Music Interviews
11:03 pm
Fri December 7, 2012

Tracey Thorn Finds Joy And Angst In Christmas Songs

Originally published on Sat December 8, 2012 4:38 am

A season for being with friends and family can be hard on those who are lonely; a season of giving can be hard on those who go without. All the tinsel and lights can also make people blink, shudder and wonder about which of life's gifts they'll never find under the tree — or which they'll unwrap and find fleeting and fragile.

The mixed blessings of the holiday season aren't lost on Tracey Thorn. The new album by the English singer and songwriter, formerly of the dance-pop duo Everything but the Girl, is called Tinsel and Lights, and it confronts that ambivalence head on. She discusses it here with NPR's Scott Simon.


Interview Highlights

On deciding to make a holiday album

"The reason we need to celebrate is because of the other stuff that happens throughout the year. ... It's quite a heightened, intense time, and precisely because of the expectations that are put upon it, that creates a lot of stress for people. When you're coming to make music and put together a record, that's a gift, really, to a songwriter. Anything that's got the potential for stress and tension and conflict — I think that's quite inspiring."

On her version of 'Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas'

"To me, it is a real tearjerker of a Christmas song. I find it hard to hear, especially Judy Garland's version, without crying; it's just gorgeous. It's the one that I knew I had to do when I decided to make this record, so then it was just a question of trying to do it justice. I don't think its one of those songs that you can shy away from and do an ironic version; I think you have to just, literally, sort of walk right into all that sentiment and enjoy it."

On being a parent at Christmas

"As a parent, you have this responsibility to make Christmas happen in the house. You're the one who puts the tree up, and who sort of makes the house feel Christmas-y and cooks the right food at the right time. And I quite liked the sense that, to children, it's very magical and intangible, and yet as an adult you're quite aware that there's a lot of work going on behind the scenes, people actually making it all happen. It's slightly Wizard of Oz: Behind the curtain there's a lot of frantic effort going on. But I quite like that. I think, with children, you enjoy putting in the effort because the reward you get from their enjoyment of it is enormous."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

These end-of-the-year holidays can be a mixed blessing - like a lot of eggnogs. The season for being with friends and family can be hard on those who are lonely. A season of giving can be hard on those who are without. All the tinsel and lights can also make people blink, shudder, and wonder about which of life's gifts they'll never find under their tree, or which they'll unwrap and find fleeting and fragile.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Tracey Thorn, the widely admired English singer and songwriter, has a new CD for whom the holidays can make us wipe tears of wistful joy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOY")

TRACEY THORN: (Singing) You loved it as a kid, and now you need it more than you ever did. It's because of the dark, we see the beauty in the spark. That's why, that's why the carols make you cry joy, joy, joy, joy...

SIMON: Her new album is called "Tinsel and Lights." Tracey Thorn joins us from London. Thanks so much for being with us.

THORN: Hi. Thank you.

SIMON: "Because of the dark, we see beauty in the spark" - is that the message of this album?

THORN: Yeah, I think it is, without wishing to get too pompous about it. I mean, I think when I wrote that song, I was almost writing a kind of secular carol, which for me, sums up what Christmas means for me. Even at a time of year like Christmas, when everything's very focused on celebrating, I'm always looking for the other side of that and the fact that, you know, the reason we need to celebrate is because of, you know, the other stuff that happens throughout the year.

SIMON: And why did you decide to put your energy and artistic attention into a holiday album?

THORN: I really like them. I mean, I'm quite a fan of the themed record; the fact that you put together a group of songs - Christmas or winter, that sort of time of year - and, you know, there you go. You've immediately got your story to tell. And given that I was making an album of mostly cover versions, it gave me, you know, a structure that I could then pick the songs and sort of hang them on this central idea. And, you know, there's an instant - sort of unifying theme to it.

SIMON: Another song we want to ask about. This sort of throws a soft, white mantle over the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SNOW")

THORN: (Singing) Gone, it's all over and you're gone, but the memory lives on although our dreams lie buried in the snow. Sometimes, the wind blows through the trees, and I think I hear you calling me. But all I see is snow...

