interview by Michael McCarthy
When I started Love is Pop there were a handful of massive artists that I hoped to someday interview and high up on that list was Sophie Ellis-Bextor, a gorgeous pop singer – and songwriter – from England. So, believe me when I say I am beyond excited to bring you today’s interview with Sophie. If you’re not familiar with her, then you simply must watch some of her videos below. I first fell in love with her song “Murder on the Dancefloor” when I was in Paris in 2001 and her flawless album Read My Lips was just about all anybody was talking about. The video was all over M6, the French take on MTV, which actually played music videos. In fact, I believe they were playing “Murder” once per hour because I didn’t spend much time in my hotel room and it always playing whenever I turned the TV on. (Needless to say, I made it a point to pick up the album.) Today, Sophie remains so popular that she’s often referred to as The Dance Queen (whereas Kylie is The Queen of Pop). Speaking of which, Sophie was and remains as popular as Kylie in Europe where her albums continue to chart. In 2014, she released her fifth studio album, Wanderlust, which found her collaborating with co-writer and producer Ed Harcourt on songs that were often experimental, including folk and baroque chamber pop. I don’t think anybody expected it to be a massive success like Sophie’s previous albums, which were all dance pop, but it peaked at number 4 in the UK, proving to be her most successful album since Read My Lips. Her just released new album, Familia, continues to have songs in that vein while it’s also chock full of disco numbers, which means you shouldn’t be surprised if it goes all the way to number one with a bullet.
MM: I understand you came to North America, and Mexico in particular, before you started writing your new album. Was it your first time in Mexico?
S E-B: No, no – not at all. I think it slightly influenced the record because the last album I wrote with Ed Harcourt was a wintery kind of record. It was western European on a frozen landscape. I think we already had a slightly human instinct to do the complete opposite next time around. He went to Cuba and I went to Mexico, and that was just before we started writing, so I think we had all of that fresh [warmth] in our minds, you know? Atmospheric places and that.
MM: Is that why you decided to call the album Familia, which is Spanish?
S E-B: Well, I kind of thought it would be quite cool if I could have a word that was the same in Spanish and Portuguese, but then it was also because I thought of the literal family aspect. I have four children and one of them was with me in the studio when I was recording. Also, the band is a bit like my family as well. We’re close knit these days. I’ve been working with the same people for a long time.
MM: Who are your favorite Spanish-language artists, just out of curiosity?
S E-B: Um, Spanish-language artists? I don’t know that I do have really favorite Spanish-language artists. I think it’s just the feel. When we were in Mexico we went to see quite a lot of local musicians. People sort of sitting around and there were a few little festivals happening. So, we went along and saw that and heard some amazing instruments I had never even seen before. Really talented mariachi bands. That was really the feel I was really inspired by.
MM: Ed Harcourt co-wrote and produced your last album and your new album. How did the two of you first connect?
S E-B: Well, we’re friends. Ed is one of my husband’s best mates. He’s my third baby’s Godfather. I’ve been to see billions of his gigs. I know all of his albums and he’s an amazingly talented musician. There not often comes a time when I write songs with my friends. Sometimes it works out really well and sometimes you try it and for whatever reason the chemistry’s not quite right. When Ed and I first started writing we thought, that was smooth, that was fun.
MM: How does working with Ed differ from working with producers you’ve worked with in the past?
S E-B: Well, it’s a bit like saying how does one friend compare to another, really. It’s chemistry, really. How well you get on, what inspires you, conversations you have, if you’re on the same page or not.
MM: Have you and Ed written a song that he’s released on one of his albums yet?
S E-B: [Laughs] No. I think whenever we’ve been writing it’s always been quite specifically for my records. We sort of stuck with the intention we had both times around. So, now I’ve stolen all of it.
MM: I’ve been hoping you would do a duet.
S E-B: [Laughs] Maybe one day. I think it’s almost too obvious right now, do you know what I mean?
MM: One thing I’ve always admired about you is that you’ve always co-written your songs. Was there ever any pressure early on from labels to do songs you didn’t have a hand in writing?
