Interview: Sophie Ellis-Bextor
The singer and songwriter who arrived in the 90s with Theaudience talks about co-writing ‘Groovejet’, other collaborations, and Kitchen Disco
Singer-songwriter Sophie Ellis-Bextor leapt to fame providing the vocals for DJ Spiller’s huge international hit Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love). The former singer of indie band Theaudience then had a series of solo hits such as Murder On The Dance Floor, Take Me Home and Get Over You.
She has released eight albums including the critically acclaimed Familia and Wanderlust with producer and singer Ed Harcourt. More recently, Ellis-Bextor hit the headlines with her “Kitchen Disco” concerts at home in her kitchen on Instagram at the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, which proved a huge success.
Her songwriting – which includes co-writing Groovejet – has sometimes been neglected. So with the release of Songs From The Kitchen Disco, a new CD collection of many of her hits, we took the opportunity of talking to her about just that…
First, tell us about how the Kitchen Disco came about?
“When lockdown started, I found myself with lots of things cancelled – at home with the kids all the time – which was nice but some of the time it was stressful. So when my husband Richard [Jones, bassist of The Feeling] suggesting doing a gig like that I thought it was ‘barking’, but it appealed to me because it was a lot of fun and also a welcome distraction.”
Were you surprised by the way people have taken to it?
“I was a bit blown away really. When I did the first one I was a bit braced for people saying it was ridiculous. I thought people were going to make fun of me. So when people responded warmly, I thought, ‘That’s lovely, let’s keep doing every Friday.’ We formed a little community. It felt like we were all in a party.”
When did you start songwriting?
When I was 20. I signed a publishing deal when I was 18 when I was in my first band Theaudience but I never wrote any songs at all and I wasn’t even particularly interested in songwriting back then. When my band split up, I was sent the instrumental track of Groovejet and there was something about it I quite liked. They were looking, at the time, not just for a singer but also for words and music as well. So I wrote the verses, the middle eight and a chorus and they took a chorus from another idea that had been submitted from Rob Davis [former guitarist with glam rock band Mud and Grammy Award-winning songwriter] and that was my first song.”
Do you have a particular way of writing songs?
“I usually write melodies first, but it depends on who I’m writing with as well as how we know each other. I do write songs on my own occasionally but lack a lot of confidence with my own ideas. If someone writes with me, it helps me self-edit which I find quite useful. On my own, I find it quite difficult to tell the difference between a good idea or a bad on. When you have someone else, it’s an immediate litmus test really. First, you say it out loud if you think the words might have a chance, that’s a useful first bit of editing. Quite often you bounce an idea bath and forth until it’s done. I think that comes with a really good songwriting partnership.
“The nice thing about songwriting is that worst that can happen is you write a song you don’t use and you might just do something really special. For me, it’s always worth a punt, but it also should be fun. It’s not supposed to feel like a chore and you’re not supposed to find it serious, even if you’re writing about something serious. The process should give you a positive feeling.”
Who would you like to write a song with?
“I think someone like Dolly Parton would be incredible. She is just such a great storyteller. Likewise, Paul Simon. Although, neither Dolly Parton or Paul Simon need me. They are just great songwriters who have an effortlessness in their lyrics. It goes between the conversational and the profound. It never breaks the flow, they have your ear, they have your attention.”
One of the people you’ve worked with on a number of albums and songs is the singer-songwriter and producer Ed Harcourt. How has it been working with him?
“I love writing songs with Ed. It goes quite quickly. We’re writing a new album and every song we have written in a day. When we’re on form, we find it very natural to write together.”
Tell us about the song Come With Us from the Harcourt-produced Familia?
“That’s a bit of a personal triumph because I managed to get Ed to do a bit of disco. He always swore he wouldn’t, but it rubs off. Ed and I had already done Wanderlust which was my fifth album where I decided to shake things up and have no dance or disco. That was a big moment for me in finding my feet. I enjoyed that so much that when I came to Familia – which was going to be the opposite with synth-pop and more dancy – it was going to be Ed does disco. The song came about when we were having a conversation about cults and Scientology and how they work to lure you in.”
One of your huge hits from the early in your career was Murder On The Dance Floor co-written with Gregg Alexander. Tell us a bit about that.
“When I first heard Murder… it had been knocking around in an unfinished state. Gregg had written the chorus and had mock lyrics for the verses – it was quite woolly, but the kernel of it was already there. So I finished off writing it and Gregg calls me and I thought he hated what I’d done when he said, ‘Sophie, you’d better not steal the move, Sophie.’ But we got on really well and ended up writing together a lot in that era. We would get together in a room with Matt Rowe [who worked with the Spice Girls], who’s got a lovely feel with the chords, and Gregg and I would be knocking ideas around.
“I enjoyed writing with Gregg because he was so unpredictable and super-confident and would chuck out ideas all the time. Funnily, I spoke to him recently for the first time in ages. It was really nice because we’ve got a lot of happy memories of coming up with some songs I still sing now.”
I think one of the songs you wrote with Gregg and Matt was Mixed Up World. What inspired that?
“We wrote that around the time of the Iraq war. So newspapers were absolutely full of that and there were anti-war demonstrations. I remember the Pop Justice website really taking the mickey about it being inspired by that, but it really was. We were thinking about how everything was getting a bit heavy…”
Relevant for this year?
“Yes, it’s true it’s been another one of those years!”
You’ve also co-written a number of songs with Hannah Robinson including the 2007 single Me And My Imagination. Tell us about that collaboration?
“I got on with Hannah really well. We had very similar sensibilities when it comes to what we like in pop music and what tugs at the heartstrings. The song Me And My Imagination is about keeping a little of yourself back. It’s important not to reveal everything about your imagination all at once. As the years go on there I thought if I have a long career there still should be things people can learn about me. But 20 years on and everyone’s seen my kitchen!”
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