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I’m back in the studio – and once again the songs are taking on a life of their own

At midday on Monday I want to tweet, “God, making records is fun!” and at  6pm  I want to tweet, “God, making records is hard!” 

Ben had a song on his last album, Fever Dream, which told the story of his years of DJing at the Plastic People nightclub – “Down on Curtain Road/I went looking for a little experience/Among the mohawks and the plastic glasses/A basement and condensation” – and it keeps running through my mind this weekend, because here I am on Curtain Road in Shoreditch, recording demos of my own new songs, and looking for a little experience.

Because I don’t tour any more there are long gaps between my trips into the recording studio, and in those gaps I don’t sing or play music very much, so that each time I pick it up again, I’m struck by how easy and how difficult it is. I slip back into a well-worn groove, but as usual it has unexpected bumps and sharp edges. And it’s not that I’m unprepared, because I’ve been building up to this for weeks and getting myself in training. I’ve cut my nails really short, and been playing guitar to build up calluses on my fingertips. I’ve been practising singing, which just means practising breathing.

I’m doing a short photo session as well, so I have a packing list for the first day, and it reads: black skirt, stripy T-shirt, Harrington, hair wax, hair straighteners, bulldog clips for T shirt, pasta salad, flapjacks, bananas, guitar, lead, tin with plectrums, lyrics. So no one can say I’m not ready for this. And yet it hits me again, that absolute worst moment on the first day of demos, when you have to sing the songs in front of someone for the first time, and you find out whether what sounded great at home now sounds utterly lame.

However many times you’ve done it, there’s still a mystery about the process. Where do songs even come from, and what should they sound like? I listen to other people’s music, though not as much as I used to, but even that’s not much help in making these decisions. I’m not always sure who or what I want to sound like. I’m not sure where I fit. Maybe I never was.

I wonder again how all my early songs appeared. I listened to Patti Smith and then formed the Marine Girls. I liked the Clash but then recorded A Distant Shore, which sounded exactly like the folk singer Bridget St John, whom I’d not only never heard, but had never even heard of. So what does influence mean?

At the demo stage, you’re always talking about what songs sound like, or should sound like – you need templates, reference points, places to start from, something to give you an idea of tempo and character. So you say, this one’s a disco number, this is a folk song; this should be the same tempo as X, this one is like Y, we need to make this feel like Z. And yet they never end up sounding anything like their starting points, which is both a relief and a disappointment. “Is that what I meant?” you ask yourself.

The best moment of this weekend comes when my producer Ewan Pearson says of one song we are working on, “We need to make sure it doesn’t sound like Sigue Sigue Sputnik.” That would be a first.

Apart from that, the days proceed in a familiar way. I do a vocal that’s very quiet, so the microphone has to be cranked way up high, and in between takes I can hear my clothes rustling and my jewellery jangling. I think I can hear my hair growing. One of the keys on the piano sticks and clicks, so that every time I play an A there is a faint “tok”, like the sound of a pencil gently hitting the floor. We can’t fix it, so I try instead to avoid the A every time I hit that particular chord, and in doing so come up with a chord inversion that is better than the original. Serendipity always plays a part.

At midday on Monday I want to tweet, “God, making records is fun!” and at 6pm I want to tweet, “God, making records is hard!” Songs sound great, then awful; you think you’re cool, then a hopeless fraud. In your head you hear something entirely new – magical music like you’ve never made before and you’re singing like you’ve never sung before – and then you listen back on your headphones and it’s you, once again it’s you.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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