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Tracey Thorn: "The question was always, 'Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?'"

The Books Interview.

On the cover of your book, Bedsit Disco Queen, Caitlin Moran describes you as the “Alan Bennett of pop memoirists”. What do you think she meant by that?
Thanks Caitlin! Essentially, this is a story about ambivalence, about wanting it [being in the spotlight] and not wanting it.

The question was always, “Do I fit in? Do I want to fit in?” There was always a tug between wanting attention and wanting to hide.

That ambivalence is also related to the aesthetic choices you made, isn’t it – the privileging of quietness and reticence?
It’s an argument I feel I’ve been having since the very beginning. I talk in the book about the early interviews where people would throw words like “easy listening” at us and I’d storm out of the room. I think, right from the beginning, I knew that what I was doing sonically couldn’t level people with sheer volume and bluster.

The cover of the book shows you playing the first guitar you bought – a black Les Paul copy. Were you aware of the iconography of that instrument, the sexual politics of it?
Well, no. As I try to point out in the book, I was much more innocent about it all. And ignorant – I didn’t even really understand how an electric guitar works.

When I look back now, I think, “That’s really revolutionary.” To be a girl and go and buy this thing just because you think it’s cool, when you haven’t even worked out how it works . . . In a way, just with that level of ignorance, you’re undermining all the seriousness and pre-existing iconography of the Les Paul guitar.

From very early on, you were struggling to find musical forms that could accommodate your desire to write raw, intimate songs.
In the Marine Girls, for instance, things were very rough and ready sonically and we were genuinely amateurish-sounding. So it was easy for people to see the rawness.

But I got a bit tired of that. I thought it was a bit of a dead end. As a singer, I could already hear that I had the potential to get a bit better than that. Inevitably, the records we made as Everything but the Girl became more polished-sounding and people lost the ability to say, “It’s punky because it’s rough-andready- sounding.”

Do you think you were misunderstood?
In the mid-1980s, we were writing often quite political lyrics but again they would sometimes be missed within the sonic setting. I do say something about coming on like the Gang of Four but sounding like Astrud Gilberto!

This was something that other people were wrestling with at the time, wasn’t it? Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, for instance.
Yes. He had come from the absolute outer limits of demystification and went as far as you could go in the other direction, in terms of pop production, gloss, appearance. It was a very bold journey to undertake.

As the 1980s progressed, a kind of political ambivalence set in.
It was difficult. We hit that point where I sometimes felt I was ranting on like an old harpy when everyone else had stopped thinking that argument was worth having. Then it struck me: “Is the ‘Should we or shouldn’t we go on Top of the Pops?’ argument actually over?”

One gets the impression that your career has been something that happened to you rather than being something you actively desired.
I didn’t start out wanting one. I’m sure there are people who started out genuinely believing in being pop stars but I honestly hadn’t thought about that.

Also, I don’t think we were a very careerist generation. We were much less organised than it seems to me young people are today. They’re terribly organised and ambitious and have everything mapped out. I think that’s because there’s less of a safety net now so you need to be organised. But we had the luxury of just bumbling along and assuming it’d all be fine.

Interview by Jonathan Derbyshire Tracey Thorn’s “Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to Be a Pop Star” is published by Virago, (£13.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on