Tracey Thorn was recently having breakfast with her husband Ben Watt in their Hampstead home. The couple have been together personally since meeting at the University of Hull in 1981, and professionally since starting the musical duo Everything But The Girl a year later. As a band, they had four top ten singles and their biggest hit, Missing, turned out to be such a classic that it still gets played on the radio and at student club nights some 26 years after its release.
The two of them were talking about the music-streaming service Spotify, which at the end of last year offered its users a chance to see their most listened-to music.
Tracey Thorn with husband Ben Watt in their guise as pop duo Everything But The Girl in 1984
‘Mine was mostly by [American singer-songwriter] Lizzo,’ Thorn explains when we meet at a London members’ club. ‘Ben said, “Have you had your Spotify music of the decade?” And we both went, “Mmm.”
‘He said, “So, who was your most listened-to artist of the decade?”
‘And I went, “I’m so ashamed and humiliated to tell you this, but it was myself.” And he went, “F****** hell. Mine was me, too!” ’
She is laughing as she tells me this.
She explains that it was because whenever she does a live performance or a new album, she goes back to listen to her old music for a reference point. ‘Ben will kill me for that. He’ll go, “Bloody hell, it was bad enough telling each other.”’
We are sitting on the roof terrace because Thorn was worried that staying inside would be too noisy for me to record the conversation. It is January, and although it is curiously mild, there are not many celebrities who would be thoughtful enough to do this. She sits opposite me, in a pink and black zebra-print shirt, her cropped hair swept over one eye and, at 57, she still looks like a rock star, but her manner is self-effacing and solicitous. She has made her name as a performer, yet in person she is quiet and considered and does not like to draw attention to herself.
It is a contradiction evident in her writing, both as a lyricist and an author. Her latest book, Another Planet: A Teenager In Suburbia, is her third memoir and it details her adolescence in the stifling suburbia of Brookmans Park in Hertfordshire. The book, which has just been published in paperback, contains both anthropological musings and extracts from her teenage diary as she rails against her parents, snogs boys at discos and discovers the love of music that will be her way out. The sentences are pared back, all the more powerful for what they don’t say.
She jokes that it’s the same with her songs: ‘Everything is quite sparse and like a Quaker sitting room… There’s a bareness to it.’
Thorn’s father served in the RAF before becoming an accountant and her mother worked as a secretary. They were quiet people who did not court attention. ‘I probably would not have been drawn to writing in a more flamboyantly expressive style because I would have felt it was too showy-offy.’
In fact, for years she suffered from crippling stage fright when she performed as Everything But The Girl. Did it stem from this inherited dislike of being the centre of attention?
I’m so ashamed to tell you, but the person I’ve listened to most on Spotify was… myself
‘Yeah. The thing I could never do on stage was be the messiah-status front-person of a band – reaching out to touch someone’s hand, “Aren’t you lucky to be near me?” God. I couldn’t take it seriously in myself. I couldn’t believe in myself doing that. So even on stage I was constantly trying to pretend that no one was really looking at me.’
But they did look at her, and for 20 years Everything But The Girl ruled the airwaves, scoring eight gold and two platinum albums. Thorn also collaborated with Nineties band Massive Attack and was guest vocalist for one of their biggest hits, Protection.
Mabel, the daughter of Massive Attack producer Cameron McVey and singer Neneh Cherry, is now a pop star in her own right. The other day I worked out I was old enough to be Mabel’s mother, I say.
Thorn looks at me wryly: ‘Imagine how I feel! But I went to see her at The Forum last year. She’s brilliant.’
Thorn’s own motherhood has been one of the most important roles of her life. She gave birth to twin girls in 1998, Jean and Alfie, and when they were 15 months old, Everything But The Girl went on tour.
‘I hated it because I felt I was doing both things badly,’ she admits. ‘I was not able to be parenting the way I wanted to, and then I’d go on stage that night knackered and I felt like a fraud – up there singing dance music when I’d been in the park with the babies all day. I felt weird. And the effort! Just the effort of pulling my body together into a skirt, putting make-up on… I just found it so difficult. I felt mumsy, you know, and that can be a lovely thing. You feel very nurturing and lovely and at the same time you start to think, oh God, am I just a bore? Because it’s hard to tell. Even the word mumsy is a bit of a slag-off, isn’t it? ’Yes, I say, there’s no male equivalent. There’s no ‘dadsy’.
‘No one is dadsy,’ she agrees.
Thorn got pregnant again when the twins were three, ‘and at that point I went, “OK, enough.” I’m just going to step back now and enjoy these years.’
Her son Blake was born in 2001. Thorn took seven years out of music.
‘I was lucky. I had a nice home, a present husband. I did have some part-time help. I didn’t manage all on my own. So I’m not going to turn myself into a martyr mother here. But given that was my set-up, I just loved it.’
Thorn at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. ‘There are a lot of great women making music,’ Thorn says, citing Jessie Ware, Little Simz, Robyn and Lana Del Rey as examples. ‘But pop music doesn’t mean what it used to mean to young people: it’s not their only route out’
Still, she missed singing, and in 2007 she released her first solo album in 25 years, Out Of The Woods. Three more albums have followed, alongside her successful book-writing career, and it seems that now her children are 18 and 22, she has found that elusive thing: a work-life balance.
The music industry, of course, has changed in the interim.
‘There are a lot of great women making music,’ Thorn says, citing Jessie Ware, Little Simz, Robyn and Lana Del Rey as examples. ‘But pop music doesn’t mean what it used to mean to young people: it’s not their only route out. Another Planet is a kind of hymn to that era when, being trapped in suburbia, one of your routes out was getting into music. And pop music provided you this glimpse of another world that you couldn’t see anywhere else.
‘Young people now have got the internet, they’ve seen the whole world. And they’ve got loads and loads of other opportunities to access other people’s ideas and thoughts, learn about the world, escape from the place they’re in. So I just don’t think it means as much.’
As a young woman in a male-dominated industry, Thorn got used to working in ‘a man’s world’. ‘During some of those years I did feel alone some of the time. There were times when I was the only woman on the tour bus. I resented that.’
But she didn’t think to question it at the time. It’s partly why she’s so impressed by the younger generation of women. ‘When I have conversations with my daughters, they’re much more aware of power dynamics between men and women – what boys expect, what girls are expected to be like. Sometimes they get angry because they think things haven’t changed enough, but I always say, “The fact that you’re aware and talking about it is a change in itself.” When they come across examples of it [sexism], they immediately kick back. So I do think they’re different.’
Thorn turns 60 in a few years and isn’t yet sure how she feels about it. When she turned 40 she had a big party. For her 50th it was a more sedate lunch party. So what should 60 be? ‘We’ll see… It’s a bit of a weird one.’
She should have a party, I tell her.
‘I am a little that way inclined.’
If she does, I’m sure it will be fabulous. She can even ask the DJ to play her own songs.
‘Another Planet’ by Tracey Thorn (Canongate) is out now in paperback, priced £9.99