Ben and I were both surprised a few weeks ago to see an unexpected Tweet from the US rapper Tyler, The Creator saying he was listening to our first single “Night and Day”, a minimalist indie cover of the Cole Porter jazz standard recorded back in 1982. This was followed up by an interview where he said that he had almost asked me to sing a guest vocal on his new album:
“One of my favourite songs of all time is ‘Night and Day’, and I just love how it sounds… I wanted her on ‘November’, so that first singing part on ‘November’ was a reference to her, but I never went through with it.”
I say we were surprised, but then I listened to the track and I can see what he means – the opening verse has a vocal with a muted, mellow melancholy to it. I could have sung that, it would have worked. Anyway, those moments when musical opposites meet are the moments when the magic happens. Songs are partly about expression but just as much about connection – which is why we need them. It’s about seeing links between genres, hearing echoes that float through time and space, connecting songs and singers and listeners. When you’ve been remixed as much as I have – handing yourself over to someone else to see what they’ll do with you – it’s impossible not to be excited, especially when you get taken somewhere new and fabulous by Todd Terry or Underworld, Ada or Dillinja.
I think about all the guesting and collaborating I’ve done over the years, from Paul Weller to Massive Attack, Tevo Howard to the Go-Betweens. It used to be considered surprising, but nowadays it’s so much the norm that it’s a rare new track which doesn’t “feat.” someone else on vocals. And that’s a good thing. I like it when musicians break out of the bands they’re supposed to belong to, the box they’ve been put in, shaking off the label that’s been stuck on their back.
Tonight I’m here to see Jens Lekman play at Koko in Camden. In the 1970s, when it was the Music Machine, I saw Swell Maps here, and in the 1980s it was Camden Palace, where I saw Prince. Jens is quite like me: a bit bedsit, a bit disco queen. On the one hand he’s a ukulele-playing troubadour; on the other, he samples Ralph MacDonald, the Stylistics and Charles Mingus. His latest album is as dancey as it is introspective, and perhaps because of this, we’ve worked together a lot.
In 2009 we covered The Magnetic Fields song “Yeah, Oh Yeah!”, recording a slightly funereal version of this darkly funny Stephin Merritt murder ballad in a hotel room, on guitar and omnichord. Then he sang with me on Lee Hazlewood’s “Come on Home to Me” for my album Love and its Opposite. On that same record I had a song called “Oh, the Divorces!” in which I’d sneakily used Jens and his songwriting as a youthful counterpoint to my older, world-weary take on love and romance: “Oh Jens, oh Jens, your songs seem to look through a different lens/ You’re still so young/ love ends just as easy as it’s begun/ Now there’s kids to tell, and legal bills, and custody…”
Jens returned the compliment and wrote a verse back to me, in his song “Become Someone Else’s”: “What Tracey sang about me was true/ It all depends what lens you’re looking through, maybe/ But all I know of love I learned from you, Tracey”. Even that wasn’t the end of the story. In 2016, I joined him on a duet called “Hotwire the Ferris Wheel”, in which we play a couple on a night out who decide to “do something illegal”, breaking into the fairground for an illicit turn on the ferris wheel. Once again, we sing about singing : “I say, ‘If you’re gonna write a song about this then please don’t make it a sad song.’”
We’ve been having a conversation with each other for the past seven years, through song, about the process of songwriting. As I watch him on stage tonight, I think about how no collaboration leaves you unchanged; you always take away from it something new,
a slightly changed perspective, a little bit of fresh air.
This article appears in the 06 Sep 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s next move