Entertainment & Arts

Sophie Ellis-Bextor: Disco is brilliant, but what else can I do?

Sophie Ellis-Bextor Image copyright AFP
Image caption Ellis-Bextor: "My trips to Eastern Europe inspired me, and that's why the album's called Wanderlust"

Fresh from her success on Strictly Come Dancing, pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor is releasing an album influenced by Eastern European fairy tales. She tells the BBC about her "mysterious and eerie" inspirations.

Forget the dresses, the shoes, the frills and the fleckerls - for Sophie Ellis-Bextor there was one overwhelming benefit to Strictly Come Dancing.

"You can eat cheese without guilt when you're dancing every day!" laughs the singer.

"But I've definitely undone all the good work since. I've eaten my way through the last month!"

The 34-year-old came within touching distance of Strictly's rickety glitterball trophy in December - but she has no regrets about finishing in fourth place.

"The final was the only show where I didn't get nervous," she says. "All I really wanted was the full Strictly experience - to get a chance to do all the styles of dancing.

"So when I did my last dance, my show dance, I thought, 'This is it for me. The consequences don't really matter, so I might as well enjoy it.'"

Image caption "People kept telling me I'd feel bereft after the show finished, but Christmas was a good distraction in a lot of ways," says the star

Ellis-Bextor has been in the public eye for 15 years now, famously beating Victoria Beckham to number one with her breakthrough single Groovejet (If This Ain't Love) in 2000.

But, despite seven Top 10 singles and four hit albums, Strictly brought her a whole new level of fame.

"I totally underestimated it," she says. "I knew people liked it but it's not just as simple as that. People really engage with you. They invest in you.

"It turned London into more of a village. I'd be out and about and people would be going, 'Hey, how's the training going?' and 'Good luck for Saturday!' It was like being in a musical!"

For the record, Ellis-Bextor is definitely interested in appearing in an actual West End musical - specifically Guys and Dolls.

"I could be Sarah, the Salvation Army girl who gets drunk in Havana!"

European fanbase

Strictly finished two days before Christmas, after which Ellis-Bextor took a well-earned Caribbean holiday with her husband Richard Jones, from pop group The Feeling, and their three young sons.

But it is the other side of the globe which inspired her new album, Wanderlust.

From the Cyrillic font on the cover, to the balalaikas on the backing tracks, the record leans heavily on the folk traditions of Eastern Europe.

It's not entirely coincidental. Ellis-Bextor has a particularly fanatical following in the region (her Russian fans dub themselves the SOPHIEsticators) and frequently finds herself touring the chillier regions of the Baltic states.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The singer performing in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, in 2012

"The thing I find quite extraordinary is that you can be somewhere completely different and yet you start singing Murder on the Dancefloor and the crowd react the same way the world over," she says.

"That's quite reassuring, really. That's maybe what music does to folks. It's a unifier."

'Megabucks'

Wanderlust was co-written and produced by Mercury-nominated singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt, a long-time family friend.

He was supposed to be one of several writers on a much more diverse record but, writing in his tiny home studio, Ellis-Bextor latched on to a theme.

"The first song Ed and I wrote was Love Is A Camera, which is very much a fairy tale," says Ellis-Bextor. "There's a woman in a house and she takes your picture and steals your soul.

"We were pushing it as far as we could - because at that point I didn't know I was making an album - but once we'd made a song like that, all the inhibitions were gone.

"It was like, 'We've already written a waltz about a scary woman, so what else do you want to write about?'"

The result is a storyteller's album, littered with Eastern folklore, witches and dark magic.

Image copyright Record label
Image caption The album artwork was inspired by the styles of French singer and actress Francoise Hardy, and shot by long-time collaborator Sophie Muller

On the mini-melodrama Cry to the Beat of the Band, Ellis-Bextor even plays a bride who abandons her husband at the altar.

Given that her previous material has predominantly consisted of love songs and exhortations to the dancefloor, where did these gothic tales come from?

"They were always in there," she says. "I used to write songs like that when I was a teenager - although not very well.

"When I was at school I remember reading Emily Dickinson's poetry and Russian fairy tales, funnily enough. They were dark and mysterious and eerie. I like all that."

The stories and songs on Wanderlust demanded a more acoustic treatment than Ellis-Bextor's previous records.

Some demos have appeared online - they are simple, affecting performances accompanied by piano and accordion. But the finished product is altogether more sumptuous, its exotic instrumentation augmented, at one point, by a Bulgarian choir.

It must have cost a fortune.

"It was self-funded, so I wouldn't say it was megabucks," laughs the singer.

"I'm very fortunate that I have lots of very talented friends who can play lots of stuff. I just roped in everyone, basically."

Image caption Following her Strictly experience, Ellis-Bextor says she would be up for a role in a musical

Recorded in just 10 days, the lush, string-laden orchestrations unexpectedly turn out to be the perfect setting for Ellis-Bextor's vocals.

She may at times be perceived as an imperious ice-maiden but the record highlights the vulnerability and poignancy in her performance. It also plants her firmly in the Radio 2 heartland, where Wanderlust is currently on rotation as the album of the week.

Was there a deliberate decision to leave behind the younger, Radio 1 audience after her mainstream exposure on Strictly?

"I love making dance music but it was maybe time for me to showcase a slightly different feel," says the star.

"I'm 34 and you just think, well, dance and disco stuff is brilliant - but what else can I do?"

As for the relocation to Radio 2, Ellis-Bextor says "that's more my manager's job".

"It's what happens as a result of what I'm doing, rather than a decision I felt I was making for myself."

"I think I'm more Radio 4 these days, actually."

Wanderlust is out now. Sophie Ellis-Bextor tours the UK from April.

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