A couple of years ago, I really enjoyed reading Tracey Thorn’s memoir Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Became a Popstar about her career as a solo singer and one half of Everything But The Girl. Earlier this year, I went to see her in conversation with Xan Brooks about her latest book ‘Naked At the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing’ at the Hay Festival. Rather than a second instalment of her memoir, it is a collection of Thorn’s more general thoughts and observations about singing which didn’t fit into the narrative of ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’.
Thorn’s varied career enables her to look at singing from a range of perspectives based on her experiences as a songwriter, recording artist and live performer, a lead and backing singer and also an audience member at live gigs. She explains in the Foreword that the book isn’t structured around a particular argument about singing. However, the short, sometimes fragmentary chapters offer interesting observations about different aspects of performing from microphones to singing in different accents to the use of Auto-Tune (of which she is in favour within limits).
Thorn refers to a broad range of bands and solo artists as well as fictional depictions of singers in literature and includes some interesting interviews with singers including Alison Moyet and Romy Madley Croft from The xx. She attempts to demystify some of the clichés and misconceptions about singing by relating to her own and others’ experiences. What constitutes an “authentic” voice? How do introverted performers compare with extroverted ones? What is it about singers that inspires their fans to treat them with reverential awe? How and why do singing voices change over the years? Thorn is particularly good at writing about the human voice without being too technical and drawing cohesive links between different genres of music and types of singing.
The title of the book refers to a nightmare Thorn once had about performing live in front of an audience: “No real need for Dr Freud to spend long analysing that one, you might think. You fear being exposed, do you? Thank you. Next.” (pp.112-113) While her account of her failed attempts to “cure” stage fright through hypnotherapy is very amusing, it was refreshing to read towards the end of the book that she has forgiven herself for not having performed live since 2000. Although Thorn defends The X Factor in one of the later chapters, she doesn’t outline her experiences in the format of a typical reality TV narrative based on a journey of self-discovery in which she suddenly regains enough confidence to sing in front of an audience again. Thorn still has no plans to go on tour.
Much like ‘Bedsit Disco Queen’, there is an excellent blend of wit, nostalgia and eloquently written personal insight about singing in ‘Naked at the Albert Hall’. Highly recommended.