Music Interviews

Interview: Tracey Thorn

Rather appropriately, Tracey Thorn is in the middle of decorating her Christmas tree when we come to call. It is tempting to think she would be doing this to the accompaniment of her winter album’ Tinsel And Lights, released this year on her husband Ben Watt’s Strange Feeling label. As it turns out though, the tree decorations are on hold. “We’ve had one disaster already where we put the lights on, plugged them in and they haven’t worked, so we’re trying to sort that out at the moment.”

She doesn’t sound too concerned, though – and indeed cuts a relaxed presence throughout our interview, which begins by discussing her intentions with Tinsel And Lights. “I was trying to make a record that could stand in its own right, as opposed to something you could only bear to listen to for two weeks of the year. When we were recording it I was trying to vary it a little bit, and stretch the limits of what you’re allowed to do on a Christmas record.”

Was it something she has always wanted to do? “For a little while. A few years ago I might have thought it was a bit weird, but then recently some more interesting people have done Christmas records, and rediscovered what is meant by a Christmas album. I think maybe it had gone out of fashion for a while, and it got stuck in the hands of people who weren’t doing it justice. There’s been some good ones though, and it struck with me that there is something about Christmas records, they do have a particular significance, and they become vivid in your memory. You remember hearing them at this time of year, and everything is slightly heightened at Christmas as well, so when you do hear a song you like there is a vividness to it. I thought I would like to join in with that, and have something out there this time of year.”

She goes on to detail the selection process for songs old and new; the album includes covers of songs by The White Stripes, Ron Sexsmith, Randy Newman, Joni Mitchell, Sufjan Stevens, Low and Scritti Politti, plus two originals. “I started out making a list that had all the traditional Christmas songs on, and then I looked at it and I thought this record must have been made a hundred times, so I thought I’d stretch it a bit and start listing songs that mention winter, or snow, or even songs that just talk about it being cold! Then it was about making the record varied. The White Stripes song, In The Cold Cold Night, was for musical variety more than anything, it barely qualifies by mentioning it being cold. I thought it would add a different counterpoint to some of the more melancholic songs, and add a different atmosphere to it. It was fun just working through the list, like making a jigsaw and trying to get the pieces to fit.”

Perhaps the most prominent song on the album is a self-penned opus, Joy. “In a way that was the starting point for the whole thing,” she details. “Although I’ve been thinking of making a Christmas album for a couple of years, I thought I really do want to write at least one new song for it, to have something new to hang it on. I actually wrote that one last Christmas, when I was right in the mood for it, and the whole idea of what Christmas meant to me and the significance it had came into my head. Once I had written that song I thought, ‘right, now I can do it, because I can hang the other things around it’. I think this is why I’ve written a Christmas song, because we need Christmas. There’s lots of crap happening in life, and we love this time of year when you get to celebrate, and put up lights and stuff. So that really kickstarted it, and we started recording the rest of the record in the New Year, to get it ready in time for this Christmas.”

The gestation period took her by surprise. “I thought it would be great because I could do it leading up to Christmas, but the American label putting it out said they needed it delivered by July. That meant we needed to record it over spring and summer, so that was quite weird.” Was it difficult capturing the Christmas spirit when it’s warm outside? “Yeah, you have to fake it a little bit, and get yourself into a Christmassy frame of mind. Sometimes things that seem appropriate when it actually is Christmas seem desperately cheesy when it isn’t, so in some ways maybe it’s more subtle a record than it might have been if I had recorded it in December.”

What, then, makes a good Christmas song? She muses for a little while. “I think there can be lots of different kinds of Christmas records. I’m a sucker for them. I don’t have a great distinction in my mind of what people might call good’ Christmas records, and other records that are cheesy and therefore loathsome. I think there is something about Christmas where the rules do change, and you need music for different occasions, songs that you can have on at a party, or some that remind you of when you were a kid, and some songs that Granddad likes, and some that are good for when you’re shopping; I just think they all have their place. Some people have been interviewing me and saying, ‘I’m glad you’ve made a quality Christmas record’, and I think that’s great, but I didn’t make it to try and prove that Wizzard are rubbish or something.”

