Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing by Tracey Thorn

This book was written for me. Just for me. I am quite sure. Yet, I would hazard a guess that, because you’re reading this magazine, you will feel it was written precisely for you.

I grew up with the distinctive voice of Tracey Thorn (solo artist, Everything But The Girl, The Marine Girls). Hers has a depth of flavour absent from pop charts today. No squeaky pop, no ostentatious riffs, no belted high notes. Authoritative, soft, breathy, and capable of transitioning to a harder edge without jarring, she sways through degrees of warmth and darkness like a charcoal drawing. 

Naked At The Albert Hall follows her recent autobiography Bedsit Disco Queen, but is an entirely different animal, described by Thorn as a “compendium of insights”. There is no story here, nor any obvious “point” to the book. Rather, it is a gloriously idiosyncratic and sometimes tangential meandering through the various worlds psychologically, physically and artistically inhabited by The Singer. It reads like an A to Z of the conditions, complaints, yearnings, quirks, quandaries and unparalleled pleasures enjoyed by those of us who sing for our supper.

The “inside” story of singing means inside, the phenomenology of singing; what does it feel like to sing? What is it, to have that experience? She reveals first-hand experiences of inhabiting her own anatomy, but is by no means self-indulgent, drawing upon Scott Walker and Thom Yorke, Tony Bennett and Johnny Rotten, Maria Callas through Karen Carpenter to Jessie Ware and Romy Madley Croft. 

However, Thorn travels much further afield than immediate experience. She journeys through status anxiety, health obsessions, stage fright, Auto Tune (misunderstood, apparently), The X Factor, microphones, lyrics, obsessive fans, hypnotherapy and most else you would expect to find. She deftly diagnoses functionality and mechanical processes without being academic and tedious. She stretches even to include singing Happy Birthday, Christmas carols and drunken karaoke nights.

Through the portrayal of singers in literature (Daniel Deronda, The Odyssey, Trilby), Thorn elucidates the differing positions to which singers have been elevated and denigrated throughout history. We see the singer as a Symbol: of purity and sex, of commercial entertainment and Holy Communion. Tracing historical context through Bronte and Austen, the singer is subject and object.

But, this book was written especially for me, because Thorn gives voice to my own complexes. What I had thought distinct, somewhat embarrassing feelings of inadequacy and ingratitude are, it turns out, part of the job description – at least for some of us. She says out loud those thoughts that, even in solitary moments of self-confession, I had previously tried to deny and subdue. Take, for example, the paradoxical symbiosis of the singer and his or her voice. Someone not liking your voice can feel like an incredibly personal attack on you as a person. Conversely, we can feel eclipsed by our own voices, resentful and suspicious that we are loved only for our voice, not ourselves. We can find it annoying and intrusive when people mistakenly believe they know us intimately just because they have heard us sing. But isn’t this kind of honest expressivity, as veneer at least, what we strive for? 

Thorn tackles the relationship between singers and their art emotionally and respectfully without off-putting, drippy sentimentality. Reading her deconstruction of singing as a divine or natural gift, I discovered that, through the sheer ubiquity of the notion, I myself had bought into a conception of singers that belittles and frustrates me.

Decisions…which require attention and focus – settling on the range in which you’re going to sing, which part of our voice you’re going to use, your pronunciation, accent, inflection, sense of rhythm, volume, dynamics… on-going operational decisions which may feel instinctive… but which are nonetheless mental and intellectual activities, not simply happy accidents….And the question of ‘taste’ … brings an aesthetic consciousness to the process of singing. Again, this is a mental process, not a mere outrush of emotion.”

Thorn is not reductionist and does not deny the existence of innate talent, but argues for singing as art and musicianship. For her, the singer is no clueless conduit, no mere channel for something otherworldly because, viewed from this perspective, it’s not really art, is it? Singing becomes more exalted, more awesome, and more respected when we take seriously the myriad complexities and decisions that go into it.

Yet, there at the fore, is still a full and proper acknowledgement of the transcendence of the act.  Yes, it is contrived and constructed, directed and deliberate, but it also allows us to step outside ourselves and, simultaneously, be the truest, most sincere version of ourselves. Singing is special.

Thorn eloquently articulates contemporary singing as art and musicianship, as an intellectual activity that requires immense creativity and skill and is worthy of respect and admiration, rather than a trivial accident of birth. I, for one, feel bolstered by the legitimacy she provides.

I am not a better singer for having read this book. I don’t understand myself better as an artist, nor do I feel more secure in my talent or my voice. But – crucially – I no longer feel alone in the madness. I don’t imagine that I will cease to periodically doubt my own validity and authenticity. But now, I know that, in all my splendid and maddening neuroses, I am among company – the best possible company. I belong to a tribe.

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Clarissa Land is a London-based singer and songwriter currently recording her debut solo album. She sings, tours and records with major artists, most recently Crystal Fighters. She also has a busy teaching practice, where she provides vocal coaching to a wide range of singers; from the novice singer, all the way through to bands signed to major labels.