Sophie Ellis-Bextor interview
Questions: Peter Robinson
Answers: Sophie Ellis-Bextor (obviously)
Now Sophie. You’re back on popstar duties now.
You don’t sound very happy about that.
I quite like juggling it all. It’s alright.
That’s the spirit. It seems people are quite interested in your new single this time, though. Less of a struggle, perhaps, than usual…
Yeah everything seems to be going alright. It’s strange for me because whilst I am still working, it’s not really where my head is at. I’m still in a slightly hormonal bubble with the baby. It all seems to be looking after itself very nicely, actually…
Good. After this many years ‘on the job’…
(Sound of Sophie guffawing)
Oh dear, is that the right phrase? That might be a very wrong phrase actually. Now thoughts are drifting to the phrase ‘on the game’ but that’s wrong as well. Let’s start that again. After this many years ‘in the game’, can you tell when you’re about to have a hit record and, by the same token, when you’re not?
You can definitely tell when things aren’t going to plan and I’ve had a couple of those experiences but that’s alright as hardly anyone has an unblemished record. So it’s okay. But I think we’ve deserved a bit of a break this time and it seems to be going alright.
There seems to be a certain amount of natural enthusiasm for the single this time round… In a way that perhaps there wasn’t the last time you were on ‘the comeback trail’.
Firstly I don’t ever see myself as a comeback kind of person – it’s just that I have a life where sometimes I’m doing one thing, and sometimes I’m doing another. Even when I did my third album it wasn’t like ‘the comeback’ kind of thing. Fashions have changed loads – there was a time when there were lots of bands and boys with guitars and I’m just proud that I’ve weathered that really. It hasn’t always been easy putting out the records that I like to put out but I just stuck to my guns and now hopefully I can enjoy coming back into vogue again.
This does seems to be the year where a lot of female solo artists are making quite diverse music, but music that’s similar at least in the sense that it doesn’t sound like it’s been recorded by four blokes called something like ‘The View’.
Completely. And it seems like the dance thing has come back a lot with people like Lady Gaga and La Roux — eighties influenced electro and dance. I think it’s all good really. The wheel is turning again.
This may be tempting fate in a quite horrible way but one can’t help but feel that if you can’t make it in this climate, Sophie, you might as well pack up and go home.
(Laughter) I don’t want to do a Lisa Scott-Lee ‘if it’s not top ten I’ll quit’ speech but I think you’re right — if my next album doesn’t do well in this climate then I am a bit buggered really. Having said that, you should always feel that there’s a lot of good stuff out there and that you need to keep raising the bar. You should never feel you are entitled to be successful.
It must be tempting for you to knock it all on the head, as there are other things you are good at and that people could like you for…
Are there? I’m not so sure actually. (Laughter) I think my bow’s only got one or two strings to it really.
What strings have we got? First off: warbling.
(Laughter) Yes, warbling. And the other one… (Pauses for thought) Well, wearing make-up I think, probably.
So basically modelling, singing or maybe being on Loose Women.
Eurgh! Oh God. (High pitched squeal) Haven’t I got to wait another couple of decades before I’m that annoyed with the world?
You see what they’ve got to do is like a junior version of it. ‘Loose Girls’. But then I think we’re back to you being accused of being ‘on the game’ again. And now the interview’s all gone wrong.
So it’s good that the new single is gearing up to sort of ‘do a ‘Groovejet’’, crow-barring you into the public consciousness before you go ‘actually while I’m here, I happen to have an album up my sleeve’. Very crafty. Some would say devious Sophie.
Devious? Don’t credit with me so much! I’ve got to finish the album first!
How close are you to finishing?
I’m about three quarters done, I’ve got a little bit more work to do.
What’s the big idea for the album?
I haven’t got a title or anything like that. It’s more genre-specific than the other albums — it’s more of a dance-pop and electro album than the other ones. With songs like ‘Heartbreak’ and ‘Off & On’, which Calvin did, they kind of set a bit of scene for the album and from that point I worked with Joe from Metronomy and the other songs needed to follow suit. I’ve also been working with Ed Harcourt, who’s an amazing songwriter, and Alison Clarkson, who’s so lovely…
You’ve said that this album doesn’t have the indie sound which you may have explored in the past, but by working with people like Ed Harcourt who are writing for it if not producing, then it seems that kind of influence is still in it somewhere. Indie-influenced dancefloor pop.
Exactly, yes. Plus artists of that ilk quite like working on stuff that takes them out of the genre that they do. So they bring those sensibilities to it but kind of take it off on a different tangent. I think that’s quite healthy and that’s kind of what happened when I did ‘Groovejet’, actually, as I’d never done anything like that before.
Lyrically, is there a theme that pulls everything on the album together? Or is it just a load of ‘woo I’m a carefree teenager going out dancing all the time’?
(Laughter) I’ve just turned thirty, I can’t sing about that any more!
Well that’s the problem, isn’t it – dancefloor pop tends, quite often, to resort of songs about actually being on dancefloors, and it isn’t always very convincing.
Let me think. (Thinks) I suppose they’re quite assertive, ‘you can’t mess with me’ sort of songs. Or sexy dance tracks, I guess. But sometimes I don’t notice any lyrical themes until I step back from it.
