Friday, April 30, 2010

‘I’m a product of my generation’ – an interview with Sophie Ellis-Bextor

A really good interview from InsideNokia

‘How cool is that?!’ exclaims Sophie Ellis-Bextor, a mix of excitement and disbelief in her voice, even though she’s heard the story before. I’ve managed to get 20 minutes of telephone time with the singer during the hectic publicity schedule preceding the launch of her new single, Bittersweet, on May 3rd, and we’re talking technology. Specifically, the fact that Groovejet, the single which catapulted her into the public consciousness in the summer of 2000, was the first track ever played on an iPod, on a prototype in Apple’s labs. ‘I love that story! Can you tell your friends that I don’t think enough people know about that.’ She laughs, an infectious sound somewhere between a giggle and a chuckle. ‘I think that’s really cool,’ she adds. A self-confessed gadget fan, she’s just bought her first Apple iPhone and is enthusiastically praising it when I mention that I write for the Nokia Music blog. ‘You know what, I’ve kept my Nokia, don’t worry,’ she playfully reassures me. ‘I’ve been using Nokias since I was 18, so there you go. 13 years of Nokia use.’

It’s also been 13 years since Sophie Ellis-Bextor first appeared in the charts, singing with Theaudience. That single, I Got The Wherewithal, and the subsequent self-titled album, didn’t make the impact the band was expecting. ‘Theaudience was very hyped when we first got together and then nothing really happened, so it was over before it began,’ she recalls. ‘No-one really knew about Theaudience. It was a wonderful time for me and a very steep learning curve, but I was aware that we didn’t really break out of music industry circles and the Camden scene.’ While it might not have been the success that Ellis-Bextor and her three bandmates had imagined, the then-18-year-old was able to learn from the experience. ‘That stood me in really good stead, so I can always take everything else with a pinch of salt. That’s meant I’ve kind of kept part of myself back, I suppose.’

Leaving Theaudience in 1999 to pursue a solo career, Ellis-Bextor was asked to lend her distinctive voice to a dance track by the Italian DJ, Spiller. Spiller’s label wanted to add a vocal to a track he had produced called Groovejet in order to make it more attractive for play on the radio. And the rest, as they say, is history. The track dropped in the August of 2000 and became an instant hit; Melody Maker would later name Groovejet its single of the year. Looking back on that time, 10 years ago this summer, Ellis-Baxter is reflective. I ask her what advice she would give her younger self, if she were able. ‘Well, I don’t know if I’d want to listen,’ is the immediate response, typical of her ready sense of humour. ‘I think I would say that success isn’t really like an upward, steady diagonal line going up on a graph. It’s more like a rollercoaster, there are peaks and troughs and you’ve just got to ride it out. You’re only as good as your last record, so I’d probably tell myself just to enjoy the journey.’ Her enthusiasm for creating music hasn’t dimmed and she’s enjoying her career still. ‘I don’t think I realised until it was happening, really, just how lucky I was to be doing what I do. Especially this year, with it being 10 years and everything, that’s pretty exciting and I still love it just as much.’

One thing that’s apparent when listening to Bittersweet, the new single, next to Ellis-Bextor’s older material, is how she avoids sounding of a time; in essence, that her music doesn’t seem to date. Bittersweet, with its ‘80s electro overtones (the synth intro particularly calls to mind Always On My Mind by The Pet Shop Boys), could have been released any time in the last 30 years. ‘It’s really hard for me to be objective, but all I would say is, I’m a bit like that with everything really,’ explains Ellis-Bextor. ‘I don’t know if I’m ever really someone who’s been good at predicting trends, I just know what I like and I stick to it, really. I’m quite a creature of habit but also I’m incredibly passionate about the things that I do like as well. It’s funny, it means that the songs I liked when I was four I still really like now. I’ve got clothes in my wardrobe that I bought when I was 18, and I still wear the same kind of thing.’ It’s a philosophy that has stood Ellis-Bextor in good stead. ‘With this kind of job, you have to play to your strengths and I think quite early on I realised, “I don’t really want to have to re-invent my style.” I experimented with blonde hair and that kind of stuff, but actually I love the things I love. Hopefully I evolve a little bit, and I know that I work with some of the best people around to keep things current and exciting.’ At the risk of sounding like I’m interviewing her for a job, I ask what she thinks those strengths are. ‘Golly,’ she says, and goes quiet for a second or two. ‘I’m too British to be able to answer that very well,’ she says laughingly. ‘I’m not very good at that normally. I do think my voice does suit an electro sound and disco, though having said that, after this album I might try something quite different to push myself.’

