Pic by Edward Bishop
This interview, fresh and tasty from but days ago, completes a week dedicated to the former Everything But The Girl and Marine Girls member, author and columnist – begun with a review of her new album HERE, and featuring an appearance in Wind Back Wednesday from a chat in 2007 HERE. Best of times? Worst of times. Whatever they are, the times may suit me says Tracey Thorn,.
If you’re going to release an album of what you call “feminist bangers” - songs about being a woman then, now and into the future, many of which might induce some feet and hip movement - 2018 seems the perfect time.
Whether it’s #metoo undermining/terrifying patriarchies everywhere, female students in Florida leading the charge to gun reform, or a smart and capable New Zealand prime minister who befuddles an old man journalist by being a smart and capable woman at the same time as stirring his aged loins, this is a moment of some clarity for the world.
But it didn’t seem that obvious or even on the horizon when Tracey Thorn was beginning work on Record (reviewed HERE), her fifth solo album, the first in seven years, the fourth since she ended almost a decade’s absence after Everything But The Girl went on indefinite leave, with 2007’s Out Of The Woods, an album which was itself 25 years after her first solo album, A Distant Shore.
Feeling “depressed and downhearted about the state of the world”, and wondering what really could be done about it with a Trump in the White House and fascism rising everywhere, Thorn was anything but upbeat. Bangers were not in this mash.
But rise up to the insistent electro-pop feel of Queen, unburden your mood in Dancefloor, or listen to the tough sentiments in the expansive groove of Record’s centrepiece, Sister, with its strong sense of ‘don’t fuck with me because I am not alone’, and the mood is anything but defeatist.
“I wrote [Sister] after going on the Women’s March in London last year. I came home from that with the really strong feeling of ‘I’m not alone’, which is the greatest strength for people to have,” says Thorn.
“When you see people being elected to positions of power who seem to be the opposite of progress and you see your values being crushed, you can feel very alone and you start to think have I gone mad here, is everyone in the world cool with this? Then to see huge crowds of people all out on the street, waving banners, shouting slogans, you think, no I haven’t gone mad; this is just one of those classic moments in politics where for the time being these people are in the ascendancy but you have to keep pushing back against it …you just have to push back until you are making progress again.”
She takes comfort from the fact that for the generation after her/us one of the positives of social media is that it is possible to feel connections with other people, in your city or all around the world, and understand this isn’t being done alone or in isolation.
And of course that this has happened before: the past is not another country. It’s something that comes up as Thorn and I divert into a shared passion, The Fabulous Mrs Maisel, a sitcom on streaming service Amazon Prime which is set in the late 1950s as an uptown Jewish woman becomes a stand-up comedian in downtown New York.
Describing it recently Thorn wrote that it “effortlessly combines a love of lipstick with a love of Lenny Bruce, bundling you into a cab where you hurtle from the Upper East Side to Greenwich Village and back again. Sheer joy.”
As with Thorn’s album, the show packages some pointed commentary about women’s place then and now, and what we think acceptable for a woman to say/do, in highly entertaining form, with some great music, and a positive spin.
“Actually, it was quite a strong motivation for me when I thought I wanted to make a record. I feel really clear that I wanted to make a record that was ultimately very positive, very upbeat, that would be fun to make and not totally soul-searching, introspective songs,” says Thorn.
“Just the experience of making it even would feel like a positive, uplifting thing to do [as] part of making the record was to fire myself back up again and think writing songs is what you do and being creative always feels like a push back against negative forces.”
The reference to “not totally soul-searching introspective songs” - like a comment she made to me a decade ago that people expected her to “go out and knit a folk album” after EBTG had ended its 20-year run on a surprising high that saw them switch from pop/rock and mellow turns to club-based dance music - ties in with some of the early reactions to the dance elements on Record.
It’s almost as if it’s something out of the ordinary, but even on her 2007 return, Out Of The Woods, that mix of electronic and acoustic, dance and pop existed. The music is as varied as the audience really.
“There are some people who have been around right from the beginning, who like the Marine Girls and Distant Shore and very early Everything But The Girl and maybe in their hearts they like it when I’m performing solo with a semi-acoustic guitar or something,” says Thorn.
“And then there’s a whole other generation who only really heard of me in the 90s when [EBTG hit] Missing was out there, when I worked with Massive Attack, and they instinctively think of me as someone whose voice exists over an electronic backing, and they feel more comfortable with that. But yes, it is all a part of what I do and what I have done for quite a long time now.”
Much the same can be said of the realisation that Thorn is addressing issues of sexual dynamics and feminism (or, you know, everyday life). Those have been in her songs from Marine Girls, through EBTG tracks such as Ugly Little Dreams (about the appalling treatment of Hollywood refusenik Frances Farmer) and on to the questions of marriage/children/divorces in more recent solo albums. You might call it core Thorn territory.
“It is, very much. I’ve tended to write about these subjects often in quite a subtle way. I’ve never written sloganeering kinds of songs, or songs where the title literally lays it out for you what this is about. Sometimes you had to do a bit of digging to work out what the song is about. And I think that’s still true now. But as we know, [subtlety] doesn’t always get recognised.
“And maybe there is that weird coincidence that in the time since I recorded this record … lots of people are talking about feminism and having conversations about women’s lives and women’s experiences in the workplace. So maybe more people are a bit more alert. For me, it’s a continuation of the kind of subject matter been trying to get into pop music for a long time.”
And it doesn’t require you have double x chromosomes to understand it either. A song such as Air, describing a life lived as an alternative to succumbing to crushing weights of sexism, poverty or loneliness, or getting past those to a better stage of life, is universal.
“For me the song Is very much a song about getting older and looking back at the times in your life with a different perspective. Realising that you’ve reached a point where you are free of some of those concerns, literally by having grown away from them.
“I suspect that for a lot of teenage girls, those experiences are still the same in many areas. I’m sure the pressure on girls to conform to ideals of feminine beauty don’t seem to go away and at the moment they seem pretty strong. I’m talking about the kind of relief that many women feel when they realise they’ve actually outgrown those pressures, and a kind of confidence and a defiance comes to you in later life because you are liberated from a lot of those pressures.”
No fucks given as she has put it. Not just redefining what strength is, or what matters, but who gets to decide that.
“That’s the struggle of life are most people isn’t it, in the face of the world trying to put you in certain boxes and constrain you? As you say, that’s a human struggle, not just a woman struggle.”
Record is out now through Caroline.