Are there any personal songs on the album to go along with the ‘I’m going out to have a sexy dance’ kind of stuff?
I haven’t written any songs about having babies, if that’s what you mean.
Well it doesn’t have to be a total ‘Ray Of Light’ kind of moment, but it’s just that on the last album, tracks like ‘The Distance Between Us’ did seem quite personal and were properly brilliant. And it comes back to this misconception that if you make a dance record the lyrics just have to be about going out and dancing.
Oh no that’s boring. Really boring. One of the really dancey songs is all about a stalker I had. He sends me texts now and then, sometimes late at night. They put the whole lyrics to one of my songs in a text which was pretty unnerving and quite annoying as well. So there’s a song about that.
How bad would a text message from your stalker need to be before you changed your number?
I think if they knew where I lived and started making comments like “I saw you leave you’re house at 9:59”. That would unnerve me. I do also get phone calls with a load of drunk people laughing in the background and then they hang up. That’s pretty annoying as well.
That’s the price you have to pay for being an international warbling celebrity Sophie.
(Laughter) It is a very small price to pay. I don’t feel too encumbered.
The plan moving forward now, then: the single’s out shortly. Then another single in the autumn perhaps? And then a nice album?
That is the plan. Another single and then the album. I just hope I’ve got enough time to do it. I was supposed to have finished the album in February but then I had my baby. But I’m a hard worker and I’ll get on with it. Well, I’m not a really hard worker. I’m a moderate worker.
What new music would you like to recommend to Popjustice readers?
Erm, well apart from the people I’ve been working with…? Er… (Pause) I’ll go home and think, ‘why didn’t I say that, that and that?’. The last album I remember really getting into is Vampire Weekend but that’s really old now. I genuinely have been listening to the people I’ve been working with but I can’t say that. I’m really failing here.
You are failing the most basic pop test.
My mind has gone blank. I can’t think of a single thing.
Moving on from this slightly awkward flailing around in search of recommendations, have you been keeping an eye on the chart development of La Roux?
Yes, partly because she had that song that did well and it wasn’t on Radio 1. Is that right?
And then they had to play it.
Good for her.
She seems a bit similar to you in a couple of respects, firstly in that she has a slightly eccentric voice that seems to divide people, but secondly in that you both have a kind of authentic spirit which you’re using to make pop music.
It’s hard for me to be objective, I suppose, but I like that song and I’m glad she’s around.
It’s hard to get a feel of where you fit in with the charts, and with your fans – you seem to fit in with the older, more old fashioned idea of pop music but you also have a foot in the newer parts of it…
I’ve never been someone who’s good at knowing their public perception and that in some ways is why I’ve steered clear of some of those celebrity reality shows. I also don’t really like the idea of entering into a popularity contest and I quite like the ignorance of not really knowing, and just getting on with making music that I think is good quality. I care about pop music enough that I just want to make quality stuff that earns its right to be part of what’s going on. Ultimately, you can’t be too proud about it. You put the music out there and whatever will be will be. If it all goes really badly then it’s probably because it wasn’t very good.
Do you really think that? That’s a very strange attitude for a musician to have – the idea that if something didn’t do well it was because it wasn’t any good. Usually it’s ‘the public didn’t understand me’ or ‘it was the label’s fault’ or something.
I’ll just continue to put out stuff that I think is genuinely worthy of being released. That’s the way you have to think. For example we’ve just sold our house and we had all these offers coming in that were much lower than the asking price because of the state of the market at the moment. So we ended up selling at a price which was probably not as good as we thought we would get. But that was obviously just what it was worth at that moment and you have to let go of all those things like ‘what could have been or should been’. It’s a bit like that with music as well in so far as you put out your music and it’s got its own destiny. Of course there are other factors as well and I do believe the good will out so if things are good enough they will find their way. I just want to put out stuff that I think is worthwhile. Remember when Oasis put out an album and someone asked Noel, ‘what’s it like?’ and he replied ‘oh, it’s the same old shit as the last one’. Well that obviously means that they don’t have a very high opinion of the people buying their music. And I don’t really like that attitude.
You were talking about the idea of people passing judgment on you. Have you ever seen any market research into what people think of Sophie Ellis-Bextor?
Funny you should say that — I once had a meeting with someone who does that kind of thing and she said ‘we could do all this for you’, just before the third album. She wanted some stupid sum for it and I just thought, I don’t really want to know. Maybe it would be beneficial but I’m hoping that the people who I’ve leant on for years, the people around me who have supported me like my manager, family and friends, I’m hoping they’ll help me out with that kind of stuff. I sometimes think too much self-awareness is not very healthy.
You can imagine Johnny Borrell, for example, sitting down for hours with all the graphs and pie charts relating to what people think of him…
I just don’t think it would suit my mindset. I’m not one of those people who would really benefit. Maybe I would look at it in ten years’ time and kick myself thinking ‘oh, if I’d known that!’ But no, I really hope that the people I go to for advice give me what I need rather than a big pile of market research where I can go “God that’s really startling! I never realized they loved that about me so much!” (Laughter)