Sophie Ellis-Bextor on failures, big families and love: ‘I’ve had it all taken away. It sucks. This is better’

The singer, who brought the world joy with her Kitchen Discos in lockdown, tells Ellie Harrison about the heady turn of the millennium and her dreamy new record, ‘Hana’

Sunday 04 June 2023 06:30 BST
‘Anyone who says they love you but clips your wings can’t be telling the truth’
‘Anyone who says they love you but clips your wings can’t be telling the truth’ (Laura Lewis)

In 1999, Sophie Ellis-Bextor thought it was all over. Just the year before, she’d been voted one of the sexiest people in rock by Melody Maker and her indie band Theaudience had released a strong, spiky first album. But after bosses at Mercury Records rejected the demos for their second, the band were axed by the label. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m 20 and done and dusted. I’m already a has-been,’” the singer tells me.

It was all about to change. A few months later, Ellis-Bextor was asked to sing on a house record, Spiller’s “Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)”. She was surprised. A little insulted, even. “I was like, ‘Do they know me? This is not me,’” she says. A couple of weeks went by, and she forgot about it. Then, while tidying her flat, she found the CD on the floor. She played it again and decided to give it a shot. “Then it came out and it was extraordinary… because it all just went whoomph!” she says, grey eyes glittering and her hands flying upwards.

The musician, now 44, is reflecting on the heady turn of the millennium as she prepares to release her seventh solo album, Hana – a dreamy, candid record loosely inspired by a family trip to Japan. Her voice is husky, her skin porcelain. Sitting outside a brasserie in Chiswick, she sips on a green juice of cucumber, apple, celery and kale. It looks healthy. She’s swapped the usual sequinned gowns she wore for her live-streamed Kitchen Discos in lockdown, for something a little more comfortable but no less loud: a candyfloss-pink bomber jacket over a rainbow-striped top. “It was quite crazy,” she says of the impact of “Groovejet”. “I really would say that that song changed my life – not just because it gave me a lifeline back into what I wanted to do, but also because it introduced me to a whole different genre.”

The summer smash entered the UK charts at number one, just beating former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham on her first solo track. “It made quite a nice little story to pit us against each other in the press,” Ellis-Bextor says, “Like, ‘Will it be this unknown house track or one of the most well-known people in the country?’” She crossed paths with Posh Spice at a TV shoot shortly afterwards, and knocked on her dressing room door to say hello. “It was fine,” she says, shrugging. “I never felt that anything was actually at the root of it [our competition] – it felt very much like a press thing. I had nothing to lose, so I thought it was funny. She was probably like, this is not funny.”

In the intervening two decades, Ellis-Bextor has hardly come up for air. In 2001, she brought out her first solo album, led by the earworm hit “Murder on the Dancefloor” – blasted out at every millennial house party to this day. She released her second record Shoot from the Hip in 2003, then after her third – 2007’s Trip the Light Fantastic – she supported George Michael on tour, though the pair never met. “We did eight dates together, but it was quite clear that he was being quite private…” she says. “I got the impression that maybe, I don’t know, there’s a mood on tours, and I didn’t feel like it was the most happy tour.”

Three more albums followed in 2011, 2014 and 2016 and she competed on Strictly Come Dancing with Brendan Cole in 2013, coming fourth. In her memoir – yes, she squeezed in a book in 2021 – Ellis-Bextor wrote about how the BBC One competition was so disruptive to her marriage with The Feeling bassist Richard Jones that the pair sought counselling. She described how he “became unusually insistent on knowing where I was all the time.

“If I didn’t reply to a text, he’d spiral… He just felt as if I might slip into a new life that left our family behind,” she wrote, also questioning why the show “fetishises the ‘couples’ aspect so much”. We don’t discuss Strictly when we meet, but in the book she called her partner Cole a “perfect gentleman”.

There have been reports that Ellis-Bextor might be the UK’s 2024 Eurovision entry, but she tells me it’s not going to happen. “I saw that too,” she says of the rumours, “but no one’s actually had a chat with me about it! I love Eurovision so much – I went up to Liverpool for the build-up and I was on such a high afterwards, it was just really joyous. The sun was shining and they did a great job. But I think at this point, and with what I’m up to, it would be a massive gamble, like casino all-on-red level of gamble, and I just don’t think that’s me. I’ll always watch it, but I can’t really picture myself up there doing it.”

Ellis-Bextor also has a podcast called Spinning Plates, currently in its 10th season, in which she interviews working mums from Fearne Cotton to Myleene Klass, and a BBC Sounds show, Kitchen Disco, named after and inspired by her videos in lockdown, where every Friday night Jones would film his glitter-clad wife singing her own hits and covers under swirling lights.

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Ellis-Bextor performing, with her ‘family’ tattoo on show, in 2017 (Getty Images)

The woman is unstoppable. Even on the day we meet, by mid-afternoon she’s been to her son’s school sports day, signed a big pile of records (I can see a few stray biro scribbles on her forearm), and recorded two episodes of her radio show. She puts her work ethic down to her early knockback with Theaudience. “With my first solo album, it was sometimes quite overwhelming having my diary get really busy and being swept up in it all, but the fact that I’d already been through a really crummy time with my first record deal kept me a little bit sober, in a good way,” she says. “I was a lot more grateful and I didn’t get moany about it because it was like, I’ve had it all taken away from me. It sucks. This is better. Now, I never take for granted any booking. And the older I get, the more it moves me that I am given space [in this industry] because there’s so much out there.”

