It’s a sad state of affairs when, for most of us, the idea of “Christmas Music” immediately conjures nightmare associations with stuff like Jingle Cats or that Mariah Carey song that plays 24 hours a day in shopping malls from the beginning of November until the ringing in of the new year. Holiday albums have been traditionally seen as (at best) sweet but vaguely tacky and (at worst) cheap cash grabs usually aimed at making easy money and/or fulfilling contractual obligations with record labels. That being said, I kind of love holiday records (Disco Noel, Low’s Christmas, and A John Waters Christmas being perennial faves) and was excited by the fact that Tracey Thorn would release one. Her holiday offering, Tinsel And Lights, is a rare entry into the Christmas album genre in that it actually works as a great album. Featuring covers of songs by Low, the White Stripes, Joni Mitchell, and Dolly Parton (as well as two original tracks), the record is a lovely, understated affair that shows off just what a great singer Thorn continues to be. Because the record is more generally seasonal instead of being overtly Christmas-y, it’s the kind of thing you can continue to listen to well into the near year without it seeming too weird or sad. I had the chance to talk to Tracey about the origins of the holiday record as well as her forthcoming memoir, which will be released in February of next year.
STEREOGUM: Has a Christmas album been something on your mind to do for a long time? What was it about this kind of material that drew you to it?
THORN: Yeah, I’d had the idea for a while, and I started trying to do some Christmas recording about three years ago. I was planning to do a two- or three-track EP, and then in the middle of the recording, my mom got taken ill and I kind of canceled it all, and at the end of that period we released the one “Sister Winter” track. But ever since then I’ve thought, “Maybe I’ll come back to this at some point,” and a couple of years went by, and last Christmas I just thought, “If I’m ever going to do this, I’ve got to settle down to it in January of one year to get it ready for Christmas.” It’s just one of those things you have to be very prepared for, I think.
STEREOGUM: How did you go about choosing the songs? I think part of the genius of it is that they’re not all traditional Christmas songs.
THORN: Yeah. I kind of started making a list and wrote down the obvious Christmas ones, and then I thought, well, the good thing about making a Christmas release is you can just use it as a theme. It gives you a starting point for the record. So I thought maybe I can broaden that a little bit and include anything that’s wintry or snowy, and make it more of a Christmas/winter record, so that people can play it hopefully for more than just the week running up to Christmas. I ended up with a really long list then — anything that mentioned winter or snow. And then I just started working through them and thinking, “Which ones can I sing? Which ones do I think I can come up with an arrangement for?” And just narrowed it down like that.
STEREOGUM: Well I love the inclusion of the Low track “Taking Down The Tree.” It’s such a beautiful song and such a weird song, too.
THORN: Yeah, I like their Christmas record and I knew I definitely wanted to do something off that record. It was a choice between this one and a couple of other tracks. This just seemed like a good one to do. I actually added some lyrics to it, because their version of it is really short. I got in touch with them and asked if there was any way I could make it a bit longer, and they were cool, they were like, “Yeah just write some more lyrics!”
STEREOGUM: And taking on a Joni Mitchell song is a pretty ballsy thing to do.
THORN: That’s a scary one. I thought, “Shall I do it, shall I not do it, do I dare to do it?” And in the end I just thought if I’m going to do it then I need to take it somewhere different. Let’s not touch a piano, let’s not touch an acoustic guitar. I almost wanted to Anglicize it. With the brass band I was thinking in the run-up to Christmas in cities in the UK, you often get the Salvation Army brass bands. They set up and play Christmas carols. It’s a very Christmas-y sound. They sit there and people give them money and raise money for the charity. I thought it would conjure up that sort of atmosphere of a shopping high-stream in the weeks running up to Christmas.
STEREOGUM: It sounds beautiful. Had you covered that song before?
THORN: No I’d never covered it before, I just thought it was a lovely song. It’s not really a Christmas song — she just happens to mention Christmas at the beginning.
STEREOGUM: I’ve had this record for a while, and when I first got it I was with a group of friends and we were driving and playing DJ in the car with my iPod, and I surprised everybody by playing the “Hard Candy Christmas” cover — and granted I’m in a car full of gay men who love Dolly Parton, which is a tough crowd. But everybody was like, “God this is so good!” and it engendered this long conversation about that song, and where it came from. What can you say about including that one?
THORN: That one was actually new to me. I didn’t know the song. I must have heard it, but I didn’t feel I knew it. I think someone suggested it to me and I went off and listened to it and immediately just thought, “Well that’s a fantastic song.” You could just take it somewhere else. It’s almost like a Burt Bacharach song — it’s got those kinds of chords. We tried to steer it in that direction and take it away from being too country. We just thought, “Well what would it sound like if Dusty Springfield had sung it?”
STEREOGUM: It’s amazing how well it works. This morning I went back and watched the video of her singing it from The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I hadn’t looked at it since I was a child and someone allowed me — very inappropriately — to watch that movie.
THORN: Ha! I need to watch the movie now.
STEREOGUM: Do you miss performing live shows?
THORN: No, I really don’t. I have a real mental block about doing them. And I think the thing that’s happened is I’ve gotten so out of the habit of doing it because it’s been a while now. Until I can overcome that I think, “Right I’m going to do it properly and do a tour.” The thought of rehearsing for just one or two shows, it just feels — it wouldn’t be enough to quite get back in the swing of doing it, and yet I don’t really want to go back to that life. It’s a very strange life, being on the road all of the time. I feel like at the moment it’s still not something I’ve worked out whether or not I want to commit to.
