Sophie Ellis-Bextor is best known for cheek-bones that most models would die for and a posh voice and attitude that made her infamous on DJ Spiller’s anthem Groovejet in 2000. Three albums and 6 Top Ten hits later Sophie is still hitting the UK charts, collaborating with The Freemasons on new single Heartbreak (Make Me A Dancer). She’s married to Richard Jones from The Feeling and has recently given birth to their second child, Kit Valentine. This week on This Is Who I Am with Orange we're joined by Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
h: who would you say have been the most influential people in your life?
S: I think my father (Robin Bextor) would definitely have to be top of the list because he was always the big music fan in the house, he was always playing me stuff. His passion for it was pretty infectious, although luckily his tone-deaf tuning was not quite so infectious (laughs). I suppose the other person, it’s got to be Richard really, because as my other half and as a musician he can pick up any instrument and make it do stuff. I’ve never been one of those people, I can sing, that’s sort of about it really. I think partly through the fact that we have a shared love of music anyway, but also through new things like us DJing together, it’s extending my love affair with music.
h: You mentioned your father being a big influence on you musically, what music did he play for you when you were younger?
S: I guess it was all the sort of staple stuff really, like The Beatles and The Doors. A real memory of mine is us getting excited about new albums and putting Pet Shop Boys on, and playing a game of Sorry or Cluedo. He tried to get me into chess, I was not into chess. But yeah, playing Super Cluedo Challenge where we listened to the new Pet Shop Boys album.
h: Shall we play first of all then, shall we play a Pet Shop Boys song?
S: I think that would be really prudent. I think it’s got to be Left To My Own Devices, I love that song.
(click here to listen to Pet Shop Boys - Left To My Own Devices)
h: Now Sophie, your parents are both in the media, your dad was a TV producer, your mum famously on Blue Peter, what was that like growing up with them, well your mum particularly, in the public eye? Did you know that you wanted to be in the public eye?
S: I suppose the biggest influence it had on me was just the fact that I looked at all jobs as being on a level playing field. When I was really small I wanted to be a nurse or a ballet dancer, and then when I got a bit older and thought about things like singing or acting, I think I wanted to be a lawyer at one point. So I suppose that was the main way that I made me feel like I could do any of those things.
h: Have you ever taken any inspiration from your mum’s Blue Peter career? Did you make things out of loo roll and sticky back plastic?
S: I didn’t really; I used to wait until she (Janet Ellis) brought them home from work actually. I used to get a lot of the makes.
h: Did you? You got all the “here’s one we made earlier”?
S: I did. I used to pester her to bring things home. It was quite a strange time in my life I guess because while she was presenting Blue Peter, which was when I was four and eight, that was exactly the same age as all the people that were watching it, so we used to go out and she’d get mobbed by six year olds. It affected me in a strange way, I was mostly proud but also incredibly possessive and I used to get quite jealous of all these other little people having a relationship with my mum when she was my mummy thank you very much.
h: I can understand that. Did that make you more popular at school? What were you like at school?
S: No, complete opposite. There was an ‘Against Sophie’ club.
h: That’s awful.
S: It’s pretty cruel isn’t it. But you know, I suppose for the other kids, they were interested at first, “oh your mum’s on telly,” and then it was, “hang on a minute, she’s the only one who’s got that so we can all gang up on her,” and stuff like that.
h: How did that make you feel? That must have affected you. What sort of age were you?
S: That was in my infant school so I think I was about 5 or 6. I can’t say it was brilliant, but at the same time I probably was a little showey-offey about it because I thought it was brilliantly glamorous. So I probably was a bit spoilt, I think that children, you know what kids are like it’s all quite sort of black and white really, so I probably would show off about some things and they go, “well if you’re going to be like that we’ll have an against you club,’ and you know, fair’s fair really.
h: Did that ‘Against Sophie’ club last very long or was it gone like most things in a little while?
S: It was probably gone within a week but the memory remains!
h: Is there any song that you’d like to play that reminds you of your mum? We’ve played one for your dad.
S: Yeah, she trained as an actress, and so we used to watch a lot of musicals together. So my favourite ones from when I was little that I used to watch with her were either Grease or Mary Poppins and I was thinking we have to go with Mary Poppins actually because Julie Andrews is undoubtedly an influence on me, I think she’s brilliant. And looking at the combination of the two, like Sandy when she goes to the dark side at the end of Grease and Mary Poppins, it’s kind of influenced my dress style because I do tend to dress like a nanny gone bad quite often!
h: I never would have thought of it like that!
