"They're Really Off The Cuff!" Sophie Ellis-Bextor On Her Disco Havens

"They're Really Off The Cuff!" Sophie Ellis-Bextor On Her Disco Havens

The pop queen is searching for light amid the gloom...

Sophie Ellis-Bextor has been an unrelenting blast of positivity amid the clouds of 2020.

The pop heroine's kitchen discos have become the stuff of social media legend, belting out classics while her kids race around her feet.

The sight of someone living their best life in spite of it all seemed to chime a chord a fans during lockdown, with a huge digital community clustering around the broadcasts.

New album 'Songs From The Kitchen Disco' is a neat document of this time, with Sophie recording some studio versions of those karaoke staples.

Taken as a whole, though, it's also a neat catch-up on her stellar catalogue, one that has peppered the charts with golden pop moments for 20 years now.

Clash caught up with Sophie on the album's release...

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For a lot of people you’ve been a shard of light this year, Sophie!

Aww! (laughs) Thank you! I know that for us, I don’t know what I would have done if we didn’t have the discos happening… because they really kept us all focussed and distracted. They were such a good tonic.

It always looks as though you’re living your best life…

It’s funny you say that as I don’t really feel that’s what we’re exhibiting! I think it’s more like a cartoon version of what everyone was feeling on the inside. I just wanted to feel like me, and I wanted to have some fun. But I’m suddenly stuck at home, I can’t go anywhere, the kids are everywhere… this is kinda chaos, but let’s see if we can shimmy our way through it!

Some artists have relished time at home. What’s your experience been like? I suppose for me the kitchen discos aren’t a replacement for my work. It felt more like what my family do when we need to relieve tension in our house. I had my first baby 16 years ago, and since then we’ve always had music in our lives. There’s been a constant soundtrack. If we’re feeling anxious about things or commiserating or if there’s something exciting happening then music is played. We have different songs for different moods.

When the lockdown started, I found that firstly I had this overwhelming of wanting to connect with people. I thought, oh my goodness, I want to phone everyone I’ve ever known to check if they’re OK! I’m glad it didn’t act on that impulse… but that’s what I felt! And then the second thing was, I felt quite useless, I felt discombobulated, I couldn’t reach out in the way I normally could have done, and I can’t accompany myself on piano, I can’t play guitar very well… so I thought, these are not talents I have, where I can record a song and be like – there you go, here’s a song!

So when Richard said about doing a disco, it’s like: that makes sense! Because that’s what our kitchen looks like anyway, that’s what the playroom looks like. Even this morning when I got the kids ready for school, we put some music on and had a little bop around. It just relieves tension! It puts people in better spirits. So, I wasn’t thinking about myself as a performer or a singer, it’s more that this is what we do when we need a bit of recalibrating, really.

So it would have been happening regardless?

Exactly. But also, for me, I feel the way I do whenever anything effects me in my life – good, bad or ugly – I’m glad that I have a creative job where I’m allowed to absorb and interpret what’s going on around me and put it down into my work. I’ve used that since I was a teenager.

Heartache, falling in love… anything that’s affected me, I’ve put it into music and I’ve written songs about it. Being able to put it into music is a lovely way to bring something good out of something wobbly. But y’know – it’s tough out there. I’m not looking forward to this winter, I think it’ll feel quite long and quite gloomy. So yeah, like everybody, just looking to remain as optimistic as possible but also being realistic about where we’re at.

How far out do you plan these things?

Oh God they’re really off the cuff! But I’m quite like that with my gigs, too. Not so much with set lists normally, but I’m not someone that likes to prepare everything to the Nth degree… that’s probably a good thing! The thing is, over the years I’ve learned that a lot of things can go wrong at the last minute, if you’re someone who is really obsessive over planning then something going wrong or changing can really throw you. So for me, I’d rather keep quite loose around the edges, just so you can adapt to whatever actually happens.

With the discos… they were fun! So planning the songs and choosing the covers… that’s meant to be fun! It’s not like homework. It’s a lovely thing, to sit and think: what song would I love to sing, or what song would put us all in the right place to tell the story? And that can be literally decided on the day.

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Your Kate Bush cover recently felt very brave – that’s such an idiosyncratic vocal to attempt!

It’s funny… if I was singing it onstage I’d be worried about it, but when you’re doing karaoke in the sitting room while your kids run around it’s a lot more chilled. And also, the thing I love about songs like that is that they’re fantastic records, and they tell really good stories. So for me, I’m more thinking, well it’s a lovely opportunity to get lost in that story. I’ve always loved that song. So I don’t really think about hard it is, I just chuck myself in! It’s supposed to be fun – it’s not supposed to be reverential.

The new video is filmed in empty London venues, which was really moving. Has it been challenging to see what side of the industry struggle in 2020?

Oh yeah. Really challenging. I mean, most of my friends are people who are crew, or musicians, or work in the arts… and it’s a really uncertain time. I think earlier in the year everyone felt quite discombobulated, but they also felt like: OK, this is what’s happening, so we’d better get on with that empty diary! But now we’re on Autumn, and there’s still lots of question marks, people’s tone has changed to one of being frightened and being angry. I’m really, really aware of it. Up until now I sort of didn’t think too much about the industry and the economy of what it is I do. I think about when I’m working.

