6:00am Saturday 22nd March 2014
Helped by her stint on Strictly, Sophie Ellis-Bextor is back and riding high in the charts with her new album Wanderlust. With a tour about to start, she tells Andy Welch about her mini-renaissance.
For a singer whose biggest hits include a song called Murder On The Dancefloor, appearing on BBC ballroom contest Strictly Come Dancing seemed like the perfect move.
For Sophie Ellis-Bextor, taking part paid off when she came fourth. In the process, she had a lot of fun, learned a new skill, and best of all, from a career point of view, reminded everyone that she was still around.
"I don't know if I needed persuading to do it," she says of her decision to go on the show, "but I certainly had to think about it for a bit."
Whether it was the thought of enduring Bruce Forsyth's jokes and an ungodly amount of glitter week after week that delayed her decision is unclear, but, after 24 hours of contemplating, she accepted the invitation.
"My friends really love Strictly, so that was the decider," she says. "I knew it would be a big undertaking and that it would change things for me, so I wanted to make sure I'd be happy with that. I have a nice life and I've been having a good time these last few years, so I didn't want to lose any of that. But it was really lovely and I'm very glad I did it."
The timing was also perfect, and whether Ellis-Bextor considered it or not, appearing on autumn's most-watched TV programme each Saturday teatime couldn't have teed up her fifth album any better.
Not long after she'd hung up her dancing shoes came Wanderlust. Unlike Ellis-Bextor's previous work, which was almost solely based in disco and the kind of handbag house Kylie used to make, this new album takes in a wide range of genres, from straight-up ballads such as Young Blood and When The Storm Has Blown Over, through to the baroque pop of 13 Little Dolls and Love Is A Camera.
The album's opening track, Birth Of An Empire, features exotic Middle Eastern strings, while in an unexpected twist, penultimate song, Cry To The Beat Of The Band, features the London Bulgarian Choir, who recorded their part after hours in the Bulgarian Embassy.
"There were lots of them and they were really loud," says the singer. "I wasn't going to miss them recording that."
Now 34 and a mother-of-three, she says Wanderlust, which she funded herself without a record label, felt like making a first album all over again, but without any pressure, self-imposed or otherwise.
"I didn't know if anyone wanted to hear another album from me," she says, possibly referencing her previous album, 2011's Make A Scene, which peaked in the album chart at a lowly No 33.
"I thought I might as well just make this record how I wanted, so in that respect it's quite indulgent," she adds. The fact it went straight in at No 4 when released in January suggests the gamble paid off. And that appearing on Strictly worked a treat.
Musically, despite the mixture of styles, Wanderlust hangs together more cohesively than some of her previous albums. That's largely down to the work of long-time friend and new collaborator Ed Harcourt, with whom she co-wrote it.
"Lustre, Ed's album that came out about four years ago, was my favourite album of that year. I love his music, I've seen him live loads of times, and he's a good family friend, as well as someone I've always had a lot of respect for," she explains.
"We didn't know we were going to do an album, we just did one song, but we worked together so naturally and easily that we carried on. It was so nice to put everything else we were both doing away for a time and just concentrate on writing together. It was a very sure-footed experience."
The pair simply wrote the songs they needed for the album, she adds, whereas in the past, and as most other artists do, she'd just written a large number of tracks from which to select the final line-up.
"Love Is A Camera was the first song we wrote, a waltz about a witch who takes part of your soul when she takes your picture. That's about as far from my previous work as you can get, I think, and that opened the floodgates for wanting to do something very different."
Vocally, there's a difference too. Not as profound as the music, but compared to the cut-glass, half-spoken approach in, say, Murder On The Dancefloor or Groovejet, there are moments where she's really belting it out.
"I suppose I felt more grown-up while recording this album," she offers by way of explanation. "Young Blood I recorded live in the room with everyone else playing at the same time, so there was more pressure on.
"I had to get into the feel of the take straight away, there was no chance to revisit and, if everyone else is playing brilliantly, you don't want to be the weak link in the room. The musicians were all so good."
One of the players on the album is her husband Richard Jones, bass player in The Feeling, along with Harcourt, who will both feature in the band on Ellis-Bextor's forthcoming tour. There'll be a string section too, and, if the shows throughout April are anything like the one-off album launch she played in London earlier this year, she might just end up at the back of the venue singing a capella.
There'll also be a mix of songs from throughout her career.
"Murder On The Dancefloor and Groovejet follow me wherever I go, they have to," she says. "Songs from the other albums have got to be there as well, they're part of what I do too, so what we'll do is the new album, then do a dance section.
"It'll be one of the most eclectic, bonkers shows anyone will see."
Extra time - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
:: Sophie Ellis-Bextor was born on April 10, 1979, in Hounslow, London.
:: Prior to being a solo artist, she sang with London indie band Theaudience. They released an album and a number of singles, the best known being A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed, but split in 1999.
:: In 2000, she collaborated with Italian DJ Spiller to release Groovejet (If This Ain't Love). It went to No 1, was one of the biggest-selling songs of the year and the most-played on UK radio between 2000 and 2010.
:: She has three children with husband Richard Jones; Sonny, Kit and Ray Holiday.
:: She has a tattoo on her right upper arm; a red heart with the word 'Family' written through it.
:: Sophie Ellis-Bextor's new album Wanderlust is out now. She begins a tour in April. Full dates below
7 - Birmingham Institute
8 - Oxford O2 Academy
10 & 11 - London Union Chapel
13 - Bournemouth O2 Academy
14 - Brighton Concorde 2
15 - Bristol O2 Academy
17 - Gateshead Sage
18 - Manchester Ritz
19 & 20 - Glasgow Oran Mor
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