Tracey Thorn and Dave Haslam at the Litfest 2015

Tracey Thorn with Dave Haslam

Tuesday 13th October 2015, Chester Literature Festival

Tracey Thorn came to speak about her latest book “Naked at the Albert Hall” on the night when the Man Booker winner was to be announced. She immediately revealed that she is a judge for the Baileys Women’s Prize for fiction, despite never having written a novel and having no plans to do so.  Nevertheless, as she pointed out, she has been writing since the 1970s, but her output is all songs and memoirs – and songs are fiction! (Or so she said.)  Her earlier book “Bedsit Disco Queen” came out in 2013 so the last four or five years have been particularly busy for her.

Tracey is perhaps best known as the female member of Everything but the Girl – the other half being her husband Ben Watt.  Here I have a confession to make: I had never heard of Tracey or Ben or listened to any of the groups she has played in or with. It is a tribute to her wit and personality that I thoroughly enjoyed the 70 minutes we spent with her, and I thank the person (she knows who she is) who suggested that I go.

Naked at the Albert Hall is essentially about singing and singers and in any musical group, she suggested, the singers have all the neuroses.  One of her own hangups is stage fright and she has not performed live for at least 15 years; indeed she also had a break from recording for quite a few years in the early noughties.  Now however she has a solo collection due to be released on 23rd October entitled “SOLO: Songs and Collaborations 1982-2015”.  It comprises two CDs, one of which focuses on her solo songs while the other contains collaborative work with the likes of Massive Attack, Style Council and the German band, Tiefschwarz.  Had I been a clubber, I would have recognised Protection and several other numbers. Dave Haslam pressed her repeatedly on whether there are any circumstances in which she might perform again – for example in small venues in front of strangers – but she insisted that this was very unlikely.  However, as a true artist and politician, she refused to rule it out.

One of the most interesting revelations was Tracey’s influences and heroes.  She spoke passionately about Kate Bush, Patti Smith, Siouxsie Sioux and – especially – Dusty Springfield.  I was surprised at her adulation of Dusty, whose songs (which I do know and like) paint an awful picture of female subservience to men. It must be the voice!  However she also spoke very positively about Poly Styrene who, Tracey asserted, had a fantastic stage presence without (and I paraphrase) any of the conventional skills and attributes that you might expect in a singer.

Finally I must record how funny Tracey was.  The audience was particularly taken with her story of the day when her teenage daughters found out that she had recorded with John Grant (if you don’t know – look him up).  Thank you, Tracey (and Dave) for a really engaging evening and for opening my eyes to a whole new scene.  It would have been even better had we heard (recorded or live) some of your songs  – I had to rely on Spotify when I got home to discover what I had been missing.  Thank you Litfest, for an inspired invitation to a great speaker.

Peter Goodhew