SIMON: That's a beautiful song.

THORN: I think it's an amazing song. And it's written by Randy Newman, and the version I heard of it was sung by Harry Nilsson. And I just immediately thought, well, that's definitely going on. You know, it's a melancholy song to put on a Christmas record, for sure. The snow in this song is not lovely, comforting, Christmas card snow. It's bleak snow. But - I don't know. There's a kind of luxuriant wallowing, almost, in the melancholy of this song that I just thought was irresistible.

SIMON: Well, and I don't know how many stories we do - at least one or two or year - that tell us that the holidays are a very stressful time, for many people.

THORN: Absolutely. And to me, it's bizarre to ignore that. You know, it's quite a heightened, intense time. And precisely because of the expectations that are put upon it, that creates a lot of stress for people. And - you know, when you're coming through to make music and put together a record, that's a gift, really, to a songwriter. Anything that's got the potential for stress and tension and conflict - I think that's, you know, that's quite inspiring.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIMON: Let me ask you about a song that, in the context, almost surprised me a little bit. It is oh, so traditional.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

THORN: (Singing) Through the years, we all will be together, if the fates allow. Hang a shining star upon the highest bough. And have yourself a merry little Christmas now.

SIMON: All right. I'm blubbering. You know, in their famously heart-tugging versions - by Judy Garland and Rosemary Clooney - and yours is right there. It's just...

THORN: Oh, well, that's a compliment. I mean, it's the one that I knew I had to do, when I decided to make this record. So then it was just a question of trying to do it justice. I don't think it's one of those kind of songs that you can shy away from, and do an ironic version. I think you have to just literally, sort of walk right into all that sentiment - and enjoy it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAVE YOURSELF A MERRY LITTLE CHRISTMAS")

THORN: (Singing) From now on, our troubles will be miles away...

And with the string arrangement, I said to Nick - who was writing the arrangement - I really want it to sound like that moment in the movie when, you know, she's just looking out the window, and the snow starts to fall, and you just feel - every ounce of you feels Christmassy. So that was what we were aiming for.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)

SIMON: So how much do you think those days when you were one-half of Everything But the Girl?

THORN: Well, it's - you know, when I look back, I'm very proud of all the work we did, and the records we made. But I think, you know, I'm, I suppose, on a daily basis, more focused on the things that are actually in my life right now. That feels a little bit like, you know, it was just my past.

SIMON: Well, but an important part of your past has been with you for - what? - 28 years now, too.

THORN: That's right. I mean, Ben's still around, and...(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Ben Watt.

THORN: You know, to be honest, it's one of the reasons why perhaps we're not so eager to get back to being a group together. It's not the easiest thing in the world being a married couple, and being a group together. And I think we were quite lucky that we did manage to make it work for a lot of years. But that's not to say you can make it work forever. (LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Do you think three children helped connect you to this kind of thinking and feeling?

THORN: I think they do. I think as a young adult, before having children, I probably became a little bit more detached about Christmas, and perhaps found some of it tiresome. And some of the traditions of it perhaps felt a bit too conventional. And then when I had my own children and realized what they wanted from Christmas, I saw that it still had a sort of meaning that didn't go away; and that as a parent, you have this responsibility, really, to make Christmas happen in the house. You know, you're the one who puts the tree up and who sort of makes the house feel Christmassy, and cooks the right food at the right time. But, you know, I quite like that. I think with children, you enjoy putting in the effort because - you know, the reward you get from their enjoyment from it, is enormous.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A SNOWMAN")

THORN: (Singing) So give me one rose for Christmas. Give me one holy day...

SIMON: Tracey Thorn, speaking from London. Her new CD, "Tinsel and Lights." Thanks so much for being with us.

THORN: Thank you.

SIMON: And, oh, happy holidays.

THORN: And to you, thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A SNOWMAN")

THORN: (Singing) Like a snowman, like a snowman...

SIMON: And all this week, you can hear "Tinsel and Lights" in its entirety at nprmusic.org. This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.