Sophie Ellis-Bextor is one of the UK’s best known singer songwriters. She first came to prominence in the late 1990s as the lead singer of the indie rock band Theaudience, and went on to achieve huge solo success with her unique blend of mainstream pop, disco, nu-disco and 1980s electronic influence.
Her debut solo album Read My Lips went double-platinum, selling more than 2 million copies worldwide with her follow-up albums Shoot from the Hip, Trip the Light Fantastic, Make a Scene, Wanderlust and Familia achieving significant success and critical acclaim.
Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Instagram Live Kitchen Disco’s during the Covid-19 lockdown were a means of virtual escapism for many, and became weekly moments of united sequined catharsis for the hundreds of thousands tuning in (the concept was so successful that Sophie now has a tour and album of it). Sophie also recently launched her new podcast, Spinning Plates, with each one-hour episode featuring an interview with another working mother about the difficulties and joys of a work/life balance. With episodes so far featuring Fearne Cotton and Caitlin Moran, the podcast has already become Apple’s number one Parenting podcast everywhere from the UK to Greece to Ecuador.
In this exclusive interview, I spoke to Sophie about the power of music & dance and why music has been such a powerful force for good during the Covid-19 lockdowns.
Q: What does music do for us?
[Sophie Ellis-Bextor]: It’s become very obvious to me, with the situation we’ve been in for the last 10 months or so, that music provides escapism. You can go into a little space in your head that’s somewhere else, somewhere exciting.
Music is something that affects your senses in a way that nothing else really can- it’s like a time-travel portal! You can listen to something and it transports back to that place… that bar… that nightclub… that time with your friends….
The significance for me now is that when we’re in this situation, under all these restrictions and lockdowns, our emotions have been dialled down. We can’t spend our emotional energy on the things we normally would- like having friends over for dinner. We have to be good citizens, and music gives us a place to put that energy. I’ve been listening to quite a lot of high-energy and dramatic music lately for that reason, it gives my emotions a place to go.
Q: What’s special about dance music?
[Sophie Ellis-Bextor]: I discovered dance music quite late I suppose; I was in my 20s, and it wasn’t something I listened to as a teenager. It was the way I got introduced to- and learned about- disco. Dance music also made me acknowledge my life-long love of pop music and allowed me to explore those extreme aspects of emotions that come with the headiness of the genre. It’s not a reflective genre, but one that allows you to explore frustration, excitement, happiness, love and heartbreak.
I love the immediacy of dance music.
Q: When did you realise music would be your life?
[Sophie Ellis-Bextor]: I’d always loved music, but when I was 16, I started singing in a band called Theaudience which was a guitar-pop band. Until then, I’d been unsure what I wanted to do… but then I started singing and it just felt like it joined the dots for me in terms of all the things I loved. The crucial bit came when I was 20 and we got dropped from our record deal, leaving us high and dry. That was when I thought, ‘am I going to be someone who only wants to do music when it’s all going well? And only when it’s served to me on a plate? Or do I want to do this… no matter what…’ For me, there was nothing else, I wanted to make music. At the time, even though I felt like the highlight of my career was already behind me, I just decided I wanted to do this… whatever the weather.
Q: What does success mean to you?
[Sophie Ellis-Bextor]: I don’t have a specific definition for what success means, but I do appreciate the opportunities I’ve had, and how fortunate I am to have been able to spend so much of my life doing something I love. I think our definition of success changes as our career does. Nobody has an upward trajectory all the time- there’s undulations that go on. When I first started-out, I was signed to Universal, and back then- success was based on quite strict criteria… you had to be on certain playlists… achieve certain chart positions… sales figures…. As I’ve got older, I’ve seen there are so many other ways to be successful that aren’t restrictive like that. I think the younger me would probably have been a bit horrified by that thought though, as she was quite used to that way of thinking… but to have a career, you have to be able to break out of your ways of thinking about success, otherwise you’ll just end up disappointed.
Q: What’s been the role of social media in your career?
[Sophie Ellis-Bextor]: Social media isn’t a muscle I flex very naturally. I’ve had to find my own feet with it because when I started out, it wasn’t around at all. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s social media meant MySpace and things like that- but as social media progressed, I saw a whole generation of bands and artists who were really dextrous with that technology- but it never quite felt like my world.
It may be an overused phrase, but the only way social media can work is if you are incredibly authentic. If you try and cultivate and curate too much it can be very obvious and transparent. I’ve been quite tentative with Twitter and Instagram. My Instagram isn’t glossy… it’s somewhere I put up a lot of stuff that’s quite random and playful.
As a rule, though… if there’s something I’m unsure about posting, I won’t do it!
Q: Why did you decide to create the Spinning Plates podcast?
