Good vibrations: Tracey Thorn’s new book crushes our ideas about what makes a good singer

Naked at the Albert Hall is a history of singing that hums with freshness and passion.

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Naked at the Albert Hall: the Inside Story of Singing
Tracey Thorn
Virago, 256pp, £16.99

The first time I heard Tracey Thorn, I was ten and tiny at a till in a provincial supermarket. Her voice was a magical portal to a state of sophistication and grace, like treacle over posh chocolate. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she crooned. “If I stay here, won’t you listen . . .” Only my mum wouldn’t let me. That summer in 1988, when Everything but the Girl reached number three in the charts with their sleepy cover of the Rod Stewart hit, Thorn wasn’t singing to me – but that’s how people like us think of people like her.

“When we respond to a singer, often we don’t really see or hear the actual person. We see and hear an imagined version of them, a projection of our own needs and desires.” So Thorn writes at the start of her second book, reminding us that we have lungs, tongues and teeth just like the singers we worship and how, as a consequence, we feel closer to them than to bass or tambourine virtuosos. Hold up, though, writes Tracey. Cut it out. Think again.

Thorn, who has a fortnightly column in the NS, is in the business of bursting pop myths one at a time. Her first book, Bedsit Disco Queen (2013), laid the groundwork. A surprised look at her so-called pop life, it spanned her teens making bedroom tape pop with the Marine Girls (Kurt Cobain was a huge fan, which still shocks her); meeting Ben Watt, who became her band mate and husband (they released ten albums together, six apart, and now have three teenage kids), at Hull University; and their brief, blustery brushes with international fame – one being the song I caught in the queue, the other the transatlantic smash “Missing” in 1995. This was also a memoir by a woman who “wanted to be heard without having to be heard” but make no mistake – there was a streak of stridency behind her subtleties.

In her new book, Thorn debunks the myths of the singer’s instrument in raw, phlegmy detail: the primary function of the vocal tract is actually to be “one of several lines of defence against choking”, for instance. Her style is matter of fact, no nonsense. She laces together references to Willa Cather, George Eliot and Roland Barthes without sounding pompous and is good at presenting arguments in crisp, funny lines. “As singers, we are not only working with a mechanism inside our own bodies, but a mechanism that isn’t even really intended to do what we try to make it do,” she continues, waving her metaphorical chalk. “It’s like trying to use a cheese grater or a vacuum cleaner to make music, and doesn’t this make singing seem both mundane and heroic?” More fresh thoughts follow.

Thorn crushes our ideas about what makes a good singer. She has weak lungs, a pronounced underbite (one doctor suggested that she required a broken jaw) and asthma gained in her twenties from cats. We are told how singers with the greatest voices aren’t always happy with them – Dusty Springfield, for example, used to turn up her voice so loud when she was recording that she was, in essence, “singing into a void”. Meanwhile, Karen Carpenter, who was originally a drummer, didn’t want to go centre stage: “She hadn’t known what the rules were, and had never signed up to them.” Women’s doubts haunt this book like notes vibrating in the air. Nevertheless, Thorn pierces the ideas of stage fright (including hers) being born of vulnerability and of dysphonia – the inability to sing, which the folk singers Shirley Collins and Linda Thompson have suffered from – arising from hysteria.

There are chewy sections in which she meets other singers to debate the craft without pretension. The list is largely indie: the American singer Kristin Hersh, the wayward British pop singer Green Gartside, Romy Madley-Croft from the xx. “A lot of people sing better than me,” Madley-Croft says. Thorn replies, “That’s how I feel, too.”

The book has a searching spirit that feels ego-free, admitting to its flaws, such as when Thorn tries to describe a singer’s voice: “Ugh, all the same old words, and they won’t do, will they?” For me, a critic who barely reviews records any more by choice, that rings too true. She also has a facility with language that makes me want to hand in my freelancer’s P45. “A sneering engine of a voice levelled straight at your forehead” perfectly captures Liam Gallagher. “Gender-neutral, expressive without being melodramatically emotional and rebellious without buying the rock notion that rebelliousness was inherently masculine”: spot-on John Lydon. “Often accused of emulating black singers, but really, who? It’s a cartoon of a black singer, painted on to a balloon and then inflated, then put through a mangle, then through an amplifier”: one of the greatest descriptions I’ve heard of Mick Jagger. Thoughtful, funny, not overthought, just right . . . Bloody singers.

Thorn defends her passions enthusiastically, too – watching The X Factor, or singing in an Americanised accent, things that some people may think are weird. Ditto, not wanting to sing live any more: “I do sing, it’s just that quite often, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest, there is no one there to hear me.” We can hear her now, albeit in a different register. She wants to talk about everything and I’m still listening. 

This article appears in the 24 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, What does England want?