When Sophie Ellis-Bextor (finally) released her previous album, Make A Scene, in 2011, she celebrated its not-a-moment-too-soon arrival with a special launch gig at XOYO. During the show she humourously acknowledged the lengthy gap between her releases and pledged to make an imminent start on a follow-up.
“I remember that! People cheered because I usually take bloody ages”, she says with a chuckle. She laughs a lot during our chat and proves to be one of the most easy-going popstars you could converse with. We start the interview properly by discussing the first stages of the creative process for her latest project, Wanderlust – it’s her fifth solo record and, essentially, a blunt two-finger gesture at its significantly poppier predecessors. “It was probably about two years ago with a song called ‘Love is a Camera’. That was the first one”, she says. “It was when I was pregnant with Ray and I was in absolutely no rush to finish an album. I was just letting it happen, really, seeing where I found myself”.
The song itself came because Ellis-Bextor wanted to write with Ed Harcourt. “I think he’s brilliant. We’d started talking about doing stuff together and I was interested in playing with an Eastern-European kind of feel. We talked about folk stories and, you know, weird and wonderful tales. I think we were also talking about doing a waltz. I was enjoying being completely un-commercial and doing things without restraint and with no purpose other than to please ourselves”.
I ask her when she felt that the project started taking the shape of what ended up becoming Wanderlust. “It was probably after Ed and I had done about three or four songs together”, she says. “Initially I was working with other people as well, trying different things out, and I suppose it was always going to be a different kind of record. But yeah, at first I was working with some of the people that I had worked with before . And then I think the turning point was with a song which Ed and I did called ‘Birth of an Empire’. It had such an intensity and such drama and quite a lot of pomp… so I thought – you know what, let’s just do our own project. I don’t think I need to go around the houses. I think I am perfectly capable of making an album with a real vision to it. From then onwards it was just such a pleasure. And so economical – you know, we only wrote one extra song that we ended up using. It was all very… purposeful. And really indulgent”.
Was she worried about departing from her more mainstream pop sound? Her response is immediate and resolute: “No. No. This is something which I really felt like I needed to do. I felt more excited than worried. And liberated. In fact, I feel quite spoiled because the other stuff that I normally do is always there – I can go back to that. But I just really enjoyed indulging something else”.
The album begins with ‘Birth Of An Empire’, which Ellis-Bextor mentions earlier. It is a sumptuous opener, full of intent, purpose and drama. “It has a real landscape to it, that song”, she says. “It’s so unlike anything I’ve done before, really. Initially, its working title was ‘Mother Russia’ and, yeah, it demanded a big chorus. I wanted it to be about being a mother, about the maternal instinct but with a real sinister edge. And this also ties in with how your homeland can be something that is integral to you in the same way that it is somewhere that has a stronghold over you. Anywhere you go in the world, you can’t escape that feeling”.
This neatly brings our conversation to Ellis-Bextor’s huge fan-base in Russia. How did that come about? “Well, I’ve always kind of gone to sing wherever people wanted me to go and sing. You know, I’ll travel wherever. I think that with Russia… every time they invited me I would just go there and I suppose it became somewhat symbiotic – because the more I went there the more people would go: “that was great, she came!” and then I’d keep going back there. Not just to the obvious places like Moscow and St Petersburg, but all over Russia. I also think they’ve got a real hunger for electronic dance music, which is the sort of thing I was doing anyway. And so, a couple of tracks that I did had a lot of radio airplay there. I think the fact that I was always going over there really helped”.
Does her popularity in Russia mean that she often gets asked about her political stance on its controversial “current affairs”? “No, I don’t, actually – but I am more than happy to talk about it. It’s a funny thing, really, because I think, in general, my experience of going somewhere like Moscow has been that the quality of life for the average Muscovite is pretty good and there’s a lot of people who don’t want to rock the boat because day-to-day living for most people living there has improved hugely, and the city is looking better than it ever has. But, obviously, looking at the bigger picture, there’s some truly alarming developments with the treatment of gay people there, which is just shocking. You can’t believe that this is going on in this day and age. I feel when I’m there – I feel so happy that there are gay people coming to my gigs and smiling and enjoying themselves – because I’m aware that there are not many places where that community can congregate and can be open. Obviously this doesn’t change anything in the political landscape, but it’s just very nice for me to have that, on a very basic one-to-one level with the people who are in the front row of my concerts”.