S: If Mary Poppins had joined the Pink Ladies that’s me.
h: That would have been an amazing film. Which song from Mary Poppins would you like?
S: I think I’m going to go for the snappily titled Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
(click here to listen to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious)
h: What age were you when your parents got divorced and how did that affect you?
S: I was four when they separated. I suppose it was a sort of ongoing thing really. Luckily it had a happy ending, they definitely weren’t a couple that were supposed to stay together and I was never one of those scheming children trying to get them back together, it made sense to me that they were apart. And they’re both really happily married and I have brothers and sisters on both sides now and a lovely extended family and it’s all turned out fine. But yeah, I think the main thing is that it’s quite lonely really. Before my mum had my brother which was when I was eight, I suppose it’s quite a grown up situation to be in as a little person even if you’re not directly dealing with those issues but it’s quite a grown up concept that you have to now be a family where your mum and your dad aren’t doing the traditional family thing any more. But then again it was happening to other people and it happens to lots of children.
h: Maybe the fact that you were younger, I think you’re a bit more resilient when you’re younger.
S: Completely, I think kids take things in, they don’t live a life in what could have been or any alternatives. And they always made me feel very loved and wanted and all that so it was fine.
h: Were there ever any songs that you used to listen to that you found quite comforting? Not necessarily if you were feeling low about that but anything that you listened to when you were younger that would make you feel better about things?
S: Well I suppose, I mean throughout it all I was always still very excited about music and always, I suppose, an element of escapism really with making compilation tapes and watching music videos. There’s loads of songs that I could pick but the one, it was still something I used to listen to all the time and watch this video over and over of Toni Basil singing Hey Mickey. There’s a cheerleader in the video with an inappropriate amount of make up on, and again, obviously a big influence on me because it’s something I tend to do like before!
h: You do like make-up.
S: Yeah. But that song was a constant childhood friend because I think it’s a slice of perfect pop. I love it.
h: So Sophie, you mentioned that your parents are remarried now, happily remarried. How did you react when your first half sibling was born?
S: I was over the moon, I was absolutely besotted with him, my little brother Jack who I’m eight years older than, I absolutely adored him, I used to look after him all the time and swing him round probably dangerously close to furniture but I thought it was great.
h: Push him around in the push chair.
S: Yeah all of that, and put him to bed. He was such a sweet little boy and then he got to about 3 and my sister was born and he was absolutely furious that he was no longer the cute little one any more and he sort of remained in a bad little temper for about the next fifteen years! He’s emerged from it now, he’s twenty-one now. Even though my sister Martha is younger than him, it’s Jack that I’ve always, you always get that bit more protective of your little brothers.
h: Yeah. Any song that reminds you of him?
S: Oh god there’s loads, but I think the main one, he probably won’t thank me for this because he was really small, but it’s him holding onto a glass table when he was just learning to walk and pulling himself and he’d dance about to Summer In My Heart by Aztec Camera.
(click here to listen to Summer In My Heart)
h: So lets talk a bit about when you were a teenager. What was that like for you? You said that at infant school you had a bit of a gang against you, did you get any grief when you were a teenager?
S: Oh, who doesn’t? I mean being a teenager is really hard work. I did have friends and luckily a lot of my really close girlfriends now are the same ones, they’re girls I’ve known since I was eleven and so we’ve remained pretty close. But yeah, teenage years are just awkward.
h: Did you ever get called names or anything?
S: I didn’t get called any names but I just wasn’t popular with boys and I think that that’s really damning when you’re a teenage girl, it’s all you want, for some blokes to like you. And when I’d go out, on the very rare occasion that anybody would show me any interest they’d usually be some complete psycho. Great, why do I always get the weirdos?! Whereas all my other friends were slimmer, prettier, more academic, would be flying high and going out with boys. So I didn’t really feel like I’d found my own space within it until probably I started, I don’t know, seventeen, eighteen.
h: Do you think you grew in to your looks? Because you’ve got, obviously, quite modelly looks, but it doesn’t really conform with kids at school, do you know what I mean? The long, blonde hair and…
S: I looked weird. I think when I was about thirteen, I felt like this face where all these features were just floating around on it unsure of where to stop! Just not a happy time. I remember trying out different looks but, you know, I mean this whole heartedly, I think it actually did me a lot of good because I think if you’re a very pretty girl, I think sometimes it can almost replace a characteristic sometimes, it becomes a thing that, you know, it’s more than just an adjective to describe how you look, it’s sort of part of how you act, and if you don’t feel like you’ve got that then you have to develop these other sides to you and a bit more resilience maybe, and a slightly thicker skin. So I think in the long run it’s probably for the best, and that’s what I told myself then as well!
h: Very wise! Any songs that you used to listen to in your teenage years? Did you have a crush on anyone?
