(Photo by Edward Bishop)
IF WE WERE TO TAKE as a starting point that Everything But The Girl is defined by a number of things, one of which, maybe most of which, is Thorn’s creamily rich voice, does that mean that they – Thorn and partner, Ben Watt – can’t, shouldn’t, do anything with that voice?
The new Everything But The Girl album, Fuse, their first in 24 years, doesn’t merely raise that question, it steps up into our faces and challenges us to answer it. There is an element of transgression on the album as Thorn’s voice is sometimes manipulated (the blended vocals in Interior Space), sometimes messed with (When You Mess Up), and on a very simple level, deeper than it used to be.
You might see it not so much a “fuck you” to people who have come for her voice how they remember it from EBTG records and her solo work, but an “isn’t it fun what we can do?” entertainment.
“Yes, totally that,” says Watt. “It’s like we’re saying, there is this as well.”
In their excitement at the concepts this question brings up, Watt and Thorn speak over and into each other, the ideas interchangeable or extensions so that it’s almost irrelevant who is saying what.
“We’re saying ‘we’ve heard Tracy’s voice untouched, a million million times. They are all there on record, you can go and listen to them any time you like …”
“There are parts when it’s untouched on this record.”
“Yeah, yeah. Lots. But some of the things we were doing, just hearing them back …”
“When Ben first did that to my voice on When You Mess Up, and I heard it back, I was just like, okay that is so fun, just hearing my voice go mad for a minute. And Interior Space, when it comes in, that’s me but like completely put through some pitchblender and you can’t even tell. And then I kind of emerge sounding more like myself again.”
“Yes, it was totally to do with using the voice as another instrument, another part of the palette. And yes, just to have fun with it.”
“And also to dramatise the lyrics.”
“Which is the way I was working. Particularly on When You Mess Up where it is your interior voices speaking to yourself: it’s a kind of psychological dialogue with the inside of your own head, so I thought let’s dramatise those voices, let’s make the devilish ones more devilish. And on Interior Space, you’re kind of sucked into this kind of dark interior world, I sucked Tracey’s voice down into this muddy, woozy, dreamy kind of sound as the song starts. Like you were waking out of a sleep.”
“So those were the sort of things that were going through my mind when I was putting it together.”
One of the really attractive elements of the album, one of the exciting elements of it as well, is how we can go from the centrality of the voice in When You Mess Up to a track like No One Knows We’re Dancing where space contracts. There is much more flexibility in the sound and balance than people might have been expecting if they have as picture of what this band is in their heads.
“I think that range of different sounds and approaches came out of the spirit that we started the record in really,” says Thorn. “That was we’re not really sure what we’re doing, we don’t know whether we are really making an Everything But The Girl record, we just want to make some music together. And in order to make that happen without it being high pressured, we’re just going to be really open-minded and a bit playful and just try things and see what works.”
Rather than worry about the very notion of a “comeback” or how what they were doing now might relate to Temperamental and Walking Wounded – the two albums which preceded the long break, increasingly dancefloor-focused and club-influenced records which were EBTG’s best-selling ever – they worked in relative isolation and with a different spirit altogether.
“The first couple of things we started with were tracks which are a little bit more ambient, a bit more downbeat. Then we had two or three tracks for a while which we worked on for a bit that just didn’t work, that we threw out, and I think we began to become a bit more confident with what we were doing, a bit more excited about the idea of it being an Everything But The Girl record,” says Thorn. “So more beats crept in, the pace sort of picked up.
“But that didn’t make us feel ‘maybe now we are making a dance record, let’s lose these strange little ambient tracks’; I think we thought this is becoming really interesting, we are moving through all sorts of territories and it all feels representative of who we are right now, the range of things we listen to, the range of ideas we have.”
Watt chimes in. “I think another key to it was we lost a kind of reverence towards the idea of Everything But The Girl. I wondered if that came a little bit from my years of remixing."
“The remixer is very irreverent. They get an original and they think, oh what’s the one good thing on here because I’m gonna replace them all with nine other, better things,” he says as Thorn laughs. “I think that slightly guerrilla tactic approach was quite useful when it came to this record because there were no things we felt we ought to do. We were prepared to try anything, and I think that gave us a sort of freedom. A word I’ve used a lot recently, an unencumbered approach to work.”
It’s almost perverse for anybody who has been an Everything But The Girl fan from their Night And Day debut single and the bossa nova-influenced first album, Eden, or who may have arrived in the jangling guitar pop of Love Not Money or at the sweeping strings of Baby The Stars Shine Bright, or fallen for their acoustic covers of Springsteen, Costello and Waits, to have some fixed point, a reverence even for one idea of the band.
If you have, you must not have been paying attention. Nonetheless, Watt and Thorn know that reverence exists.
“Yes, but people have a reverence for all sorts of different things,” says Thorn. “Sometimes it’s their own take on what they think we are, the record they heard at an important time in their life has become for them the template for what we are. I see it sometimes in comments on social media or stuff that people respond to ‘god, this is EXACTLY what I love from Everything But The Girl’ or ‘I’m loving this more because it’s more like that’. And you just think, it’s really important to not have all that in your head when you’re working, which I think is what Ben’s saying.”
“I think there’s also a preference in our fans for perhaps our exploratory nature,” says Watt. “That we are prepared to take risks, to change production ideas. Over the years I’ve received so many messages from people who have said, as far back as North Marine Drive [his pre-EBTG solo album], young guys growing up who said I’d never heard bossa nova; I’d never heard Peter King play alto saxophone; I’d never heard music like this.
“You just think, you are opening people up to ideas, you just have to have the confidence to keep exploring. You have a kind of signature sound and style that people can latch on to, given that you can step out into the musical world. Why wouldn’t you want to?”
TOMORROW: In the concluding part of this interview, Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn talk tech and architecture and adventure. “We think we have really been stretching ourselves and experimenting.”
BACK FOR …NOW: Read part one of this interview here.
ALL ROUTES OPEN: Read part three of this interview here.
Fuse is out Friday, April 21