Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Sophie Ellis-Bextor: “I think I am perfectly capable of making an album with a real vision to it”

Sophie Ellis-Bextor: “I think I am perfectly capable of making an album with a real vision to it”

06 November 2013, 11:00

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”.


Sophie Ellis-Bextor

Wanderlust was co-written, produced and arranged in its entirety by one man – Ed Harcourt – which is a first for Ellis-Bextor, whose previous records were the combined works of numerous co-writers and producers. I ask her how her acquaintance with Harcourt first started. She elaborates, “I’ve done a lot of work with a guy called Dimitri in the past, and he is very good friends with Ed and was always talking about him. Around the time that I was doing my third record, Ed and Dimitri were working on this weird, left-field project called Wild Boar and they got me to do vocals on a song called ‘High-Class Nookie In The Abattoir’ - and that was the first time I met Ed. Through that I got introduced to his music – this is going back maybe six or seven years ago. We ended up becoming very good friends and he also did a song, ‘Cut Straight To The Heart’, on my fourth album. He’s since become a family friend and he’s actually my third baby’s godfather as well. ‘Love Is A Camera’ was probably the first time we sat down with nothing to begin with and then finished a song together, from scratch. We’d turn up at the studio and share ideas, lyrical ideas or little musical motifs, and it was lovely. Because I was working with him all the time I wasn’t at all bashful about any of the ideas I had – I knew it was a very safe environment for me”.

The whole album took Ellis-Bextor and Harcourt only two weeks to record. “It was completely delightful”, she says, looking back on that fortnight. “It was a really special atmosphere and we all felt like we were doing something unique”. She describes the sonic moodboard for it as “something that could be the soundtrack to a 1970s Eastern-European film” and the album cover certainly hints at that. “If I could picture people in peasant-wear, toiling under a hot sun somewhere – a dusty place, then, yes – tick! Or even somewhere wintery, a bit Gothic, you know, red velvet, snow, then – yes, that also works for me”.

Of all the songs on the record, the one that was the most difficult to nail down in terms of the arrangement was the rhythmic and rich-sounding “Cry To The Beat Of The Band” – a definite high point on the album. Ellis-Bextor says: “It was one of the last ones we’d written. With most of the other songs we kind of knew where we were headed. Ed was brilliant in his production and knowing what we needed – it was a very concise, lean process, you know, we didn’t really have much to cut off. But with ‘Cry To The Beat Of The Band’ it felt like it was much more carefully pieced together, and it was really only when we had a jam with it and tried different things and pushed it that it really found its feet. It’s one of the ones I really love. Well, I love all of them obviously, but with that one it was really lovely to see it grow. And it’s got a Bulgarian choir on it, which is pretty cool”. A Bulgarian choir, you say? “Yeah, a little trip to the Bulgarian embassy for us to record a choir – that’s definitely never featured on any of my dance records before!”

The release of Wanderlust in January is preceded by the single, “Young Blood”, the demo of which first appeared as a free fan-giveaway earlier this year. “I had a little melody idea and Ed helped me develop that”, she recalls about how the song came about. “The lyrics then sort of fell into place. The new, single version, is a brand new version and a lot quicker than the demo. It’s definitely one of the key ones on the album for me”.

Ellis-Bextor and her band will be launching the record the day after its release with a special show at Bush Hall. She is excited about bringing her new songs to life on stage. “I’m going to have all the same musicians who’ve worked with us in the studio, the guys who recorded it with me. It should be really dynamic. They’re such brilliant guys – we’ll have a ball up there, I think”. Her band line-up includes four musicians – “although I might also have a double-bass player”, she adds. It’s highly likely we’ll get some new interpretations of some of her rich, pop discography, too. “I can’t not sing those songs”, she says. Best Fit can imagine a track like “If You Go“, for example, working well with a Wanderlust-style reinvention. “Yes, that’s true, actually”, she agrees. “There’s definitely a few of them which would – like ‘Today The Sun’s On Us‘ and the other one I did with Ed, ‘Cut Straight To The Heart’”.

We end our interview with that annoying question musicians hate being asked but journalists love asking: which of your albums is your favourite? And to make things a little more difficult, Ellis-Bextor is not allowed to choose the latest one. “Oh golly, that’s quite tricky, actually”, she says. “I’d say it’s probably the third one, Trip The Light Fantastic, because I felt like it was a really pivotal album. I think if you have a really successful first album then you can kind of just have the second album ‘out there’ – but the third one is the one where you really set out your stall, like – whether or not you’ve got a career, or you’re just in it for the good times only. And I think that this was the album where I was, like, right! I’ve really got to push myself, here”. Well, whaddya know, Trip The Light Fantastic also happens to be Best Fit’s favourite SEB record, so that’s all very convenient. Mind you, several listens into Wanderlust, it’s looking as though there may well be a new contender for that crown.

Wanderlust is released on 20 January 2014 on EBGB.

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