Everything But The Girl: 'We come up with our best ideas when no-one's bothering us'

On a cold, grey afternoon in early March, Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt are dressed for wintry weather. There is, however, much to look forward to, with the imminent return of their band, Everything But The Girl, after 24 years in hibernation, and the conversation is thoughtful, bright and optimistic.
Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl. Picture: Edward BishopTracey Thorn and Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl. Picture: Edward Bishop
Tracey Thorn and Ben Watt of Everything But The Girl. Picture: Edward Bishop

Reaction to their comeback single, Nothing Left to Lose, dropped as New Year surprise, was warm and as the release date for their 11th studio album, Fuse, draws near, two more songs, Caution to the Wind and Run a Red Light, have kept the momentum going.

Having for years sounded ambivalent about the prospect of an Everything But The Girl reunion as they were busy pursuing solo work, the married couple, who are both now 60, explain that they found themselves contemplating a full-scale musical reunion while confined to home to during the pandemic.

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“Both of us had to stop what we were doing – Ben quite literally because he was out touring with a solo record, that came to a halt – so then, as everyone else did, we tried to carry on as best we could, doing what work we could from home on Zoom etc, then at the end of it I think we were both faced with that question of ‘What now? Are we going to carry on as we were or is the opportunity to embrace a moment of change and do something different?’,” says Thorn. “The obvious thing that struck me was why don’t we try working together again.”

After toying with the idea awhile, they decided to keep things low key. “Even when we started it was in the spirit of ‘let’s just see what happens rather than committing to a big announcement (that) we’re reformed the band, we’re in the studio’,” Thorn says.

“When we came together we started at quite a low base, low expectations, with really nothing on the table,” says Watt. “Tracey said to me, ‘do you have any music that could be a starting point?’ I was isolating a lot because I was shielding (Watt has the rare auto-immune condition Eosinophilic granulomatosis with polyangiitis), but I tried to get myself to improvise. I would set my voice memo going on the piano and then would play and hoped to capture something interesting. So I had a load of these improvised recordings, chord movements, fragments of ideas, and I just sifted through them at the beginning of the album process and said ‘Look, I have some of these’.”

Out of those piano improvisations emerged such down-tempo tracks as When You Mess Up, Interior Space and Lost. “The record started off really very atmospheric and down-tempo,” says Watt, “and we wondered whether this was the route it was going to take, but gradually the confidence grew and we realised that we really did click in the studio like we used to, there was a kind of shorthand between us.

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“I think as the confidence grew, so the pulse and the momentum of the record started to pick up and we started to add beats. I suddenly remembered that I know how to programme these records, I’ve remixed Sade, I’ve recorded Walking Wounded, I’ve worked with Beth Orton. I’d kind of put that all to one side to do all the guitar-based stuff (on his solo records) over the last few years, but it was a bit like getting back on a horse.”

Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn of Everything But The Girl. Picture: Edward BishopBen Watt and Tracey Thorn of Everything But The Girl. Picture: Edward Bishop
Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn of Everything But The Girl. Picture: Edward Bishop

After being in charge of her own musical destiny for two decades, Thorn actually found having to compromise refreshing. “We were both a bit nervous, having worked solo for a long time,” she says. “You think ‘How is it going to be? Are we both going to be involved in tussles for who’s in charge?’, but I think we both experienced something of a relief to have someone else’s input, someone else’s ideas, sharing the decision-making, so it worked very easily.

“During the years when we had the kids at home and we were raising a family, one of the reasons we didn’t work together was because we thought it can be stressful. Compromising, the endless having to agree on everything, it’s demanding on you, and we felt being a couple, being parents as well, then trying to agree on work, it was probably too much. But now our kids have left home, we’ve got a bit more time and space, and I think we were just in the right mood, really, to get back to sharing the process rather than feeling ‘Right, I want to do this on my own’.”

In keeping with the band’s tradition of changing direction with each album, Watt was keen to ensure that Fuse sounded contemporary. He explains: “I listen to a lot of music, I make a lot of public playlists, I’m the kind of guy who Shazams a passing car, I’m always interested in things. As soon as we sat down to work I wanted to bring in new ideas, new production things that had perhaps happened in the interim between Temperamental and what we were doing now.

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“A lot of experimentation that’s gone on with vocals in production – auto-tuning, pitch shifting, things that are very commonplace in artists like Kendrick Lamar and Frank Ocean but they weren’t so commonplace back in the 90s. Things like that became interesting, what could we do with Tracey’s voice? I’m always interested in new beats, new grooves, different ways of using the basic components of a kick drum and a snare drum and a hi-hat and a vocal and a set of chords, how can you keep reinventing that sound.

“I think it just comes naturally, certainly to me, to want to keep pushing forward and finding new iterations, new ways of doing arrangements – in the same way that we did that in the 80s. We wrote things in a similar way on every record but we got very interested in how can we reframe it, can we do it with an orchestra at Abbey Road, can we frame it with a drum machine and synths, can we frame it with a guitar combo.

“Tracey said it’s a bit like a film director, they will often make a Western and then they will make a thriller and they will make a romantic comedy. Often a good director’s voice will shine through, themes that they like talking about will apear in all their work, and I sometimes think our music is a little bit like that. We have some signature sounds, some things that really interest us, but we’re keen to reframe the arrangements and the production. It’s just the kind of artists we are.”