Her new album, Hana, is Ellis-Bextor’s most introspective work yet. It takes a more proggy, meditative direction than her old electro bangers, but is still resolutely optimistic pop. “When I was making purely dance music, that genre deals really well with a present emotion like anger or frustration or love or lust – it’s something that’s taken over, here and now,” she says. “But you can’t really be reflective in a dance record… so this [the new album] feels quite indulgent, and I normally don’t feel like that.” The playful track “We’ve Been Watching You” imagines that aliens have been observing the human race, and decide to rescue us from Earth, a planet that Ellis-Bextor says has gone a bit “wonky” these past few years. “The world’s been in a very strange place,” she says, noting the pandemic and political chaos.

The track that scrapes closest to her heart is “Until the Wheels Fall Off”. It’s inspired by a letter that Ellis-Bextor’s late stepfather John Leach – who died of lung cancer in July 2020 – left behind for her mother. “He’d written about how they hadn’t let his diagnoses stop anything, and they’d drunk the best wines and they’d burned all the fancy candles and they’d travelled,” says Ellis-Bextor, “and he wrote, ‘And we laughed and loved until the wheels fell off, and it all flew by at lightning speed.’” Ellis-Bextor has written songs for her mother – Janet Ellis, a former Blue Peter presenter who lives 10 minutes down the road from her daughter in west London – before, but she’s not performed this one for her yet. “I’m doing a big album show at the end of June – I’ll definitely have a little peek at her face then,” she says.

That’s the nice thing about being older and wiser, you can reach back to yourself in the past and be like, ‘It’s OK’

Family – and a big one at that – is Ellis-Bextor’s everything (she has the word tattooed inside a red heart on her arm). Fans will have glimpsed the five sons – Sonny, 19, Kit, 14, Ray, 11, Jesse, 7, and Mickey, 4 – she shares with musician Jones wandering in and out of the frame in her Kitchen Disco videos. Ellis-Bextor met Jones when he was auditioning for her tour band in 2002. They later started dating and she was pregnant within six weeks.

Ellis-Bextor and Richard Jones met when he was auditioning for her tour band (Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images)

Before then, she had been in an abusive relationship with an older man who was so controlling at his worst that he wouldn’t allow her to walk down the street alone or look out of the car window. Jones, by contrast, gave her the support she had been craving. “When you really love someone, you want them to flourish,” she says. “And I feel like that about Richard and I can see he feels like that about me, but I just didn’t have that to go home to then [with the ex]. It made me understand that anyone who says that they love you but also tries to clip your wings can’t really be telling the truth about loving you. It just isn’t what love looks like.” She wrote about the abusive relationship in her memoir, she says, “because at the time there was a lot of stuff that I thought was fine and it just wasn’t fine. But that’s the nice thing about being older and wiser, you can reach back to yourself in the past and be like, ‘It’s OK. I can help you articulate what you’re feeling.’”

What has it been like raising five boys, with all the conversations that may bring around toxic masculinity and consent? “I teach them both sides of the coin actually,” she says, “about wanting happiness for the other person you’re with and also not compromising your own… That goes into every dynamic, every exchange they have with other people, including in our house. That’s the thing about being in a big family, they’re automatically born into this little community. I want them to feel they can talk about their emotions as well. I just want them to be rounded people, and I don’t know if I necessarily put a big emphasis on having five boys – it’s a responsibility just raising five people. And like all modern parenting tells you to, I model failure.” She’s referring to parents being encouraged to be honest about their imperfections and bad habits. She laughs. “I go back and say, ‘Sorry, I just got that bit wrong.’ I don’t really have any problem with that.” She likes to imagine that within families, everyone gets handed their lines in the morning. “My script is quite big,” she says, “and I do a lot of talking, but then my mum did that, too.”

The early years of Ellis-Bextor’s motherhood were fraught. She suffered from pre-eclampsia (the onset of high blood pressure that can lead to complications for mother and baby) during her first two pregnancies, resulting in both Sonny and Kit being born prematurely. “When Richard and I got together and found out we were having a baby, it already felt very high drama and I was also going through some difficult issues with my previous manager,” she says. “There was just a lot of drama going on in the middle of it all. And my sister was born 10 weeks early when I was 11, so I’d already seen a happy ending, so I wasn’t too – I was probably quite naïve – but I wasn’t too worried about Sonny. It sounds absurd, I mean, when I look back and I see pictures, I’m like, oh my God, he was covered in wires, but I just didn’t really see it at the time. I just couldn’t believe that this baby was here.” She pauses as an ambulance goes by, siren blaring, and laughs at the ironic timing. “It was a bit more scary with Kit because he was really tiny and that time we thought, maybe we’ve been lucky once and we won’t be lucky again.”

Then Sonny contracted meningitis – an inflammation affecting the brain and spinal cord which can cause long-term damage or death – when he was just a few months old. “It was intense,” she says. “I woke up in the morning and I knew something was seriously wrong with him. He was the hottest thing I’d ever held, his feet were like ice and his eyes were sunk back. He was making this weird moaning noise.” The ambulance arrived in two minutes and it was soon confirmed that Sonny was suffering from meningitis. Doctors treated him in time and he made a full recovery. “They did say to us afterwards, ‘If you’d left this a couple of hours I don’t think it would have been...’” She trails off.

Sonny, now 19, will be part of Ellis-Bextor’s posse as she opens the Pyramid Stage on the Sunday of Glastonbury later this month. She’s also bringing a couple of her friends and her sister to the festival – and her brother Jackson, also a musician, will be playing in her band. “The thing that’s special about Glastonbury is that everybody brings their A-game when they go on stage,” she says, letting out a squeal. “That’s quite unique. My main objective is really just to try and take it all in, because I haven’t been on the Pyramid Stage before, but I keep picturing myself walking out and just seeing that crowd, and thinking, you all look so great!”

‘Hana’ is out now via Cooking Vinyl

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