Everything but the Girl's Tracey Thorn writes lyrics that capture women's inner lives
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. The popular British duo Everything but the Girl has released their first new album in 24 years. Today, we feature our interview with Tracey Thorn, who's one half of the duo with her husband, Ben Watt. They formed their act in the 1980s when they were dating and became pop stars in the '90s, especially in Britain, for their smart, slinky dance pop.
Before we listen to Terry's 2018 interview with Tracey Thorn, let's go to our critic Ken Tucker for a review of their new album, Fuse. He says the duo's return puts them back in the center of current music making.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TIME AND TIME AGAIN")
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: (Singing) Time and time again she says something like maybe she's leaving, but she never leaves. On and on and on goes the story. And maybe he's changing. That's what she believes. And the rain falls. And the days pass. Her lipstick on glass. It's time for us now, time to begin. I'll be a better man than him.
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The low, smoky voice of Tracey Thorn is the signature sound of Everything but the Girl, with the duo's other half, Ben Watt, producing the beats. Describing their roles that way diminishes some aspects of collaboration, of course, but it's a useful shorthand for the way a listener experiences any new Everything but the Girl song.
Thorn's voice draws you in, and Watt surrounds her with an atmosphere that works as either an enhancement or a dramatic contrast to what Thorn is singing about. Take, for example, "Nothing Left To Lose," whose jittery beat and swooping keyboards get your head bobbing, only to be brought up short by Thorn's declaration of pain, of needing a thicker skin to endure the agony of a romance that's become one-sided.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE")
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: (Singing) I need a thicker skin. This pain keeps getting in. Tell me what to do 'cause I've always listened to you. I'm here at your door, and I've been here before. Tell me what to do 'cause nothing works without you.
TUCKER: This collection, Fuse, eventually reveals itself as an album-length plea for compassion and connection. Sometimes, it's about one person hoping to break through another person's defenses to achieve closeness. And, sometimes, it addresses broader symptoms of modern alienation. On the song called "When You Mess Up," Thorn urges the person she's talking to to forgive minor sins and not blow them up into relationship- or career-ending dramas, which is to say, we all mess up.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN YOU MESS UP")
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: (Singing) You seem so young again. Oh, but it's hard to explain. Don't be so hard on yourself. Don't think you're inappropriate. And don't just discard your old self. You're never inappropriate. In a world of microaggressions, little human transgressions. Forgive yourself. Forgive yourself. To sing is to pray twice. And I hate people who give me advice. When you mess up - and, baby, you'll mess up...
TUCKER: You might have noticed the way Ben Watt, as producer, distorted Thorn's voice here and there in that song. It's a new strategy for the duo, one that gives some of this material a novel gloss.
My favorite song on this album is, in some ways, its most stark and bleak. On "Lost," Thorn lists various things she says she's lost this week, with the losses increasing in emotional importance as she goes on.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOST")
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: (Singing) I lost my mind last week. I lost my place. I lost my bags. I lost my biggest client. I lost my perfect job. I lost the plot. Then I just lost it. And all the roads that lead to nowhere follow you around. I just lost it. And in your head and in your eyes all of your thoughts and sentences. I just lost it. Confused ideas you should have left behind. Keep walking. Keep going. Keep singing. I lost my faith and my best friend. I lost my mother. I lost my mother. I lost my mother.
TUCKER: If you like this new Everything but the Girl music, I also recommend Thorn's solo work. I made her 2018 album, Record, my No. 1 that year, and she's also a terrific prose writer. Her 2013 memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up And Tried To Be A Pop Star, is wonderful. The new music on Fuse continues Thorn and Watt's tough-minded yet good-hearted take on the world at a time when it's never been more welcome.
DAVIES: We're going to listen now to Terry's interview with Tracey Thorn, who's one half of the band with her husband, Ben Watt. They quit performing as a band in 2000. She left it behind to raise their three children.
