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Tuesday 25 June 2019

'Boredom can help you find things that transform your life' - Everything But The Girl frontwoman Tracey Thorn

The seeds for her career in music were sown in her teenage bedroom, says Everything But The Girl frontwoman Tracey Thorn, whose new book chronicles her childhood growing up in suburbia

Tracey Thorn. Photo © Edward Bishop 2017
Tracey Thorn. Photo © Edward Bishop 2017
Snapshot: Thorn in her home in London's Green Belt in the 1970s
John Meagher

John Meagher

Tracey Thorn first started to keep a diary in 1975, when she was 13 years old. Many of the entries were scant snapshots of life in the so-called Green Belt that surrounds London, but they would prove invaluable when the singer started writing a memoir about her teenage years.

Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia documents Thorn's upbringing in the small town of Brookmans Park, Hertfordshire, and offer clues as to why so many of Britain's great musicians - including her - hail from a staid, conservative, suburban background. And her diaries helped jog many memories, some of which she had suppressed.

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"I really think they're a treasure trove for any writer who is writing about their own life," she says. "There's a lot of detail there - stuff that I just wouldn't have remembered, but you also find yourself reading between the lines about the stuff that, deliberately, wasn't written down. Even as a teenager, there was an element of editing myself."

As with so many people - especially those of a creative bent - Thorn found herself at loggerheads with her parents. Escape came in the form of music.

Snapshot: Thorn in her home in London's Green Belt in the 1970s
Snapshot: Thorn in her home in London's Green Belt in the 1970s

"It's a cliché, of course, but music really can transport you somewhere else," she says. "And that was certainly the case for me. Back then, there weren't nearly as many distractions as there are for teenagers today, so music felt even more important."

The seeds of what would turn out to be a remarkable career in music - spanning her entire adult life - would be sown in her bedroom. "Don't underestimate the power of boredom," she says. "If you've a lot of time on your hands, you will try to fill it and you can discover things that can transform your life. For me, that meant music."

Another Planet may feel like a slight follow-up to her highly acclaimed memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, but it is testament to the power of Thorn's writing that it's still a highly engaging and often very funny read.

Much of the 'action' culled from her diaries concerns things not happening - "the bus not turning up, the thing I wanted to buy not being there" - but it's recounted with such élan that you can't help but smile. And it will surely register with those who spent their childhoods growing up in suburbia, especially those, like Thorn, who were born in the 1960s.

"It's probably the human condition to question your parents' choices," she says, "and I certainly did that when I was younger. Both of them were from London and it used to really frustrate me that they moved out to this village where nothing seemed to happen. Why couldn't they have lived in Kentish Town [in trendy north London] and I could have been able to walk to gigs?"

The book began life as an article on the Green Belt.

"It was this idea that they had to stop the spread of London into the countryside. Places like Brookmans Park were planned as 'garden cities' [the urban planning craze of the early 20th century; the suburb of Marino in Dublin was built on the model] but the town never became as big as they had envisaged.

"Although only a short distance from London, it felt like it was hours and hours away," she says. "It came as a pleasant surprise to me in my late teens that you could get in by train pretty quickly."

But when it came to university, it wasn't the sprawling metropolis that Thorn wound up in, but the northern city of Hull. It was a decision that would change her life personally and professionally, as it was there that she met her husband Ben Watt, with whom she founded Everything but the Girl.

"The reason I didn't want to go to college in London was because that would mean I would have had to stay living with my parents - and I really didn't want to have to do that. Going somewhere as far away as Hull meant there was absolutely no way I would have been able to commute."

Although Thorn had been in a couple of bands before founding EBTG with Watt, this was the vehicle she needed to get noticed. And they did, over the course of nine albums released between 1984's Eden and 1999's Temperamental, even if the enthusiastic critical reaction wasn't always mirrored by the record-buying public.

Even casual listeners will know their biggest hit - 'Missing', featuring a memorable vocal from Thorn - but there's a great deal of worthwhile music in their canon, which was well captured in a 1996 best-of.

And Thorn has shone outside the band, too, thanks to a yen for collaboration, not least with Massive Attack in the early 1990s and it's her vocals that adorn one of their best-loved songs, 'Protection'.

Last year, she released a solo album, Record, and she says that the preoccupations about her childhood and teenage years that came from writing the book filtered into her music.

"It's inevitable that that would have happened," she says. "When you're working on something, everything that's in your head is filtering though all the time. I had both projects on the go at the time. I had a burst of feeling creative - and both the book and album were products of that."

For now, Thorn's focus is on a book tour and she calls to Dublin next month for the now annual literary festival Mountains to the Sea.

"It's completely different being up on stage talking about a book than performing songs," she says. "I don't do gigs any more because that's something I've always struggled with, the performance side of things, and I think the reason I find the book events quite easy to do is that they don't feel like a performance. They're obviously not as thrilling as gigs with the highs and lows you get when performing, but there's a warmth to the process of talking about your book and reading aloud from it, especially if you're proud of a part that feels quite funny and you can hear the audience laugh."

It's been 20 years since Everything but the Girl exited music and Thorn says she and Watt have no interest in revisiting the band. They're happy with their own, respective projects and the business of bringing up their three children, two of whom are of college-going years.

"It's often been suggested to us [that the band reform] but, no, we don't want to do it at all. It just doesn't interest either of us. I think it would take a great change in both of us - and both of us would want to have to do it - for it to happen."

But is she interested in writing fiction?

"I think a lot of people reckon that the next natural step after writing these memoirs is to write a novel, but it isn't something that I've given much thought to. Never say never, but it's not on the cards for now. I'll still write [prose] but making music will always be the priority."

'Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia' by Tracey Thorn is published by Canongate. The author will be speaking at the Mountains to the Sea dlr Book Festival on March 30 at the Pavilion Theatre, Dún Laoghaire

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