Sophie Ellis-Bextor on why Sussex is her second home, performing in Chichester and her career
PUBLISHED: 11:44 05 July 2016
Sophie Ellis-Bextor started her solo career in the early 2000s with huge, era defining hits Groovejet (If This Ain't Love) and Murder on the Dancefloor, then made it to the last stages of Strictly Come Dancing in 2013. Now, as she prepares for her first festival gig of the summer at Chichester's Priory Park, she tells Jenny Mark-Bell why Sussex is her second home
Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s home in London is as cool and bohemian as you might expect from the woman who scored some epochal club hits and a coveted job modelling for Rimmel. A giant Miffy toy dominates one corner of the living room and there’s an arcade game in the kitchen. As her husband Richard Jones, bassist for The Feeling, leaves for the afternoon school run, she explains her many Sussex connections. “My dad’s lived there now for, golly, it must be the best part of 10 years [he used to run the acclaimed Moonrakers restaurant in Alfriston]. My husband’s from Forest Row and my stepmum’s from Sussex, so I spent a lot of my childhood going down there. It’s kind of like a second home, I suppose.”
That is partly why her appearance on the same bill as Richard’s band The Feeling at Chichester’s new Priory Park Festival makes such perfect sense – that, and the fact that her dad Robin Bextor is organising it. She explains: “Our summers are usually taken up by quite a lot of festivals so to be able to do one in Sussex will be really nice. I know Richard’s folks are already planning to come and we’re going to take the kids and make a weekend of it.” The kids are Sonny, (12), Ray (seven), Kit (four) and five-month-old baby Jesse, who’s sitting in on our interview. The boys are all live music veterans, says Sophie – “they’ve all got their own little ear defenders!”
Sophie was only a few years older than Sonny when she started fronting indie band Theaudience. She was just 20 when her solo career kicked off and she entered a new phase as a disco diva (“I literally went from Glastonbury in the mud one summer with the band to singing at an end of season club night in Ibiza the next”). A much-publicised chart battle with Victoria Beckham culminated in triumph when her dance hit Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) hit number one and became the soundtrack to the summer of 2000. It was a stellar trajectory, but thanks to her parents, Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis and television/film producer Robin Bextor, Sophie kept her feet firmly on the ground. “Sometimes when you start being in the public eye your friends and family can turn into your fans or they get a bit wowed by the whole thing, but actually because my parents have both worked in TV and acted and presented and things, it meant that they saw it as a job like any other, so their priority was always checking my emotional well-being rather than getting too starry-eyed about the whole thing. I think as well they have always given me a good grounding that nobody’s career is a straight upward trajectory, there are always highs and lows.”
Sophie’s 2014 album Wanderlust was a radical departure from the upbeat dance hits that made her name. For her fifth album she collaborated with family friend Ed Harcourt, a singer-songwriter and producer whose parents live 10 minutes away from Sophie’s dad in East Sussex. It’s a fine, sweepingly dramatic album with a hefty slice of Slavic romanticism. Sophie had spent a lot of time travelling in Russia and Ukraine and recollected the “dark, wonderful and intricate” Russian fairly tales she’d read as a child. “I suppose it’s more the theatrical, fictional side of Russian culture that I was keen to explore, the idea of going through the snowy landscape in a horse-drawn cart all wrapped up in furs.”
Her sixth album, Familia, will come out later this year and has a sultry South American feel, she says – “If [Wanderlust] was vodka this one is more tequila sunrise.” She wasn’t even really expecting to complete an album when she went into the studio in February. “Ed is about to bring out his own solo album in the summer so I knew I didn’t have much time with him. Jesse was only about 12 weeks old but I thought I’d better book in the time. We ended up doing a whole album, 11 songs in 10 days and most of it recorded live. It was quite intense.” She’ll be showcasing some of the new tracks at Priory Park Festival.
Sophie says the album title came naturally “because family is everything to me, ultimately. All roads point that way. Family is not just your blood relatives, it can be friends too and I definitely feel like I’ve got my musical family. I always work with the same people – the woman that does my hair and make-up for my videos did my first solo one and one director has done most of my videos. I’m a bit of a creature of habit really.”
But in 2013 Sophie really stepped out of her comfort zone with her appearance on the light entertainment juggernaut that is Strictly. “It was basically the most terrifying thing I’ve done in my career so it just made me lose a lot of inhibitions. I think there’s a lot to be said for doing something really scary. And I know in the back of my mind there’s not a life where I could have been a dancer. I’m very lucky, I do the thing I love. It’s not going to wake me up in a cold sweat five years from now that I never did master a waltz hold: I can live with myself, you know?”
The elfin, doll-like face that graced Rimmel hoardings is remarkably unchanged, belying a musical career that spans almost two decades, but she is philosophical about the seismic shifts the industry has undergone: “I think a lot of it is for the best really because it’s all a very open, even platform in terms of people being able to access music. It means that people that haven’t got access to the big labels still have the opportunity to rise to the top – people can make music in their bedrooms. Recording technology has moved on leaps and bounds so I think in terms of your feeling of ownership and being able to take the reins a bit more, that’s probably improved. People talk a lot about declining record sales but the live side of things is really healthy.” And this industry veteran seems to be at the peak of her powers, as Sussex fans will discover this July.
My favourite Sussex
• Shop: Much Ado Books in Alfriston. It has that real independent bookseller’s spirit where they really want to understand what you’re after, and they’re very sweet people as well. Everything feels so carefully chosen and curated.
• Restaurant: Well I would have said Moonrakers, but now I would probably say The Regency, an old school fish and chips shop on the front. I had my weekend in Brighton and that’s where my girlfriends took me. We had fish and chips, which is my favourite meal, and they played a quiz where they’d asked Richard questions and he’d given answers, and I had to guess what answer he’d given. That brings back happy memories of fish and chips, gherkins and girlfriends. Terre a Terre is my favourite alternative restaurant, their food is phenomenal - and I’m a carnivore, I like my meat.
• Attraction: I love all around where my dad lives. If I’ve got the kids with me we’ll go to places like Middle Farm, Paradise Park and Drusillas. I love going for long walks on the Downs too.
• Walk: I love walking around Forest Row. Richard grew up around there so he’s always keen to go and see the Owl Tree and Pooh Bridge.
Good to know
Priory Park Festival, a celebration of music, food and the arts, will take place from 8-10 July 2016 in Priory Park, Chichester. The other acts include Seth Lakeman, The Feeling and Courtney Pine with Zoe Rahman. Early bird weekend tickets are £79.
More Sussex celebrities…
• Eddie Izzard on Bexhill, the De La Warr Pavilion and performing in different languages - Bexhill comedian Eddie Izzard’s Force Majeure tour has now played in 28 countries and four languages – an unofficial comedy record. The local polymath, an honorary patron of the De La Warr Pavilion, spoke to Jenny Mark-Bell in its 80th anniversary year
• Sussex celebrities and personalities share what they love most about the county - Some of Sussex’s best known personalities have revealed in the magazine what they most love about the county. Here, we compile their stories, favourite restaurants, pubs, shops, views and places to visit