Thorn began a solo career in 2007, releasing four albums and a movie soundtrack. She's had a long-running column for the New Statesman in which she writes about many of the artists she loves, from Chrissie Hynde, David Bowie and Mavis Staples to Stephen Sondheim and Bette Davis. She's now taking a hiatus from the column. And she's authored several books, including her memoir and a book about singing called Naked At The Albert Hall.
Terry spoke to Tracey Thorn in 2018, when she'd just released her solo album titled "Record."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Now, you wrote that when you became a mother, you felt that you couldn't be the person you were on stage and the mother you were at home, that somehow those two sides of you seemed incompatible. What were those two different versions of you, and why did they seem incompatible?
TRACEY THORN: Well, I mean, you know, I see other women who are perfectly capable of doing that. So, again, I'd stress when I wrote this, I don't want to make this into a sort of general point. But I found it really tricky, especially having the girls with us on tour and even, you know, having someone else around who was helping.
Inevitably, the kids wanted me during the day, so I spent a lot of the day, you know, doing mum things, taking them out to the nearby park, trying to sort out their meals and then, at the end of the day, putting them to bed and getting back to the venue, being in a dressing room, putting makeup on, getting on stage.
And at that point, I suddenly felt that at that stage, you're required to turn back into this narcissistic pop star. That's the sort of essence of the job, really, when all day, you've been being the self-sacrificing one. And that's quite a psychological split.
GROSS: Does being on stage require being narcissistic?
THORN: Well, it requires that sort of projection, that complete absorption in what you're doing at that moment. I do think there's a degree of narcissism about that, yeah. There's a look-at-me element to it, isn't there? And, you know, for the rest of the day — even during those hours when I was on stage — it was difficult for me, I think, to have that complete disconnect from thinking, OK, what's happening back at the hotel? You know, I wasn't such a good performer because I was just distracted.
GROSS: So you've also dealt with stage fright, and I was wondering if it was a fear when you were on the stage or just a dread of being on stage, like a pre-performance dread.
THORN: Yeah, my stage fright happens much more pre the event. I often used to find that at the moment of actually walking out on stage, a sort of calm would descend on me. And especially when I was very warmed up and we were on tour and doing it a lot, you know, I'd get into that routine of it and be able to do it just in the way that you can do things that you're doing repeatedly. The thing I found hardest was always the anticipation, you know, the hours building up to it, thinking about it, getting back into that zone.
GROSS: What about being in the studio?
THORN: See, there, I don't suffer any anxiety at all, which is why I've gone back to recording. You know, I find that just such a liberating kind of space, that feeling that you can try anything, and then you can try something else, and then you can try something else. And you only share it with people once you've reached the point where, you know, you're happy with it. I find that really relaxing.
I know there's other people who are the opposite, you know, people who — singers who get that stage fright as soon as they're in front of the microphone that's actually recording them and, you know, have to do endless takes going round and round and round. You know, I'm just absolutely not like that. I can literally clap my headphones on and go, and most of my vocals are done in one or two takes. And I just have that sense of freedom in the studio.
GROSS: So I want to play another track from your new album Record. And this is the song "Babies." And I think it's the first song I know that's about using birth control and the fear of getting pregnant when you don't want to have a baby, and then the urgency of having a baby when you do want to have one. How did you come up with that idea as the premise for a song?
THORN: I was on a walk one day, and the opening lines of the song just appeared in my head with that tune. Every morning of the month, you push a little tablet through the foil. Cleverest of all inventions, better than a condom or a coil. And it made me laugh out loud as I thought of it. I thought, that's great. That's an opening line. And I've stopped and made a note of it on my phone. And then when I got home, I started trying to turn it into a song.
And, you know, it is funny. It's meant to be humorous as well, but it contains a lot of urgency, I think, in terms of feeling, you know, the desperation you feel when you're young, the terror of getting pregnant when you don't want to and then, again, the urgency later on when perhaps you do want to. And that's an equally strong feeling.