STEREOGUM: Did you always feel that way about playing live? Was it always a problematic thing for you to do?
THORN: Yes, it was something that I always found difficult, but because it was a part of my life, and I felt I had to do it, I kind of hardened myself to it. Like a lot of people who suffer from stage fright, the action of doing it over and over again means that you just become a little bit immune to it. But the trouble with it now is that it hasn’t stopped. My initial reservations about it have come to the floor. It’s a bit like toughening up your feet if you’re going to do a bit of walking. I’d have to do it a lot to build up those layers of skin again, and at the moment they’re just not there. All I can think about is, “I’m terrified, I don’t want to do it!”
STEREOGUM: I know there are a lot of people who’d love to see you perform and love to see you perform a lot of your old Everything But The Girl material too, but I understand that it’s not for everybody. There’s something to be said for just making great records.
THORN: Sometimes people act as though it’s only the live experience that really matters, but I’ve always felt quite at home in the studio. I give my best performances there anyway. I’m more relaxed and can be more myself. And sometimes on stage I’m so inhibited that I don’t feel I give my best anyway. So I feel like maybe I should just concentrate on the thing I do well.
STEREOGUM: I assume from now until the end of this year you’ll be talking about this record and supporting it, but do you have a sense of what you want to do beyond this?
THORN: The next thing I’ve got happening in the new year is that I’ve written a book, and that’s coming out in February.
THORN: Yes, I’ve gone from record to book.
STEREOGUM: What can you tell me about the book?
THORN: It’s basically my musical memoir. It tells the story of me getting into music in my teens with those bands I started — the story of Everything But the Girl and everything we did.
STEREOGUM: How was the experience of writing it? Difficult?
THORN: It was good. I really enjoyed it. I actually started writing it during the period when I had a long break for music around 2005 when I hadn’t recorded anything for a few years. I think I thought at the point that I might’ve stopped with music. So I thought, “Well, I’ll do something else. I’ll write a book instead.” And the action of writing it reminded me why I’d done it and why I’d enjoyed it, and it actually got me back into recording again. So I put the book aside and I made the Out Of The Woods album and I made Love And Its Opposite. And last year I found what I’d written and thought, “Well this is almost a whole book. It’s crazy just to leave it sitting there in a box.” So I sent it out to a couple of publishers, and sure enough it’s coming out next year.
STEREOGUM: Writing that kind of material is such a specific type of journey to go on. I was hired to help someone organize their memoirs and it was such a fascinating process for both of us. I don’t think you can ever anticipate exactly what it’s going to bring up.
THORN: I started writing it and thinking, “Is there a danger here that I’m just going to be listing events?” And it wasn’t until I was about halfway through that I got a handle on the story that I was telling — which is really the story of someone who finds themselves in the middle of a career that in some ways they’re not quite cut out for. It’s a funny book as well. It takes a kind of ride at the whole business of being a pop star, told from the point of view of someone who didn’t expect to become that and who sometimes felt that they weren’t really cut out to be that.
STEREOGUM: That’s exciting. It’ll be interesting for you to go and talk about that when it comes out. Records are very personal things to talk about too, but when you’re out promoting something that’s the actual story of your life, that’s a very personal thing.
THORN: It’s a slightly different angle. Sometimes when I do records, there is a sense that when you do the promotion, it’s easy to fall into the same patterns and feel that you’re repeating yourself and answering similar questions. With this, people can ask me different things. There’s a whole history to draw on. I’m quite looking forward to getting out and talking about it.
STEREOGUM: Well obviously putting out a book and promoting it is a massive undertaking. Does that sideline doing any other kind of music for a while?
THORN: It puts it off for the immediate future, and I think the next decision I’ve got to make really is the age-old decision — what kind of record do I want to make next? In a way, the Christmas record has been sort of a stopgap. I wasn’t sure what kind of record I wanted to record this year, so settling on this gave me a theme immediately. It enabled me to just get back to recording, which I really wanted to do, but without having to write 10 songs, without having to come up with a whole new idea. I think the next thing I do is have to knuckle down again and start writing some songs and think about what direction I have to go in. But at the moment, I don’t know that at all, so I’ll wait.
STEREOGUM: Tinsel And Lights made me think about all the holiday albums I owned when I was growing up. I think of myself as someone who kind of hates Christmas music, but I actually owned a lot of them. When you were growing up, were there certain holiday albums that you loved? I feel like everybody made a Christmas record at some point.
THORN: There was a period when I was a teenager and a bit older than that when the notion of a Christmas record was completely horrifying to me. If you’d said to me then, “one day you’ll make a Christmas record,” I would have been appalled. It was something that went very out of fashion for a while. It seemed like only very elderly artists and seasonal jumpers made Christmas records. Certainly in recent years people have rediscovered the idea and I think people have remembered what’s good about Christmas records. There were big Christmas hits in the UK – singles that came out and got played to death every year. Certainly as a child I guess I liked them. But I don’t remember owning any Christmas albums. I guess the Phil Spector album — A Christmas Gift For You from Phil Spector — was the first and maybe only one I ever bought.
STEREOGUM: Between that one and possibly the Charlie Brown Christmas album — and your new one, of course — that’s really all you need. Merry Christmas.
Tinsel And Lights is out now on Merge
What are the best/weirdest/most amazing holiday albums? Tell me in the comments.