I did a gig about a month ago at G.A.Y. and it was the first gig my soundman had done in six months. And you almost forget about that – you don’t think about the concentric circles. And also, just the fact that all these beautiful venues that are filled with so many memories, and usually so full of life, are just lying dormant. And a lot of people feel like they haven’t really been addressed or spoken to, to make them feel re-assured that someone is thinking of them.

The nightclub industry – all of it – has just fallen off the radar… no one is even thinking about it! And there’s all these holes that have opened up, and it’s been left to individuals to close it all up again. And that’s actually really scary and daunting. Some of these people have trained for decades to have employable skills, and now they’re just sitting, waiting, and wondering what’s going to happen. It’s frightening.

You mention G.A.Y. - the role of physical spaces is particularly key in the LGBTQ+ community, isn’t it?

Yeah, it is. I think G.A.Y. in particular has been a touchstone for me at different parts of my career, and has meant an awful lot to me. I played there after my first baby – oh… about 14 years ago now! - and I’d been away for a little while, it was my first gig back, and I was quite nervous. I remember walking out at G.A.Y. and the warmth and support from the crowd made me think: what am I scared of…? It was the moment where I lost my inhibitions a bit, really, and it changed me as a performer.

Those physical spaces, having people together… it’s good for the soul! - It’s such a weird time, and there’s so much that will come out of this. It’s not all doom and gloom, but there’s a lot that’s part of our casual lives that actually forms the glue of what keeps you on the right side of being OK with things… and having those things taken away – it starts to chip away, doesn’t it?

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The album is a neat encapsulation of your catalogue – were you overdue a look back, do you think?

Ordinarily, no! I don’t normally do that! But specifically this year I found myself looking back a lot, and feeling quite nostalgic. And because we were doing the home discos, and I found myself running through different singles, and an album track or two, it was really nice to rediscover things I hadn’t sung in ages. I really enjoyed it! So I thought, yeah, let’s put it all together, put some cover versions on there. Just a little nod to what’s gone on this year.

Just for me, it’s a nice thing to do to put something together and celebrates it. For our family the kitchen disco has really changed the course of what I was going to do next… and I am in the middle of making a new album but I probably won’t get a chance to finish it as quickly as I wanted, so it’s been really lovely to pay tribute to it in another way.

Does your relationship with certain songs change over time?

It’s really hard to say! It’s like any long-term relationship. There’s an evolution… but in other ways music has always been something that is a little bit of a time portal. I’m sure it’s the same for you, but if I hear a song that I loved as a teenager then part of me is a teenager again when I sing along.

I think sometimes the songs I sing – like ‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ or ‘Groovejet’ - they kind of feel like a little bit of time travel, it connects me to this journey that we’ve done together. I think of all the places I’ve sung it, all the people who’ve sung it back to me. I feel really lucky, though, because not everyone has a good relationship with their back catalogue… and I actually do! I’m happy to sing any of the songs that I’ve put out into the world.

One of the things that comes across when taken as a whole is how often your songs will play with that sweet / sour, light / shade dynamic – a melancholic vocal in a disco setting…

I love that. I’m a bit obsessed with that in music! It’s one of my favourite emotions… when it tugs at your heart. The bittersweet melancholy that’s underneath it all. If people don’t listen to lyrics of songs they probably don’t respond to it in as deep a way as they could do. Some songs are massive hits, and they don’t realise that they’re actually a bit dark or a bit sadder.

‘Crying At The Discotheque’ feels very prescient, doesn’t it?

Well, it’s a cover, one that samples Chic. It was released in the Noughties, and then I started doing it as a cover live – particularly in gay clubs, actually, we had a backing track made. I incorporated it into my set, but this is the first properly recorded version. It’s just a really, really clever song – it’s got this disco element, this Noughties element, and it tells a little story. And yes, ‘Crying At The Discotheque’ felt like a nice song to sing at the moment! It just felt right.

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‘Murder On The Dancefloor’ was back in the headlines last year with that Skepta sample, did it take you by surprise?

I have to approve it before it’s released, so I heard it when he finished it. I thought it was brilliant! I love having things sampled and reincorporated and reinvented… it’s really exciting. And he did something cool with it. I ended up singing it with him on Live Lounge, so we got to do it together. Really fun!

Are you anticipating this new album to channel 2020, then?

Whenever I write songs it’s not quite as conscious as that, anyway. It’s more that I’ll be in some sort of mood, and it’ll tumble out, and then I’ll look back and think: oh blimey, that was what it was about! I won’t necessarily know what it’s about when I’m writing. This is the third album that I’ve been doing with Ed Harcourt. We started it at the end of last year, and we picked it up again recently.

I’ve got things that I want to put into it – my step-dad sadly died at the end of July, so for my family that’s been a really big thing in our lives. I want to incorporate that, but I also want it to be a positive album – I want it to be optimistic. I’m writing stuff that is quite quirky and has different corners to it, but ultimately I want it to be something that is about looking for the light.

My instinct whenever things are quite heavy is to try and look for the light – I don’t like to wallow in stuff. There has to be a good message at the end of it.

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'Songs From The Kitchen Disco' is out now.

Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Sophie Muller

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