Three years on from the height of lockdown, the idea of being cooped up in our houses 23 hours a day feels like a fever dream. It’s hard now to believe it really happened. But in the teeth of our pandemic isolation, we were all desperate for a ray of light, a moment of escapism. Like a superhero in sparkles, Sophie Ellis-Bextor sashayed to the rescue with her weekly online kitchen discos.
“For me,” says the singer, “music’s always been a tonic. It never fails to amaze me how music can flip the script and change your emotion. It can release tension, it can make you feel empowered, it can make you feel understood, it can make you feel happy.”
Accompanied by her husband, The Feeling bassist Richard Jones, and her five sons, Ellis-Bextor got the karaoke machine fired up to perform feelgood tunes and bring slightly chaotic positive vibes from her home to ours. It was both a bit of glamour, and a relatable glimpse into another family trying to hold it together. “What you saw was literally what was happening here. I don’t think I could have orchestrated that if I tried,” she laughs.
“But also, it felt like a kind of caricature, because obviously most of the time, like lots of families, it was all about the mundane domestic stuff. Keeping on top of the house, making sure you’ve got the next meal sorted, trying to think about how to support them with schoolwork, or emotionally worrying about your family – all the things everybody was going through.”
The discos were a chance to put that all to one side, just for a short time.
“And actually, no disrespect to my kids, but I didn’t even really mind how they felt about what I was doing. It was like, look, I need half an hour. That’s mine. And so did Richard. I think for both of us, it was something we could distract ourselves with and feel upbeat.”
Thousands felt the same and since then, Ellis-Bextor has released a Songs from the Kitchen Disco compilation album, gone on a kitchen disco tour and even released a recipe book. Those discos were a powerful reminder of just how good she is at being a pop star.
It’s now 27 years since Ellis-Bextor started out in the music industry as the singer for indie band Theaudience. She’s had monster hits including Murder on the Dancefloor and Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love), and has worked with a huge range of other acts from trance DJ Armin van Buuren to Manic Street Preachers. Her sense of “the privilege” of being able to make music continues to grow. “It’s both a way of being quite grown up and a way of feeling really childlike as well, because you can just be instinctive. Not everybody is lucky enough to get that moment. And I love it very, very much.”
This week, she releases her first album of new music since the pandemic. Hana is a collection of “kaleidoscopic pop” songs written with her frequent collaborator, singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt, and inspired by a dream version of Japan.
“The album’s called Hana because that’s the Japanese word for blossom,” Ellis-Bextor explains. “That was fitting because blossom’s a sign of spring and optimism after you’ve had the winter. A new beginning really is quite fitting on lots of levels. Not least where the world’s at. It is literally spring, but also figuratively, we had, obviously, quite a long time where getting together and making music and all that was quite tricky.”
Though Ellis-Bextor says the turbulent last few years haven’t changed “the fundamentals” for her – “I didn’t need a pandemic to know that I love my family and I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. And that I like doing my work” – it did kickstart a new era in her career. “I haven’t really been this busy before, but it’s all things I really care about,” she says. “So I feel quite nicely adrenalised, which is lovely. I think if you’re a creative person, your best friend is momentum.”
Alongside the new music and a summer full of festivals, Ellis-Bextor is also continuing her podcast, Spinning Plates, in which she interviews busy working mums to find out how they balance family and career. Recent guests have included Strictly’s Tess Daly, space scientist Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Big Issue ambassador Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, who blew her away with her story of overcoming homelessness to become the chief fire officer of the West Sussex Fire and Rescue Service. “She’s phenomenal! What a woman,” Ellis-Bextor exclaims.
Three years and almost 100 episodes in, Spinning Plates now offers a pretty significant insight into the working lives of high-flying women, both those in the public eye and out of it. A cut above most celebrity podcast hosts, Ellis-Bextor’s interview skills offer a space for mothers to talk about how they find room for their own ambitions. Since she admits that keeping a podcast going can be a lonely task – “a lot of times you’re the only one pushing the boulder” – what is it that keeps her coming back?
“On one level, it’s just a kind of inherent nosiness. And I like talking to people. When I was a kid, I thought about being a journalist,” she says. “But I think on a more fundamental level, I do really like that feeling of kicking a soapbox underneath anyone that I think is an amazing person with something to say. I don’t feel like I have my own legacy. But if I can be someone that’s helped raise up other women or helped other women feel good about themselves? That’s a nice thing.”
Eighty-five years after Cyril Connolly wrote “there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway”, Ellis-Bextor still sees mothers facing struggles. “You only have to look around to see it’s still an issue. We’re not that far away from suffragettes,” she says.
After hearing all those takes on the challenges of modern motherhood, Ellis-Bextor has fundamentally changed her attitude to her own work. “Before lockdown, I think I’ve always diminished my work,” she says. “When I was talking about it to my kids, or friends, I’d be like, ‘I’ve got this little thing I’ve got to go do’. But now it’s helped me reframe that.
“I really love what I do. But also, it’s important and I don’t want to diminish it. So now with the kids, if they’re saying, ‘Oh, I wish you were around for this, that and the other’ I’ll be like, ‘Look, I’ve worked really hard to get these opportunities.’ It’s just reframing, actually understanding that I do have a job and I really love it. And it’s important to me.”
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