Tracey Thorn: ‘There is pressure on women to sing in a way that is considered feminine’

The vocalist from Everything But the Girl has written a brilliant book about singing. She talks about finding her own voice and why she has no intention of getting back up on stage

Years ago, Tracey Thorn was washing her hands in a nightclub bathroom when she was approached by some strangers who asked her not for an autograph, but for a song. The girls wanted Thorn to sing a few lines of Missing, the song by Thorn's band Everything But the Girl, which had become a huge hit after it was remixed by Todd Terry in 1995. Thorn obliged, whereupon the girls squealed with excitement and told her, "You sound just like you!"

But what, exactly, does sounding just like yourself mean? In Thorn's brilliant new book, Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing, she draws on literature, interviews with everyone from Kristin Hersh to Romy Madley-Croft of The XX and her own 30 years of experience as a professional singer to explore what singing means to singers and their listeners, and to look at how singers create their own voices and practise their craft. As she points out, singing may sound natural and spontaneous, but it requires serious work.

And this work isn’t always acknowledged; it wasn’t until 1979 that singers could join the American Federation of Musicians as singers alone. “People do often assume that singing is just something that comes naturally,” says Thorn. “I think that’s because it’s something that more or less everyone does, or has done, even if they don’t think they do it very well.”

Classically trained singers may get credit for their craft, “but I wanted to point out that even in pop singing – which is essentially amateur, in that there is no formal training or qualification – there is still a lot of decision-making and thought involved. A lot of unacknowledged effort goes into making a good or an interesting singer.”

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Part of that effort usually begins with copying others. Thorn writes about how she emulated Patti Smith’s yelping before realising that wasn’t really her. How important is that sort of experimentation? “Very, and more or less inevitable,” she says. “We all start off by singing along with other singers, probably trying to sound a bit like them at first, and then gradually moving away from them, discovering or inventing our own sound. It can be a long process.”

Vocal authenticity

Thorn also looks at the dubious concept of vocal “authenticity”. Why does she think these ideas of purity are so venerated? “It’s partly just people’s basic distrust of pop music. There’s always suspicion about how manufactured and unreal it is . . . And with singers there tends to be this idea that any kind of manipulation is cheating.”

Singing has also, as Thorn points out, “been associated with ideas of morality and discipline, the sense that there is something improving about singing, but only if you do it properly”.

In the book, Thorn writes about "non-singers" such as Poly Styrene and Mark E Smith, who don't make an effort to sound "nice". Female voices are often presented as sweet or mellow, or at least pleasant. "I think that, as in most other areas, there is pressure on women to behave – in this case, to sing – in a way that is considered feminine," says Thorn. "Obviously lots of female singers have countered this idea, and I found them inspirational when I started. Even though my own voice isn't noisy or jagged, it's important to feel that anything is possible for female singers."

She points out that both male and female black singers are confronted by the assumption “that they will have a soul or R’n’B-inflected voice. I think black singers on talent shows can often be taken for granted; it will be assumed they can sing, and sing in a certain way, and the uniqueness of their voice might be slightly overlooked. Whereas when a white singer comes along who sounds very ‘black’, they can often get more credit, and their voice is treated as being more special.”

Thorn hasn’t performed on stage since 2000, and she writes beautifully about the effect of stage fright and the joy of singing on one’s own, just for oneself. But singing is still connected in most people’s minds with performing for others. “I suppose because people assume that if you can sing you would inevitably want to sing to people, to demonstrate how good you were,” she says. “It’s a puzzle to some people that there can be anything that gets in the way of this feeling, which is why I wanted to write about how complex it can be, and how singers can have such mixed feelings about that thing they do.”

Physical injury

Singing, like any craft, can be affected by physical injury or illness. How does the possibility of being unable to sing – or at least sing as she does now – make her feel? “Quite scared,” she says. “I had to go for a throat examination a few years ago, looking for a possible blockage, and I was very alarmed at the thought of anything being wrong. There turned out to be nothing there at all, which was an enormous relief. It wasn’t till I was confronted with the faint possibility of there being something wrong with my voice that I realised how much I take for granted it being there, and something I can turn to whenever I need to.”

Thorn writes evocatively about the power of singing in a group – at a festival, on a dance floor, at a party. Towards the end of the book, she considers going on a group singing weekend but decides against it at the last minute, fearing it might be even more stressful than performing on stage. “I still think I’d like to take part in some group singing at some point,” she says. “[It] just needs to be the right time and the right circumstances.”

But she still has no intention of getting up on a stage. Does she ever feel as though she’s missing out? “Not really. Don’t forget, I did do it quite a lot, for a long time, so I know all the ups and downs, the good things and the bad things about live performance. I have quite a realistic sense of what I’m missing, and some of it I’m very grateful to be missing.”

It's not as if she isn't busy. As well as making albums, she wrote the soundtrack to the recent film The Falling and writes a column for the New Statesman.

Has she learned anything from working on the book? “I certainly learned that many of the problems and anxieties I’ve always had about singing are also shared by other singers, so that was quite reassuring,” she says. “[And] it’s made me more forgiving of my own feelings about my singing, which in itself is quite freeing. Learning not to worry about my worries.”

  • Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing is published by Virago