Tracey Thorn‘s new album, ‘Love and its Opposite’, represents something of a change of direction for both the former Everything But the Girl singer and her producer, Ewan Pearson. After the varied electro pop of 2007′s ‘Out of the Woods’, ‘Love and its Opposite’ is comparatively stripped-down, setting Thorn’s tales of middle-aged regret in hushed, acoustic tones.
Thorn hasn’t entirely left the clubs behind; her husband Ben Watt’s Buzzin’ Fly label has just released her single ‘Why Does the Wind’, remixed by Morgan Geist, Michel Cleis and Andre Lodemann, whose diverse reintepretations all lead the tune confidently back to the center of the dancefloor.
We rang up Thorn to ask about songwriting, working with Ewan Pearson, and what her husband thinks about the rather bleak view of romance that comes across in her songs.
What is “the opposite of love”?
The line, “love and its opposite”, comes from one of the songs, ‘Long White Dress’, and I think in the context of that song, the suggestion really is that maybe romance is the opposite of love. And I think that applies to some of the other songs as well. A lot of them are talking about the difficulty of keeping relationships going over a long time, and what happens to people as they get older. I think at that point, you start to realize that the ideas of romance that are sold to you when you’re younger aren’t really that much help in the long run, and they just set up unrealistic expectations for people about what love’s really supposed to be like. That can really be the enemy of actually trying to make love work.
Obviously you write in character a lot; how much of the album was biographical?
It’s probably something like half and half. Even the songs where perhaps I’m writing in character, there’s still the opportunity to express things you’ve thought about yourself, even if they’re not things that have specifically happened to you. Even when your experiences can be different, I’ve said before, we’re all of us only an inch away from a life that could have been completely different, and I don’t think it takes that much of a leap of imagination to picture yourself in different circumstances. So when you start to do that, there’s always a little bit of yourself in there, in all the songs.
That’s a refreshing perspective considering how much of the younger generation of indie rock is so self-expressive, first-person, and grounded in one’s own reality, rather than making those imaginative leaps.
I tend to write quite specifically. Although I do create other characters, it’s never a million miles removed from what I can imagine; I think I’d find that quite difficult. And I do think that, in the end, pop music lends itself better to experiences that, as the performer, you can give a sense of believability to. So it’s difficult to go too far away from yourself when you’re writing.
Not to get too personal, but obviously you’re still with Ben Watt; is it strange to be writing these heartbreak songs in the context of a long-term relationship?
Not really—you know, I’ve always written those kinds of songs! People have often said, ‘This is kind of weird!’ For a start, it’s only at moments of conflict that you get the inspiration to write anyway. Often, there are large parts of my life, that are maybe just the contented, settled parts, that aren’t very inspiring to write about. So I probably focus more on moments of doubt and things that do sometimes go wrong. Those are the things that can trigger a song. It does sometimes seem a bit out of proportion, the amount that I write about that stuff, but I just think it’s inevitable that it’s a bit more inspiring.
Why did you choose not to work with Ben on your solo albums?
He’s very busy and established in the other stuff that he’s doing, with the labels and DJing and the radio show, so in a way, if we were going to make a record together, it would require him to stop doing a lot of other stuff. He wasn’t in any mood to do that, and I was feeling that I’d like to have a period of time of establishing myself a bit more independently. I think there’s something about having kids as well; you get so lost at home as a parent, all day, and it was important to me, going back to making music, that part of it is about reasserting some independence and being the one who makes the decisions. I felt like I just want to do something on my own for a while and carve out a bit of my own space.
How many kids do you have now?
Three—we’ve got twin girls who are 12, and a boy who is nine.
Tell me about working with Ewan Pearson.
He’s great. We first worked together on the last record, ‘Out of the Woods’, and I think out of all the producers I worked with on that record, he’s the one I connected with the most. We just get on really well, and he shares that thing that Ben and I both have as well, he’s got a love of electronica but also a real love of acoustic music and songwriting. It’s just easy being with people like that, because you can immediately use shorthand when you’re talking to them. You know that they get both things, you’re not having to explain how you can like Fleetwood Mac and Fairport Convention as well as Kraftwerk. It’s nice working with people when it’s just taken for granted that that’s entirely understandable.
It was interesting working with him on this record, because I kind of took him completely outside the realm of what he usually does. I said to him, it’s really not going to be an electronic record, and I want to keep it very stripped down and minimal, where he’s perhaps known for doing the opposite, taking a more, let’s put everything on approach. So I just thought it would be interesting, take someone out of their comfort zone and see what they come up with.
So you knew from the beginning that you wanted it to be more stripped-down and acoustic.
I wanted it to be more truly a solo record as well. As long as I’m doing collaborations with other people, where they’re creating electronic backing tracks, there’s always the sense that it’s 50 percent me but 50 percent someone else. For this one, I thought, I want to set myself the challenge of having to create the music, and that means setting some limits, working within the palette that I can actually do myself.
That can be quite good—once you’ve set yourself a target and established some boundaries, you can start working within those limits.