And I also just thought there was something funny about me. You know, I'm supposed to have this kind of sophisticated, beautiful voice. This is how people talk about me. And I thought it would be quite funny for me to be singing about condoms and coils
GROSS: And babies, babies...
THORN: And babies, babies, babies.
GROSS: OK. So let's hear "Babies." And this is from Tracey Thorn's new album "Record."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABIES")
THORN: (Singing) Every morning of the month, you push a little tablet through the foil. Cleverest of all inventions. Better than a condom or a coil. 'Cause I didn't want my babies until I wanted babies. And when I wanted babies, nothing else would do but babies, babies, babies. Every touch was terrifying...
GROSS: That's Tracey Thorn from her new album, Record. The song is called "Babies." So, you know, part of this song is about the anxiety that can surround sex when you're a woman worried about getting pregnant, then having to take hormones or putting foreign objects in your body to prevent pregnancy. I think men don't always comprehend what that means.
THORN: No, I think that's true. And obviously, for girls, it starts pretty young. I can just remember those teenage years of long, long before the internet, so having access to almost no information about my body and no real understanding of how this thing worked. So, you know, this sometimes ridiculous, unnecessary terror that you'd done something that was going to get you pregnant and, actually, you hadn't.
But it was typical at the time that girls used to write to the Cathy and Claire page saying things like, I've sat on a toilet seat. Am I going to be pregnant? You know, a boy has put his hand down my trousers. Am I going to be pregnant? And I — it just reminded me how ignorant we were and how we had to just try and manage without knowing anything.
DAVIES: Tracey Thorne speaking with Terry Gross in 2018. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL SONG, "WRONG")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview Terry recorded with singer Tracey Thorn in 2018. Thorn is half the duo Everything but the Girl with her husband Ben Watt. They've just released their first album in 24 years titled Fuse.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So I want to play another song from "Record." And this song is called "Guitar," and it's a song about having a crush on a boy and thinking he was really cool because he played guitar, but he was cruel, you say in the song, and that you realize at some point that he was just the catalyst because you had your guitar. You had a guitar, and you could sing and you could play.
And it reminds me of something Joyce Johnson once wrote. Jack Kerouac had been her boyfriend, and in a memoir about that period of her life, she wrote that guys had adventures and girls like her fell in love with the guys who had the adventures. And the girl's adventure was falling in love with the guy who had the adventure, as opposed to the girls having an adventure of their own. Being in love with a guy was the adventure.
GROSS: This song made me think about that.
THORN: I remember reading that book.
GROSS: Oh, really?
THORN: Minor Characters.
GROSS: Minor Characters, yes.
GROSS: Did you love that book?
THORN: I loved it. And it rang lots of bells with me. Yeah. You know, I've resented that idea for a very long time. The notion that, you know, the biggest adventure you're going to have is falling in love with a boy who is having adventures. And, you know, the song "Guitar" is me looking back and realizing that there was a period of my life when I did buy into that, but not for very long — only maybe for a year or so, I think, in my teens. And it was when I first started getting into music.
And, you know, a lot of the other boys I knew especially had formed bands. And I watched them do that, and it looked exciting. And my first instinct was, you know, these boys are really attractive. They're doing exciting things. And then I bought my own guitar. And I thought, well, hang on, I can do this as well. You know, it looks like they're having a load of fun. I don't just want to actually watch them have that fun. I want to have that fun as well.
So the first band I joined, I was the only girl. And I remember immediately feeling a little bit like I'd got kind of secret access into this boys' gang, you know? And after rehearsals we'd go off to gigs together, and it was brilliant. I loved that feeling. And so around that time, you know, there were a couple of boys in bands who, whilst I maybe thought for a brief moment, you know, that they were the ones doing the exciting thing, actually, what I was also doing at the same time, once I'd picked up a few chords on the guitar, was I was starting to write.