S: I think the music was a massive deal for me, probably from the age of about fourteen because up until that point I’d been listening to stuff that my mum and dad were playing and they’d say, “this is something we’ve always loved,” and they had loads of classics and it was great but with the advent of Brit Pop that was like a dawn of time and I think Blur really epitomized that for me. I think I fancied three quarters of Blur at the time, I won’t say which one I didn’t but you probably…
h: Probably can work it out!
S: So I think Girls and Boys by Blur probably sums that up for me and I still remember that excitement.
(click here to listen to Girls and Boys)
h: So we’ve covered a bit of your teenage years, but at what point did you go in to music yourself? And how easy was it?
S: I got in to music under my own steam when I was sixteen. And as to how easy it was actually the beginning bit was really very easy. I used to go clubbing every Friday night at indie clubs, and I met a guy that said a friend of a friend was looking for a singer for a band and I thought, “oh that’ll be fun because it’ll always be good to tell my kids, yeah I used to be in a band.” And the band that we formed was called Theaudience and we started doing gigs and with every gig that we did we got a new record company offering us a deal. I mean it was just that era, A&R men were going out to venues and when one jumped they all used to jump and make offers. So after eight gigs we had eight offers and we picked the best one and I finished my A-Levels and went off and made an album. It was pretty idyllic really.
h: Have you got a song that you want to play?
S: Okay, I’m going to pick and album track from Theaudience and the one I’m going to go for is one called You Get What You Deserve, which was always my favourite.
h: Is there anyone else you’d like to play at this stage?
S: We were always being compared to Blondie and the Pretenders and I just had never really listened to those bands so it was really the era of when I discovered Debbie Harry and what a phenomenal front woman she is, so sexy and assertive and sophisticated I guess. So I wanted to play Atomic by Blondie just because it was the time when I thought, “wow, there’s this whole other side of stuff I’d never really got into before.”
h: Would you say you had a mentor at all during that time when you were first embarking on the music scene?
S: I don’t know if there was just one, I mean I guess there were a few people whose advice I listened to and it’s continued to ring true. I mean certainly the main song writer in the band, a guy called Billy, we had such an adventure in the group, and he was a very bright guy and I think he was very interested in lyrics and that side of song writing and so I now hold lyrics in really high regards. I know that sounds like a strange and an obvious thing to say but there are so many songs where you can tell the lyric is not given as much respect as I think it should, and for me it can make or break a song. If I like a lyric it will get me more into the melody and vice versa.
And I think the other person, was my manager at the time, a guy called Martin Hall, who I still see around and he’s a lovely man. When I first started I was very opinionated and always speaking my mind. I didn’t realise that there this diplomacy that you develop, so I just used to say, like a typical teenager I guess, “oh that’s great,” and, “that’s rubbish,” and it was all very black and white to me. He sort of took me to one side one day and said, “look, if you’re not careful you’re going to be a sort of rent-a-quote for people to come to when they want you to give them an opinion on something,” and I thought you know what, I'm going to maybe just calm down a little bit and I’m so glad that I did because it really would have got me in hot water if I’d kept going.
h: Was there anything that you said that you wish you hadn’t?
S: No I think I stopped just in time. Because I thought it was like talking to your mates in the pub, but that’s not really what you do if you don’t like something. Maybe it’s a bit of growing up as well because when you get older you can’t be bothered to hate stuff with the same passion; it’s just not worth it.
h: And did being in theaudience affect your music career later on, do you think?
