Despite her origins with theaudience at the peak of the Britpop epoch and a wealth of eclectic content housed on four solo albums, at the start of this decade there was an erroneously accepted convention that Sophie Ellis-Bextor was solely a dance music artist. Such was the power of a certain pair of singles—“Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love)” and “Murder on the Dancefloor”—that the singer-songwriter had released in the first half of the Noughties. These two tracks ensured that the association between the singer and the dance-pop genre would endure—until Wanderlust (2014).
Ellis-Bextor’s fifth long player saw her take an explicit leave from her mirrorball muse to find inspiration in folk, chamber music and “Spector Sound” sonics. When that long player achieved its critical and commercial ascendancy, public perception about Ellis-Bextor began to shift to acknowledge her groundbreaking recordings in a broader pop sense separate from her discothèque tunes.
And that brings us to The Song Diaries.
More than just a standard “best of” compilation, The Song Diaries is an orchestral reimagining of Ellis-Bextor’s classics curated from her decorated canon. Without question, it’s her most daring musical maneuver yet.
The enterprising British icon, wife and mother of five recently sat down with me to discuss The Song Diaries, the art of reinvention, her creative friendship with longtime collaborator Ed Harcourt, and her affection for detailed disco arrangements.
Quentin Harrison: Congratulations on the release of The Song Diaries! This has clearly been a labor of love for you, can you describe how this project began?
Sophie Ellis-Bextor: A good friend of mine, Amy Langley, did a gorgeous string arrangement of “Groovejet” a few years back for a charity event. I loved how it changed the feel of the song. That started the idea of doing a “greatest hits” that way. The arrangements she’s done are wonderful and bring something new to each song.
QH: Were there specific songs or albums in your discography that lent themselves to orchestral revision more than others? And what inspired you to return to your material with theaudience?
SEB: I only recorded songs I thought benefitted from the process. Some songs weren’t re-recorded if I felt they wouldn’t suit the orchestral reinvention. I was really happy to include a song from theaudience as that’s where my story began.
QH: Would you say that reinvention is your muse?
SEB: I think reinvention is the symptom and staving off boredom is the cause. Every time I start to feel a bit “comfortable,” I like to pull the rug out from under me and do something different and a bit scary. It’s good for my head.
QH: Can you talk about your creative partnership with Ed Harcourt and its influence on The Song Diaries?
SEB: Ed is a family friend, the string arranger Amy’s brother-in-law and an exceptional musician. Together we wrote my fifth album Wanderlust and my sixth album Familia, so I asked him to produce this record. He has a great instinct and I trust him. Plus we always have fun. I’m so lucky I get to work with people I want to spend time with anyway. David Arnold also produced some tracks and my husband Richard (Jones, of The Feeling) was on hand to give advice. It takes a village.
QH: Album structure is central to the appeal of your records. Can you talk about how you selected the specific sequencing of songs for The Song Diaries?
SEB: With this one I went chronological. When it came to sequencing sides A, B , C , and D of the vinyl, they divided naturally into little chapters. I think because these songs span 20 years of my life from my teenage years to now, at nearly 40, there’s a natural structure and story there anyway.
QH: You’ve had a longstanding love affair with classic disco in your work. What is it about this genre that moves you?
SEB: Everything. On a technical side, the production and musicianship you can hear is second-to-none, but the bit that really gets me is the emotion. Disco often has its soul in heartbreak, but it’s drenched in glitter and drama. And I just love how it sails from euphoria to despair, but always makes you want to sing along and dance.
QH: Can you discuss your new single “Love Is You?”
SEB: “Love Is You” is a cover from Carol Williams. I chose it because it's the song that “Groovejet” was sampled from and it’s complete disco from 1977 with an amazing orchestral arrangement at its heart. So it neatly ties into the song that started my solo career, the orchestral greatest hits and also the live disco we are about to take on tour, which sees me with a full band and orchestra.
QH: Speaking of the upcoming tour, what can fans expect to experience at your live shows that may not be captured on the record?
SEB: We’ve tried to incorporate the orchestral arrangements, but also bring the band in so we can get everyone up and dancing. You’ll have to come and see it to know what I mean!
QH: Have you considered curating any other anthology projects like a B-sides collection? One B-side in particular—“The Earth Shook the Devil’s Hand” (the alternate side to “Mixed Up World”)—is a firm fan favorite.
SEB: Ah, that’s so nice to hear! I would happily do more projects like that. Good idea!
QH: OK, last question! In the spirit of Albumism, what are your five favorite albums of all time?
SEB: Madonna’s Like a Prayer, Fleetwood Mac’s Tango in the Night, The Sound of Music soundtrack, The Feeling’s Twelve Stops and Home, and Ed Harcourt’s Lustre.
SEE Sophie Ellis-Bextor on tour | Dates