Successfully infusing politics into pop music is no easy feat.
But Tracey Thorn, who is gearing up to release her latest album, “Record,” on Friday has mastered the subtle art of saying something poignant, true and perhaps startling about the world around her without the in-your-face trappings of the recent “woke pop” phenomenon that can smack of insincerity and, worse, have listeners reaching for the “next” button on their Spotify dashboards.
Thorn, who has been regularly releasing solo albums since Everything But the Girl, the duo she fronted with husband Ben Watt, went on a seemingly infinite hiatus in 1999, recently described the songs on “Record” as “nine feminist bangers” that explore everything from sisterhood to raising children to social media’s impact on love and longing.
During a conversation with HuffPost, Thorn chatted about her thoughts on gender as someone who was never a “girlie girl,” the radical nature of a pop song about birth control and putting her kids to bed ― or at least attempting to ― and why she’s so noticeably happy on Twitter lately.
When I consider “Record” as a whole, it sounds like the story of someone singing about what it means to be a woman at this particular moment in history. Where was your head at when you started writing the album?
I’ve got a notebook from when I started writing the lyrics to the album. I was just looking back at it the other day and I saw a page where I had written down these one-word ideas as if they might be song titles or song themes and it’s all things like “daughter,” “sister,” “mother,” “school,” “work,” “music,” “love,” “sex” — I was just writing down all of these things that might be milestones and roles in a woman’s life. And when I look at these songs now, some of them did end up following that track — I took an idea and went with that as the theme. I hate to use the term “concept album” but it definitely has a continuity in themes of the songs.
In the mid-’90s, Everything But the Girl was offered a highly sought-after spot touring with U2 and you turned it down because you wanted to start a family. You once remarked that after you happily made that decision, there was still this little voice in your head that kept asking, “Was that a really stupid move? Should we have said yes?” I’m assuming the album’s first single, “Queen,” was directly inspired by moments like that throughout your career.
I’m definitely looking back over my life and especially my career. The way everything happened wasn’t inevitable — it could have gone many different ways. Like most people, I have a curiosity about the other ways my life might have turned out. You’re right — when I was talking about that moment when we turned down the U2 tour, I do think it was the right thing to do. Still, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to think you’ve done the right thing but still wonder about what might have happened. It’s that “sliding doors” moment.
The easy follow-up question might be to ask, “Do you ever regret that decision?” but one of the things that most intrigued me about the album is that I don’t really hear any regret anywhere on it. Even though you’re looking back and considering what could have been, and maybe what should have been, there’s this remarkable confidence about ― and acceptance of ― where you’re at now.
There definitely isn’t any regret. I think there’s definitely a lot of confidence there. I’m also playing with this distinction between the confessional and the sense of being detached from that. I think in “Queen” it’s almost me being slightly detached from my public persona. This could even be another person wondering about my life. It’s me looking back at the public person I was. When I’m referring to things like the “backseat of a blacked out car,” that calls to mind the album sleeve of “Walking Wounded.” I’m stepping outside myself a bit and looking back at the public things that have made up my life. But you’re right — it’s not a point of view of regret. It’s a curiosity.
The song “Air” is one of the tracks on the album that feels especially personal to me. So many of the lyrics — like that plainspoken but incredibly telling line when you sing “I love the boys / but they like the girlie, girlie, girlie girls” — resonated with me as a queer person who has spent a lot of his life thinking about his own gender. How did you understand your gender when you were younger in light of you not being a “girlie girl,” and has that changed as you’ve gotten older?
Certainly in that song I’m looking back to how my perception of my gender affected me as a teen. At that stage, I found it profoundly frustrating. In some ways I was perfectly happy not being a “girlie, girlie girl,” but then it frustrated me that the boys I met who seemed to me to be the “cool boys” in every other respect — they had the right records and everything — but when it came to their notions of gender, they reverted to stereotypes. I find it so interesting to watch my kids’ generation growing up and dealing with this stuff. They seem to be moving forward on all fronts and really talking about gender and looking at it. They seem to really have a language for things. Sometimes people say you shouldn’t label things, but when you have words for things, you can start talking about them. That’s why I’ve been so interested in watching these conversations develop because I think they’re putting into words things that people have been thinking about for a long time but just couldn’t quite pin down.
When you realized that the boys you were interested in might not appreciate you and the traits that you embodied, did you ever try and change yourself or did you think, I need to start looking for a different kind of boy?
I suspect when I was pretty young, I tried my best to fit and to be appealing because that’s normal when you’re a young teen — you try to not stick out. You try to fit in. But then again, I had a lot of impulses that were pulling me away from trying to fit in — buying a guitar and wanting to be in a band immediately set me apart from a lot of the other girls. I was pulled in both directions. I didn’t want to not do the things I wanted to do just because that was considered feminine or whatever, so, while I found it frustrating, in the end, my impulse was to think, I’m going to do this anyway. The need to do it was stronger than the forces that were telling me not to.
The messages in the song “Sister” are so relevant right now with everything that’s happening — from the Time’s Up movement, to the Me Too movement to the incredible young women who are fighting for gun reform in Florida and other places in the United States. Was there a particular moment or event that inspired that song?
For me it was going on the  Women’s March in London. There was a sense of shock that a lot of women felt in the aftermath of all of the things that were said and discussed in the months leading up to the [U.S.] presidential campaign and I shared in that. When I went on that march, though, I came away feeling really positive. Just seeing the number of women who’d been prepared to actually take to the streets and make posters and banners made me think, These women aren’t going away. The forces racked against us are in power but that doesn’t mean the opposition disappears and there are a lot of us out here. I saw a poster someone was carrying that said “Fight Like a Girl” and I thought, Now that’s a good lyric. I need to get that in a song.
