Two years ago, Tracey Thorn emerged from half a decade of maternal bliss to record vocals for German duo-of-the-moment Tiefschwarz, then slipped away just as quickly as she came. She had bigger, better things to take care of at the time — three children, in fact, all still in single digits — so perhaps the aftershock caused by this Grammy-nominated collaboration and Tiefschwarz's growing renown caused only a slight ripple in her daily routine. This is Tracey Thorn after all, she of the languorous, melancholic voice that elevated Everything But the Girl to chart-topping success in the '80s; haunted the title track of Massive Attack's groundbreaking Protection; and made EBTG's “Missing” the type of track that everyone who set foot in a club, boutique or record store in the mid- to late- '90s would recognize in an instant.
That Tiefschwarz cameo did set something alight in Thorn, however, and she started writing new material in earnest. Out of the Woods (Virgin, 2007), a varied, expansive album that features her voice dipping and spinning through artfully crafted instrumentals, is the product of several collaborations, many of which started when Thorn e-mailed queries directly to producers. Following a quick exchange with Ewan Pearson (himself an established figure from the UK's late-'90s techno scene, Berlin's recent house revival and lately as an in-demand remixer for the likes of Franz Ferdinand, Goldfrapp and RÖyksopp), the two met up at a pub to cement their partnership. And Thorn began piecing her album together with Pearson at her side for most of the tracks.
As Thorn's first proper solo album since 1982, Out of the Woods is all about her sound and her identity — and Pearson made sure to keep it that way. “I try to disappear into the background as much as possible,” Pearson says. Indeed, her voice soars unfettered by compression or effects. “I always made sure her vocals weren't surrounded by too much instrumentation. I tried not to use lots of reverb on her voice, just little bits of tape echo to give a bit of depth to it.”
Thorn was intent on playing as much as she could on this album, so she purchased a harmonium (which is featured heavily on “Here It Goes Again”) and Suzuki Omnichord, while Pearson made use of sampled instruments, a Neve Portico 5043 compressor, a Farfisa organ and various analog synths (the Arp Solina synths, an SCI Prophet 600 and Studio Electronics SE-1, to name a few). “I think the nice thing about analog equipment is there's something fundamentally nonlinear and slightly unpredictable about it,” Pearson says. “It's not just about the richness of the sound, it's also the degree of randomness. You have to get the magic of the sound then and there. For instance, the Yamaha CS-60 is wonderful, but you don't know day to day if it's going to be in tune or not! You get lots more information from these kinds of things. The problem with a lot of plug-ins and things is it's just a little bit boring when people use the same presets and things instead of going out and trying to find interesting sounds.”
In recording with Thorn, Pearson found himself returning often to the Moog Music Moogerfooger ring-modulation guitar pedal and the SoundToys Crystallizer plug-in. “It's a strange granular delay plug-in with an enormous amount of presets,” he says. “It's one of these plug-ins where you can do very simple modulation or chord effects, or you can do really, really, completely ridiculous bizarre delay effects and really crunch stuff up.”
As for Thorn, she realized that her music carries a somewhat '80s vibe only after others pointed it out. “I wasn't aware of it at all while I was doing it,” she laughs. “A lot of those sounds are things I know so well from the records I was growing up with!”
It certainly helps that Thorn feels no inclination to shape her music according to outside pressure, be it from record companies or the current musical climate. “I've now got that luxury of not having to prove that much to people,” she remarks. “When you start listening to these people who have more commercial ambitions in mind, that's when you can get steered off your own course. At the end of the day, the only thing that proves you're a serious artist is doing good work!”