“Nine feminist bangers” is how Tracey Thorn has described the contents of her latest solo album, Record. But then, Thorn’s songs have been feminist all along: “This is pretty much me doing that thing I do,” she admitted on the phone with me on Thursday.
Granted, they haven’t always been bangers—her work in Everything but the Girl (alongside the life partner she eventually married, Ben Watt) was largely sleepy indie pop until New York house music legend Todd Terry’s remix turned their song “Missing” into a global anthem. Thorn’s solo work has dipped in and out of the electronic basis that defined the last two Everything but the Girl albums (1996's Walking Wounded and 1999's Temperamental), but Record is wall-to-wall synth and infectiously rhythmic. Sonic references to the kind of ’80s music Thorn wasn’t making in the ’80s abound (first single “Queen” conjures New Order), and the record’s centerpiece is the nine-minute mid-tempo disco empowerment number “Sister.”
Thorn’s wit has never been as blunt as on Record, with its one-word song titles and generally brief running times. She tells stories about the woman she is and the girl she was before. Songs about babies, growing children. Songs about the boy who taught her to play guitar, about the boys who rejected her when she was younger. It’s no coincidence that Record, which Thorn began work on in 2016, arrives during a moment in which mainstream pop culture is particularly focused on social justice. “I think we’re all responding to the same set of circumstances and those circumstances led to the writing of a lot of these songs, especially the directness of a lot of these songs,” she said.
Now 55, Thorn hasn’t released a non-holiday full-length since 2010's Love and Its Opposite, but she’s kept plenty busy nonetheless, releasing two books and writing a column for the New Statesman. We discussed aging, stepping back from the pop-music grind, and the matter-of-factly political nature of her work in our phone conversation. An edited and condensed transcript of that chat is below.
JEZEBEL: When you write a record like this, how much do you think about this being a good thing to put into the world versus pure personal expression?
TRACEY THORN: I definitely thought about [the former]. I wanted to make something specifically to contribute positive to the world at this particular moment, because like a lot of people I was feeling oppressed by the news and depressed by things happening and I just thought, “Well, I can sit around and join arguments on Twitter and get downhearted about it, or I could make something,” which whilst of course I acknowledge won’t change the world, at least I can feel is adding to the weight of material that’s progressive and trying to move things on. You can’t always just sit around moaning about women being underrepresented in the arts or their voices not being heard unless you keep pushing for your own voice to be heard.
Can you put your finger on why it took eight years between Love and Its Opposite and Record?
I think it’s because I don’t really consider myself anymore to be someone who’s in the pop marketplace and on that circuit where you’re working to a schedule, where ideally you get a record out every two to three years and then you’re doing promotional work. I sort of stepped outside that. At any one moment, I’m pursuing whatever seems interesting or if I’ve asked to do something like collaborating. I’m just looking around all the time for opportunities to do something that seems interesting. I had the feeling, “I haven’t made an album for a while, so let’s see if that feels fresh again.”
Is it liberating to step out of the pop circuit?
Very. It’s a great place to be when you’re younger. I thoroughly enjoyed it for years. Ben and I were very motivated and full of ideas and couldn’t wait to get onto the next record a lot of the time. There’s a time and place when it’s great, but I think probably like most artists who end up with a long career, you have to have breaks. You have to refresh. I think you have to give your audience a break from you. No one can take an album every two years from even someone they like forever and ever. It’s just sensible, I think.
Speaking of liberation, in the press notes for Record, you’re quoted as saying, “If 2010’s Love and Its Opposite was my mid-life album—full of divorce and hormones—then this album represents that sense of liberation that comes in the aftermath, from embarking on a whole new “no fucks given’ phase of life.” I wonder if anything else led to the attainment of that liberation.
It’s just getting older, I think. It’s maybe even partly a physical thing. I think there’s something for women in going through menopause that marks a very distinct change into the next phase of life, and in a way there’s a loss to that, but it’s very much a sense of entering into a new phase. And I have found that liberating. I’ve kind of reached a point where I’m not that concerned by what other people might think I should be doing. That’s very empowering. I can’t be manipulated anymore. No one has any bargaining chips against me. There isn’t really anything I’m desperate to achieve where people can say, “If you don’t do this, you won’t get that.” I think, “Well, I’ve done the pop success bit so now I’m really just doing what I want to do.”
Do you at all concern yourself with pop’s reputation for ageism?
I’m completely sanguine about it, and I completely accept it. We might call it ageism, but on the other hand, I also think that young people especially want to hear music that’s being made by their peer group. That seems, to me, a valid point. I think I’m still making really good music and I’m really glad there are people out there who want to listen to it. But that doesn’t mean I think I have some kind of divine right to be heard by 18-year-olds forever. I’m 55 for God’s sake! The things I have to say are not necessarily always that relevant to them and that seems, to me, fair. I don’t sit and complain about it.
It strikes me that Record is not merely feminist; it’s feminist music by a 55-year-old. Your station in life is as crucial as the record’s more overt politics.
