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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: Channel 4
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Who will win Great British Bake Off 2017 based on the contestants’ Twitters

An extremely serious and damning investigation. 

It was morning but the sky was as dark as the night – and the night was as dark as a quite dark rat. He walked in. A real smooth gent with legs for seconds. His pins were draped in the finest boot-cut jeans money could buy, and bad news was written all over his face. “I’m Paul,” he said. “I know”. My hooch ran dry that night – but the conversation never did. By nightfall, it was clear as a see-through rat.   

Some might say that going amateur detective to figure out which contestants win and lose in this year’s Great British Bake Off is spoiling the fun faster than a Baked Alaska left out of the freezer. To those people I’d say: yes. The following article is not fun. It is a serious and intense week-by-week breakdown of who will leave GBBO in 2017. How? Using the contestants’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, of course.

The clues are simple but manifold, like a rat with cousins. They include:

  • The date a contestant signed up for social media (was it during, or after, the competition?)
  • Whether a contestant follows any of the others (indicating they had a chance to bond)
  • A contestant’s personal blog and headshots (has the contestant already snaffled a PR?)
  • Pictures of the contestant's baking.
  • Whether a baker refers to themselves as a “baker” or “contestant” (I still haven’t figured this one out but FOR GOD’S SAKE WATSON, THERE’S SOMETHING IN IT)

Using these and other damning, damning, damning clues, I have broken down the contestants into early leavers, mid-season departures, and finalists. I apologise for what I have done.

Early leavers

Kate

Kate appears not to have a Twitter – or at least not one that the other contestants fancy following. This means she likely doesn’t have a book deal on the way, as she’d need to start building her social media presence now. Plus, look at how she’s holding that fork. That’s not how you hold a fork, Kate.

Estimated departure: Week 1

Julia

This year’s Bake Off began filming on 30 April and each series has ten episodes, meaning filming ran until at least 9 July. Julia first tweeted on 8 May – a Monday, presumably after a Sunday of filming. Her Instagram shows she baked throughout June and then – aha! – went on holiday. What does this mean? What does anything mean?

Estimated departure: Week 2

James

James has a swish blog that could indicate a PR pal (and a marketing agency recently followed him on Twitter). That said, after an April and May hiatus, James began tweeting regularly in June – DID HE PERHAPS HAVE A SUDDEN INFLUX OF FREE TIME? No one can say. Except me. I can and I am.

Estimated departure: Week 3

Tom

Token-hottie Tom is a real trickster, as a social media-savvy youngster. That said, he tweeted about being distracted at work today, indicating he is still in his old job as opposed to working on his latest range of wooden spoons. His Instagram is suspiciously private and his Twitter sparked into activity in June. What secrets lurk behind that mysteriously hot face? What is he trying to tell me, and only me, at this time?

Estimated departure: Week 4

Peter

Peter’s blog is EXCEPTIONALLY swish, but he does work in IT, meaning this isn’t a huge clue about any potential managers. Although Peter’s bakes look as beautiful as the moon itself, he joined Twitter in May and started blogging then too, suggesting he had a wee bit of spare time on his hands. What’s more, his blog says he likes to incorporate coconut as an ingredient in “everything” he bakes, and there is absolutely no bread-baking way Paul Hollywood will stand for that.

Estimated departure: Week 5

Mid-season departures

Stacey

Stacey’s buns ain’t got it going on. The mum of three only started tweeting today – and this was simply to retweet GBBO’s official announcements. That said, Stacey appears to have cooked a courgette cake on 9 June, indicating she stays in the competition until at least free-from week (or she’s just a massive sadist).

Estimated departure: Week 6

Chris

Chris is a tricky one, as he’s already verified on Twitter and was already solidly social media famous before GBBO. The one stinker of a clue he did leave, however, was tweeting about baking a cake without sugar on 5 June. As he was in London on 18 June (a Sunday, and therefore a GBBO filming day) and between the free-from week and this date he tweeted about bread and biscuits (which are traditionally filmed before free-from week in Bake Off history) I suspect he left just before, or slap bang on, Week 7. ARE YOU PROUD NOW, MOTHER?

Estimated departure: Week 7

Flo

Flo’s personal motto is “Flo leaves no clues”, or at least I assume it is because truly, the lady doesn’t. She’s the oldest Bake Off contestant ever, meaning we can forgive her for not logging onto the WWWs. I am certain she’ll join Twitter once she realises how many people love her, a bit like Val of seasons past. See you soon, Flo. See you soon.

Estimated departure: Week 8

Liam

Liam either left in Week 1 or Week 9 – with 0 percent chance it was any of the weeks in between. The boy is an enigma – a cupcake conundrum, a macaron mystery. His bagel-eyed Twitter profile picture could realistically either be a professional shot OR taken by an A-Level mate with his dad’s camera. He tweeted calling his other contestants “family”, but he also only follows ONE of them on the site. Oh, oh, oh, mysterious boy, I want to get close to you. Move your baking next to mine.

Estimated departure: Week 9

Finalists

Steven

Twitter bios are laden with hidden meanings and Steven Carter-Bailey’s doesn’t disappoint. His bio tells people to tune in “every” (every!) Tuesday and he has started his own hashtag, #StevenGBBO. As he only started tweeting 4 August (indicating he was a busy lil baker before this point) AND his cakes look exceptionally lovely, this boy stinks of finalist.  

(That said, he has never tweeted about bread, meaning he potentially got chucked out on week three, Paul Hollywood’s reckoning.)

Sophie

Sophie’s Twitter trail is the most revealing of the lot, as the bike-loving baker recently followed a talent agency on the site. This agency represents one of last year’s GBBO bakers who left just before the finale. It’s clear Sophie’s rising faster than some saffron-infused sourdough left overnight in Mary’s proving drawer. Either that or she's bolder than Candice's lipstick. 

Chuen-Yan

Since joining Twitter in April 2017, Yan has been remarkably silent. Does this indicate an early departure? Yes, probably. Despite this, I’m going to put her as a finalist. She looks really nice. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.