“I don’t have to defend not going on tour or being on telly!” – Tracey Thorn

So which Christmas songs does Tracey herself go for? “Like everyone else I think Fairytale Of New York by The Pogues and Kirsty MacColl is one of the best Christmas records ever made. It’s not an original choice, but I do think it is just genuinely gorgeous in every way; it’s very hard to beat it. It’s hard to come up with something that appeals across the board like that song, to so many different people. I’m a massive fan of Last Christmas by Wham!, too; I absolutely love that, and I would have loved to do that on this record but I just couldn’t quite think of how to do it.” Presumably it would have fitted her range? “I think it would. Actually, I’m still thinking of a way I could do that for next year! I love that song, and it’s hard to think of a way you could beat the original recording. I’ve got a real soft spot for it.”

Thorn plans a refreshingly normal celebration this Christmas. “I’m not doing anything particularly unusual,” she says. “We’re at home with the kids, and a friend, and on Boxing Day we’re getting together with all my family.” Being a parent has reinvented Christmas for her. “It has, because it throws you in to a different role where you’ve been used to being the child, you’re home at Christmas and if you’re lucky your parents do it all, and you have the experience of stepping back and being the child again. Once you have your own kids you’re really aware that you’ve become the parent, and the grown-up, and you’re the one who makes it happen! You’ve got to remember to buy the stockings and treats and get all the decorations up, and it is good because you enjoy it again through their eyes. From that point on you do experience it in a different way, because you’re the one making it happen.”

These things and more are likely to be down in print next year, for Thorn is on the brink of releasing her autobiography. “I’ve got a book coming out in February next year, so I’ll be promoting and doing things for that. It’s a music memoir, so it tells the story of me getting into bands, and of course Everything But The Girl.” There remains a lot of affection for the duo, particularly with the recent reissue of their first four albums. “It has been really nice actually,” she admits. “It’s weird when you’ve been around for a long time, because you do slip into that thing where some of the time you feel like you’ve been forgotten, but when you do something like putting the reissues out you realise there is quite a lot of residual affection out there, and we’ve past the point now where people feel they need to make critical comment about us, because the records were made a long time ago, and people have decided whether or not they like them. In a way people enjoy them without feeling they have to analyse them and work out where they sit. They just become themselves, and it’s rather nice.”

The current balance, with her husband and ex-EBTG band mate Ben Watt, is that he works on material with the Buzzin Fly and Strange Feeling labels. This means Thorn has a greater independence musically. “We both find that it works better,” she says. “After all this time, if you’re living together and working together as a group, people would always say to us ‘was it difficult’. To be honest it was difficult some of the time, and I think we were quite lucky to make it work for as long as we did. There does come a time in life when you just don’t want to be spending every single minute of the day together, and so it can become a bit claustrophobic. In many ways it is better now, because we’ve got independent things that we do within work, and then we come together and have our family life together. It means you’ve got stuff to talk about at the end of the day, because you haven’t done every single thing together. It is easier.”

Thorn’s deal with EMI, which saw her complete the well received Into The Woods album in 2007, is long gone. “That came to an end, that deal, and I decided that given I’m not touring any more, and I’m not trying to compete at a mainstream level, that it didn’t make any sense to be on a major label. They’re great for when that is what you’re trying to do, and they have the machinery in place to help you achieve that, but when you’re not trying that it’s like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, and you find you’re constantly saying no to things. The last two records have come out on Ben’s label, and that’s the level I want to be at, and I don’t have to defend not going on tour or being on telly.”

It is a sound musical arrangement, too. “I don’t feel under any time pressure, so there’s no sense that I have to have an album out every 18 months, and it feels like I make use of Ben’s label, so as and when I feel like making something the label is there to put it out.” Does she write much at the moment? “The kids are getting older, so there is a bit more time. There are plenty of hours in the day, so it’s just a question of sometimes finding enough time to carve out a sense of separation from family life, because it can be quite all-consuming. Even though there might be a couple of hours it’s not always enough to get a sense of separation, so sometimes I have to take myself off. You have to be a bit selfish to be able to write, to be able to get away from it all without having to wonder about what somebody wants to eat or anything.”

As for the memoir, writing a book rather than a song was an enlightening experience for her. “I really enjoyed it. It reminded me more of being at university and writing essays, where you’ve obviously got to be more expansive than when you’re writing songs, where it’s all about economy and getting things down in as few words as possible. I enjoy that thing about gathering your own material, and making sense of it all, getting things in the right order to make it coherent. It was a bit of mental discipline. I got it to the stage where I thought it was finished and was more confident with it, and then I found an agent and sent it to her, she made a few suggestions that I agreed with, and then sent it to the publisher who liked it just as it was.”

Tracey Thorns album Tinsel And Lights is out now on Strange Feeling. Her advent calendar contains insights into the album as well as free downloads.

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Interview: Tracey Thorn
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