going from bad to worse, and then things got a little bit better and then things got worse again. So that feeling of, you know, is he going to survive or not, that was quite long drawn out. So I just remember getting very immersed in the day-to-day of that.
I don’t remember thinking ahead and thinking, you know, what’s this going to mean for the long-term, for the future? It sort of narrowed. I remember my focus just narrowing, and sometimes just narrowing to what’s going to happen in the next hour. You know, when you’re sitting by someone’s bed and watching those flickering numbers on a screen beside their bed or watching, you know, some little drop of fluid coming down from a bag into someone’s arm, you just get lost in this tiny little present moment, you know, wondering what’s going to happen in the next hour.
GROSS: How do you think that experience changed your relationship?
THORN: It’s very hard to say, I suppose, because I find it hard to imagine our relationship without that thing having happened. I can almost think of a before and after. You know, they were the people we were before, and then inevitably, certainly in the short-term, in the immediate after, we were different people for a while. You know, he was very sick for quite a long time, and that meant quite a long convalescence, which meant physical recovery and also psychological recovery. And I do think he was someone who for a while was suffering from what would probably be called post-traumatic stress. And he became very introverted, and I think was just dealing with a lot of it inside his head. So that was tricky. You know, that had to be negotiated in the relationship.
Then we got back to work and became very focused. And in some way – I’ve written about this, as well – you know, the experience was very inspirational. It got both of us into a sort of work mode that was very impassioned and fired up. And I think we made very good work in the aftermath of it and then became very successful. So there was this sort of very extreme contrast, you know, between what had happened during this year of the extreme illness, and then suddenly this kind of upward trajectory through work that was being very well-reviewed. It was suddenly very successful. So it was quite extreme.
GROSS: Is “Amplified Heart” the album that you made after he recovered?
THORN: It is. And I think that’s the one that’s got the songs on it that are, you know, most obviously about people dealing with that kind of stuff. I think you can tell the people who wrote that record, you know, have had (laughter) some kind of experience.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I want to play one of those songs. This is, “We Walk The Same Line,” which I think really is a song pledging to always be there for him, or pledging always to be there for each other. If you lose your faith, you can have mine. Do you want to say anything about the song?
THORN: Yeah. I mean, it is, I think, about that bond we had afterwards. You know, so you asked how things changed. And, you know, it was a mixture of, in some ways, feeling separate from each other because we had actually been through quite different experiences. You know, for a long time he was unconscious, and I was having conversations with doctors. So on one level, we’d experienced different things. But there was also that shared feeling of just we’ve been through a trauma. And that was very bonding. And I think it made both of us feel – in the aftermath of that, you know, well, having been through this together, you know, it does feel like a kind of glue. And there’s something about that that does make you feel, you know, very, very committed to someone.
GROSS: So let’s hear “We Walk The Same Line” from the Everything But The Girl album “Amplified Heart.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “WE WALK THE SAME LINE”)
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: Singing) If you lose your faith, babe, you can have mine. And if you’re lost, I’m right behind ’cause we walk the same line. Now, I don’t have to tell you how slow the night can go. I know you’ve watched for the light. And I bet you could tell me how slowly four follows three. And you’re most forlorn just before dawn. And so if you lose your faith, babe, you can have mine. And if you’re lost, I’m right behind ’cause we walk the same line. When it’s dark, baby, there’s a light out shining. And if you’re lost, I’m right behind ’cause we walk the same line. And I don’t need…
GROSS: That’s Tracey Thorn’s song “We Walk The Same Line” from the Everything But The Girl album “Amplified Heart.” Everything But The Girl was together from 1982 to 2000. Now Tracey Thorn records solo albums, and her new one is called “Record.” We’ll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL SONG, “BEFORE TODAY”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you’re just joining us, my guest is Tracey Thorn – singer, songwriter, formerly half of the group Everything But The Girl and now a solo artist. She’s British and also writes a column for the political magazine the New Statesman in England.
I want to ask you about the album cover for “Amplified Heart.” It looks like you and Ben are either getting dressed after sex or getting undressed before sex. Like, your T-shirt is hiked up. Your belt is unbuckled. Ben is shirtless in the background. What is that album cover about?
THORN: Oh, it’s interesting ’cause I look back at the album cover and I think – whoa, we look so skinny.
GROSS: You do (laughter), both of you.