S E-B: I think that kind of pressure is in your mind, really, because actually when I was in my first band – it was an indie band – I didn’t write a single thing. I wasn’t interested in songwriting then either. I was very happy to just sit back and let someone else do the work. But, really, later on I realized that it was something I enjoyed. Like anything, it’s a muscle, the more you do it, the better you get at it. I feel like if you can do it, it’s better but I don’t really necessarily want people to think about it too much when they’re hearing what I sing because I don’t think it’s essential that you write what you sing.
MM: When you write with Ed, does he write the music and you write the lyrics or how does it usually work?
S E-B: No, it’s not as neat as that, really. Ed’s an amazing lyricist. I think we generally come up with things together. He might have a couple of chords and I might say, what if it went to this place? Then he might start with a melody and then I’ll take it somewhere else. It’s very much a co-write from beginning to end. Some songs are more kernels of ideas that I had, some are ideas that he had. So, we sort of try it every which way, really.
MM: Did you write Familia entirely in person or was some of it done over the internet?
S E-B: No, it was all done in person.
MM: Matthew Caws of Nada Surf sings some lead vocals on “Unrequited.” How did that collaboration come about?
S E-B: Ed had produced Nada Surf a while back so he met Matthew and we were looking for a male vocalist for that song and I thought, oh, yeah, that’s exactly the right feel. And he was able to come around and hang out in the studio for a day and get his vocals done. We’re actually hoping he might be around tomorrow – we’ve got a launch gig, so it would be nice if he can pop in and sing a bit.
MM: The new album was recorded in just ten days. Why was it recorded so fast? Did Ed only have a small amount of time in his schedule or did it just happen that fast?
S E-B: Neither, actually. When we did Wanderlust, my first record with Ed, it was the first time that I’d been the record company. As necessity is often the mother of invention, the most economic way to record an album is to record it in a short amount of time. One of the biggest, most expensive bits is getting it all recorded and everybody’s time. With Wanderlust we experimented with doing it quite old school, really. We rehearsed everything up then spent ten days recording the album. And we just found it worked really well and we thought we got something quite magical because of everybody coming at all times and there’s also a little bit of pressure and a little bit of intensity and I think we all quite enjoy that. So, when it came time to do this album I wanted to keep everything basically similar because I was so happy with the way Wanderlust turned out. The same thing again. The same rehearsals straight into recording it.
MM: Sonically, to me, it feels like Familia should’ve came out before Wanderlust. Would you agree?
S E-B: Actually, I don’t think so, no. With Wanderlust I was just very, very keen to do something very different from what I’d done before. I was 34 years old and I’d just felt like I was in danger of getting into a rut with what I was up to and I wanted to really shake everything up and do something completely different. So, I think Wanderlust is a bit like my first born in a way. Your eldest child is a little bit more sensitive and responsible. I think that’s Wanderlust. This album is like the naughtier, little sister who comes along and is a bit more fearless because the older one’s done it all first. So, I can’t really imagine it any other way.
MM: I understand “Hush Little Voices” is about a witch. I thought, when I first heard the chorus, that it was written for one of your children, but then I listened to the verses and realized that it was much darker.
S E-B: [Laughs] Yes.
MM: What’s the story behind that?
S E-B: On Wanderlust there’s a song called “Love is A Camera,” which is all about a witch who steals your soul when she takes your photograph. It was actually the first song that Ed and I wrote together. And I loved the idea of coming back and revisiting some of those characters. I wanted to see what the witch was doing next. She’s been driven mad by all the souls that she’s trapped. Serves her right.
MM: So, she’s telling the voices of the souls to quiet down when she sings that?
S E-B: Yeah, exactly, yes. She’s been driven mad.
MM: How has motherhood influenced your songwriting in general?
S E-B: I suppose motherhood’s influenced everything, really. It’s influenced my inhibitions. It’s made me more focused on what I’m doing but my oldest is 12 now, so I don’t really remember what I was like before. Before I had a baby. [Laughs] I’ve kind of hit my stride.