[Sophie Ellis-Bextor]: The podcast has been quite an organic thing and is based on an experience very close to my heart- that of being a working-mum. Also, I’m actually quite nosy, and love to talk to people and ask questions about their lives. The podcast isn’t really about motherhood per-say, but about how you can keep feeling like yourself no matter what life changes happen. Motherhood in this way is a shorthand of talking about something big that happens to a lot of people and changes their lives. A lot of the conversations we have on the podcast aren’t necessarily about motherhood, but that shared experience breaks the ice and leads to other fantastic conversations.
The big thing that happened last year was that all my work went! Suddenly the podcast was something I had a lot of time to think about, and be quite indulgent with really… I’ve really taken advantage of that, and in a house with 5 kids where Richard (my husband) and I have been for most of the last year… the podcast has been one of the few times I’ve been able to have a full conversation with someone, uninterrupted… it’s been really lovely.
Q: How have you manged your own mental health through lockdown, and as a singer?
[Sophie Ellis-Bextor]: Music isn’t’ for everybody, there are a lot of times when you don’t’ really know what’s going to happen next… where your income will come from…. If you’re someone who wants quite a settled routine job that you can plan around, I wouldn’t suggest being a singer!
For me… I love the fact that my work can take me in a totally different direction at any time. It’s something I embrace, and I find it an exciting way to live. My husband is a musician too, and so we both have that rhythm in our lives. I’ve also never had anything else I feel like I can do, I’ve never had a ‘plan B’ for when things don’t work out…. I’m not very qualified in anything, so I don’t even know what job I’d apply for!
When things get stressful, I’m able to compartmentalise and manage to focus on the tiny little things that have momentum in a project. That’s enough to pull me through and get things done. I can quite happily get lost in a project like the Kitchen Discos– they’re an aspect of what I do for a living, but also they’re not at all, you know? They have been these crazy little gigs with my family- but the act of planning what to sing, planning what to wear, and planning the stage… that’s been enough for me to keep going and stop myself from dwelling on the fact that all the work has gone!
And I think that’s just luck of the draw, that’s just what makes me tick. And I can quite happily get lost in a project, it doesn’t have to be even like – the kitchen discos that we’ve been doing in lockdown is a perfect example – they’re an aspect of what I do for a living, but really, they’re not really at all. It’s been these crazy, I don’t know what they are, little gig type things with the family. But just thinking about that, planning what to sing, planning what I’ll wear has been enough for me to distract myself enough to stop myself thinking oh my goodness, all my work’s gone.
Q: Why do you think people resonated so much with the Kitchen Discos?
[Sophie Ellis-Bextor]: Disco is something very precious to me, and something I feel quite protective towards. It comes from quite a pure place of warmth and connection, and I think part of the reason people have enjoyed the Kitchen Disco is because it’s like a caricature of how they’re living right now.
Grayson Perry once said that, ‘art is our way of creating the narrative to what goes on around us…’ and that really stuck with me. As silly as the discos are, they are actually how our family have made a story out of our world being turned upside down. Perhaps that’s the purpose of art, to tell a story in a way that can be interpreted… not just a series of facts, but the emotions too.
I love my home life; I love my family, but I also have another side to me which was put on the shelf because of lockdown. These Kitchen Discos are the 25 minutes where I can be loopy and be that other version of myself. I don’t ask anything of anyone…. Some people might watch a little bit of the disco on their phone in the corner of the room whilst they’re cooking, some people may listen to it in the background while they’re having a conversation, and some people want to dance along and do something silly!
If you want to bop along, if you want to sing along if I sing a song from Disney or Julie Andrew and you think that’s quite fun then great, but really if it’s just half an hour of silliness or half an hour where you feel like you’re not on your own, or half an hour where you’re just thinking oh my god, is anything seriously going to go wrong, then I’m very happy to provide that.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Sophie Ellis-Bextor]: I recently interviewed Candice Brathwaite who wrote a book called I’m Not Your Baby Mother. She spoke a lot about how driven she is by what she leaves behind for her ancestors and it got me thinking about what I’m leaving for mine…. I’ve got a room full of peculiar outfits that I’ve bought on ebay… they can have vintage majorette costumes… perhaps my ancestors will have some fun with those. I’ve made some disco pop too, and perhaps they’ll enjoy dancing to that.
I don’t know if I’m a very long-term thinker. For me, my desires are quite close to home. I hope I’m a good mum. I can also see from people I’ve lost in my life that the thing you leave behind is love, so I hope I’ve created a bit of that too… I know I’ve been lucky to receive a lot.
I don’t think my ancestors need me for any more than that really. But yeah…. they’re welcome to my wardrobe!