Back in the frame

Everything But The Girl are making the comeback their fans have hoped for, but without any grand promises beyond an album

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By the late noughties, Everything But The Girl admit they had resigned themselves to never making another album as a band. Despite their achievements, which includes an international smash-hit with Todd Terry’s remix of Missing in 1995, they felt anxious about the mocking shadow of the group’s storied history.

“If you’d asked us even in early 2020, will there be another EBTG record, we would have replied no,” says Ben Watt.

“At a certain point, we felt that it would be too much pressure and such a big deal that actually it was too daunting,” adds Tracey Thorn. “We wouldn’t want to dare it. I had begun to believe that EBTG was just something in our past.”

Besides, during EBTG’s 23-year hiatus, the married couple had settled into a groove of maintaining separate careers, after tag-teaming the raising of their three children. Thorn wrote a series of books, including her revealing 2013 memoir Bedsit Disco Queen, while Watt focused on DJing and production work as well as running the label Buzzin’ Fly, and both released six acclaimed albums between them.

“We worried as well that it could be destructive to our relationship because we’d become so used to being solo performers that it might wreck something by trying to work together again,” observes Watt.

Which is why it’s perhaps surprising that Thorn and Watt are here discussing Fuse, EBTG’s first album since 1999. Sitting in their London office where they occasionally record music, there’s a keyboard behind them and shelves groaning with books. It was Thorn, who is today battling Covid (“Thank God for Zoom!” she laughs), who originally mooted the possibility of reactivating the band after the pandemic ignited her now-or-never instinct.

“By the end of lockdown, when we started to re-emerge, we looked at each other and said, are we just going to go back to how it was or are we changed in some way?” remembers Watt. “And Tracey pushed hard that this is the moment where we should come back and do something. It might never happen again. It took me a little longer to come around.”

Such was Watt’s hesitancy that they worked in secrecy. Clandestine recording sessions happened at both their home and in a studio outside of Bath with one solo engineer and the files were initially labelled TREN – Tracey and Ben – rather than Everything But The Girl.

“We didn’t tell anyone we were doing this and there was no one breathing down our necks for an album,” recalls Thorn. “We gave ourselves a get-out clause that we could stop at any moment – no recriminations. And actually it was fine. We didn’t feel that it was suddenly a lot of pressure and compromise. It felt easy. It was only this moment in time that made it possible – retreating from the world and doing it privately so we could try it before anyone knew.”

The lockdown had acted as a trial run for collaborating again. Isolated at home – and sometimes from each other (Watt was shielding because of his rare autoimmune disorder, Chang Strauss Syndrome, which he contracted in 1992) – they were forced to confront each other again, living in the same house without the distractions of touring. Their three offspring – twin daughters Jean and Alfie, born in 1998, and son Blake, born in 2001 – leaving home helped as well.

“With the kids moved out and gone, the vibe and pressure is different,” says Thorn. “There aren’t so many demands on us all the time and we felt, OK, perhaps working together won’t feel quite so intense. It’ll be something we can approach in a more balanced way.”

Instead, they were surprised at how swiftly their EBTG muscle memory kicked in. “It’s amazing how quickly it all clicks again and we realised we had so many things in common about what we thought about music,” says Watt.

Playing live was often anxiety-inducing for Tracey Thorn. Photo: Leon Morris/Redferns/Getty

Although not strictly a lockdown record, it looms large over Fuse. Over the quaking sub-bass of clubby opener Nothing Left to Lose, Thorn sings “Kiss me while the world decays”, and it is bookended by the twin feelings that emerged during that period, vacillating from subdued self-examination to a yearning for the connection of the dancefloor.

“I think the album does veer between those two moods: the interior and the exterior,” says Watt.

The more ambient, atmospheric tracks such as Lost and Interior Space came first, emerging from piano improvisations that Watt recorded on his iPhone during lockdown that he kept and built upon.

The gloomily majestic When You Mess Up, for example, is the soundtrack to the morning after when your thoughts have turned to knives.

“I was thinking of myself three or four years ago when I was at one of those transitional stages of life, looking at myself thinking, what do I want to be doing?” recalls Thorn. “And I just started singing and let some stuff come out. It’s about allowing yourself to make mistakes and telling yourself to forgive yourself.”

The more euphoric songs arrived later in the process. The Pet Shop Boys-esque banger Nobody Knows We’re Dancing, for example, is a paean to Watt’s Lazy Dog club night that he ran in London, painting a vivid picture of its regulars.

“I think the community of that song meant a lot after we’d all been isolated for so long,” says Thorn.