Yeah, I think that is important. In some of the songs especially where I’m looking back at events from my younger life, I am looking at them from the perspective of a 55-year-old woman, which sometimes means I now have greater strength and control over the situation. So when I’m telling the story in “Air” for instance [“And I liked the boys/The boys the boys the boys, all of the boys/But they liked/The girly girly girly girly girls/And looked straight through me...”] it’s from the point of view where I’ve completely shaken that off by now so I can end the song by singing “I don’t care/I’m as free as air.” And in “Guitar,” I’m looking back with the wisdom of the years that can tell me, okay, the point of that story, that episode in your life, was the guitar. The boy was completely incidental [“Though we kissed and kissed and kissed/You were nothing but a catalyst”], the guitar was the key element in the story.
And those are just interesting stories, I think. For me a lot of the feminism is an assertion that women have equal experiences and that their experiences are equally valid and equally universal. I don’t ever want to imply that I’m writing about a viewpoint or set of experiences that is so narrow they couldn’t be understood by women. I think what a lot of women writers are trying to do is say, “Look, we just need these experiences to be recognized as universal, the same way that men’s accounts of their lives often are interpreted as universal.”
I think part of what makes this album poignant is that it’s a showcase for how your voice has changed over the years.
My voice has gotten deeper and I wanted to make use of that this time. When I began to notice it, I pitched a couple of the songs down lower really to exploit that. That’s a musical decision as much as anything. You’re always trying to sound a bit different, to come up with something that’s sonically interesting. But yeah, I like that. Some people might think, “Oh no, my voice is changing, it’s a sign of getting older!” But I thought, “Hey, this is interesting. I sound a bit different. That’s good!”
In the chorus of “Sister,” you sing, “I fight like a girl.” What does that mean to you?
I think it’s just one of those classic [instances of] re-appropriating a phrase that’s been used negatively and turning it back in the face of people who might use it negatively. I saw women carrying that banner at the Women’s March last year. When you see a bunch of pink-haired teenagers in [Doc Martens] boots striding along carrying a banner that says, “I fight like a girl,” you think, “That’s got a lot of power and a lot of defiance.” I refuse to accept that being a girl is weak. I refuse to accept that fighting like a girl is anything less. At that point, I thought, “That’s a great hook for a song—I need to write that.”
When you sing, “Oh what year is it/Still arguing the same shit,” is your apparent frustration a product of the lack of resolution or the conversation itself?
That’s the frustrating side of getting older: when you see things coming around again that you thought you’d been through once already. As we all know, feminism goes through these waves where you seem to make progress and then there’s a backlash, and another wave comes along and another backlash. Sometimes, especially being the age I am now, it is incredibly boring just to feel that you’re still actually having to defend ground you thought you’d won a long time ago. That’s the boring side of it, when you think we could all be getting along with more productive stuff if we didn’t have to waste time having these same old arguments. But as long as we do still have to be having them, on we go. So be it. We’ll have to have them.
It’s really audacious that you start “Babies” [“I didn’t want my babies until I wanted babies/And when I wanted babies nothing else would do but babies, babies, babies”] talking about birth control.
I didn’t think I’d heard that song before. The opening two lines just came into my head out of nowhere with the tune and everything [“Every morning of the month you push a little tablet through the foil/Cleverest of all inventions better than a condom or a coil”]. I just heard myself singing it. I thought, “Okay, I have to finish that song, because I’ve never heard anyone write that song. I think it’ll make people laugh and I think it’ll make people identify with it.”
I think it’s part of the process in thinking rationally about reproductive rights to keep more than one thing in your head at the same time. You can love babies and still believe in birth control or a woman’s right to abortion.
I think most women would agree that the whole point of being a mother and being a good mother, if you like, is the freedom to choose when you become a mother and in what circumstances. That’s something that’s so central to most women’s lives, not so much to men’s lives because it’s not there as an issue for them right from the beginning of when they become sexually active, whereas for women it is. You can’t separate the two. So I suppose in the song, what I’m trying to say is: I loved having my babies and I loved being a mother precisely because I was able to delay it until it was right for me. That didn’t happen to be until my mid-30s.
Have you played these songs for your kids? [Ed. Note: Thorn has twin 20-year-old daughters, Jean and Alfie, and a son Blake, who was born in 2001.]
I haven’t sat them down in front of them and made them listen to them. That would seem a bit high-pressured. The girls are both away at college now. I have given them both a copy of the CD and I’m assuming they’ll listen and give me some feedback at some point. I’ve never tried to force things upon them or forced them to respond. They come out with things at moments where you’re least expecting it. They’ll say, “Oh, I just heard this by you the other day, it was good.” But I think kids just kind of want you to be in that parental role. Having to get into the different role of judging you as an artist or rating you as a musician is more awkward. I wouldn’t expect them really to do that.
Do you ever think about Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” keeping “Missing” from No. 1 in the U.S. and resent that song?
Yes! Forever! We would have been Number One. [Laughing] It would have been nice to [go] Number One, I can’t lie.
Number Two is still pretty good, though.
Number Two is still pretty good, yeah. I’ll take that.