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, suppertime 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 Protection.
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 thought they'd laugh at me. You know, it's a very audacious thing to do, to get up on stage. You don't know if people will laugh and say, 'but you're ridiculous!'"
And yet, I remind Thorn, she became so successful.
"I know! It's very unpredictable. You just don't know."
Thorn says it was partly the energy of youth that helped her overcome her stage fright.
"I was so excited about the music that was coming out in the mid-to-late-70s onwards. The simplicity of making music, the idea that you didn't have to be technically proficient to be in a band. Just learn three chords and join a band."
"I overcame my shyness through determination. I remember being terrified onstage. I'd be trying to make chord changes and my hands would be shaking. I'd throw up backstage before a show."
Thorn says as a teenage music fan in the 1970s, she initially felt shut out of music, like the boys seemed to know or invent the rules. She describes it as feeling like she'd missed a meeting they'd turned up for an hour before her. So she just invented her own singular style.
"It's quiet music but with an insistence at its heart. It forces people to sit up and listen, I think that came from my upbringing. You don't have to make art out of the dramatic. It can be about the small moments in life, looking respectfully at the small details."
At one point in Another Planet, Thorn writes about the oddness of re-reading her old diary entries. How there are moments where she barely recognises the person who wrote them but other times when she is completely recognisable.
"It's quite weird. There's no hiding from a diary. Sometimes I could tell I was being dishonest writing things like, 'Oh, I didn't like that boy anyway.' I think I got upset when I saw I had been unkind. It felt important to leave that stuff in the book.
"I was inconsiderate about friends who might have been going through things. And I was harsh about my mother. Now I'm at my age, I understand some of the things she might have been going through."
While Another Planet, along with Thorn's first memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star (2013) may seem deeply confessional, we talk about the idea of the diary as an unreliable document. The power of the memoir is that the writer can make events vanish or unhappen simply by not writing about them, which is a kind of magical thinking.
"I think it's exactly that. There were some thoughts or feelings I didn't want to be happening. To see them written down in black and white was too harsh and brutal, and writing things down made them real."
Thorn laughs when I ask if there was anything in her diaries that surprised her, looking back.
"I was quite surprised by how many boys there were! And how I treated my boyfriends really badly. That surprised me. I had to reassess my whole relationship history."
While Thorn describes herself as shy and non-confrontational, a diary entry outlines how she once got so smashed at a party she started insulting a group of Young Conservatives. When it came to politics, she had a fire in her belly and reckons "Labour versus Tories felt like Punks versus Squares." Her mother volunteered at the local Conservative Association and Thorn remembers how the far right were "very present and very scary". She was at odds with her parents, her father would say, "Tracey's from another planet."
"Yeah, I was politically angry because I was growing up in an environment that was so [politically] hostile. My parents were very conservative. They weren't open-minded in their attitudes. I had a lot of pent-up political anger. We just couldn't discuss these things calmly and rationally."
She remembers the fury she felt when a girl at her high school was told to take off a Vote Labour badge.
"So shocking to suppress a young person's interest in politics. It'd be celebrated now. You'd be made head girl. You know, it still makes me angry now," she says, her measured voice rising.
Thorn, who writes a fortnightly column in the New Statesman and has already started writing her fourth book, says that musicmaking for her and Ben is intermittent now as she likes to have breaks from music to let new ideas form. And despite decades of commercial success, she still holds her punk DIY spirit close.
"Yeah I do. I still like to have a lot of control over what I do and that is borne out of that period. I've had a career that was commercially successful, but that involved compromise and collaboration. Now I'm back to the position, whether in music or writing, where I'm really only doing it for my own sake."
Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia, by Tracey Thorn (Canongate) $33.