THORN: We both – yeah, we really do. But, you know, that was post illness. He’d lost all that weight because of being sick, and I’d lost all that weight because of not eating for months because of being in this terrible state of anxiety. And, you know, we’re partly indulging in the extremity of, I think, what had happened and what we’d suddenly found our bodies looking like. And, you know, there’s something quite rock ‘n’ roll about that in a way, you know, exposing that degree of extremity. Look at my ravaged body. Look – you know, there’s something almost sexy about it. It’s interesting that you say it does give off that vibe. But, you know, it is quite edgy.
It’s very much of the times. It’s a very early-, mid-’90s photo. You know, people like Corinne Day and Juergen Teller were taking those sort of photos of Kate Moss for Vogue where everything was a little bit grungy looking, you know, very skinny models with cigarettes. And I do think the imagery on the front of the album does buy into that a bit. And because we just happened to look like that at that moment because what had just happened to us, I think we just thought, oh, let’s just go for it. Let’s show what we look like.
GROSS: So I love your deep voice. And you’ve said that you didn’t initially think of yourself as a singer but when you did start singing that you wanted to sing like Patti Smith or Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees. But you started singing that way on stage and then just kind of lost your voice. So what did you do instead?
THORN: I think for a while then, I had to try and work out a way of coming up with a voice that was my own, that I could, you know, have some control over. That took me quite a while. I think for a long time, I was a much better studio singer than I was live singer because, again, I could sort of sing as quietly as I needed to.
And often what people say about my voice is, you know, it’s very intimate, it’s very direct – sounds like I’m singing right into your ear. And that’s because a lot of the studio singing I did, especially in the early days, is sung like that. It’s very whispered-into-the-microphone kind of singing. What I then had to learn was how to convey the songs onstage where, inevitably, you have to project a bit more. You know, I had to build up a bit more strength and stamina. So I tried having some singing lessons for a while. I learned how to do breathing exercises, you know. And I just had to gradually build up a voice that was my own and, you know, which could serve the functions it needed to.
GROSS: So you had a singing teacher for a while who’d worked with a lot of stars, including Johnny Rotten, Ozzy Osbourne, Linda McCartney, Seal, Joe Strummer – some of these things obviously happened after (laughter) you studied with her. But she wanted you to sing higher, in more of a head voice than a chest voice. How did you like it up there in the higher range?
THORN: Not at all, not at all. And I think I completely ignored that piece of advice from her. I didn’t have very many lessons to be honest. And I found bits of it helpful. I found some of it helpful as sort of warm-up exercises. But then when it came to actually singing my songs, I would go back to singing in the voice that seemed like mine.
GROSS: So when you – did you tell your singing teacher that you wanted to sing in your chest voice, in your deeper voice as opposed to the head voice? And what did she have to say about that?
THORN: (Laughter) I don’t think she was very tolerant, really, of pop singers wanting to sing in their disastrous pop voices. I mean, most pop singers sing all wrong. And, you know, we do all these things. And, you know, most pop singing is about having a distinctive voice and using it in a distinctive way which technically might be completely incorrect. When you go to a singing teacher, they’re usually trying to correct those things. And what you then come up against is that anxiety of, when am I going to lose the thing that makes me distinctive? If I start trying to sing properly, do I just turn into, you know, not a very good proper singer?
GROSS: You know, you’ve written that your voice got deeper because of menopause, and I think it’s great that you wrote about that because I think a lot of women are uncomfortable acknowledging the existence of menopause. It’s personal, and it’s also a sign of age.
THORN: Yes, no. I think that’s right and especially in music, obviously, which, you know, there’s still a lot of pressure to, you know, maintain an image of youthfulness. So as soon as you bring the word menopausal in…
GROSS: And sexiness.
THORN: And sexiness – and so soon as you bring the word menopausal into the room, I think a lot of younger men, especially, might run screaming. And so that’s a risk I’m prepared to take.
GROSS: My guest is Tracey Thorn. Her new album is called “Record.” We’ll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF BROKE FOR FREE’S “FEEL GOOD (INSTRUMENTAL)”)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Tracey Thorn. She co-founded the band Everything But The Girl with her then-boyfriend, now-husband Ben Watt. Now she records solo albums. Her new album is called “Record.”
So I want to play another song from your new album. This is called “Smoke.” It’s a kind of political song. It’s a song about your love of England, about your parents and grandparents growing up in England. And you say, London, you’re in my blood, but I feel you going wrong. So is this a song about Brexit?
THORN: Maybe partly but it’s also just what’s happening to lots of cities. You know, the same thing’s happening to London as is happening to New York – you know, that hollowing out of a city. I talk in the song about the fact that I – my family had lived in London for a couple of hundred years before I was born. And then my parent’s generation moved out to the suburbs after the war because London was largely a bomb site. And so I grew up in the suburbs.