Thorn remembers being “amazed” by the reception for Nothing Left to Lose when it premiered on BBC 6 Music. “The thing we first experienced was it was the first time we had put a track out in this age of social media, being able to tell everyone and that moment it got played on Lauren Laverne’s show on 6 Music and then it went up online immediately, everything kind of happens at the same time and everyone’s listening at the same time and everyone’s able to respond and react, so it felt very vivid,” she says. “There was this communal thing going on, here’s the track and we were witnessing everyone hearing it, I found that quite moving. I was incredibly nervous. We were both sitting on the sofa with the radio on waiting for it to come on, my heart was racing, I was thinking ‘My God, this is actually about to happen’ and when it did happen it felt like this massive explosion of excitement and affection.”

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“Also we’d taken a big decision not to really service the record at all before the first single,” says Watt. “I remember The Guardian wanted to write about the track in their edition that came out on January 2 which meant they had to hear it and we actually said no, we’d rather not be in the paper and have it heard before it comes out, which rather shocked everybody. But we felt with this we just want to come back with the music, we don’t want someone to write about it first and describe it. We want to just put it on the radio like happened in the old days and let people respond. It was exciting but quite anxiety-inducing.”

To “still be having a moment like that” more than 40 years into making music felt special, says Thorn. “I was incredibly grateful for the attention because you can’t guarantee that. We don’t take it for granted, it was just fun. You have to try to experience these moments while they’re happening, and I think we’ve both been aware that this is a unique moment for us. To come back after a gap of 24 years, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, we can’t do this again.”

Despite the fact that Watt had got back into the swing of touring as a solo artist in recent years – “I’ve always liked interacting with a live crowd, I loved it as a DJ, I like it as a musician,” he says – it seems there is little prospect of him tempting Thorn back onstage. “We also know that Everything But The Girl has made a choice that live performance is not part of the equation for all sorts of reasons and we never, ever had a plan to come back and perform live. We just had this idea for a studio project, for a contemporary record, so that’s it, really. It’s a bit like the person who decides to act in films and doesn’t want to be on the stage any more.”

“I think for us making a record means we can be completely immersed in working on new music,” says Thorn. “That’s the bit of it that we still think is quite exciting. The thing that hovers over any question of playing live is that it would have to be a completely different thing, that we would have to go out and play a lot of back catalogue and we understand that completely. The last thing we would want to do would be to go out on a tour and just annoy everyone by playing songs they’d never heard, on the other hand we don’t have a great appetite for going out and doing the old stuff. So at the moment we don’t have any plans to tour, and that’s part of the reason. It’s just trying to work out how we could all be happy, the crowd and us. It’s a tricky one to square.”

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Thorn and Watt formed Everything But The Girl while they were students at the University of Hull. Although each had released records before – Thorn with the Marine Girls, Watt as a solo artist – they believe​​​​​​​ the city ​​​​​​​played an “important” ​​​​​​​part in their musical story. The band’s name itself derives from ​​​​​​​a sign for Turners furniture store on Beverley Road in Hull. “We met on our first day there when we went up to university,” says Thorn. “So we spent our entire period of time at university knowing each other. We’d both come up – Ben from being in London, me from just north of London – and I think it meant that when we started working together musically we weren’t immersed in that London music scene that we otherwise might have been. Perhaps comparing ourselves to our contemporaries, perhaps being part of a little emerging scene.

“We were a bit separate, and Hull always has this atmosphere of being a little bit out on its own and things happen there that are unique, and it prides itself on that as well of being somewhere with a very strong, independent identity, and I think it kind of suited us. I think we kind of thrived a little bit separate from a scene, so we did start building up this sound of ours which was quite unique and not completely in synch with what was happening, and we weren’t even part of one of the other northern scenes. The Manchester scene is incredibly vibrant, lots of cities have their indie labels which a scene coalesced around, but Hull remained a little bit quirky and angular and awkward and I think it suited us. We were a bit like that. I don’t know whether it formed us or whether we just fitted in because we felt like ‘oh yeah, we’re a bit like this too, we like it here’.”

“I think it’s another example of working in isolation,” says Watt. “Hull itself is quite isolated, that just suits us. We come up with our best ideas when no-one’s bothering us.”

In recent years both Thorn and Watt have written acclaimed memoirs; until last year Thorn also had a regular column in The New Statesman. They feel writing for the page fulfils a different part of the mind to making records. “There’s something about songwriting that does tap into subconscious, emotional thought processes and when it works that’s what’s coming through,” reckons Thorn. “But when you write prose you are engaging the more rational, in control ​​​​​​​part of your brain. Some of the stuff I’ve written has been me trying to make sense of the other work I’ve done, especially Bedsit Disco Queen when I started, it was me almost looking back on the life I’d had and what I’d done, perhaps trying to get a more rational, detached take on it. I found that really helpful, to actually be able to form my own version of events​​​​​​​, sometimes to counter the version of events that had been written about us. You don’t always feel that you’ve been completely understood, so writing books and columns and stuff, sometimes it’s just that urge to feel like you’re explaining yourself so you’ve been understood.”

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“And also lyrics they shapeshift as soon as the music is added,” says Watt. “It’s the combination of the two things. Sometimes if you’re writing to music you do write in a more fluid, subconscious way. The harmony and the melody in what you’re listening to affects you. You don’t just write on a blank page and say ‘here are the lyrics for this song’; quite often you’re writing to the music. And I do think the best music occurs when you are able to work in a slightly unencumbered way, when you’re not thinking too hard, you’re not being too rational and that’s where it differs from prose, which is more about constructing arguments or working within a structure. Just trying to be fluid and not second-guess and try and be natural often brings the best music and sometimes the best lyrics.”

Fuse is out on April 21.

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