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6 September 2019updated 08 Jul 2021 12:45pm

From my songs, people assumed I’m a sad, tortured soul. So I’m glad I started this column

By Tracey Thorn

It’s my five-year anniversary here. Five years of writing this column every two weeks. I still can’t quite believe it. At first the idea seemed terrifying, having to write to a deadline, on a regular basis – it wasn’t something I’d ever done before. But it’s turned out to be a brilliant opportunity to write in a different way. Columns aren’t songs, and songs aren’t books. They all ask something different of you, and give you a chance to use a different voice.

The other night, at a reading event, an audience member asked me, “How come you’re so funny, and yet your songs are so sad?” I replied, quick as a flash, “no one wants funny songs”, which got a huge laugh, but set me thinking afterwards. Perhaps what I meant was, I’m not very good at funny songs, which is why I’m happy to have other outlets where I don’t have to be so serious.

There are, of course, some absolutely GREAT funny songs – by Randy Newman, or Tom Lehrer, or Victoria Wood, or Stephen Sondheim – but you have to be a kind of genius to write them. Again, they’re more about wit than pure hysterical comedy. I’m thinking “Political Science” and “The Folk Song Army” rather than “Ernie” or “Shaddap You Face”.

And I can do the odd witty lyric here and there; sardonic couplets such as, “Every day’s like Christmas Day without you, it’s cold and there’s nothing to do”, or “He was a charmer, I wish him bad karma”. I wasn’t always a complete sourpuss. Even amid the gloom there are barbs, and the occasional sharp quip.

But people have been saying to me ever since I joined Twitter, and shared jokes, and was irreverent and silly, that they were surprised by who I seemed to be. My persona, as revealed in interviews and songs, had been seen as serious and reserved, shy and melancholy. Fans maybe admired me, but thought I wouldn’t necessarily be a bundle of laughs on a night out. I’d been a bit typecast.

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If that’s not who I feel I really am, then it’s a reasonable question: why are so many of my songs so sad?

I think it’s because, right from the start, I turned to songwriting as a means of expressing all the troubled thoughts, the fears and the pain that I couldn’t articulate in everyday language. I’d been brought up in an atmosphere where difficult things were not to be spoken of. Where darkness was glossed over with a joke. There was a lightness of tone to all communication, but also a feeling of repression. As a teenager at home, I remember a lot of truncated conversations. A lot of “let’s not go there”. So much was left unspoken. I learned to keep things secret.

And then I discovered songs, and it all came flooding out. Not that lyrics have to be completely specific. They can be elusive, but still capture a fleeting moment, a particular emotion. They’re good for expressing “This is how I feel right now”, without the need for context, or preamble, or what happens next.

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They peel back layers, and acknowledge that ultimately life is difficult, and often sad.

In everyday life, being funny can be a great deflector, a great way of changing, or lightening, the subject. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – it can be a good means of survival.

But when you write a song, you mostly stop cracking jokes. Instead you make contact with something inside, and put it into words, or not even words, just allow a voice to sound the way it does. I don’t have a good voice for jokes. Instead it’s all full of yearning, and angst, which probably even more than my lyrics, is why everyone has always thought I must be a sad, tortured soul.

Anyway, all this brings me back to why I love my column, which allows me to write in a different register. It’s a bit like keeping a diary, and we all know how much I love a diary. Except this one isn’t for my eyes only, and so it’s also like having an ongoing conversation with readers. I now have a record of the last five years of my life, and I’ve shared it with you, and you’ve shared things back. I’m grateful to everyone who reads it, and this might sound like a farewell but I hope it isn’t. I’m here as long as they’ll have me. 

Tracey will be discussing her memoir “Another Planet” with Kate Mossman at Cambridge Literary Festival on 5 April

This article appears in the 03 Apr 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit wreckers