How Sophie Ellis-Bextor recorded her latest album three months after giving birth... and baby came too
Starting out young prepared her for life's inevitable ups and downs, but Sophie Ellis-Bextor is thrilled to finally have the musical autonomy she's always craved. Andy Welsh catches up with the singer and mum-of-four as she prepares for the issue of her sixth album
Sophie Ellis-Bextor is overseas with her husband, Richard, and their four sons, trying to relax, when we speak on the phone. Shortly after our interview, she tells me, she'll be hopping on a plane back to London to go on Chris Evans' BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show, flying back out to rejoin her family once the promo work's done.
"I do enjoy not being busy," she says, "but people wanting to speak to me is never a bad thing."
Familia, the album she's currently talking about, is her sixth.
Just as with her career-invigorating fifth album, Wanderlust, she wrote it with Ed Harcourt, who also produced the record. However, where their previous collaboration resulted in Eastern-European-inspired baroque pop and orchestral folk, Familia sees Ellis-Bextor return to the soft disco sounds she's best known for. "I got Ed to write some really sparkly disco tunes, and then when he finished he said it was his idea all along," she teases.
Although better known for his own sumptuous, late-night torch songs - his brilliant seventh album, Furnaces, has just been released - Harcourt was introduced to disco while playing keyboards for the Wanderlust tour.
"He thought it was going to be easy, playing my old songs," says Ellis-Bextor.
"But, firstly, it ended up being far more difficult than he imagined, and secondly, he had tremendous fun doing it. That really set us up to start work on Familia."
She says she's spent her whole career looking for someone to collaborate with solely, having for so long been signed to major labels who'd pair her with whichever songwriter-for-hire was going.
Her 2001 debut, Read My Lips, for example, features contributions from 10 different songwriters and a further five producers, while 15 songwriters and another handful of producers have credits on 2007's Trip The Light Fantastic.
Familia, then, benefits from this almost singular vision, and was recorded in just 10 days, something that suits Ellis-Bextor's impatient nature, and undoubtedly impossible if more people were involved.
"In the olden days, every time I wrote a song, I'd write with so many people and then it'd get sent back to the record label and there'd be a committee meeting about what I was doing. I always wanted to squirrel away a bit more, to get on with my thing and then present an album when it was all done. How we work now feels like a more grown-up way to make a record."
She believes the consensus approach she was subjected to in the earlier years was counter-productive, that it's impossible to second-guess what makes a hit.
"If that were the case, everything would be a hit," she adds, although she does admit to being hopeless herself at predicting what'll be popular.
"The thing with a hit is that whatever emotion it gives the listener, they have to get it every time they hear it. I've definitely got a couple of those, but I didn't know they were going to be hits beforehand."
She's referring to Groovejet by Spiller, the Balearic handbag house song she wrote the verses for in 2000.
The song was a phenomenal hit around the world, and so too was Murder On The Dance Floor a year later, setting up Ellis-Bextor as the voice of sophisticated pop in the UK.
In the years since, she's also had four children, of course. Newest arrival, Jesse, was born last November, and was in the studio with his mum when Ellis-Bextor was recording Familia.
"He was only 13 or 14 weeks old when we were making the album," she says, adding that welcoming a fourth child has changed the family dynamic slightly, putting them firmly in the 'big family' category.
"It's just very logistical, with the four, but the baby has got a really sweet life, because he's got a community ready and waiting for him, always trying to make him laugh and give him cuddles."
Life hasn't always been quite as rosy for Ellis-Bextor. She left her record label after releasing her third album, and 2011's Make A Scene, her first album on her own label, remains her least successful, having to date sold only around 13,000 copies in the UK.
She maintains starting out so young prepared her for any ups and downs that might come her way.
She was 18, just before sitting her A-levels, when her band, Theaudience, were signed to a record label and released their debut album. Not a great deal happened, despite the minor hit of A Pessimist Is Never Disappointed, and by the time she was 20, the band had split.
"I suppose a lot of how this industry works is a confidence trick, anyway," she says.
"The band taught me a great deal all those years ago, and Alex James from Blur once told me that no one's career is a solid upward trajectory, that there are peaks and troughs, so I know just to go with it. If things go too well, I start to freak out anyway."
Whether she'll always make music, she's not so sure, but she's confident a seventh solo record will be in the offing.
"Whenever I release a record, I think it has at least won me the right to do another one," she says. "Maybe that's old-fashioned, but I'm not very good at thinking in forever. All I know is that I am hungry to do more music, and when I get to the end of a tour, I always want to make another record.
"I don't think I realised when making Wanderlust just how significant it was. I was 34 at the time, and it really gave me room to grow," says Ellis-Bextor. "I had wondered how long I could sing disco songs for, but with that I did something else.
"For now, it's still a novelty. I'm very excited about this album, and just I want people to hear it."
Sophie Ellis-Bextor releases her sixth album, Familia tomorrow. She plays London's Bush Hall on September 8. Visit sophieellisbextor.net