But I grew up desperate to get back to London. And London for me represented everything that a big city represents – you know, freedom, diversity, a place where people are creative and live cheek by jowl. And it’s exciting and all that stuff. And that was why I was desperate to get back to London. And that’s my worry about the way in which it’s changing now. You know, if it becomes a place that’s only inhabitable by the super rich, then all that is lost. And, you know, I think that’s very worrying. And it’s true of other cities obviously. But for me, you know, I have very emotional feelings about London. So that’s what made me write that.
GROSS: In the song, you talk a little bit about your mother experiencing the Blitz in London during World War II and how a friend of a friend was blown to bits. Did you grow up with a lot of war stories?
THORN: I did but in the way that I was never really made to take them that seriously. I don’t know whether it was a generational thing or a thing about being British. But both my parents had been in London during the Blitz. And they both told stories to us as though it was something out of kind of, you know, a war film that was semi-comic. So you know, my dad had a story about being blown out of bed – literally being blown out of bed. But he made it comic. You know, he – there was me and my brother, and next thing we knew we found ourselves on the floor. So I grew up with the stories told in that tone of voice.
And it really wasn’t until I got quite a lot older – you know, perhaps old enough to start empathizing with my parents as people who had a past and who’d, you know, been young once and, you know, beginning to wonder what their experiences were actually like. And then I began to think, OK, my parents did actually have the experience of being in their bed and, you know, a bomb being dropped near enough to be blown out of your bed. So that makes me look at it in a different light now.
GROSS: All right, well, let’s hear the song “Smoke” from Tracey Thorn’s new album “Record.” Tracey Thorn, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much.
THORN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SMOKE”)
THORN: (Singing) In good time, they had a son called James, who had a son called James. Were there no other names? The first world war and the second one came. The second one came. The second one came. My mother now was a teenage girl. She survived the Blitz. She survived the Blitz though she knew a girl who knew a girl who was blown to bits, who was blown to bits. London, you’re in my blood, and you’ve been there for so long. London, you’re in my blood, but I feel you going wrong.
And so my parents fled the smoke. Some ancient feel for green awoke. But I looked down the railway line back to the city that felt like mine, where no one cared what clothes you wore or who you loved, what books you bought, where you were born, what God you loved. Or so I thought. Or so I thought. London, you’re in my blood, and you’ve been there for so long. London, you’re in my blood, but I feel you going wrong.
BIANCULLI: That’s the song “Smoke” from Tracey Thorn’s latest “Record,” which tops our rock critic Ken Tucker’s list of best albums of 2018. Terry Gross spoke to Tracey Thorn last May. We’ll end with another favorite from our archives when Loudon Wainwright III brought his guitar to the FRESH AIR studio. We listened back to some of our Loudon interviews last week on the occasion of his outstanding new TV special on Netflix, a one-man stage show called “Surviving Twin.” But we didn’t have time to hear this from a 1992 interview. Let’s hear it now.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Something I sometimes like to do when a songwriter is in the studio with us – and that is I’d like to ask you to play an excerpt of a song that you didn’t write but that you really love – not a new song but a song from the past or your past. What would you want to do?
LOUDON WAINWRIGHT III: How about this one (playing guitar). You know what it is right away – don’t you? – from that lick.
(Singing) I’ve got sunshine on a cloudy day. When it’s cold outside, I’ve got the month of May. I guess you’d say, what can make me feel this way? It’s my girl. I’m talking about my girl. I’ve got so much honey. The bees all envy me. Yeah, I’ve got a sweeter song than the birds in the trees. I guess you’re going to say, what can make me feel this way? It’s my girl. I’m talking about my girl. Hey, hey, hey.
I could go on and on and on.
GROSS: Well, that’s wonderful.
BIANCULLI: Loudon Wainwright III recorded in the FRESH AIR studios in 1992. His new Netflix special is called “Surviving Twin.”
(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN BATISTE’S “KINDERGARTEN”)
BIANCULLI: On the next FRESH AIR, we continue our holiday series of favorite interviews of the year with Jon Batiste, the leader of Stay Human, the house band of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” He’s an extraordinary pianist and will be at the piano for our interview. His latest album draws on his influences, from to Boogie-woogie, Thelonious Monk and classical music. Join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN BATISTE’S “KINDERGARTEN”)
BIANCULLI: Fresh AIR’s executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our engineer this week is Adam Staniszewski. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today’s show. For Terry Gross, I’m David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF JONATHAN BATISTE’S “KINDERGARTEN”)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.