Former Everything but the Girl singer Tracey Thorn finds creative inspiration in ordinary suburbs
When English musician Tracey Thorn was asked by a publisher to write an essay about her connection to some part of Britain’s wilderness, she didn’t quite know what to say. Thorn, best known as one-half of the band Everything but the Girl, had grown up in a not terribly rustic suburb and lived as an adult in London’s artsy, intellectual Hampstead neighborhood. So when she was asked, “Can you write something about forests or mountains?” she politely demurred.
But the notion of reckoning with her upbringing, and her native corner of the country, stuck with her. After all, as she says by phone from London, “I did grow up somewhere.”
Upon reflection, Thorn realized she could write something about her hometown, Brookmans Park, on the edge of London’s greenbelt — a place she describes as “kind of a village, but not quite a village.”
Like, say, the Inland Empire or the outer reaches of the San Fernando Valley, Brookmans Park was both its own place and tied to an enormous city. It also felt to her, as a teenager, like a blank spot on the map.
Besides describing her own misspent youth as an alienated, punk-loving kid, Thorn took her mission from John Updike — “to give the mundane its beautiful due” — and the English poet Philip Larkin, whom she describes as “so good at those little failures that accrue in people’s lives.”
But what if your hometown is — as Talking Heads described heaven — a place where nothing ever happens?
Like the negative of a photo, it’s as if the Technicolor version of life were happening elsewhere.
— Tracey Thorn
Thorn’s essay turned into “Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia,” out in the U.K. in February and spring in the U.S. Her literary career began in a strange and unintentional fashion that somehow suited her low-key, affect-less singing style. “When I wrote the first book, I didn’t think I was writing a book,” she says. After almost two decades with Everything but the Girl — during which the group moved from a jazz-folk hybrid to dance music, a hit remix of “Missing” and brushes with Morrissey and Massive Attack along the way — Thorn effectively retired from music and was raising children with bandmate Ben Watt.
She began writing that first memoir rather idly. “When I finished it, I put it away in a box and forgot about it for almost four years.” The resulting book, “Bedsit Disco Queen,” became a bestseller in the U.K.; she followed it with “Naked at the Albert Hall,” a book about singers and singing.
With “Another Planet,” Thorn was going for something more focused, and it took a while for the picture to become clear. “Like the negative of a photo,” she writes on an early page, “it’s as if the Technicolor version of life were happening elsewhere.”
But she soon found there was plenty to write about, from her own childhood to the punk scene developing a few train stops away. She also writes about the effects of time and memory. She researched Brookmans Park’s history and saw that its population plateaued around the time she was born in 1962, despite steady immigration from Britain’s former empire. “It got kind of stuck, frozen in time,” she says. “As those small places do, it became very inward-looking and tried to resist any change.”
Writing also helped her see why her parents, who had seen London bombed, would prefer exurban dullness; she learned, in her 50s, to see through their eyes. “But that’s no help when you’re a bored teenager.”
“It’s my essential way of dealing with the world. Trying to balance out my feelings of things — to find the truth of human experience.”
— Tracey Thorn
“Another Planet” is one of several recent books about famous musicians before they became famous. “Coal Black Mornings,” by Suede’s Brett Anderson, ends where most rock memoirs begin, as the band signs with a record label: Mojo magazine named it its music book of 2018.
Jeff Tweedy’s “Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back)” came out in November and includes more about his Rust Belt youth than iconic Wilco albums. Chrissie Hynde’s “Reckless” emphasizes her pre-fame era and ends a few years after she forms the Pretenders. Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning “Just Kids” describes her years working at bookstores and living with Robert Mapplethorpe; it fared far better than a sequel about her heyday. And Mark Lewisohn’s “Tune In” — perhaps the most celebrated recent band bio — chronicles the Beatles as Liverpool toughs and Hamburg punks who have yet to record an LP.
“I think often the more interesting stories come from the period before success and fame,” says Jon Savage, a veteran British music journalist and biographer best known for “England’s Dreaming,” on punk and the Sex Pistols. “The success and fame is fascinating but the long after-trail is always a bore.”
“In the past,” Thorn says, “rock memoirs tended to be about the decadent side — the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll.” More recently, “it’s this quest to get to the heart of the matter, to connect with the offstage persona.” And unlike the mythical generation of the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin, the post-punk era Thorn emerged from “was totally committed to deconstructing the image of the pop star.”
Thorn, who earned a master’s degree in modern literature during the band’s run, likes the way prose allows for depth and detail that songwriting limits.
This depth was important in making sense of her teenage years, her parents and the paradoxes of suburban life. “You can think about them and try to resolve them,” she says. “But these things can’t ever be really resolved.” She’s left, then, without hard stances but with what she calls mixed feelings.
“It’s my essential way of dealing with the world,” she says. “Trying to balance out my feelings of things — to find the truth of human experience.”
“Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia”
Canongate Books; 224 pp., $24
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