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9 March 2017

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!” 

By Tracey Thorn

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?

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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.

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This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda