Tracey Thorn
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I started writing songs to block out the news – now I’m accidentally recording an album

There’s darkness all around, but music feels like light.

It was about this time last year that I started writing songs again. The flood of news that began last summer and hasn’t let up since had, at first, a demoralising effect, and then, quite suddenly, a galvanising one, reminding me that one way to counter negativity is to be creative.

Earlier this year I started recording demos; now here I am – three quarters of the way through what is turning out to be an actual album. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing when I started, but here it is.

And what a glorious counter it is to the continuing chaos and despair, and the news, news, news . . . inescapable. I keep thinking how lucky I am to have this option, an outlet for some of the feelings. There’s darkness all around, but music feels like light, and I’m loving singing again. In the five years since my last album, I think my voice has got deeper and faintly grittier, and I wonder whether that’s just age or something post-menopausal.

Best of all is singing the harmonies and backing vocals, double tracking with myself, answering the lead vocal. I think I would have liked to have been one of The Pips.

But it’s also the camaraderie of recording, the escape from the solitude of writing. Much of the time I’m at producer Ewan Pearson’s home studio in Walthamstow, and together we’re coming up with guitar lines and synth parts, stretching ourselves to the limits of our collective abilities. There’s a  DIY element to the process. Recording a vocal one day, we find we’re getting too much of the sound of the room, so we construct a little make-shift vocal booth by dragging two bookcases upstairs then draping a bedspread over them.

On election day we head to the studio that Ewan shares with Andrew Weatherall in Seven Sisters. Andrew is there, and what a lovely man he is, full of stories and jokes. He gets me to sign his vinyl copy of Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, and says he was only listening to it the other day and it still made him cry. We spend the day putting a vocoder part on a disco song and briefly forget all about the election and remember fun instead.

Other days we’re in the Strongroom in Shoreditch, surrounded by beards and coffee, and I’m recording a song called “Queen” when someone hands me a mug with “Queen of Shoreditch” written on it, like a good omen. And on yet another day we’re in the posh RAK studios, and you know it’s posh because there are plates of biscuits everywhere.

By now the record is taking shape and starting to develop a personality, which is quite synth-pop, and a mood, which is quite “up”. When I worked with Ewan a few years ago, we had a song that we described as “The Carpenters On Acid”; this time there is one we are calling “Shoegaze Phil Collins”, but those labels are for our own amusement more than anything else.

Pretty soon the logistics of actually releasing it will have to take over: coming to an agreement with the label and deciding on promotion; thinking of a title; having publicity photos taken and photos for the cover. I’m thinking about artwork, and about videos, and that sets me wondering – do people even make videos nowadays? I’ve been doing this thing so long, and yet it’s changed so much that I’m not sure it’s even the same thing any more.

But on the day Stella from Warpaint comes in to play drums, and then is joined for one particular song by Jenny Lee on bass and Jono from Jagwar Ma on guitar, the groove they get going is so hypnotic and euphoric that we record a full 11 minutes, even though the song is only four minutes long, and we’re all dancing in the control room, and I don’t want the song to end, or the day to end.

In fact, I realise, I don’t actually want to finish making this record. A quote from my student days comes back to me, from Troilus and Cressida: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.” That’s it entirely. I hope you like it, sure, but there’s nothing much I want to win or achieve or prove. It’s the making of it that I enjoy. I wish it could go on for ever.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 06 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn mania

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.