MM: I understand “Cry to the Beat of the Band” is about the same character as “Don’t Shy Away.” What’s the story with that?
S E-B: Well, she’s a runaway bride so in “Cry to the Beat of the Band” she’s on her wedding day, the wedding day’s approaching and she decides she can’t go through with it, but then on “Don’t Shy Away” she’s off to go meet her lover and she’s not sure if he’s gonna be waiting for her or not.
MM: “Death of Love” is said to be inspired by the events in Orlando. How deeply affected were you by what happened?
S E-B: It was written before. But we went to a vigil in Soho for Orlando and it was incredibly moving and it just felt like they kind of joined up because it was all about Soho and about these voices of love. I mean, it was a heartbreaking event. I was deeply moved. As I get older, I realize the love you create is the most important thing you do, really. It’s your lasting legacy. So while it was something that was obviously incredibly dark, standing in Soho that night at the vigil hearing everybody standing together singing in chorus, it was so beautiful. And you remember that there’s a lot of love and a lot of good in the world. And it does shine a lot brighter than the evil. I don’t mean that to sound too trite.
MM: No, that makes sense.
S E-B: It’s the heaviest thing that happens.
MM: In addition to what happened at the club, pop singer/songwriter Christina Grimmie was shot and killed after a concert. Do you ever worry about that sort of thing when you perform?
S E-B: No, not specifically. I great up in a time in the London era [where] when I went to school as a kid the IRA were bombing the area of London where I was walking. As a Londoner I’ve seen bombs on the tube. You can’t live your life thinking about things that way because that’s how terrorism is supposed to work. Obviously, if you’re in the public eye there are always stories about it and bad things happen to people and they’re not caught sometimes and you just have to keep moving forward. I guess you never know what’s around the corner no matter who you are.
MM: Are you going to be touring to support the new album?
S E-B: Yeah, definitely. There’s a UK and European tour in February. I’ve always said I’ll go wherever wants me, so I’m happy to travel further.
MM: Any chance that you’ll come to the United States?
S E-B: Well, I hope so. That’d be nice. I haven’t really done any of that yet so that’d be nice. Why not?
MM: So, you’ve never performed here at all?
S E-B: I did New York Pride a few years back with the Freemasons and that was it. I’m always hoping we’ll go. I’ll go wherever wants me.
MM: Do you bring your kids with you when you tour?
S E-B: It depends on what I’m doing and how long the tour. I’ve got three in school now so it’s not that simple. But most of my trips are very short. I just go and do what I need to do and come back again so often I don’t think they even notice that I’m gone for that long.
MM: Will you be collaborating with any artists like the Freemasons in the future?
S E-B: Nothing’s planned at the moment. What I’m doing at the moment is as far as I’ve gotten in my head.
MM: There have been splashes of hard rock guitars in your music for years. Who are your influences in that department?
S E-B: Oh, golly. Loads of stuff. I mean, when I was a kid my Dad was constantly playing me his records and taking me to gigs. So, he was playing me everything from Pink Floyd to The Doors to The Who to the Beatles. All of those bands and things like Fleetwood Mac. Just the excitement of a live band. And my first experience as being a singer was in a band. I love creating that live feel, so the idea of doing live disco, live dance, that has really spoken to me. I think it’s great to get that kind of band feel, that magic, amongst everything else.
MM: Do you like any heavy metal bands?
S E-B: Mmm, not so much. [Laughs] That’s more my husband’s thing. He likes stuff that’s a bit harder than me. I like a melody, you know.
MM: Now, we always do some random questions in our interviews –
S E-B: – OK, I like random questions.
MM: Cool. What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
S E-B: The first album I ever bought with my own money I think was En Vogue. The Funky Divas, it’s called.
MM: If someone was giving you a million dollars to give to charity and it all had to go to one charity or cause, who would you give it to?
S E-B: Anything to do with children resonates. Maybe something helping children. Save the Children or UNICEF. Because children are always innocents everywhere, aren’t they? Yeah, I’d give them something special
MM: If you could resurrect one musician from the dead, who would you bring back?
