Tracey Thorn is best known as one half of the pop duo Everything But the Girl – their biggest hit was the haunting Missing – and she continues to write and record music, most recently releasing a solo album, Record, last year.
But she has also achieved acclaim as a writer, having released, in 2013, a bestselling memoir of her life as a pop star, Bedsit Disco Queen, which two years later was followed by Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing.
Her recent appearance at the UEA Literary Festival was tied in with the release of her third book, Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia, a memoir of her “stultifying” life growing up in a Hertfordshire village, Brookmans Park.
“It’s so incredibly frustrating, suburbia; it’s so rigid, so conventional, more so than a town, which will have more diversity,” Thorn told Professor Henry Sutton, the novelist and professor of creative writing and crime fiction at the UEA.
Her parents had what she felt at the time was “this ridiculous life”, one that was “all about social climbing and getting in with people posher than us”. She said that she is now less judgemental about it all.
“It’s taken me until this point in my adult life to have this better knowledge of who my parents where. It looked idyllic to them. To them it was a step up. It was about escaping working-class London,” she said.
For Thorn, escape was, instead, going back to London, to experience “that thing of having your nose pressed up against the glass”.
While Thorn ultimately escaped to London permanently, her journey to becoming a pop star began at the University of Hull where, as well as securing a first-class degree in English Literature (she went to Hull after the UEA ill-advisedly rejected her), Thorn met Ben Watt, with whom she formed Everything But the Girl and to whom she is married. Like Thorn, Watt himself has penned two memoirs,
Just as Thorn’s music has struck a chord with many fans, so she has sometimes been praised by readers for being open and honest in her writing. However, she admitted in her discussion with Sutton that she filters events before committing them to the page.
This was the case too with the diary entries that she wrote as a teenager, some of which are included in Another Planet. There was, she said, a “level of artifice, level of concealment”.
After writing diaries “obsessively” for five years, Thorn turned her attention to penning songs.
“I’ve got boxes of song lyrics, abandoned song lyrics, half idea for songs. Writing, writing, writing, so it never seemed that much of a leap to prose. I’ve been writing all my life really,” she said.
Today, Thorn and Watt, who have three children together, work on music at their north London home, although they prefer for the other to be out of the house while they are testing out their latest sounds.
While Thorn still makes music, her days of performing on stage seem to be behind her. She has long suffered from stage fright and “for many years I had such a will to do it, that just powered me through”.
“I cannot quite rediscover that urgent need to do it. To put a band together and go on tour, that has to come out of real passion, not just, ‘Let’s form a band and sell some tickets.’ I just want to be doing whatever feels exciting right now,” she said.
“I like the studio … Lots of control. You can try lots of things. Maybe I’m too much of a control freak to enjoy live performances.”
Thorn is an active social media user – she joined Twitter a decade ago and has tweeted more than 45,000 times – and likes the engagement with fans that this offers.
Earlier on in her career, it was very different. There would be diehard fans who came backstage for photos at concerts, and there would be reviews to read – but there was much less of a sense of the effect that the music had on listeners.
More recently, thanks to messages that she has read, she has been “genuinely astonished by the depths of love for music that we had made decades ago”.
Although Thorn’s latest book is still hot off the presses, she is already looking ahead to her fourth volume. This will be a biography of Lindsay Morrison, an “amazing, interesting woman” who was the drummer with the 1980s Australian indie-rock group The Go-Betweens.
“I’m going to talk about her life and use it as a jumping off point to talk about other things … A chance to branch off a little bit for myself, but stay in the world I have most experience in,” she said.