She’s going back to work after baby number five, touring her greatest hits album. And still Sophie Ellis-Bextor insists she’s lazy deep down.
As I turn the corner into Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s leafy West London street, where trees and flowers seem to grow as abundantly as her family, I remind myself that the singer might not want to talk about her children in an interview. Yes, she recently gave birth to her fifth son, which is fairly remarkable, but she also has a new album and a tour to discuss, and not every working woman wants to be defined by her private life. But then Sophie answers the front door with her newborn Mickey quite literally attached to her breast, in the middle of a feed, and it’s clear that – right now at least – the personal and professional can’t be separated.
What’s also clear is that Sophie herself is completely unfazed by it all, fifth time around, as she swiftly welcomes me into her colourful family house and plonks herself down on one of her sitting room’s three bright velvet sofas for a chat – before the baby vomits down her denim dungarees. ‘Oh, has he been sick on me?’ she asks, registering my look of slight alarm, but not even flinching herself. ‘Thanks, Mickey,’ she deadpans, before asking if I want to hold him while she nips off to find kitchen roll and also a cup of tea for me. Of course I do. He’s barely four months old, the spitting image of his dad, and in possession of the most incredible steely gaze, something his mum admits, ‘Got a bit embarrassing on the Tube the other day – he just wouldn’t stop staring at people.’
Inevitably, I can’t help asking all sorts of nosey questions about the five-a-side football team of red-haired kids that she and husband Richard Jones – bass player in her band and also in The Feeling – have inadvertently created (the rest of them, ages three to 15, are at school today). Sophie insists that she understands the fascination, ‘Because it’s an anomaly, having five children – I’d have questions too. And I know this sounds weird, but I sometimes find having four or five easier than having three. On paper it sounds like hard work, but actually they kind of fall into line, because there are other people they can ask for help, more hands on deck. Plus, we always take a mate for our eldest on holidays now, too – so this summer it will be Richard and I and six kids. So you should ask me again after the summer when I can tell you it was actually a nightmare.’
Sophie speaks briskly and brightly, and has a real getting-on-with-it, good-in-a-war type of personality. Yet still I wonder how they even get all the kids out of the house to do any activities, given their wide span of ages – isn’t there a lot of moaning and groaning?
‘There is, but we’re used to that. And there are a couple of kids who are always enthusiastic. Jesse, who’s three, and Ray, who’s just turned seven, they’re both up for anything, and it’s not their age, it’s their character. Whereas Kit, who’s ten, has always been more reluctant. And Sonny is a teenager, so it’s really important that he has his own space, but I just say to him, ‘Look, we’ve got to get you out of the house once a day and we still really like seeing you. You’re still part of the family so you’ve gotta stick it out for a couple more years.’ But he’s quite reasonable about that and he’s very sweet with the little ones, quite helpful.’
You mean he helps with things like changing nappies? ‘Ooooh,’ she says, a sharp intake of breath through her teeth, glancing down at the baby now sitting so placidly on her knee. ‘I dunno if I’d risk nappies. Bit unpredictable at this stage.’
They recently celebrated Sonny’s 15th birthday in a restaurant, after seeing the latest Avengers film (Sophie doesn’t want any teenage parties at her house in case some kids bring alcohol and other parents get upset), and a child in an Ant Man mask came swinging into the room through a hanging chain curtain. ‘I was watching him, thinking, “Oh good, there’s another kid who does stuff like that in public.” I was looking around for the other family, and then I went, “Oh, no, that actually is my kid.” It was Kit. Whenever we go out and about, I feel like I’m the person going, “Wow, has a kid really climbed up that? Oh, that’s one of mine! Can you get down off there, please?’’’
The family has lived in this house for a decade, and it is visibly rich with their life: walls filled with framed poster art, sofas piled with Mexican-type cushions, a child’s music homework open on the piano and shelves covered in kitsch memorabilia that Sophie buys on Ebay. ‘I really love it here,’ says Sophie, who swears she will never leave London, even if her husband sometimes makes noises about moving them back to his native Sussex. ‘Especially at this time of year, because you look out of the window and all you can see is green. I don’t know if it’s because we’re near the river [Thames] but everything grows so well.’ We look out of her windows at the garden, surrounded by a tall canopy of trees. ‘I’m always impressed by how clever nature is,’ she says. ‘When you come out of the long winter and everything starts budding with new leaves. And I love going to the Chelsea Flower Show.’
