It doesn’t take a soul-crushing audition on American Idol to realize that the test of any singer’s ability lies in what they can do alone on a microphone, without the frills and glitz. Not that Tracey Thorn has anything to prove; after 20-odd years and a dozen albums fronting Everything But the Girl (with producer/husband Ben Watt), she knows how to nail the essence of a song.
But with her third solo outing, Love and Its Opposite [Merge], Thorn continues to push herself. “I did half of my last album with other dance producers,” she says, “but this time I thought I’d take a complete break from that and set myself to making a solo album that really is a solo album, in that I had to be responsible for the musical basis of every track. That meant working with a more limited palette to really create a mood.”
So Thorn decamped to Berlin to record with one producer, Ewan Pearson. “Tracey wanted something quite under-produced and spare, so it was just going to be what we could play between us,” he says. “That changed as the songs came forward because I’m a lousy keyboard player [laughs], but we never went further than we absolutely had to.”
Thorn’s mics of choice were mainly a Neumann U 87 and U 67, but her stunning cover of the Unbending Trees’ “You Are a Lover” was done in one take on an AKG C 414 through a Focusrite Green preamp, accompanied by her DI’d Telecaster.
The setup presented some challenges in the mix.
“Her performance on that was just too good to redo,” Pearson says, so he and engineer Bruno Ellingham set up a separate stereo mix bus for the vocals, with a Fairchild 660 and Manley Massive Passive EQ for trimming highs and sibilance. Air Lyndhurst Studio’s 80-channel SSL 8000 G console acted as a summing mixer back into the Pro Tools rig, lending a subtle frizz of harmonic distortion to some of the album’s processed keyboards—especially the trippy SoundToys EchoBoy-drenched piano and Yamaha CS-60 in “Late in the Afternoon.”
For all its contemplative beatitude, Love and Its Opposite simmers with surprises—including cameos from Hot Chips’ Al Doyle (bass) and Leo Taylor (drums)—and Thorn revels in it. “Sometimes you just click with certain people,” she observes, “because your tastes are similar enough that you’re not constantly having to explain to each other why you like this sound and not that one.”