And I think what the song "Guitar" is about is that moment in my life when playing a guitar, realizing I could sing, just was the beginning of everything for me. You know, everything that followed came from that moment. It was the moment that opened up my ability to communicate and, you know, and make art. And, you know, that's become my - so much of my life.
GROSS: Oh, well, I really like this song. So let's hear "Guitar," written and performed by my guest Tracey Thorn from her new album, "Record."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GUITAR")
THORN: (Singing) Hey, boy, you taught me my first song. The air was warm. The night was long. While Leonard Cohen sang "Suzanne," we kissed and kissed, but then you ran. The song was "Teenager In Love." Oh, God, you couldn't make it up. Hey, that's no way to say goodbye. So you didn't even try.
I wanted you. I watched you from afar, and I thought you were cool because you played guitar. But you were cruel. You maybe still are. Thank God I could sing, and I had my guitar. Oh, I had my guitar.
GROSS: That's Tracey Thorn from her new album, Record. So you have described that once you started playing in a band with boys, you felt like you'd gotten this secret access to this kind of boy gang. (Laughter) But then you formed a group with other girls.
GROSS: How was it different?
THORN: I think I — well, I think I realized pretty quickly that the access to the boys' gang was always going to be slightly limited. And there were times when I began to think, OK, they're sort of implying that they know more about this stuff than I do. But when I came to think about getting another band together, my next thought was, OK, I think maybe this time I'll do it with other girls. Let's see if that works differently. So I formed a band with some girls at school called the Marine Girls.
And yeah, it was different. I think we felt quite a defiant sense of proving that we could do this, that we didn't need boys to show us how to do it. We broke lots of the rules of what a band was supposed to be doing because we didn't really know what those rules were, and we were not very respectful of them. So, you know, we never had a drummer because we didn't know anyone who had a drum kit. And I think we just had this attitude of, well, who says you need a drummer? And so there was a real sort of combination of naivety and innocence about it, but also a defiant spirit.
DAVIES: Singer Tracey Thorn speaking with Terry Gross in 2018. Thorn is half the duo Everything But The Girl with her husband, Ben Watt. They've just released their first album in 24 years, titled Fuse. We'll hear more of Terry's interview with Tracey Thorn after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAUTION TO THE WIND")
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: (Singing) Caution to the wind — let me in. Caution to the wind — let me in, let me in, let me in. All the stars align, shimmer and shine. All the stars align, shimmer and shine. Home to be with you, home to be with you, home to be with you...
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies. Let's get back to Terry's interview with British singer, songwriter and guitarist Tracey Thorn. For 17 years, beginning in 1980, she was half of the duo Everything but the Girl with Ben Watt, her husband with whom she has three children. She gave up performing to raise them. Eventually, she began a solo career, releasing four albums. And now the duo has their first new album in 24 years, titled "Fuse."
When Terry spoke with her in 2018, she'd released her solo album, titled Record. When we left off, they were talking about the bands she was in before Everything but the Girl, including an all-girl band called Marine Girls.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So after being in a band with guys and then forming a band with other girls, you ended up going to college. And at college, you soon fell in love with Ben Watt, who became your music partner and your life partner, and you've had children together. You've been together since what year?
GROSS: And so you — together, you formed the band Everything but the Girl. And you write that this was the time when you discovered feminism, and it made you question, was it the right decision to be in a band with your boyfriend? Was it even cool to have a boyfriend? Was monogamy inevitably awful and oppressive? And should you really try to be a lesbian?
GROSS: So some of the questions you were asking yourself at the time — how did you work through those questions?
THORN: In the way you do when you're young, which is you just kind of live your life, and, you know, the questions sort of answer themselves on a day-to-day basis. You know, I think if I was going to be giving advice to, for instance, one of my daughters now who was doing what I did, you know, moving in with a boy who she'd met on the first day at university, forming a band with him, you know, throwing everything in hook, line and sinker with this person, I'd say, that's really risky. Don't do that. Or at least if you do, keep lots of other options open. You know, don't shut any doors.
