Saturday, 26 January 2013

A holy trinity of muses

The Saturday Times magazine held a nice surprise this week in the shape of an extract from the forthcoming autobiography of singer songwriter, Tracey Thorn, soloist and one half of the 80s group, Everything But the Girl.

I suppose we all imagine personal connections with our heroes - Joni Mitchell, for instance, gave me permission to be thoroughly miserable for no apparent reason, which was cool when I was an 18 year old undergraduate, in 1983. Her songs became the continuous backdrop to my university life, mixed in with only two other significant musical influences: Suzanne Vega and Tracey Thorn. There wasn't a boyfriend-related experience that wasn't eventually in some way woven into the compulsive songs of this 'holy trinity' of female musical muses.

I had most in common with Tracey Thorn - she was also reading English and graduated two years before me, in 1984, with a First (I  cannot claim this last distinction, I hasten to add). In that same year, she and partner, Ben Watt (together Everything But the Girl) released their first album, Eden, given me by Pete, former Catholic turned fundamentalist evangelical Christian, and a moderately good painter. He attempted to paint me when I turned 20, in the garden of our halls of residence, but he was more of a starter than a completer, and it remained a masterpiece in the making. Nice thought though, and I still have that cassette tape. Despite being alert to the hippest music, there was no spark of romance there.

Moving on, it was former boyfriend, Graham (who sadly became 'person with whom I cannot now string one coherent sentence together') who first alerted me to the fact that his idol, Paul Weller, had procured the voice of Tracey Thorn for a Style Council track called The Paris Match, a soporific jazz number to which Thorn's smoky vocal is entirely fitted, and which contains the wonderful lines: 

'I'm only sad in a natural way
and I enjoy sometimes feeling this way
the gift you gave was desire
the match that started my fire.'

As the fire went out from successive relationships, and burst out in others, I discovered her solo album: A Distant Shore, which had been released in 1982. Every song confirmed, of course, that I was right to be regularly confused over MEN, and helped me to discover the moody guitar chords with with to express my confusion. The album is minimalist, honest and haunting. She's young but has lived, is experiencing fame, but still feeling she's a 'small town girl'*, like I was (without the fame, obviously).

* title of first, and possibly best, track on the album.

I was also writing songs at the time, mostly in minors (or major 7ths, which are equally as miserable) and it did not come as a surprise to discover that one of my A major 7 creations, of which I was quite proud, was in effect an almost chord by chord re-working of Femme Fatale, which I used to sing a lot, proving that it is only the really gifted who are original ('you're written in her book/ you're number 37, have a look').

I went to see Everything But the Girl in 1984 - Reading University Student Union. In my fervour, I persuaded my best friend to come, but being in a sweaty, crowded gig did not help her agoraphobia one bit. In an attempt to repay her enormous effort, I went on a CND march in central London in her stead. My sense of self importance on that occasion was largely undimmed by my not having the faintest idea what CND stood for. 

Always the connoisseur's choice, Everything But the Girl eventually saw success on a large scale with the Todd Terry Remix, Missing, which went to number 2 in the US and had massive airplay all over Europe in 1995 and which I still think is dead good.

And Tracey became a mother, eventually choosing this role over a lucrative offer for EBTG to support U2 on their US stadium tour in 1997. The 90s was my baby phase too; I even sold my guitar to make room for baby paraphernalia in our small terraced house. I regretted it afterwards for a long time.

I admit that out of Mitchell, Vega and Thorn, Tracey is possible the lesser member of my holy trinity of muses, but the one with whom I like to imagine the most personal and abiding connection, for all the reasons above. 

Her book Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew up and Tried to Be a Pop Star is out on February 7th, 2013.


  1. Memories of moody music from New Hall corridor... Px

  2. I think I thought these were your Sunday sermons. But this week's leads me to believe I have been misguided. Though I am not sure that your musings on three of the greatest female vocalists in recent times (ahem.. recent if you're over 40) wouldn't be a whole heap better than most people delivered on Sunday in the sermon slot. Mind you I happened to be at St Lukes Holloway enjoying Dave Tomlinson in full flow expressing his fervent disbelief in hell...

  3. Have mixed feelings about posting sermons, though I do it from time to time. Thinking out a blog post operates on a different level from composing a sermon; should I be worried that I might prefer blogging to writing sermons? It's the one directional thing I find frustrating re sermons, though to be fair, there's been more feedback recently. Awake, congregation!! Not sure I can let go of hell as option yet......