Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s latest album, The Song Diaries, has been described as more of an “audio memoir” than a straightforward best-of collection – and with good reason.
Rather than simply assembling a dozen or so of the singer’s highest charting singles, the record features new orchestral interpretations of songs from throughout a career that began in the late 1990s, with the indie rock band Theaudience and has continued via six solo albums.
“I think there were a few strands really at work,” the 40-year-old explains. “I didn’t want to do a traditional greatest hits because I didn’t think there was much value in that anyway, you can access all the songs you want any time with Spotify and things like that, so I wanted to give something that would give a different twist to songs that people already knew.
“But also for me I wanted it to give me a bit of a challenge, to sing the songs again and put a little bit of a different spin on them for my head really as well. It’s been fun and I love touring it, it’s a dream come true.”
The album’s string arrangements hark back to the golden age of disco, something Ellis-Bextor has frequently referenced in songs such as Groovejet, Murder on the Dancefloor, Heartbreak and Music Gets The Best of Me. Yet she says she hadn’t long harboured an intention to work with an orchestra.
“No, that’s not really how my mind works,” she says. “I have an idea and then act on it and then something else will happen. I don’t really have any long-term plans about anything, really. I think it was born out of a few different feeds and this was the right time to do it. But then you’re right, it does link back to disco because when you put the band to it that’s what disco songs used to sound like, with an orchestra as well. Those are nice songs, aren’t they?”
Amy Langley’s arrangements give the songs a romantic flourish – something that Ellis-Bextor was looking for. “I think Amy’s done some really clever stuff,” she says. “I suppose yes, orchestras do bring out the romance of songs and because I wanted to do it where I didn’t use too many backing vocals or too many layers, she’s done clever things bringing out vocal melodies and different instrumentation as well. It’s romantic but also really delicate and quite nuanced, I was really impressed with what she managed to do.”
The Song Diaries also reunites Ellis-Bextor with singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt, with whom she worked on her last two studio albums, Wanderlust and Familia. The singer says she finds him an excellent sounding board for ideas. “He’s amazing,” she enthuses. “He’s such a talented musician and passionate, he cares about it so much and wants to get it right, so we had lots of those sorts of chats.
“Although Amy had free rein with the arrangements, Ed and I and Amy all sat down at the beginning and talked through each song, what we thought would be exciting and where the tempos should change, what elements we wanted to bring out and what would be a good way of enveloping some of those things. That’s why Heartbreak now sounds very dramatic and dark and slightly gothic, or why Love Is a Camera has got this sort of baroque side. They were little fun things that we could bring out, and not too po-faced and straightforward.”
Ellis-Bextor first recorded the oldest song on the album, A Pessimist is Never Disappointed, with indie band Theaudience back in 1998. “I couldn’t do the story of my career without including my first band, it’s such an integral part of why I do what I do now,” she says. “Not least because it introduced me to the very idea of being a singer, really, so I had to include one song. Also we ended up recording the album in the same studio that I’d recorded my first stuff with Theaudience so there was quite a nice sort of serendipity with that as well. It was important to me that one of their songs was there.”
One thing that seems to have sustained the singer throughout her 22-year career in the public eye has been a strong sense of self. “You just have to keep an eye on how you’re feeling about things,” she says by way of explanation. “It sounds like a really obvious thing to say but I think it’s quite easy to go onto autopilot or start second guessing, ‘well, I feel like I want to make this kind of record but maybe my fans won’t like this’ or ‘they expect that from me but I shouldn’t do it’.
“I suppose I’ve always had a kernel of myself as quite selfish in terms of wanting to always be very present with what I’m up to. I don’t really want to get too comfortable. I like giving myself new things to do that are a bit scary that’s why I have been incredibly grateful than I have been able to keep doing what I do because if you first make a name for yourself doing disco-pop and then you make a folk album that’s the end of that, really.
“The fact that people have stayed with me while I’ve been doing new things has really given me a lot of confidence because it makes you realise actually you can do what you want if you think you’re doing it for the right reasons. That should always triumph over what you think people expect from you.”
She admits she felt like was going back to the beginning while making her fifth album, Wanderlust, a “concept-driven” record on her own label that introduced folk and baroque elements into the mix. “It was a different kind of record and I released it in a different way but I suppose it’s good to not take for granted that people will buy your record, that keeps you on your toes and wanting to do your best. Maybe everybody feels like that when they’re making work but for me it’s important to keep that in my head because you don’t want to rest on your laurels, do you? You want to make sure it’s dead exciting and you’ve really taken it as far as you can take it.”
Upon turning 40 earlier this year, Ellis-Bextor said she felt less apologetic than she had been in the past. She says she’s still “trying to grow out of” pleasing other people. “Obviously you always want to have good manners and be kind and considerate but I think it can cross over into being a bit of a people-pleaser and maybe not always making sure that you are doing what you want to be doing.
“Sometimes I’m guilty of letting things drag on for much longer than they should just because I don’t want to upset people and then actually you’re just drawing out the bit where you do, it doesn’t actually work,” she chuckles. “I think it’s a hard habit to break but I’m trying to be better at it.”
In 2013 Ellis-Bextor reached the final of Strictly Come Dancing, with partner Brendan Cole. She says she looks back on the experience “really fondly”. “It was incredibly nerve-racking, but I found it exciting to do doing something new. I’ve taken a lot of the stuff that I learnt on the programme with me on my day job – not literally doing the waltz and stuff, but that thing of trying to do a bit better and being fearless and just getting on with it. I think it made me lose the last of my inhibitions on stage, really, and I think it’s made me a lot more relaxed about what I do now, which is a good feeling. I think being nervous is quite over-rated, to be honest.”
She says the often-stated feeling of going on a journey on Strictly was “kind of unavoidable”. “It is sort of annoying when people talk about the journey at the time , it comes with a bit of an eye-roll, but I think it’s a bit unavoidable because you start out thinking, ‘I’m just going to give it a go, I’m not going to be too hard on myself if I’m not good at this’ and then you actually get up getting very invested and caring quite a lot. That brings out lots of different elements of yourself and I think that reflects back on things you learnt when you were a kid or how you felt when things went wrong or you were criticised by a judge. That brings a lot of things to the fore and you have to work through all of that each week to get yourself back on the dancefloor and have another go. We’ve all got different levels of resilience to that and different ways of dealing with it, so I think it’s slightly unavoidable, really.”
On Ellis-Bextor’s forthcoming tour, her sets will be split into two. “The first half is just me and the orchestra and that’s the bit where if anyone coughs or drops their phones or something you can hear it,” she laughs. “The second half is when the band comes on and we go all Studio 54 and it’s brilliant because the audience tends to start off being very quiet and polite and not wanting to make any noise and by the end everybody’s dancing in the aisles. I love the juxtaposition, it’s really fun.”
Sophie Ellis-Bextor plays at Leeds Town Hall on November 24. sophieellisbextor.net