But, you know, I was reckless in the way that young people are reckless, and I was in love. And I just thought, what could possibly go wrong? So while I was asking myself these theoretical questions, on the other hand, I was just carrying on living my life in the way you do when you're young. You know, you just crack on with things.
GROSS: So some of the questions you asked yourself about having your boyfriend, now husband, be in the same band with you was, would the relationship take precedence over work? What if you had a fight? What if they stopped being — what if you stopped being a couple? Would there still be a band? Did you have to confront any of those questions?
THORN: Not seriously. But I do think one of the reasons that — when we stopped in 2000, one of the reasons we haven't gone back to it is because I think we both have looked at each other and said, do you know what? We did quite well there. We got away with it that many years, and it might be pushing our luck to try any longer, especially now we've got kids, you know? Our relationship now is even more complicated. It just feels like too much. And, you know, now we're doing — we're working separately. And that seems, to me, to work very well now.
GROSS: One of the things that you did have to confront when you were with Ben in Everything but the Girl is that he got this rare autoimmune disease whose name I can't pronounce.
THORN: Yeah, Churg-Strauss syndrome.
GROSS: Thank you. And it apparently causes vascular inflammation, and a lot of his small intestine had to be removed. You weren't sure he would survive. I mean, he was literally deathly ill. What kind of scenarios did you play in your mind when his life was in jeopardy?
THORN: You know, the moments when his life was in jeopardy — again, it's that sense of ... you're just completely wrapped up in the moment. I don't think during those — and it was weeks in hospital when, you know, things kept going from bad to worse, and then things got a little bit better, and then things got worse again. So that that feeling of, you know, is he going to survive or not, that was quite long drawn out.
So I just remember getting very immersed in the day-to-day of that. I don't remember thinking ahead and thinking, you know, what's this going to mean for the long term, for the future? It sort of narrowed. I remember my focus just narrowing and sometimes just narrowing to what's going to happen in the next hour.
You know, when you're sitting by someone's bed and watching those flickering numbers on a screen beside their bed or watching, you know, some little drop of fluid coming down from a bag into someone's arm, you just get lost in this tiny, little present moment, you know, wondering what's going to happen in the next hour.
GROSS: How do you think that experience changed your relationship?
THORN: It's very hard to say, I suppose, because I find it hard to imagine our relationship without that thing having happened. I can almost think of a before and after. You know, there were the people we were before. And then inevitably, certainly in the short term, in the immediate after, we were different people for a while.
You know, he was very sick for quite a long time. And that meant quite a long convalescence, which meant physical recovery and also psychological recovery. And I do think he was someone who, for a while, was suffering from what would probably be called post-traumatic stress. And he became very introverted and, I think, was just dealing with a lot of it inside his head.
So that was tricky. You know, that had to be negotiated in the relationship. Then we got back to work and became very focused. And in some way — I've written about this as well — you know, the experience was very inspirational. It got both of us into a sort of work mode that was very impassioned and fired up. And I think we made very good work in the aftermath of it and then became very successful.
GROSS: Is Amplified Heart the album that you made after he recovered?
THORN: It is. And I think that's the one that's got the songs on it that are, you know, most obviously about people dealing with that kind of stuff. I think you can tell the people who wrote that record, you know, have had some kind of experience.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I want to play one of those songs. This is "We Walk The Same Line," which, I think, really is a song pledging to always be there for him or pledging always to be there for each other. If you lose your faith, you can have mine. Do you want to say anything about the song?
THORN: Yeah. I mean, it is, I think, about that bond we had afterwards, you know? So you asked how things changed, and, you know, it was a mixture of, in some ways, feeling separate from each other because we had actually been through quite different experiences.
