Finding one’s voice

Tracey Thorn: Unrequited Affection

Tracey Thorn: I've been a fan since we were both teenagers

Tracey Thorn: I’ve been a fan since we were both teenagers. (From

I’ve just finished Tracey Thorn’s new book Naked at the Albert Hall. Twenty four short chapters, each covering a different aspect of singing: the microphone, vibrato, breathing issues, stage fright and so on, and what have you got?  A perfect description of singing and being a singer.

The relationship between singer and fans gets a bit of a work out:

We feel so close to the singers we love – the delusion that the flow of understanding and knowing goes both ways; that the feelings engendered in our hearts, or brains, when we hear a song, can actually be experienced in return by the singer; that we know them and they know us in return; that the feeling is mutual. (Naked at the Albert Hall p107)

The way that vloggers on Youtube have distracted teenagers seems to stem from the same illusion of reciprocity.  And it’s peculiar that so many music lovers who feel this way about singers lose this need to connect with new voices as they get older, because for me the pleasure in connection never stops.  There’s music all over this blog for a start..

I’ve been a fan of Tracey’s since her solo album in 1982.  For a good 10 years, I told anyone who asked, and many who didn’t, that Too Happy was my favourite song (see below), and this is my favourite verse:

Just what has happened now I don’t know.  So happy 5 minutes ago. Laughing and talking of things that we planned.  Then a wrong word and you dropped my hand

But then I also bought Tracey’s albums when she was in the Marine Girls (on a double length cassette…), and most of the Everything But the Girl LPs.  I’ve been tracking the connections – she was was born 4 days after me, I almost went to the University of Hull where she went, and seem to see her out and about in London – a Rufus Wainwright gig here, sitting in the BBC foyer there – over the years.  Somehow I managed to avoid mentioning all this in the excitement of briefly meeting Tracey last year at my brother’s house.

Exciting for me.

It’s never bothered me that the love was always one way – the songs have given me too much pleasure to care that Tracey doesn’t know who I am.

These Early Days was played a lot when my children were tiny, Mirrorball helped me come down from my clubbing days, and Oh The Divorces! was some comfort (not much) when my marriage ended.

While music often appeals as a shared experience, ballads like these are personal, head-phones moments. So Tracey Thorn’s unwillingness to perform live is no barrier to enjoying her music.  I don’t need to watch her sing live.  As I reached the end of the book, I noticed that her paean to personal and private introversion reminded me of Susan Cain’s Quiet, and then she mentioned it herself.

But Thorn also puts her finger on the way music and TV can transport us when reminding us about Dennis Potter technique of using music in his dramas:

with the spoken word we usually stay within the realm of the real, the normal, the everyday. As soon as we sing, we move into new world; more fantastical, otherworldly, numinous. ..however shallow or meaningless popular songs may be, the emotions they evoke and trigger are not.

The songs become useful conduits for all the emotions that people cannot speak (p147)

While Everything But the Girl were releasing their sublime Baby the Stars Shine Bright, Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective was being recorded for release later that year. As we watched the hospital patient in Potter’s drama being transported into an imaginary song and dance routine, Thorn was using her music to turn mundane feelings – even misery – into things of beauty.

I was a backwater girl, home most nights, but that was before I saw my name in lights. Stardom and squalor were not dreams of mine, but I’ve seen the Hollywood Sign now and oh how it shines (A Country Mile)

Turn your back and lay to rest the ghost of your unhappiness that flits around from room to room, a widow on a honeymoon, a shadow on a harvest moon.  I write these words to make them true, I’ve drowned my torch and so should you (Shadow on a Harvest Moon, from Idlewild)

What goes for music – for young people especially – is the role that TV takes on later.  It makes simple things magic.  Even a banal piece of light entertainment is transformed when watched in the cosy environs of a family watching together. It may be shallow but our response can be profound, teeing up our emotions and bringing us together every bit as much as a banging choon can bond people dancing together. TV dramas provide an escape into a world of others: we become other people the way Little Voice becomes Judy Garland.  The TV is both a time traveller machine, and a means to possess the bodies, souls and voices of others. Thorn extends this idea to a popular singing programme she enjoys:

What we are doing when we watch The X Factor is watching ourselves.  Those untrained singers who take to the floor, they are us.  It could be me, you might think – or even it doesn’t have to be me, I can watch you doing it for me… they sing as us, often not much better than us, they are us.  We watch them go on a journey and again, they are going on the journey so that we don’t have to (Naked at the Albert Hall p 216-7)

Anyway, thanks again Tracey, and Ben, for taking me on a journey whenever I play your music.


P.S. Next book: Ben Watt’s Romany and Tom.