S: Oh, hugely. I mean I still think of myself as an indie kid who then did a dance record, so I now make pop because it meets in the middle and draws on all of that. Yeah, I still undeniably love a bit of indie music; that was my musical heritage really. I still approach a lot of music I do now, even if it's dance-orientated, with indie sensibilities - well I suppose I mean with traditional song sensibilities. So when I came to do Groovejet with Spiller I still thought, "OK, it's going to have a verse and a bridge and a chorus and a middle eight". And they were looking at me as if to say, "what are you talking about?". But for me that's how I approached the song - it had to tell a story.
h: Is it true that when you first heard the instrumental to Groovejet you didn't like it?
S: It wasn't that I didn't like it, I just didn't know why I'd been sent it, I thought it was a mistake. I thought, well I'm in an indie band and that's what I do, so why would I be doing a dance record? But actually it was really liberating because I thought, hang on a minute, just because I've done something up until now, you know.... There's a whole world out there! What kind of music do I want to make? So it really encouraged me to make my own decisions about things and not just go along with the tide. It's no good just sitting around getting bitter and moaning. If you want to make it work you've got to earn it really. You're not entitled to success, no one is.
h: You got a lot of success with Groovejet. How did you feel when it went to number 1?
h: Was it quite a whirlwind?
S: Complete whirlwind. I always feel a bit tragic talking about it now because it was like nine years ago! And I don’t want to seem like I’m dining out on something that was so long ago. But at the same time it was really magical, it was on the news you know, 6 o’clock news and 10 o’clock news, about the single and how well it was doing in the charts.
h: Was that the single that you were pitted against Victoria Beckham?
S: That’s right yeah. Because I think she was the last Spice Girl to release a solo single and so there was a lot of pressure on her to have a number 1.
h: Your first album, Read My Lips, went to number 2 in the album charts, with Murder On The Dancefloor and Take Me Home also reaching number 2 in the single charts. What was going through your mind when you found out how successful they were and is there any songs that you used to listen to, to celebrate?
S: It was a really brilliant time; I was just having a ball. I was meeting new, fantastic people and a lot of the folk that I worked with on the first album I still work with now. The lady that did my music videos, a lady called Sophie Muller, ended up doing, I’ve done loads with her because we did Murder On The Dancefloor and did Take Me Home, and it was just a really good fit and I loved working with her. The people that did the artwork for that album ended up doing, I work with them every time I come to design the album covers. So it’s just, I’ve been really fortunate that I’ve worked with some fantastic folk and it’s still the same team. I suppose that was still the era of me really discovering exactly what it was that, what kind of an artist I wanted to be. I realised that actually there was loads of house music that I did really like, and so the song, it’s Modjo Lady. I love that song, I still love it.
h: You’ve put the release of your fourth album on hold slightly have you?
S: Kind of yeah, I was supposed to finish it in February but I ended up having a baby instead.
h: And are you going to be going on the road with this album?
S: I hope so.
h: How’s that going to be with having kids?
S: I don’t know yet! With all these things it depends on how successful it is and where you end up roaming. I mean the littles are still very little.
h: Littles, I like that.
S: Well they are and they’re portable, and if we end up needing to roam around a bit because it’s a successful album then that’s great, and if it’s a bit more low key then I can go on tour and I’m not going to be away that much and I can take them with me, I don’t know. We’ll find a way.
h: How do you think you’ve changed as a person from being a mum?
S: Probably massively, but it’s not over night, it takes a little while. I think on the one hand it’s almost like you lose a layer, a toughness layer, you’re that little bit more sensitive I guess, and you empathise and sympathise with the world and what’s happening to other people a lot more because every time you read a news story and something happens to a child, you can’t help it, suddenly it’s happening to your child. So yeah, you lose a layer like that. But at the same time you gain something in that security that you’ve started your own family and so long as the family and you guys are all alright and, you know, at night when they’re all tucked up in their beds and everything’s right in the world in your home, it’s right in the world everywhere. So it sort of makes things universal but also a lot more intimate.
h: And, I’m sure they’re too young to have their own favourite songs at the moment.
S: Sonny’s very in to music, I mean Kit’s only four months so he’s a bit of a dot with it all, but Sonny’s always been really in to music. Because he used to love Rhinestone Cowboy you see, and dance around to that naked after his bath, but now that’s…
h: And you remind him of that?
S: I remind him of it but no, that doesn’t happen any more now he’s five, apparently. The one I was going to play for him actually is Karma Chameleon because that was a song that I loved when I was little and it’s just amazing that there are these sort of evergreen songs that just always seem to work. And I’ll hear him singing that around the house and it’s just, it’s a perennial classic that one.
h: Not wearing make up and long hair?