You know, for a long time, he was unconscious, and I was having conversations with doctors. So on one level, we'd experienced different things, but there was also that shared feeling of just we've been through a trauma. And that was very bonding. And I think it made both of us feel, in the aftermath of that, you know, while having been through this together, you know, it does feel like a kind of glue, and there's something about that that does make you feel, you know, very, very committed to someone.
GROSS: So let's hear "We Walk The Same Line" from the Everything but the Girl album Amplified Heart.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WE WALK THE SAME LINE")
EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL: (Singing) If you lose your faith, babe, you can have mine. If you're lost, I'm right behind 'cause we walk the same line. Now, I don't have to tell you how slow the night can go. I know you've watched for the light. And I bet you could tell me how slowly four follows three. And you're most forlorn just before dawn. So if you lose your faith, babe, you can have mine. And if you're lost, I'm right behind 'cause we walk the same line. When it's dark, baby, there's a light out shining. If you're lost, I'm right behind 'cause we walk the same line.
DAVIES: That's Tracey Thorn's song "We Walk The Same Line" from the album Amplified Heart by Everything but the Girl. She spoke with Terry Gross in 2018. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF EVERYTHING BUT THE GIRL SONG, "BEFORE TODAY")
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to the interview Terry recorded with singer Tracey Thorn in 2018. She'd just released her solo album titled "Record." Thorn is half the duo Everything but the Girl with her husband Ben Watt. They've just released their first album in 24 years titled Fuse.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: So I love your deep voice. And you've said that you didn't initially think of yourself as a singer, but when you did start singing, that you wanted to sing like Patti Smith or Siouxsie Sioux from Siouxsie and the Banshees. But you started singing that way on stage and then just kind of lost your voice. So what did you do instead?
THORN: I think for a while, then, I had to try and work out a way of coming up with a voice that was my own, that I could have some control over. That took me quite a while. I think for a long time, I was a much better studio singer than I was live singer because, again, I could sort of sing as quietly as I needed to. And often, what people say about my voice is, you know, it's very intimate. It's very direct, sounds like I'm singing right into your ear. And that's because a lot of the studio singing I did, especially in the early days, is sung like that. It's very whispered into the microphone kind of singing.
What I then had to learn was how to convey the songs on stage where, inevitably, you have to project a bit more. You know, I had to build up a bit more strength and stamina. So I tried having some singing lessons for a while. I learned how to do breathing exercises. You know, and I just had to gradually build up a voice that was my own and, you know, which could serve the functions it needed to.
GROSS: You know, you've written that your voice got deeper because of menopause, and I think it's great that you wrote about that 'cause I think a lot of women are uncomfortable acknowledging the existence of menopause. It's personal, and it's also a sign of age.
THORN: Yes. No, I think that's right, and especially in music, obviously, which, you know, there's still a lot of pressure to, you know, maintain an image of youthfulness. So as soon as you bring the word menopausal in...
GROSS: And sexiness.
THORN: And sexiness. And so as soon as you bring the word menopausal into the room, I think a lot of younger men especially might run screaming. And so that's a risk I'm prepared to take.
GROSS: You wrote a column in the New Statesman about your reaction to younger feminists and how, at first, you were troubled about how the generation who came after you in the 1990s, you found them discombobulating and that, you know, in your feminist literature class, when you were young, you'd all thrown the "Story Of O" across the room. But this new third wave of feminists seemed to be OK with strip clubs and porn. Describe what was disturbing you at the time when you were thinking that.
THORN: So that was in the '90s. So I was sort of getting into my 30s at that stage, and I was very aware that there was a younger generation. There was also — I don't know whether this was true in America, but in the U.K. there was the emergence of what we call this new lad culture.
So there were new magazines started which — you know, largely written by and for men, which seemed to, in a slightly ironic, they would claim — a slightly ironic way, went back to what seemed to me to be obviously sexist tropes of, you know, girls in bikinis on the front cover, lads talking in a very laddish way about girls.