S E-B: That would probably be Bowie, wouldn’t it? Mind you, you’ve got Prince as well. And Michael Jackson. Bowie was my first choice, I’m gonna stick with it. But don’t forget Michael Jackson and Prince because I’m fond of them, too.
MM: What’s the most awkward exchange you’ve ever had with a fellow musician?
S E-B: [Laughs] Probably one of the first things I was doing when I was 18. Sometimes I would come out with stuff that just wasn’t quite what I meant to say and I met Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy. He’s a really nice guy and we were both doing the same chat show and we were in the green room afterward and I said to him, “I’ve got quite a low singing voice. I’m quite deep-throated.” And both of us – it just sort of hung in the air. [Laughs] I was mortified. And then there’s nothing you can do to change what you said. It was there hanging. It was really embarrassing. [Laughs]
MM: Can you name all five Spice Girls without looking it up?
S E-B: Of course, I’m a child of theirs. I grew up in the ’90’s. Do you want their first names or their monikers?
MM: Whatever’s easiest for you.
S E-B: That would be Mel C, Mel B, Geri, Emma and Victoria.
MM: I used to hear that there was a rivalry between you and Victoria. Was that true or false?
S E-B: Nah, it’s not really true. It’s kind of a fabricated thing. We had singles come out on the same day here and she was under a lot of pressure to have a number one record. So, the press really went to her saying my song was gonna be number one. So, yeah, it wasn’t real. It wasn’t a real thing.
MM: So, whose song did go to number one?
S E-B: It was mine, actually.
MM: Oh, cool. Which track?
S E-B: It’s called “Groovejet.”
MM: I know it. I know all your songs.
S E-B: [Laughs] It’s 16 years old now, that song.
MM: What is your favorite holiday [place] and why?
S E-B: Italy. If you go to Italy, you’ve got everything. You’ve got the climate, culture, the food, the wine, landscape. Yeah, and you’re a couple of hours away. We’re very lucky because Europe is so fantastic. It’s all at our doorstep.
MM: What song is stuck in your head right now?
S E-B: Well, I’m standing just outside a pub where musicians are and they’re playing reggae so it’s hard to think of anything, but we’ve just been rehearsing my new album so I’ve got the intro of the new album, the song called “Wild Forever.” We’ve literally just finished a rehearsal so it’s stuck in there.
MM: Will you be doing many of the old songs live or are you going to stick mostly to the two most recent albums?
S E-B: No, it’s an album launch for Familia so I’ll be so I’ll be doing lots of that but I’m also gonna do “Murder” and “Heartbreak” and “Groovejet.” I always do those songs. I can’t imagine doing a gig and not doing that.
MM: Who’s the coolest musician you’ve ever met?
S E-B: Coolest musician? Well, all the girls in my band are pretty cool. But I got quite starstruck when I met Elvis Costello. I grew up listening to his music and he’s such a cool musician and lyricist and, yeah, and he’s a very bright man.
MM: What is it like being recognized in the street? How do people react when they see you?
S E-B: They normally think I’m someone that looks like me, not actually me. I think because I don’t wear tons of make-up. I’m quite sort of low key when I’m mopping around. It’s generally quite nice.
MM: So, nobody comes over hounding you for pictures and autographs?
S E-B: Well, nobody really asks for autographs anymore. It’s all about pictures. But I don’t mind. You can’t really expect to do what you do and then standoff, you know? It’s all nice. I don’t mind. I can still get on the bus and things no problem.
MM: Last question I’ll ask: would you like to do acting? Have you thought about being an actress?
S E-B: Well, it’s crossed my mind sometimes because I like exploring and doing a character in songs, but I don’t know. I’d have to pick something where it was gonna be a good project whether I’m in it or not. If the right person came along, like David Lynch is like “hey we’ve got this opening for a character like you” then, sure, I’m there. I believe in serendipity, the right thing at the right time.
Special thanks to Sophie for taking the time to do this interview and to Rey at Reybee for setting it up!
As far as I’m concerned, Sophie is the queen of dance AND pop.