WHEN Tracey Thorn bought her first guitar, aged 16, she didn’t know that she needed an amp into which to plug it. But actually that kind of suited her because she didn’t really like making a noise. When she did her first audition to be in a band, she sang from inside a wardrobe, such was her embarrassment about performing.
• Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star by Tracey Thorn is out on Monday, published by Virago, £16.99
Even years later, in 1997, then in the midst of a fully fledged music career as one half of Everything but the Girl with Ben Watt, when the pair were offered the gig of supporting U2 on their American stadium tour the answer was not a foregone conclusion.
Tracey Thorn is not your average pop star.
This is probably the key to why her memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star, is so good. It’s not just that it’s well written (there is a reason that Caitlin Moran described Thorn as “the Alan Bennett of pop memoirists”), it’s not just that it’s full of muso geekery (pictures of ticket stubs, memories of gigs in venues long since closed, mentions of favourite groups – Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Buzzcocks, Orange Juice), it’s that Thorn has written a book that is as idiosyncratic, clever and entertaining as you’d hope had you listened to her music for three decades. Like her lyrics, it’s pared down and stripped of artifice, yet it still manages to be both funny and revealing, full of insight and remarkably modest.
“A lot of the time when I read music journalism,” Thorn says, sitting in her publisher’s office, “when people write about music and musicians, I don’t always recognise the tone of voice in which they talk about the creative process and the creative personality. Sometimes it’s too reverent, sometimes too sentimental, sometimes too idealistic. When I meet other musicians they’re just not like that.”
The stuff that’s missing, according to Thorn is the practicalities, the “nuts and bolts of getting it done”. “What I wanted to do was to write something that is more realistic in terms of what it actually feels like to be inside that career,” she says. “Some of it is philosophical points about dealing with fame and the tension around that. But a lot of it is just because I wanted to describe the actual mechanical reality of day to day life of a musician.”
Thorn is telling her own story from starting out in the late 1970s, forming her first band, Marine Girls, recording music in garden sheds and going to gigs in London from her suburban home, to meeting Watt at university in Hull and finding their way through the dozen albums they made until they didn’t any longer in 1999. (They didn’t break up, Thorn and Watt married after more than two decades together and have three children, 15-year-old twin girls and a 12-year-old son.)
But she’s also perfectly suited to creating an alternative history, a personal one, of pop music before all the X-Factor gubbins, when kids formed bands because they wanted to be different from their mums and dads and just because they could. In doing so, she’s not only explaining how a girl who doesn’t really like to be looked at but does like music ends up fronting a band, she’s demystifying what pop music is.
“There was a point when I’d finished the book for the second time when I read it and thought, ‘Do I really want to pull back the curtain because once I’ve done it I can’t put it back.’ I’m aware of that now – within a week the book is going to be in the shops and people will have read it, at which point any remaining mystique about me as the sort of elusive classy singer, or whatever it is that people used to think about me, is blown.”
She smiles. “I did have a couple of moments of hesitation but then you think, ‘Oh what the hell.’” She laughs loudly.
Thorn is quick to laugh, and funny. If you follow her on Twitter (she’s a fan – “I think it’s completely empowering”) then you’ll already know that. But pre-tweet, Thorn has to be the pop star and Everything but the Girl the band who have been, at times, most misunderstood. EBTG enjoyed real success – their first seven UK studio albums went gold or platinum and the Todd Terry remix of Missing in 1995 spent 55 weeks in the American chart – but from when they formed right through to when they had a huge hit with I Don’t Want to Talk about it, there was always a battle between who they were and how they saw themselves and how they were perceived by others, which was only complicated by the fact that Thorn and Watt were a couple.
“To journalists who liked us, we were ‘the Damon and Justine of their day’. Or Sonny and Cher,” she writes. “For those who didn’t, we were smug marrieds; the Richard and Judy of pop.” It wasn’t any easier in interviews when talking about their music. “Sounding like Astrud Gilberto while coming on like Gang of Four was always going to be a problematic approach,” she writes. Interviewed by Smash Hits in 1985, Thorn was asked for the title of the last book she read. Her answer: The British in Northern Ireland: The Case for Withdrawal. She hoots with laughter. “I’m sure that was me being mischievous but, you know.” She shrugs.
“I think some of it is inevitable,” she says, predictably reasonable. “I mean you can’t show all sides of yourself. And when I look back I do think that the music I’ve made has been serious and quite sad a lot of the time so that’s been the angle. I don’t think that’s any journalist’s fault really. If I’d been reviewing my records I probably would point to the slight air of melancholy, there’s a tone to my voice. But anyone who knows me would say that’s not what I’m like in everyday life.
“One of the things that was good about the book was about showing that other side. And also about showing that even if you’re in a band making sad music you’re not sad and serious all the time. When you’re off on tour you’re having a laugh like everyone else.”
If being an outsider, or at least feeling like one, has been tricky, it’s also allowed Thorn to be more honest and insightful about the music industry than pop star memoirs ever get anywhere near. And the thing that comes across loudest and clearest is that Tracey Thorn really likes music. So what felt like an odd career for a girl who didn’t really like making much noise was actually pretty perfect. But there can’t be many pop stars like her.
She says that one of her daughters is very into music. “She got a record player for Christmas so she’s doing the whole vinyl thing – going a bit retro and digging out The Smiths albums. It’s good. She’s musically talented and occasionally she’ll say, ‘Music – career?’” She sucks air through her teeth and shakes her head. “I just say, ‘I dunno honey.’” And she laughs.