And there was a generation of women who, perhaps because they were part of that same generation, seemed to absorb some of those kinds of attitudes towards things like sex and porn and, you know, styles of behavior.
And again, it made me suddenly feel, wow, I'm out of step with the times. You know, it made me feel like I'd been — the feminism I'd grown up with was very sort of puritanical. You know, I just began to question and think, well, hang on, how do we reconcile these separate things, which seem to be saying quite different things about what your approach should be? And it took me a while.
And then, you know, then obviously, another period of time passes, and, you know, even that wave of feminism from the '90s gets swept away, and you get a whole new wave again. And I — so I look at the, you know, generation who are younger now and they seem, again, to have a different set of priorities, perhaps a slightly different set of values, you know?
But somehow we need to all work out, you know, what are the shared common values and, you know, work on what we have in common, I think, and not obsess too much about, you know, slight differences.
GROSS: So I want to play another song from your new album. This is called "Smoke." It's a kind of political song. It's a song about your love of England, about your parents and grandparents growing up in England. And you say, London, you're in my blood, but I feel you going wrong. So is this a song about Brexit?
THORN: Maybe partly, but it's also just what's happening to lots of cities. You know, the same thing is happening to London as is happening to New York - you know, that hollowing out of a city. I talk in the song about the fact that I — my family had lived in London for a couple of hundred years before I was born. And then my parents' generation moved out to the suburbs after the war 'cause London was largely a bomb site. And so I grew up in the suburbs.
But I grew up desperate to get back to London. And London, for me, represented everything that a big city represents — you know, freedom, diversity, a place where people are creative and live cheek by jowl. And it's exciting and all that stuff. And that was why I was desperate to get back to London. And that's my worry about the way in which it's changing now.
You know, if it becomes a place that's only inhabitable by the super-rich, then all that is lost. And, you know, I think that's very worrying. And it's true of other cities, obviously. But for me, you know, I have very emotional feelings about London. So that's what made me write that.
GROSS: In the song, you talk a little bit about your mother experiencing the Blitz in London during World War II and how a friend of a friend was blown to bits. Did you grow up with a lot of war stories?
THORN: I did, but in the way that I was never really made to take them that seriously. I don't know whether it was a generational thing or a thing about being British, but both my parents had been in London during the Blitz, and they both told stories to us as though it was something out of a kind of, you know, a war film that was semi-comic.
So my — you know, my dad had a story about being blown out of bed, literally being blown out of bed. But he made it comic. You know, he — oh, and there was me and my brother, and we ... next thing we knew, we found ourselves on the floor. So I grew up with these stories told in that tone of voice.
And it really wasn't until I got quite a lot older, you know, perhaps old enough to start empathizing with my parents as people who had a past and who'd, you know, been young once and, you know, beginning to wonder what their experiences were actually like. And then I began to think, OK, my parents did actually have the experience of being in their bed and, you know, a bomb being dropped near enough to be blown out of your bed. So that makes me look at it in a different light now.
GROSS: Right. Well, let's hear the song "Smoke" from Tracey Thorn's new album Record. Tracey Thorn, it's been such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much.
THORN: Thank you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMOKE")
THORN: (Singing) In good time, they had a son called James, who had a son called James. Were there no other names? The first world war and the second one came. The second one came. The second one came. My mother now was a teenage girl. She survived the Blitz. She survived the Blitz, though she knew a girl who knew a girl who was blown to bits, who was blown to bits. London, you're in my blood, and you've been there for so long. London, you're in my blood, but I feel you going wrong. And so my parents fled the smoke...
DAVIES: That's Tracey Thorn. She spoke with Terry Gross in 2018. Thorn is half the duo Everything but the Girl with her husband Ben Watt. They've just released their first album in 24 years titled "Fuse." Coming up, Justin Chang reviews the new film "BlackBerry" about the success and failures of the first smartphone. This is FRESH AIR.
Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.