Tracey Thorn: ‘I went through a phase of carrying Camus under my arm’

The musician on rereading her teenage diaries and why she’s now a fervent fan of Jack Reacher

Tracey Thorn began her career as a singer and musician, before becoming best known as half of Everything But the Girl, with her lifelong partner, Ben Watt. She then became a solo artist, and a writer of three bestselling books: her 2013 memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, 2016’s Naked at the Albert Hall and Another Planet, published last year, which traces her years growing up in London’s suburbs, and is out in paperback on 6 February.

How does writing about the 1970s world of Another Planet feel now?
My own kids can’t imagine how we ever survived when I tell them about staying in all evening waiting for a phone call from someone, who you’d then arrange to meet under a clock tower in a nearby town, only to have the bus cancelled and not be able to get there. The thing that strikes me now is how locally rooted our lives were. Without the internet, we had no access to other people in other places, so we did a lot of dreaming and a lot of fantasising. The rest of the time, we just tried to avoid dying of boredom.

Your diaries fill the book. They’re hilariously unpoetic: about clothes you failed to buy, Coronation Street episodes, unsuitable boys. What surprised you about them?
How dishonest they are in places. Given that I was only writing them for myself, I didn’t often take the opportunity to express my true feelings. Instead, I lied, and put on a brave face. “Never fancied him anyway,” I’d write when a boy dumped me. I’d leave out things that had gone wrong, or been difficult. I think it was partly an exercise in defiance, a refusal to be defeated by life’s adversities. So in that sense, my diary was a bit of a self-help manual, written by me, for me.

The book is also about your parents, and how wildly their lives and expectations differed from yours. You mention your father saying “I never knew Tracey was so into music” after you wrote your first memoir Bedsit Disco Queen. What was it like to trawl those memories?
My dad barely features in my diaries, as I think we were quite distant at that time, which perhaps goes some way to explaining how little he knew or understood me. We weren’t connecting, and I think he lost sight of who I really was. As for my mum, we had been very close, and then fell out badly when I rebelled against all the rules and conventions. Some of the diary entries I found very painful to read. Accounts of ugly rows. Tears and shouting. The casual way in which I mention that she has been put on Valium by the doctor.

Another Planet celebrates female musicians that offered you a way out of ordinary life. How have the memoirs of several you mention – like Viv Albertine and Chrissie Hynde – inspired you?
It’s been fantastic to hear the true life stories from those women. So often the story of rock’n’roll is told from a male perspective. So often it feels like men own music. And I still get as angry and frustrated about that as I ever did. Reading those women’s accounts of their lives has reminded me how much they paved the way back then. And history too often erases the women, in all art forms. Every single published story of a female artist goes a small way towards redressing the balance, and is another one saved from the fire.

You write about pop stars that emerged from the boredom of suburbia, like David Bowie and Siouxsie Sioux. Do we need more boredom?
No, I would never impose boredom on anyone. Life is short and it’s a shame to spend some of it feeling trapped and thwarted. I know that it can be an inspiration to some people, and spur you on to make things happen, but at the same time it can also just drag you down. Sometimes it crushed our imaginative spirit. Sometimes it made us reckless, and for young girls that was risky. We’d do anything to escape being bored, and that wasn’t always good for us.

Has your songwriting changed as you’ve written your memoirs?
My last album [2018’s Record] definitely has a memoir-ish vibe to it. It’s a record of a woman’s life, detailing the things that often get glossed over in songs - things like body image, and going on the pill, and the realities of being up all night feeding babies, and the fact that even once you’re older, and a mum, and supposedly the embodiment of everything that’s safe and cosy, you don’t lose your desire for excitement and euphoria, which for me is often to be found on the dance floor with a glass in my hand.

Which books about suburbia have you enjoyed?
Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia is amazing. Also, when I had just finished writing Another Planet a book was published by John Grindrod called Outskirts: Living Life on the Edge of the Green Belt. I panicked and asked my publisher to read it for me, fearing that the book I had just written was going to be an exact copy of this one. Luckily it isn’t, although I have only recently dared to look at it. It is very worth reading.

Which writers did you like when were young that have stayed with you?
My reading habits as a teenager were a bit skewed by trying to impress, if I’m being honest, boys. So I went through a phase of carrying Camus and Sartre under my arm, thinking that would be irresistible. I also fell hard for Kerouac’s On the Road, which spoke to my yearning for freedom and travel and drugs and sex and all the rest of it. I daren’t read it again now in case I don’t like it any more. The writer I loved as a teen who has most stayed with me is George Orwell.

Which genres do you particularly enjoy reading that might surprise us? Are there any you avoid?
Quite recently I discovered Lee Child’s Jack Reacher books and I have become a complete addict. I read the first four in what seems like a few fevered days, and I am looking forward to reading them all. Absolutely adore the economy, and the plotting, and the sheer sense of energy that runs through them.

What’s the last really great book you read?
Dependency by Tove Ditlevsen, which is the third part of her Copenhagen Trilogy. She was born in 1917, a working-class girl in Copenhagen, and grew up longing to be a writer. These books tell the story of how she made that happen, but also her struggle with drugs and alcohol. Her writing is incredible, so focused and clear. Not a word that doesn’t need to be there.

What do you plan to read next?
I’ve got a “to read” pile in the kitchen, and on it at the moment are Funny Weather by Olivia Laing, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd, and The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante.

And what book would you give to a teenager?
I’ve never liked being prescriptive with any of my kids. They should read whatever they fancy. Having said that, I just gave our 18-year-old Kevin Barry’s Night Boat to Tangier and he’s really enjoying it.

• Another Planet by Tracey Thorn is published by Canongate (£9.99). To order a copy go to Free UK p&p over £15


Jude Rogers

The GuardianTramp

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