S: Oh sometimes, not the long hair so much but occasional bit of make up, definitely!
h: You dated Andy Boyd for seven years before you met him, what made you realise that your relationship with Andy wasn’t, kind of, the one you were going to get married to?
S: Oh blimey! Oh god, what makes anyone realise their relationship isn’t heading in the right place? You start to wake up and realise that maybe you’re not the same person you were when you first started going out with them I suppose, and the things that are important to you, they shift. People have always been asking couples that have been together for decades the secrets to a happy relationship, and there are some fundamentals I think that definitely help you on your way, like being kind to each other, it’s so easy to not be kind to the person you’re with. And actually that kindness and actually been bothered to listen to them about what they’ve been doing during the day and respond accordingly, that stuff goes a long way. But there’s also this big factor of the stuff you can’t control and that’s just growing together and wanting the same things out of life and prioritising the same stuff. I guess like any, it happens to a number of couples, after a few years I just realised that maybe we weren’t, the things that really mattered to me weren’t as important to him and vice versa, and we maybe weren’t being as kind to each other as you should be. If you can’t rectify it then you’ve just got to move on.
h: It comes to its natural end doesn’t it. How did you meet Richard Jones from The Feeling?
S: He was my bass player in my band for a couple of years actually before we started going out. I always got on really well with him but I can honestly say it didn’t occur to me that there was anything romantic there, I was with someone, he was with someone, and you know, we just worked together and then I think maybe on our third tour or something we just started hanging out more and I started thinking, “hang on a minute, this guys actually really, really, you know, a good man.” And so when I was fancy free and single we started trying dates out and we did it really quietly because we thought it might be a bit cringy for the people that knew us, “you guys are going out!” So we kept it really quiet and then after about a month found out we were having a baby and then had to tell everybody really, really quickly!
h: Any song that you can play that reminds you of when you were first secretly dating?
S: Well it’s actually a Feeling song. It’s Fill My Little World, because when we first started going out he said to me, “I’m actually in my own band,” and he had a lot of the demos that became the singles on the first album. So Fill My Little World was the one where I remember playing the CD in my bedroom thinking, “oh my god I hope I like this!”
(click here to watch Fill My Little World)
S: But luckily I thought they were great and Fill My Little World was the song on the demos that really jumped out immediately as this is something really special, and so even when I hear it now it just reminds me of those times.
h: What was the first song that you and Richard danced to at your wedding?
S: We used music a lot in our wedding but our first dance was Lionel Ritchie, All Night Long. And we learnt a choreography, quite 70s style disco sort of dance thing. So we started it off in that sort of boring, awkward, shifty dance, slow dance that couples do, and then when it broke in to (sings) “All night long,” and the drums come in we broke in to this dance routine which was quite fun, nobody knew.
h: We’ve touched on your kids a little bit; you had slight complications with the birth of both your children. Has it made you more overprotective of them or not?
S: No, I don’t think so. If anything it sort of goes the other way in a weird way, not saying that you put them in danger.
h: Do you get stressed as a person or are you quite laid back?
S: I think I’m quite laid back and then every once in a while I’ll have a day where I feel like I’m starting to lose my grip and you sort of teeter on the brink don’t you.
h: What do you do when you feel like that? Is there anything you do to cheer yourself up?
S: I’m probably just really bad company. Moan I think. What do I do to chill out? I suppose I just do something simple and quiet, go out for a meal or have a take-away, rent a film and just try and clear your mind for a minute. Richard and I are both as bad as each other, we’ll both be still up at midnight, looking stuff up on the internet. It’s tragic really!
h: What would you like your legacy to be for your children?
S: Blimey that’s a heavy one! I suppose just giving them a happy childhood really, same as any parent wants for their kids. Ultimately just because of my day job it shouldn’t change anything about what I want to give them. Their future is not about being the child of mine is it, it’s about doing whatever it is that they want to do. So hopefully not embarrassing them too much in the playground I suppose!
h: Is there a current artist that you’re listening to that you really admire at the moment?
S: There’s loads of stuff. I’ve been working with this guy called Joe who’s in a band called Metronomy and they do a song called My Heart Rate Rapid which I just can’t get out of my brain most of the time, but that’s more kind of left field dance music.
(click here to listen to My Heart Rate Rapid)
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