Tracey Thorn released a solo album once before. But while 1982's A Distant Shore has recently been dubbed "the greatest album you have never heard," you're probably more familiar with the singer from her collaboration with Massive Attack and long-running stint in Everything But The Girl, a duo formed with partner Ben Watt.
Though initially taking their cues from jazz and folk, EBTG quickly absorbed influences from house, drum & bass, and techno, eventually becoming downtempo stalwarts in the 1990s. Their longevity was largely due to their versatility–EBTG tracks worked on the dancefloor (thanks to remixes by Todd Terry, Adam F, and Kenny Dope), were the perfect soundtrack to the comedown on the car ride home, and could be played on adult contemporary radio. Unlike other dance music divas, obscured by effects and remix tricks, Thorn's penetrating voice–tender, mournful, but strong–and longing lyrics have always been the driving force of every track she's involved with.
Eventually, Thorn relinquished pop music for motherhood, and had little intention of stepping back into the singing game. But a collaboration with Tiefschwarz ("Damage," from their Eat Books record) and a query from Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant as to why she wasn't singing any more changed her mind. Last year, she started work on her first solo record in two and a half decades.
Thorn was adamant that Out of the Woods be her own effort, not another Everything But The Girl album. "There are loads of reasons," she explains. "Ben [Watt] is so busy with DJing and running [house label] Buzzin' Fly. He is more motivated than me and has more time to spend concentrating on music, so I feared that he would 'take over' and it would become his project, though I don't mean that in a nasty way. I'd got into the habit of being a bit lazy when I was working with Ben and I wanted to set myself more of a challenge, see if I could do it by myself. Living and working together is not easy and now we have three kids, too. I was worried when there was gonna be time for us to be just 'us', not 'Mum and Dad' or 'EBTG.' Something had to give."
Thorn tapped out emails to a series of potential collaborators–including Darkmountaingroup's Alex Santos, Vector Lovers' Martin Wheeler, and Furry Phreaks' Charles Webster–asking if they'd be interested. Everyone said yes. Her main collaborator turned out to be Ewan Pearson. "I was drawn to him because of his good looks and charm plus his fabulously gay record collection which, like mine, is stuffed full of Dusty Springfield, Rufus Wainwright, and the Pet Shop Boys," says Thorn.
"Once we started working together' realized Ewan was very versatile, very open-minded, and keen to try new things all the time," she continues. "He was very supportive of the idea that it should be my record. He kept encouraging me to play things myself and bring myself to the fore. He also made sure there was cake provided at some point in the afternoon and put a glass of wine in my hand as the evening approached.
Thorn also recorded two tracks with Cagedbaby's Tom Gandey, whose own deconstruction of '80s pop, Will See You Now (Southern Fried), has drawn comparisons to Depeche Mode, Talking Heads, and Prince.
"Tom was amazing to collaborate with and so generous with his ideas," enthuses Thorn. "One day I was down at his studio, and as I was leaving he said, 'Oh, here, take this CD; it's got a few new tracks I've been working on. See if there's anything you like.' When I got home' found there were around 20 tracks on it. He has no concept of hoarding his best ideas."
"I was honored to work with Tracey," reciprocates Gandey. "EBTG were a massive inspiration on me and my friends. I remember sitting in my car at the top of a hill listening to Walking Wounded over and over again thinking 'This is what I want to do.'"
Emotion and Light
Despite the involvement of notable dance music producers, Out of the Woods isn't exactly a dance album. (Thorn uses the idiom "bedsit disco torch songs" to describe its tracks.) It exists on the periphery, skirting the edges of the dancefloor and only occasionally jumping right in. Titles like "Raise the Roof" and "Hands Up to the Ceiling" might seem like obvious signifiers for hot disco action but turn out to be decoys. The former gurgles pleasantly rather than incessantly raving; the latter is a muted and somber elegy to a record collection. Thorn covers Arthur Russell's cosmic disco masterpiece "Get Around to It" with aplomb, harnessing sax blurts from The Rapture's Gabe Andruzzi, but the highlight is "It's All True," which resuscitates the vibe of '80s New York via Berlin and West London.
"It's All True" was co-written by Darshan Jesrani of Metro Area, whose self-titled 2002 album was a big influence on Thorn. By happy accident, Jesrani happened to be staying at the Berlin home of Klas Lindblad (a.k.a. Sasse) when Ewan Pearson came by with a synth and they "all got down to making a track." Via email from New York, Jesrani describes the collaboration process as: "One, make a track. Two, forget about it. Three, be surprised and delighted when it comes back to you with a hot lead vocal that sews it all up."