Even though Fuse sounds quintessentially EBTG, it avoids a nostalgia cul-de-sac owing to Thorn and Watt both wanting to embrace modern production techniques. And, unlike their last album, 1999’s Temperamental, which Thorn once said was like guesting on somebody else’s record, here her distinctly dolorous vocals – which sound as if she’s mourning each word that passes her lips – take centre stage, albeit treated with a reverential disrespect.

“There are moments where we take Tracey’s voice and completely bend it out of shape with Autotune and pitch-shifting, rather than this Sacred Voice of Tracey Thorn That You Must Never Mess With,” laughs Watt. “We thought, no, let’s mess with it! Let’s fuck it up!”

“I’m here for that!” agrees Thorn, before coughing and spluttering.

While old interviews presented EBTG as prickly, today Watt and Thorn are a hoot: funny, charming and the kind of people you’d want to be sat next to at a dinner party, a bottle of wine in. Both now aged 60, they radiate the easy chemistry of their 28-year relationship.

The pair met at Hull University in 1982 when Watt was a solo artist and she was in the post-punk band Marine Girls – a favourite of Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. Hop-scotching between genres that included bossa nova jazz, they cruised along as a mid-level success with a fervent fanbase – not least Radiohead’s Thom Yorke who was once thrown out of an EBTG gig for dancing wildly. It was the Todd Terry remix of Missing, released at a point where the band were about to be dropped by their label, that heralded their biggest commercial success. Two years later, they pulled the plug. When a call came in from U2 requesting that EBTG support them on a stadium tour, rather than be elated, Thorn – who found performing live anxiety-inducing at the best of times (her audition for her first band was so fraught she sang inside a wardrobe) – faced “stomach-churning horror” at the idea of performing nightly to 60,000 U2 fans. And so EBTG came to an end with the imperiously laissez-faire response: “Actually, babe, do you know what? I think I want to stop now.”

“For me, it was to do with having kids. We had twins first of all and we carried on. We made our final album, Temperamental, and went on tour and took the girls with us when they were babies. And it was very difficult,” says Thorn. “Even then I was finding mixing those two lives up very difficult. And I always thought I would be someone who would have kids, just carry on, and nothing would change. But what did I know?”

When she got pregnant again with her son Blake in 2001, she knew she had to step back.

“I remember thinking oh my God, we’re going to have three babies. I really do not want to be living this intermittent life of taking the kids around or travelling away and them being behind and not seeing them.

“So I took the decision to step back from this now and didn’t give any thought to how long it would be – I didn’t think it would be 23 years!”

In those 23 years, EBTG’s music has proved an influence on a younger generation of artists including the sparse emotional intimacy of South London band The xx and Caroline Polachek (who covered Missing in homage).

“What we represent to people is we do slightly de-mythologise,” argues Watt. “We allow room for mixed feelings, ambivalence, and feeling awkward. We live in an age of the user profile where everyone has to lead these very immaculate lives, but we’re happy to tell it like it is. People are connecting with a very real set of feelings on each of the songs.”

Arguably those feelings were no more real than when Watt was diagnosed with his life-threatening autoimmune disease – which inspired them to reveal their emotional scar tissue on the albums Amplified Heart and Walking Wounded. It still affects his life today. In the week that they launched their seize-the-day single Caution to the Wind, Watt was hospitalised for 10 days: a perfect encapsulation of the disparity between the surrealness of being a pop star and the stark reality of hospital wards.

“Sometimes we live with an illusion of control over our lives and I think Ben being taken very ill when he was only 29 shattered that for us, and ever since then, we’ve lived with a much greater sense of our vulnerability,” explains Thorn. “Even the success we had in the 1990s was all in the shadow of Ben being very ill.

“Often touring was difficult. There were instances when he would be unwell and it became part and parcel of our lives. We can’t separate the two and have the glamorous life of a pop star and the reality of illness.”

Befitting an album whose theme broadly seems to be connection, EBTG have been touched by the communal outpouring of affection on social media towards their comeback, but asked if Fuse has rekindled their desire to make more music together, Thorn remains coy.

“This has made us think that we really need to focus on the moment right now and not rush ahead, because then you don’t enjoy what you’re doing right now. We’re both aware that this is a big deal and we didn’t think we were ever going to do it.”

After all, adds Watt: “You never know what’s around the corner. I was hospitalised last week. Tracey’s got Covid at the moment…”

“Let’s not make any plans other than staying alive,” laughs Thorn. “Until the album comes out at least!”

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