The album she is referring to is her fourth solo project, entitled Straight From The Heart, and is pencilled in for an August release. While it sticks to Ellis-Bextor’s tried-and-tested recipe, it does introduce a new, slightly harder edge. ‘The album’s quite dancey, electro, upbeat and positive, but some of the sounds have got a slightly tougher sound. There’s a couple of ballads,’ she adds, before correcting herself. ‘Well, mid-tempo things,’ she clarifies. I point out that she’s probably the last person to be recording heart-rending weepies; they don’t seem to suit her. ‘Well, they do a bit. I did a song once called Today The Sun’s On Us, which I really love, but with this record, because some of the songs written early on were very dancey, it sort of set the scene. Actually it was nice to be very specific about what kind of record I wanted to make this time. I’m usually more like “I want to try a bit of this and now try a bit of that.” This time I was a lot more focused.’ Ellis-Bextor also recruited a roster of superstar producers to work on the album with her, including man of the moment, Calvin Harris, who she describes as a ‘super-talented and a very funny man,’ adding ‘I felt really spoilt.’ In fact, it says much about her grounded nature that most of Ellis-Bextor’s ambitions – though she’d never use the word – revolve around collaborating with the dance and pop artists that she’s a personal fan of. Daft Punk and Basement Jaxx are two she picks out, before declaring herself a fan of Florence And The Machine and La Roux as well. ‘There are all these fantastic dance acts and I love their sound,’ she says, noting without any hint of pretension ‘that it would be fun.’

Ellis-Bextor sums up her ease with her professional life in one line. ‘I’ve come to like the fact that I never know what’s around the corner, so I don’t make many plans.’ No career plans? ‘Just to do what I’m doing is fine. I don’t really have what you could call a career structure. I don’t think it would work very well if I did, anyway,’ she says, self-effacingly. I suggest this is, perhaps, good advice for younger artists, some of whom seem to get swallowed by the pressure that’s piled on them by others and themselves. ‘Yeah, but you know what? I think it’s also that I’m a product of my generation. When I was a teenager everything was very much about music and music culture, reading Melody Maker and NME and going to gigs. The teenage fixation was music-centred. So everybody at my school, if you’d said, “What’s your favourite kind of music?” they’d have an answer. Whereas now, if you’re a teenager it’s much more about fame and celebrity, and all the magazines they read are celebrity-based, so I think the topic of conversation has switched. I don’t think they’re necessarily to blame for that, I think it’s something that’s part of everyday life now. You see a lot of young artists now where they say, “Oh, actually, no I don’t want this, I’m going to do this for two records and then I’m going to do something completely different.” I think it’s almost a way of protecting yourself from wanting it, admitting you want it.’ She stops to consider her words. ‘That sounds really patronising, I don’t mean it. But you come to realise what it is you want out of life anyway, and you’re either going to want to keep making records or you’re going to do something else. Everything finds its place in the world, I think.’ Would she have wanted to release her first album in this kind of atmosphere? ‘Sure, why not?’ she responds lightly. ‘That’s what may be the difference in me. When I got to 19, 20, and all my friends went off to uni, some of them kept up with the music thing and for a lot of them they moved onto other fashions. But for me, it stayed exactly as intense, so I think I was destined to feel that way about music. And all that being said, there are some brilliant artists coming out now anyway, so I’m really encouraged and inspired by what’s going on in the charts.’

Given Ellis-Bextor’s thoughts about our celebrity-obsessed culture and her stated love for all things timeless, I ask her if she thinks she was born 20 or 30 years too late. ‘I don’t know about that, because I love a lot of contemporary sounds. With Bittersweet I was working with Freemasons and Calvin Harris, who sound so phenomenal. I think I’d miss that if I had to leave it.’ But her musical influences are rooted firmly in the ‘70s and ‘80s. ‘I was born in ‘79 so I was listening to Squeeze, Elvis Costello, The Pet Shop Boys, Prince, Bowie and Madonna, and all that’s been hugely influential. I’m still just as likely to put on something like that now. In many ways I never really left it behind. There are things like the harmonies from The Beach Boys, I love their way their voices sound all together. Seventies music I like, proper disco music where it’s all live musicians, fantastic drumming, really funky guitar and disco bass. I love all that, Giorgio Moroder, Candi Staton. It’s just so authentic, you can’t knock it, it’s got real soul.’ That Ellis-Bextor is as big a fan of music as she is a passionate creator of it, is testament to the fact that she’s avoided diva-hood and retained much of what makes her so appealing to her fans and the public alike. She might try and keep part of herself back when it comes to the music industry, but she seems more approachable, more accessible than a lot of similarly-successful artists. ‘I do feel pretty comfortable in my skin and the more time’s gone on I don’t feel like anyone’s questioning my motives. I do what I do. I’m a massive fan of pop music so I try and do the best I can. I suppose I haven’t ever felt victimised by what I do. I’ve managed to keep my private life quite private, so haven’t experienced people being nasty to me. I suppose I don’t feel like I’ve got anything to worry about. Why wouldn’t I be nice?’

You can download the single Bittersweet from Nokia Music Store on May 3rd.

1 comment:

Giovanni said...

thnaks for sharing this interview!



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