Sophie Ellis-Bextor is a pop star in the old-school sense. She’s a genuine old-fashioned star, fierce and glamorous to the hilt in videos and performance, but reticent about life out of the spotlight. She specializes in old-school, dance-friendly pop, complete with flirty lyrics and high camp videos. Her arm bears an old-school heart tattoo, proclaiming her allegiance to the old-fashioned values of ‘FAMILY’. And last of all she’s old school because this particular interviewer remembers listening to her in school, in the days when she was the classy alternative to a faux lip ring-ed Victoria Beckham and Dane Bowers, her unholy partner in crime.
But unlike Posh, who wisely dispensed with the music career in favour of mugging for Armani ad campaigns, Ellis-Bextor has retained a presence in the charts. She has risen gracefully from the ashes of Smash Hits and the Top of the Pops disco floor, knocking up 13 singles along the way This year sees a fourth album released after 2007’s ‘Trip the Light Fantastic’, this time steering towards an glossy dance-electro sound characterised by current single ‘Rhythm Make Me a Dancer’ (sung as ‘dahn-sa’ in Sophie’s trademark Anglo tones, which only having a Blue Peter presenter as a mother can impart). With Scotsman-of-the-moment Calvin Harris and noted remixers Freemasons collaborating, it looks to be a triumphant return for Britpop’s reigning ice-queen. Intrigued to find the secret behind her evergreen pop career and formidably sharp cheekbones, and more than a little spooked by her glacial reputation, I questioned La Bextor on everything from Lady GaGa to the moral implications of advertising eyeliner.
You have a very characteristic sound and visual style; did you set out to carve your own niche, or were you on a mission to perfect previous standards?
Pop is something that I’ve always enjoyed doing, so I suppose I’ve just stuck to my guns. In some ways this new album is a bit different; the last two albums aimed to be quite eclectic, while with this one the emphasis is on dance. Its just what I’m feeling at the moment.
Your music has a humour and self-awareness that’s quite specific to British pop. Would you see US artists such as Katy Perry and GaGa as a kind of approximation of British pop quirkiness?
I’m not really the person to ask. Apart from what’s in the British charts, I don’t listen to a lot of American artists. I feel like my music taste is very European, people like Daft Punk.
Irony seems to allow us to enjoy unapologetically ‘pop’ acts like Girls Aloud, whom people might previously have been embarrassed to admit to listening to.
Ive never felt embarrassed by the fact that I love pop! Though my interpretation is very broad; Prince made great pop music, Michael Jackson made great pop music, as did Madonna. These the people I’ve been inspired by.
Pop is one of those evergreen genres that never really goes out of fashion. But it can seem like a safe bet, especially if you do it well. Have you ever wanted to turn around and break with it completely?
Not yet. I’m happy with what I’m doing at the moment. I feel as though I’ve had to weather the storm a bit; when I brought out my last album, it was at a time when pop wasn’t that dominant. Instead it was all boys with guitars, and thats perfectly fine, but I’ve just stuck to my guns really. I know what I like.
What do you think is the key to hanging around? Has it been about preserving a sense of mystery?
Yes, definitely. That certainly been helpful, even just in preserving my sanity. I remember starting out, thinking ‘I don’t want everyone to know everything about me straight away’. I don’t really care if the public perception of me isn’t the ‘real me’; I’m loyal to my fans, but I’m not doing what I do to be universally liked. In fact I quite like the fact that, initially at least, there were people who didn’t like me at all. Maybe I’m just a bit masochistic, but at least you’re more intriguing this way.
Being married to another person in music, is it difficult for you and Richard to keep your heads low, in your everyday life?
We’ve been very lucky, we’ve lived in the same house for years and people know us by now. They’ll see us and its just, like, ‘oh, there they are again!’.
Have you ever found yourself a victim of preconceptions put out by the press?
Well, we’re all guilty of doing that to people, it comes as part and parcel. I don’t see it as a real thing; If you get caught up treating your job as a popularity contest, it can eat you up. But all my friends are girls who I’ve known since I was at school; I’ve known them for nearly twenty years now. I feel that, if it all ends tomorrow, I can still have my own life.
Has life in the public eye changed much since you were first in the public eye? With current artists such as Lily Allen, it’s as though their tabloid selves feed into their music, so that all aspects of their lives become a kind of performance.
I don’t know if I see it that way; everybody has a limit, it just comes down to the individual. Everybody has their own way of bartering, of navigating their way through it. There are some choices I’d make that other artists might never make; its a matter of where you draw the line. And then some people are just very good at using it as a tool.
You can consent to play the game, but then it seems like you’re whole life becomes a full-time job.
Personally I wouldn’t know how. I prefer to just play it a bit safe, I guess. Though I do feel admiration for those people, at the same time. When I was a teenager, teenage culture was very dependent on music, but now youth culture is based around the notion of fame, and of notoriety. Celebrity magazines, celebrity blogging.. you’ve got this generation of young people with a new muscle, a talent in its itself, and who know how to work it.
Has being a mother changed your approach to work and creativity? How do you balance family life with going on tour?
By taking it one week at a time. When I do the proper touring, with long tours, I take them along with me. With a small baby it can be easy enough, actually. Giving up work is not an option.
I read that you went back to work nine days after having your child. Seems pretty hardcore.
Well, when babies are very small they sleep a lot anyway… I have studio at home, so I was able to just pop in and do a bit of singing. It wasn’t like going straight back to work.
Did you get the famous post-natal rush of creativity?
I think in a weird way it makes you more ambitious, because you’re doing it for more than yourself. The influence was more obvious on my last album, when I’d just had my first baby. Its not as much on the new album; I’m not a new parent, so its not quite as pronounced.
You seem to enjoy the visual side of the job, with the big emphasis on style in your videos, and your modelling work for Rimmel and Monsoon.
I always balk a bit at being described as a model, I wouldn’t see myself as one at all. I took it as a big compliment being asked to do the Rimmel stuff, because I never felt like the pretty girl at school. I’m hoping its something young girls out there who might feel like they don’t fit in might see and realise, ‘maybe we can do alright in the end’! I like strong makeup looks, something more non-conventional. I’m not going to try to play the ‘pretty girl’, because I never felt like the pretty girl.
Do you play a big role in coming up with video concepts and the visual side of performances?
Yes, definitely. Its a big part of the draw for me, a part of the job I love. It’d just be really disappointing if people told me what to wear all of the time. Coming up with a video is the fun part. Its another way of articulating what you intended with the song, another tool for expression.
And having already branched into modelling, do you see ever yourself branching out into fashion like artists have?
I really like Beth Ditto’s clothing line, she’s done some good stuff. Music has always been my first love, my ‘day job’, but diversifying it can be very fun. And style and music are natural bedfellows, really, I mean fashion and music have always been closely related. Its quite natural; I mean when you buy an album you’re not just buying the songs; you buy into a certain lifestyle.
Do you feel you’ve created a certain persona for your music?
I’m not sure if its a different person. As a pop star, in performances you do have to be a little larger than life, but the more I’ve done, the more the gap between my on-stage and my off-stage self has become less pronounced. I’m more relaxed; there’s less need to build barriers between myself and the audience.
I read that when you were starting out, you were irked by having to sing lyrics with bad grammar like ‘If this ain’t love’ .
(Laughs) I don’t know if I’d be the same about that now! I used to be very particular about things like that, but now…
You’ve lost your grammatical ideals!
Exactly! Though I still get very frustrated at really bad lines.
You could demand a grammatically-correct remix version of the song…
Yes, we could see how it goes down.