Had you written most of the material before you went into the studio?
No, I got in touch with Ewan when I had about three or four songs, and I went over to Berlin, where he’s based, and demoed the first songs, and at that point we started talking about the idea of making an album in that style. Then I had to go away and keep writing. It took quite a long time to finish from that point, because I didn’t have an album’s worth.
Did you do it all here in Berlin?
It was back and forth. I did probably three more trips to Berlin, and did bits of recording, and then we did some recording in London, the bits where we had Al [Doyle] and Leo [Taylor] playing, and it ended up being mixed in London.
I’m interested to see where this takes Ewan next; it’s such a departure for him, in some ways, at least stepping away from the overt electronics.
He’s very versatile, and as is often the case in music, you tend to get pigeonholed by the first things you do. Then people assume that’s all you can do. I always think it’s nice for anyone to be able to say, “I can do this too!” He’s got big ears, Ewan. He’s got really wide tastes. I think it would be great to be able to expand in any direction he wants, really.
Let me ask you about pigeonholing—do you ever worry about being pigeonholed yourself, given so much of our music is sort of melancholic and downcast?
In a way, that’s a fair point, really.
It’s not a criticism!
No, I know. But if people were to say that, I think I’d have to put my hand up and say, well, there is a lot of truth in that, really. That’s more a characterization of what things come out. In a way, we’ve managed to subvert a lot of our pigeonholing by having changed over the years. Especially in the ‘90s when we seemed to people to be making a really radical departure by having ‘Missing’ remixed and then making the ‘Walking Wounded’ album. I think at that point, we really broke out of any pigeonholes that we were in. And since then, I feel quite liberated that I can almost do anything. There’s quite a lot of things now that I’m allowed to do.
It’s funny, actually, that this record is being treated as a departure, when in many ways it’s a return to your roots.
I just see all of them existing together, that’s the point I keep trying to make to people. I never see one record implying that you’ve negated the previous one, or left it behind, or that you’re necessarily moving forward in a constant progression. It all co-exists for me. I could just as easily make a really dancey record tomorrow, or a folk record—I don’t see one as canceling out the other.
I read that you won’t be touring this album, which seems like a pretty bold move, given the conventional wisdom that you can only make money from music if you’re playing live, these days.
I know. It’s a decision I’ve made, even though it’s in the full knowledge that it’s not the rational thing to be doing from a career-based perspective. But that’s just the way it is. I don’t want to go on tour; I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to. I’m not in a position of having to make a certain amount of money now; as long as this record can sell enough that it pays for itself, then that’s fine. Obviously I don’t want to make records that end up losing money. But if it can just tick along and pay for itself, that’s ok, really.
As for touring, I’ve done all that, and I had years of doing that. We were very successful by the end of our career in the ‘90s, and I just don’t have the pressure any more, to have to prove things or establish my name or anything.
What do your kids think of their parents being musicians?
They’re quite blasé about it, really. I suppose because although I haven’t been working for a lot of their childhood, they sort of know that’s what I used to do. And there’s music in the house all the time; Ben works from home a lot of the time, and he’s constantly got music playing, he’s putting his radio show together, he’s playing demos that get sent to him, there are musical instruments all around the house; so I think they just take it as completely normal that music is just one of those things that is very important in life and can be your career. I suppose it’s only as they’ve got older and spent more time with other people that they’ve realized that actually, that’s not the norm, that in other people’s houses music takes a lower priority. But to them I think it’s just completely natural.
Do they play instruments?
Yeah, they do, they all play. They play the piano, and one plays the guitar and one plays the drums, and they all sing.
What do you think of the remixes, and what’s your relationship with dance music culture these days?
It’s pretty distant at the moment, to be honest. My connection with it is sort of through Ben, rather than an immediate and direct one. Because he’s so much more involved in it, I just kind of make use of his knowledge and the fact that he’s so much more on top of things than I am. When it came to the remixes, I very much deferred to his judgment about people to approach. As always, I love what comes in. I really love the excitement of not knowing quite what you’re going to get. I love the fact that everyone will take it in a slightly different direction. And it’s always really refreshing for me, hearing my voice, usually just sort of lifted off the track and put in a different context. Andre Lodemann changed the chords a bit, and that was really lovely, hearing something completely re-harmonized. I really like that one, but I like all the others too.
Are you starting to think about a next record?
At the moment I’m in that lull between projects. I can’t make this record again, I feel like this one has quite a strong character to it. Lyrically it’s quite coherent, and when people have written about it, they’ve very much defined it as being, not a concept album, but having a very distinct character and set of situations it’s talking about in the lyrics. So I’m thinking, ok, that’s all great, but it does mean I can’t do this again. I don’t know, I have to think of something that’s the focal point of another record. I think that will probably mean changing everything musically again. I don’t think I’d want to make another completely downtempo acoustic record. I think the next thing to do would be to set myself the challenge of saying, Ok, you’ve got to write 10 uptempo disco numbers, let’s see where we can go with that!