Divas who think they can’t sing

Published by The Daily Mail (15th May, 2015)

Naked at the Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing (Virago)

Dusty Springfield became a star with that smokey, sensual voice. Yet while many fans adored and envied her special talent, she exemplified the tortured artist with her self-doubt and ultimately rather sad life.

These anxieties explained why, long before Madonna, the frumpy convent schoolgirl named Mary O’Brien from North London reinvented herself as a feisty blues singer with peroxide hair piled high on her head, peering out at the world through those black-rimmed eyes.

Yet asked about her trademark husky vocals, she once responded: ‘All I know is that I have a distinctive voice I don’t particularly like listening to.’

It is this insecurity, one shared by many of us with much ropier abilities when belting out even something as simple as Happy Birthday, that lies at the heart of this exploration into the pleasures and pain of singing.

If it is any comfort to those that dislike the sound of their own voice, it seems even the great Billie Holiday never quite believed in her own abilities. ‘I’m tellin’ you — me and my old voice, it just go up a little bit and come down a little bit. I do not have a legitimate voice’, she is quoted as saying.

Such anxieties are shared by the author, even though she has won fans worldwide as a singer with Everything But The Girl and possesses one of pop’s more interesting voices.

Naked At The Albert Hall — the title coming from a nightmare she once had, revealing her obvious fear of exposure — is the follow-up to her fine memoir, Bedsit Disco Queen. At times it reads almost like therapy, from a practitioner whose stage fright has stopped her performing in public for 15 years.

Thorn admits to worrying she might not make it through shows, recalling how Barbra Streisand went 27 years without singing live after forgetting her words in front of 135,000 fans at a show in Central Park, New York. ‘I didn’t perform again until they discovered teleprompters,’ said Streisand.

Thorn explores the emotional pull of singing, the biological mechanics and the extraordinary efforts people such as herself take to protect their voices, paranoid about catching colds and avoiding both conversation and phlegm-inducing foods.

She says that sometimes she would spend all day ‘solitary and silent’ before shows, reading and sipping herbal teas rather than socialising and enjoying the build-up. So much for the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.

This clever and cute book sprints from Frank Sinatra through to The X Factor. Underlying it all is a sense of wistfulness as Thorn confesses that with her ‘modest vocal territory’ she envies the likes of Dusty and the brilliant Icelandic singer Bjork.

‘My style of singing suits me and sits with my personality — but still, I’d love to be Adele for a day,’ she admits.

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