Sophie Ellis-Bextor: Cream of the pop
Sophie Ellis-Bextor's new album lifts the lid on the not so candy-coloured world of pop music, but it is also imbued with happiness -- reflecting the singer's life, she tells Ed Power
Sophie Ellis-Bextor can spot them a mile off. "Every woman knows when they meet a girl who's not a 'girl's girl'," she says, lips pursed in an expression of amused vexation. "All her friends are male and she's really, really flirty with everyone's boyfriends. I think women can tell those types straight away and know they are best avoided."
She has written a song about this for her new album, an electrifyingly catty piece entitled Homewrecker. Given Ellis-Bextor is married to Richard Jones from The Feeling, a rock band with a substantial girlie following, it's only fair to ask if the track is based on personal experience?
"You'll probably think I'm protesting too much," she says. "The truth is that Richard and I aren't jealous types. It wouldn't work very well if we were. In fact, I'm more likely to get annoyed if a girl next to me at one of their gigs was shouting for another band member. I think they should all fancy my husband."
It's early afternoon in Notting Hill, west London, and Ellis-Bextor is settling down to a cup of tea and chat. The singer, whose parade of hits includes Murder on the Dance Floor and Groovejet (If This Ain't Love), lives in a townhouse off trendy (if grungy) Portobello Road with Jones and their two sons, Sonny, five, and Kit Valentine, 18 months.
She's just back from Los Angeles, where she recorded the new album Straight to the Heart with Lily Allen-collaborator Greg Kurstin. "I really had fun making the record," she says. "That was a bit of a criteria, really. I had to enjoy the process. Otherwise, it didn't matter what it sounded like. It had to have a sense of happiness imbued in it."
If you were searching for an insight into life in pop's fast lane, Straight to the Heart is a good starting point. As she has already pointed out, Homewrecker is a wry rumination on ladies with an eye for other women's men. Then there's Dial My Number, inspired by the stalker who has been pestering Ellis-Bextor via text message. Isn't the subject matter a bit serious to serve as grist in a throwaway pop song?
Her response is a shrug: "If it was someone in person it would be more ... well, the fact it's only text messages means it's more manageable. It was a bit of a quirky inspiration. You start to think about people who have your phone number -- just because they have your number, doesn't mean they are going to get anywhere with you."
She may be the face of Rimmel and muse to fashion photographer Rankin, but Ellis-Bextor has had to put up with no end of flack about her (admittedly unconventional) looks. With her wide, angular features, she isn't straightforwardly gorgeous and, at school, was nicknamed Rhombus Face. When she became famous at the start of the Noughties, the insults flew thick and fast. Frank Skinner asked her "why the wide face?" at an award ceremony; Robbie Williams, ever the charmer, said she looked like a satellite dish.
"[Take] Debbie Harry; have you seen her face?" she said a few years ago. "It's quite wide. [Harry] was called Moon Face at school. But that's why she photographs so well. Her face catches a lot of light. Quite a lot of famous people have got big features. It's more interesting that way."
Through it all, she has always been able to count on the support of her biggest fans, the gay community. One of her first live performances was at London's G-A-Y club; last month, she vamped it up alongside two bare-chested beefcakes at New York City Gay Pride. In August, she headlines Milk, Ireland's first gay and lesbian music festival, at Ballinlough Castle, Co Westmeath (see panel).
"My gay fans are incredibly loyal," she says. "I owe my career to them, really. We have a shared passion for the fact that disco music has long been a forum for people who felt like outsiders. It's where they come to feel accepted and celebrated. It's very enthusiastic. Also, that sort of music has a wistfulness and sadness running through it. We enjoy the same reference points."
As to juggling music and motherhood, Ellis-Bextor says it isn't always straightforward. Both her children were born prematurely, due to a blood-pressure condition she suffers. Leaving them behind to tour and record is, she confesses, a wrench. On the other hand, it's not as if she can drag two pre-schoolers all over the world simply to assuage her guilt.
"I'm with them more than most working mums," she says. "This week, I'm with them today, tomorrow and all through the weekend. If I think they'll get something out of it, I sometimes bring them with me. Children live very much in the moment. They're happy and I'm happy."
Ellis-Bextor herself didn't have the most idyllic of childhoods. She was three when her mother and father divorced (her mum, Janet Ellis, was a BBC presenter and something of a sex symbol in 80s Britain). Almost as traumatic as her parents' break up, she says, was her stint at the exclusive girl's prep school Godolphin & Latymer (alma mater to Nigella Lawson, Kate Beckinsale and, back when it admitted boys, WB Yeats). Reading between the lines, Godolphin sounds like a cross between St Trinian's and a Bret Easton Ellis novel.
"I learned to stand up for myself at school, where I was never too popular," she said recently. "There was an Anti-Sophie club. One time, they pelted me with coins. It was pure jealousy, because my mum was on TV."
Talented and precocious, Ellis-Bextor received her first taste of celebrity at 17 fronting Theaudience, a so-so indie sextet which sent male music journalists across Britain into a collective tizzy (Melody Maker splashed her on the cover before Theaudience even had an album out). The departure of the lead guitarist saw the band peter out, but by then, Ellis-Bextor had set her sights on a pop career.
A hook-up with Italian DJ Cristiano Spiller resulted in the 2000 Ibiza smash Groovejet (If This Ain't Love) and suddenly Ellis-Bextor was a chart star. It seems only fair to ask whether, if she was starting now, she'd try to fast-track her career via X Factor?
"It's difficult for me to answer. I came through in such a different way. Being in a band for me was such good grounding. When I was a teenager, I didn't even want to be a solo artist."
Not that she considers Simon Cowell to be the devil's spawn. "[X Factor] is definitely an avenue. But you would hope that people don't think it's the only option. I think people are savvy enough to know that. Actually, some very good people have come through those shows. Someone like Will Young -- he's definitely a talent. The cream always rises. Fair enough, these things are primarily entertainment shows, but, on the other hand, they can give birth to proper pop stars."
Now aged 31, Ellis-Bextor is arguably entering the pop equivalent of late middle age -- but if growing older troubles her, she does a good job of hiding it. "Pop is fickle," she says. "Then again, that's what I like about it. You've got to remember it's also incredibly cyclical. I'm in my 10th year. It's strange to see things coming around again when I started. It's quite funny."
Does she look at Lady Gaga and think, I'll get my coat? She shakes her head: "Because I'm such a fan of pop, I find it very inspiring whenever there are exciting female artists around. It's more when I see bad stuff that I think, 'oh, what's the point?' The good stuff is what makes it all worthwhile. It should be like that. You've got to earn your place. It's when you get a bit petulant that it starts to go wrong."
Straight to the Heart is released in the autumn. Sophie Ellis-Bextor headlines Milk festival at Ballinlough Castle on August 14