"There was a general vibe I had in mind while making the track," explains Jesrani, "It was sort of early/mid-'80s New York club music: funky but a little cold, and as emotional as the awful production allowed it to be–which resulted in a sweet but alienated feeling. The sound is about heavy dance rhythms juxtaposed with a moody, sort of new-wave aesthetic. Framing it that way makes the fact that Tracey sang on it even more appropriate and serendipitous. On the other hand, her vocals are more lush and are good and in tune, which probably disqualifies it from being a genuine mid-'80s NY club record."
Thorn also admits to being influenced by the solo work of former Moloko songstress Róisín Murphy. "I did really like the album Róisín did with Matthew Herbert a year or so ago," says Thorn. "I kept thinking how much 'light' there was in it, both in the sense of being 'bright' and also 'not heavy.' I think that quality became something I was keen to capture [on my album]. There are images of light throughout the lyrics, and even the title, Out of the Woods, refers to this."
This lightness is a change from the mournful songs Thorn penned in the past; tracks like apology anthem "Wrong" and the heartstring-tugging "Walking Wounded," for instance. But Thorn seems more unburdened now (as least as much as she'll ever be), and quite proud to still be relevant nearly 20 years later.
"I feel like something of a survivor really," she declares. "I can't really think of many people who were my contemporaries when I started who are still making music at all. I feel like I've witnessed at least two or three generational clear-outs! It makes me feel kind of old but also a bit untouchable–like I'm not really competing against the people who are making music now because I'm already established as who I am. That's quite a good feeling."
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Producer Ewan Pearson talks about the making of Out of the Woods.
XLR8R: What were your thoughts on Everything But The Girl?
Ewan Pearson: My favorite EBTG record was actually their cover of Rod Stewart's "I Don't Wanna Talk About It." I also loved the Walking Wounded LP and the Massive Attack collaborations, of course. I think that the lyric to "Protection" is one of the most incredible pieces of writing in pop ever. People always talk about how great Tracey's voice is but consistently underestimate what a brilliant writer she is.
How do feel about Tracey now?
Oh, I'm going to sound gushy and ludicrous. I'm just really lucky to have worked with someone who is as lovely as they are extremely talented. It was enormous fun from start to finish.
The most important thing is to listen to what the artist wants to do and the ideas they have, because that's what is going to make me decide whether I'm even the right person for the job before we start. And it's from these discussions that I start to get ideas about what I might bring to things. I got held up a bit doing The Rapture, so we spent a long time talking before we really got stuck in, and that was quite valuable.
Describe the process of working with Tracey.
A lot of iChatting, a lot of talking about books, records, celebrity trivia, and making crap puns–some hanging out, drinking gin, and eating cake. I think for a while she thought I was a feckless bullshitter that just talked a good game. I got nervous and procrastinated a lot and then came up with most of my work in brief, sudden flurries of activity, throwing ideas out right at the last minute. Once we got cracking, the studio sessions were really good fun. When everyone's comfortable and enjoying themselves, that's the best bit, and they go far too quickly.
And then I spent ages editing and adding and doing the finishing touches. I tried to put off the mixing dates and drove everybody mad. I'm either pontificating about things in abstract and putting off actually starting, or I'm getting really psychotically obsessive for 16 hours a day and running myself into the ground. There's no halfway.
Is there a record that influenced how you wanted Out of the Woods to sound?
There's not one, really, and we certainly didn't follow a template. When we first met, we quickly realized that we had so many records that we loved in common: Nico, The Blue Nile, Pet Shop Boys, Richard and Linda Thompson, Blossom Dearie, Arthur Russell, Feist, Electribe 101, Scritti Politti. I was only really clear about one thing in my mind: that I didn't want any electro-house in there at all. The dance tracks we did are about that post-disco/pre-house hinterland of the mid-'80s–all Shep Pettibone, Larry Levan.
Tell me about the "mum test."
Well, my mum is a very good judge of whether something is good or not, and quite forthright in her opinions. I remember taking her the finished Rapture album and the Tracey demos, which were rough as anything. A couple of weeks later she rang me and said that, although she liked the Rapture album, the Tracey stuff was all she was listening to and I had "better not fuck it up."