Sophie Ellis-Bextor – Biography 2013
Sometimes you can go looking for change. Sometimes change finds you. Twelve months ago, when Sophie Ellis-Bextor set about making her fifth album Wanderlust, she had no reason to believe this last year would be exceptionally different to any other. Having spent over a decade finessing her pop vision over four albums – in the process selling over five million records – Sophie might have been forgiven for adhering to the old adage about not fixing what wasn’t broken in the first place. There were no prime-time TV dance contests on the horizon; no great masterplan beyond another album of songs that could square up to career high-points such as Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love), Murder On The Dancefloor, Take Me Home and Catch You. Amid the infinite choices that await at the beginning of any creative undertaking, however, there was a single intuition. Closing her previous album Make A Scene was Cut Straight To The Heart – a song cowritten with one of her favourite singer-songwriters Ed Harcourt. Why not pick up where they left off?
They weren’t going to make a whole album together. Far from it. But nice as it is when things go according to plan, sometimes it’s even nicer when they don’t. If you want to know what happened on the day that Sophie and Ed got together to see if they might work on a song or two, you’ll find your answer about three-quarters of the way into Wanderlust – or, to be precise, Love Is A Camera, a folksy parable about a photographer “who uses her camera to preserve the souls of her subjects long after they die.” Listening back to a four minute performance which saw the song accelerate from waltz-time fantasia to a breakneck crescendo (an arrangement inspired, in part, Arcade Fire’s Crown Of Blood), Sophie and Ed realised that, far from being finished, their work had only just begun. “It felt like we’d found fertile musical terrain,” says Sophie, “If we returned here every day, there was a whole album’s worth of songs to harvest.”
A collaboration that, on the face of it, may have surprised some people, turned out to make a lot of sense. Early on in the process, Sophie decided that “the best gift I could give myself was to selffund it. I still wanted it to meet the criteria of great pop, but I wanted to step back from something that was really autotuned or heavily treated.” Having spent so much of the past few years in Eastern Europe, where her fanbase seems to grow exponentially with every record, Sophie realised that something of her myriad adventures had worked its way into her songwriting. “Absolutely!” concurs Ed, who also produced Wanderlust, “I told Sophie before she went in to do her vocals for [opening track] Birth Of An Empire to sing them like she was the Ice Queen Of Valhalla.”
“That was a pivotal track,” recalls Sophie, “Once we had written that, it felt like we had another keystone moment in terms of the sound we were going for. We were about a third of the way in at this point, and obviously, when you’ve been working alongside a co-writer for the whole album, you both have this shared perspective on what songs will be needed to complete the overall picture of the album.” For 34 year-old Sophie, having made her previous albums with an extended cast of disparate writers and producers, this was uncharted territory.
Bearing testament to Sophie and Ed’s creative chemistry was the speed with which the songs came. “You make yourself so vulnerable when you present ideas to someone,” she explains, “But that wasn’t really an issue with Ed, because he was already a good friend. Often when I was on my way to his studio, an idea seemed to appear fully-formed.” A case in point here is Young Blood, perhaps the most intimate love song Sophie has written. “That was prompted by a conversation I had with my mother,” recalls the singer. “She said when you get together with someone, part of you always sees that person the way they were when you met them. My husband and I got together when we were 24 and there’s definitely something in that. Even though so much has happened, you don’t really notice the years going by.”
Stepping up to produce the record, Ed sought to set a creative tempo which could foreground qualities in Sophie’s musicianship that have sometimes been overlooked. “She’s determined and quite particular, which is a godsend for me,” he explains, “But also, she can nail a vocal in two or three takes, so it made sense to have a band who were not only great musicians, but also mates. I think we both felt that working in a small studio with a family vibe would bring out the best in the songs.”
And so it turned out. With husband Richard Jones moonlighting from his “proper” band The Feeling and frequent visits from their three children, the sessions for Wanderlust were as harmonious as any that either Sophie or Ed had experienced on their previous albums. “We recorded at this lovely little place in Richmond called State Of The Art. It’s basically just a live room, a mix room and a little kitchen. I cooked for everyone every night. I’d do my vocal takes and while Ed finished mixing, I’d start making the supper.”
With guards sufficiently lowered and trust established, there ensued what Ed refers to as “an almost psychic sense of mutual attunement” among the musicians present. For Sophie, “it was a bit like working on the soundtrack to some 1970s European film.” By way of example, she cites the stately baroque pop of Wrong Side Of The Sun and Until The Stars Collide. Casting her mind back to the latter – which spiders out over an exquisite synergy of strings and harpsichord – Sophie halfjokes about seeking to evoke “Emily Dickinson-style images of the tortured poet in a dark room with long velvet curtains, gazing out over a wintry landscape while a fire burns in the corner!”
Two more songs to benefit from Sophie’s East European travels were Cry To The Beat Of The Band and the blazing balalaika riot of 13 Little Dolls. Though conceived as a ballad, the latter really came into its own when the band were let loose on it and “it turned into this rambunctious thing with real energy and fizz.” Aided by The London Bulgarian choir, Cry To The Beat Of The Band is an altogether darker affair, bristling with a sense of imminent peril entirely appropriate to a song about jilting your fiancé at the altar. “I never experienced that truism about geography influencing the way you write quite as intensely as I did with this album,” she explains, “[On one solo tour] I went to one city, which was full of illegal gambling dens and austere Soviet palaces. We were taken to a dilapidated fairground at one point. Everything was ricketty and made of wood or rusting metal. And you’d hear things like The Last Dance piping out over the tannoy.
Strip away all the drama and allegorical imagery, however, and what remains is, by some distance, the most personal, heartfelt set of songs to bear the Sophie Ellis-Bextor imprint. Channelling the spirit of pre-war crooners like Al Bowlly and Annette Hanshaw, Interlude Theme is an exquisite paean to the yearning that can only be sated with the knowledge that you’re returning home to your family. – whilst Runaway Daydreamer is a fleeting fantasy about doing the very opposite: defying the gravitational pull of your everyday life and seeing what the world amounts to beyond that. Recorded late one night with Sophie in one room and Ed playing in the other, the album closer Storm Has Blown Over is an achingly intimate lyrical polaroid taken at the exact moment when words have been exchanged and all that remains is the love on which such strong emotions
are predicated. For Sophie’s defining memory of the sessions though, it’s to Young Blood that she returns: “I remember doing the vocal and on the other side of the glass – unaware that I could see him – was Richard, who the song is about, mooching around in his socks, eating some houmous, just like he does at home.”
For Sophie, Wanderlust represents a welcome, if unplanned, squaring of the circle. Before the solo career, before pop stardom, before ad campaigns in glossy magazines and, yes, before Strictly, there was a music fan who had her head turned by songwriters who believed in albums as something more than a collection of pop songs. It’s taken her a long time to get around to making a record which aspires to the same values. With change comes an element of risk. But Sophie Ellis-Bextor is absolutely fine with that: “If you’re out there, you’ve got to earn your right to be relevant. I’ve got no desire to rest on my laurels. There has to be some sense of forward motion.”