Weekend Herald - Canvas

Dear diary...

Kiran Dass talks with Tracey Thorn of seminal band Everything But the Girl about her new book and the perils of growing up in suburbia


In an August 1977 diary entry, fuelled by a relentless howl of frustrated energy and the monotonous boredom of being a teenager living in the droll suburbs, English singer, songwriter and writer Tracey Thorn wrote: “This diary is getting very boring. Something better happen soon.” And something did happen. She discovered punk rock. “I just think it was the moment I took my life into my own hands. I thought it would be a boy that would come into my life and change things, like a teen romance would happen. Instead I thought, ‘Hang on, I’m just meeting boys from around the corner.’ So I switched my focus to music. Music was on fire at that moment,” she says now.

While Thorn may best be known as one half of the glossy jazz and soul-inflected duo Everything But the

Girl, she is now enjoying a hectic time on the literary festival circuit upon the publicatio­n of her third book, the memoir Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia. Bypassing the pomp and bombast of the typical rock memoir, Another Planet is a gentle and thoughtful book about family, suburban boredom and the relief provided by music and books. In it, Thorn shares her evocative diary entries from her time growing up in Hertfordsh­ire’s Brookmans Park, a post-war green belt commuter town, in the 1970s. It’s a heady mix of punk rock and hormones, rebellious disdain towards her politicall­y conservati­ve and aspiration­al parents, a catalogue of humdrum daily activities like school, supper time and television, as well as the revelation of buying and listening to records, reading books, going to gigs and plugging in a guitar during such thrilling post-punk times. The book celebrates the ordinary over the extraordin­ary and is compelling in that special way that only seemingly mundane details can be.

“People who read it feel seen. Most of us live quiet lives like that. There is an awful lot of writing about nature and also about the city, you know, London by night or Soho. And that’s a rich literary tradition. But most of us grow up in small, nondescrip­t towns. And I think there’s something in paying attention to those places,” she says.

Thorn describes Brookmans Park as “stultifyin­g, frozen in time. Stranded in the past, it wrestled with the present and hated the future. And there I was stuck with it.” She writes that “the boredom grew and solidified, like an iceberg, threatenin­g to scupper me. It was both real and fake, partly true and partly a punk pose.”

She says, “Brookmans Park felt kind of unreal. Swathed in green, kind of rural but no farming going on, it was just this pointless greenery and that in itself is actually quite interestin­g.”

Observing suburbs as feminised, comfortabl­e places

— the source of some punk rock’s scorn and contempt, she explores the idea of the “subtopia”. Coined by architectu­re critic Ian Douglas Nairn, who sneered at everything he felt had gone wrong with England’s architectu­re and design, he believed that drab suburban style had encroached upon and blighted the landscape. “Bringing together the words ‘suburban’ and ‘utopia’, you end up with a descriptio­n of something that is clearly sub-standard. Very much less than utopian, a suburban dystopia,” writes Thorn. But she says suburbia was the making of her and she now thinks of herself as a Londoner with suburban bones. “I remember thinking I’d left all my suburban stuff behind me but when I revisited the place I really felt at home.” Thorn’s love of music began at the romantic end of punk due to her instinctiv­e sympathy for the romantic underdog: Elvis Costello, The Buzzcocks and The Cure eventually gave way to the intoxicati­ng headrush of sonically adventurou­s groups Swell Maps, Subway Sect, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Human League and Ultravox. It was at Hull University that she met Ben Watt, the other half of Everything But the Girl. They’ve been a couple since they met in 1981, married in 2009 and have three children. EBTG’S subdued and wistful melancholi­a includes the iconic Missing, the smooth and sensationa­l hit which belies the duo’s DIY punk roots. The outfit disbanded in 2000, re-emerging a handful of times since then. Both have had successful solo careers — Thorn’s 1982 debut solo album A Distant Shore is an understate­d gem and, in 1994, she collaborat­ed with Massive Attack, lending her plaintive vocals to


But before all of that, with a DIY ethic, her early group the Marine Girls recorded a sublime album, Beach Party, in a garden shed in 1981. Thorn had to overcome a crippling shyness in order to perform. She was so shy, in fact, that at one of her first band practices she sang while hiding inside a wardrobe.

“I hadn’t sung in front of anyone before. I couldn’t bear the thought of them seeing me sing. Ironically, the song I was singing was [David Bowie’s] Rebel Rebel,” she laughs.

“I had the spirit, I just didn’t believe in myself. I

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 ??  ?? Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt.
Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt.

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