This is the first song of yours that feels to me like a tried-and-true fight song.
I think it just came out of that mood. It was very direct and I felt like what I had to say was straightforward in a way. Once I started with the verses, they tumbled out. I didn’t like I needed to go anywhere else.
Someone said something interesting to me on Twitter the other day. They said it’s almost like the woman who is singing “Sister” has revisited the woman who sang [Massive Attack’s 1994 hit] “Protection” and some of that same theme comes through, perhaps even clearer, and I thought, That’s really true!
Wow. This is blowing my mind.
Right? Think about the lyrics from “Protection”: “I’ll take on any man here who says its not the way its supposed to be. I’ll stand in front of you / I’ll take the force of the blow.” And it’s true — “Sister” feels like an updating of that woman’s point of view.
The most revolutionary song on the album, for me, is “Babies.” The last time I can think of someone singing about family planning in a pop song is Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach.” Obviously that was a very different take on the issue, but there’s something so groundbreaking about a woman singing so overtly about birth control and the potential she has in herself — literally in her body — to create something but for her alone to decide if and when she’s going to do it. I think that’s so radical!
So did I [Laughs]. When the opening two lines popped into my head — I didn’t know where they came from — I just thought, wow, these are the opening lines for a song — a song I’ve never heard anyone write. Once I started writing it down I just thought, this is easy! This is such a clear thing to say. Everyone knows that I’ve had my kids and stopped working when I had my kids and I loved being a mother but the whole reason I loved being a mother is because I was able to choose when I had my babies. I loved them precisely because I chose to do it — it was that freedom of choice to do that that made me the mother I am. So that was it. The story told itself.
Every morning of the month / You push a little tablet through the foil / Cleverest of all inventions / Better than a condom or a coil…
Lyrics from the song “Babies”
A few years ago you claimed that pop music is “exhausted.” Do you still feel that way? I wonder if one way to push pop music forward is to incorporate and present ideas and concepts that haven’t been written about before. Perhaps that doesn’t address the exhaustion of musical possibilities that you were primarily talking about but I firmly believe songs like “Babies” are changing pop music, or at least have the potential to do so.
I still stand by that. It’s very difficult to make a record now that people will go, “Wow! I’ve never heard a song like that before!” We’ve now have heard most of the sounds that are possible to hear. I don’t mean by that that people aren’t making good, interesting records. I think people are enormously creative and they do still make creative records, but it’s incredibly difficult to shock people with something sonic or a new arrangement. So, yes, maybe the least I can do is keep trying to introduce new subject matter and broaden what we’re allowed to talk about and what’s considered relevant for a pop song.
This morning I realized the reason I love your Twitter feed is because there’s so much joy coursing through it. So often people on Twitter are nasty or spend all of their time complaining but you’re too busy talking about a new TV show or book you’re enjoying. How has Twitter changed the way you experience not only your relationship with your fans but also the world at large?
I’m one of those people who started out absolutely loving Twitter. I wish it’d been around earlier in my career when I had doubts about things. I would have taken such a lot of support from being able to talk directly with people. So that was my first feeling with Twitter. And then, like a lot of people who have used it, I’ve also watched the way in which Twitter can be a negative place ― how it can turn against people suddenly and, in general, just the way it can be destructive and nasty. That made me step back a bit and think, Oh, OK. It’s not all sweetness and light here [Laughs].
You’ve said before that, fortunately, you’ve never had that specific kind of nastiness leveled at you on Twitter. Does that still hold true?
I’ve been pretty lucky, I have to say — and I touch wood as I say it because I think any of us can be subjected to attention from really nasty people — but I haven’t had any of the kind of experiences that I’ve seen other people — especially women — go through on Twitter. But the one thing that has changed for me about the way I use it is, you’re right, mostly positive. I think if Twitter is going to survive, it has to be the kind of place that people want to go because you’re going to find something interesting or something good that’s going to enrich your life or you’re going to have an encounter with someone and you come away from it feeling better. If it carries on being angry, furious, negative and hostile, I think people will eventually drift away from it because nobody needs more of that in their lives.
Since “Queen” was released a few weeks ago, you’ve been posting things on Twitter like, “It never is not exciting to hear yourself on the radio.” You’ve also shared a photo of posters you signed for fans and details about a meet-and-greet you have coming up. There’s something so charming to me about seeing how earnestly thrilled you are about promoting this album. Is that part of the job — after all of these years in the business — still something you enjoy or even look forward to?
I really do enjoy it. I have long breaks between records, so during that time my life can be very domestic, very home-based, and sometimes quite solitary if I’m writing. So, these little periods when I’m out more and I’m engaging with other people ― it’s a really nice interaction. But the other thing is that I’m really proud of this record and I’m really happy for all of the attention it’s getting and I’m happy to be telling people about it because when you’ve made something you’re proud of you want to say to everyone, “Hey! Listen to this! I’ve made something!” So that’s the kind of mood that I’m in at the moment. I’m going to try not to become a bore on Twitter trying to sell it all of the time [laughs] but for the time being, I do just want to keep saying, “You’ve got to hear this! I’m really proud of it!”
Here’s a look at what inspired Thorn while she was writing and recording “Record”: