Tracey Thorn, the singer-songwriter who rose to fame in Everything but the Girl, chats to Dazed about her poignant new autobiography
Tracey Thorn has a theory that what brought about some of the most radical, rebellious, and iconoclastic British musicians of the 70s and 80s was a shared post-war suburban upbringing. “It’s that thing of having something to kick against,” she explains on the phone, pointing to David Bowie and the punks, Siouxsie-Sioux and Billy Idol, as examples of artists with roots in suburbia. “It’s that thing of being outside the culture that’s going on in the city so you have to form yourself in an individual way. You’re looking in from the outside.”
In her new memoir Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia, Thorn explores her own childhood in 1970s Brooksman Park, a commuter town on the Green Belt. Not quite rural and not quite urban, Thorn felt like a fish-out-of-water, bored and fed up. In the book, she uses her teenage diaries to chronicle how suburbia, or rather rebelling against suburbia, formed her political and artistic ideals that spanned a musical career with post-punk girl band Marine Girls, electronica-pop duo Everything but the Girl, and collaborations with Massive Attack, as well as successful solo records.
Over the phone, Thorn explains how going back to the place she rebelled against, and was so desperate to escape, still felt like a homecoming.
How much of an impact did your adolescence have on you becoming a musician?
Tracey Thorn: In Another Planet, I talk about the idea of boredom, and that having as much to do with the time as the place. We were one of the last generations that still had very limited means of entertainment on offer. The DIY ethic of punk came from a place that was still lacking in widespread culture and entertainment. That limitation could be inspiring, and it made me think, ‘I’ve got to kick against this; I’ve got to find a way of making interesting things happen because it’s not being offered to me.’
Were you surprised by the version of yourself you found in your diaries?
Tracey Thorn: Sometimes. I’ve tried to be honest with the version of myself that was presented. I haven’t tried to put a good spin on myself. There are moments when I’m incredibly self-obsessed and unsympathetic towards people around me. Not very open-minded or progressive in my tolerance for other people’s mental health problems. And that’s probably inevitable for the time and the age I was, but I thought it was important to show the version of me that is there in the diaries and not shape it so that it looks like I was a rebellious, cool teenager and listened to all the correct records.
You describe some of the less charming things about growing up in Brooksman Park like the conservatism and acceptable discrimination. Did your anger over those things make you a political teenager?
Tracey Thorn: I just instinctively reacted against them. I hadn’t read anything about politics at that age and I didn’t particularly know what political theories I aligned with or anything, I just had instinctive feelings. I did get a bit of an education through the music press and bands, there was the whole rock against racism and anti-Nazism music movements. That was written about a lot in the NME and bands would talk about it in interviews. And it just rang true with me, I thought obviously that’s right, that’s the side to be on.
I did have that weird dislocation thing when you grow up somewhere and you’re not quite in sync with the place especially when you’re very young and haven’t experienced the wider world yet. You don’t know whether it’s you or the place that’s out of step. I think it was the place. (Laughs).
In the book, you describe certain class signifiers, like detached houses versus semi-detached houses, which is so specifically suburban. How did that impact your adolescence?
Tracey Thorn: I try and be a bit sympathetic to it when I’m writing now, or to my parents who were my closest example of it. I can see how they were sold this ideal and it was something very aspirational and it did make a kind of sense having lived through London in the war. I can see now why they wanted a nice house with a garden.
The danger was, my mum got trapped into this social climbing idea, getting hooked on things, not necessarily because they would have made her happier, but because it bought into ideas of status symbols. I think that’s because she felt detached from where she came from, not really in touch with her working class roots anymore but not posh either. My parents weren’t middle-class in that white-collar professional way. I think they felt trapped in that world and a lot of people in suburbia were the same. Everything was imbued with anxiety around their class and doing the right thing and not letting themselves down.
“The only kind of role models I had were women who stayed at home and were housewives. I was kicking against that” – Tracey Thorn
That anxiety you describe seems intrinsically connected to a lot of suburban places voting for Brexit.
Tracey Thorn: I suppose there is a through-line. When I went back to visit, I wondered what the vote had been here and then (thought) ‘Oh, I bet I don’t have to wonder’. And sure enough it was what I thought it had been. But the interesting thing with somewhere like Brooksman Park is that it’s an example of a place that is really doing very well and most people there are living a perfectly decent life so it (goes against) that notion that the Brexit vote was entirely shaped by people with no voice whose industries have been taken away from them. Those people I can kind of understand a need to rebel and wanting to be heard. But people in affluent suburbia, it’s just the same old thing of not wanting anything to change and wanting to go back to some fictional notion of what England is supposed to be.
You write that you think being a girl in suburbia was harder than being a boy. Do you think your experiences growing up made you a feminist?
Tracey Thorn: Yeah, it was very instinctive for me. The only kind of role models I had were women who stayed at home and were housewives. And my mum really bought into that, that the highest ideal for a woman was to get married, have kids. I was kind of kicking against that. But even I was left floundering and not knowing what I was aiming for because I didn’t have any examples in front of me. And then I started discovering women in bands.
Do you think your feminist identity and music identity are tied together?
Tracey Thorn: I do because it all came out of a rebelliousness. Rebelling against what had been mapped out for me that just seemed so boring. I was just trying desperately to find ways to make life more exciting. I just thought there’s no way I’m going to live my mother’s life.
When you left Brooksman Park did you attempt to reinvent yourself?
Tracey Thorn: I felt self-conscious about the ‘small town ways’ thing, and by that I mean being a bit unsophisticated. It’s bizarre because in some ways I had more experience than people I met there. I was in a band, I’d already released some music and was being written about. I’m sure to some people I looked like the glamourous one! But it didn’t feel like it to me. I met quite a lot of posh people. People who came from cities or people who came from the proper countryside. I felt exposed quite a lot.
What was returning to Brookmans Park to write Another Planet like?
Tracey Thorn: It was weird. The first trip I made back, it felt like I was going on some mad adventure. When I got off the train, I realised that it looked and felt almost exactly the same. I knew every turning and every building and that was quite weird because in my mind I had completely detached myself from it, completely rejected it. To walk back and think I do feel really at home, made me face up to it. It made me realise that I wasn’t going to write a book that was dismissive and scornful of suburbia and everyone in it. I was going to write a book to reconcile those feelings that made me feel that I wanted to get away from it and yet it was still a part of me.
Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia is published by Canongate; for more info on Tracey’s book tour, click here