The house is also full of gold party decorations, because she and Richard both turned 40 at the beginning of April, ‘And I got loads of flowers, which felt so special. I wished I could have staggered them because for a while we were like a florist’s – every vase in the house was in use.’ The celebrations included 120 guests, a DJ, a barman, a Mexican food truck and a mariachi band. ‘We did it properly – we’ve never had a party like that here before. And we had this amazing kind of drag act – Diane Chorley– who did some songs. She was brilliant. Oh, it was so fun.’
As for the act of turning 40 itself, ‘I’m all for it,’ she says. ‘I love a big birthday and I’m not scared about getting older. I think 40 is nice – already I can feel slightly less apologetic. I think that’s what this decade is going to be about for me, because I’ve spent a lot of time being a people pleaser until now, worrying about what others think. It’s a shame you don’t learn that feeling a bit sooner, but it’s nice when you get there.’
In what sort of circumstances was she people-pleasing? She exhales loudly, as if looking at her whole life. ‘Across the board – it’s probably the reason I do what I do. There’s got to be something that makes you want to get up on stage and perform for people. It’s not that normal, is it? It’s quite an odd choice.’ Though she hastily adds that she will always care that people coming to her shows have a really excellent time. Her tour is coming up, and while it’s only two weeks long, it is a big deal because she will be performing her new greatest hits album The Song Diaries, on which all of her big tunes have been rearranged to be sung with an orchestra.
‘It’s quite an intense gig for me, this one,’ she admits, looking serious. ‘The first half of the concert is pure orchestra with me alone, and then the band come out to join me and we go full disco – Studio 54, Philadelphia strings, layers and layers – which is really fun because you’ve got 30 musicians playing it live. But the first half is so delicate, between me and the orchestra, that I just feel I really need to concentrate. So I don’t know if you’ll be coming, sorry mate,’ she looks down at Mickey, who screws his face up and bursts into tears. ‘Oh, he seems quite genuinely sad about that!’ she says, with a wicked laugh, and puts him back on for another feed.
In June, she will be supporting Kylie Minogue at Blenheim Palace for the Nocturne Live series, (which has also featured Elton John, Noel Gallagher and Jamie Cullum.) She says she has met Kylie a couple of times but never been her support act, ‘So that will be exciting. I can’t wait.’
Not that she is an endless perfectionist about recording. ‘I didn’t want to put out a greatest hits album with the same recordings on it – those songs are already out there. So these are new arrangements, and there are no overdubs, no Autotune, I wanted my voice to be recorded in one take. Especially with the orchestral stuff, I wanted it to sound as if I’d just walked into the room. I’m not frightened of things that have a bit of fragility, or a fault. I don’t understand why it’s so fashionable to iron all of that out. If there’s something a bit genuine, people respond to it a lot better. I think we see that on people’s Instagram accounts too. Generally, it’s accounts where people have something that’s quite authentic about them that people quite like.’ Then she bursts out laughing after thinking about this. ‘Of course I say that, but then there are probably some really manicured ones who have got way more followers. But in my head, at least, it’s the authentic ones that work.’
As for her own parents, Sophie is currently feeling very inspired by her mum, former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis, whose second novel, a dark family story called How It Was, will be published in August after Sophie told her to stick at her writing. ‘I was quite vocal about it,’ she says, ‘because, it was probably about 12, maybe 15 years ago that she started writing a book and stopped. And I said, if you can find a way to get the discipline to get on with it, I think this is a real thing for you. She’s in her 60s now, but the wonderful thing about writing a book is that your 60s can be exactly the right time to do it. And I can see it’s really helped with her morale too – because life is all about finding purpose, isn’t it?’
Janet and her husband have just bought a holiday home in Sicily, too, while Sophie’s dad, TV producer Robin Bextor, has recently announced he will be standing on an anti-Brexit platform for Change UK as a potential MEP. Sophie voted Remain too, but stresses that, ‘People don’t vote for change if they’re happy with how things are, so that’s still really valid and you do have to listen to that. I went on a regional radio tour right after the referendum, which wasn’t glamorous, and it did sink in that there aren’t opportunities everywhere.’
Her husband Richard walks into the room just as I’m admiring the stuffed mice who sit in bell jars on their mantelpiece – it turns out the couple did them themselves at a taxidermy class. ‘They are quite bizarre,’ he nods, ‘It was a lot more gruesome than we expected.’
‘I didn’t really mind that,’ says Sophie. ‘Did you think it was going to be less gruesome? You’re taking a dead mouse and hollowing it out!’ He heads off to get some coffees from the local shop, saying he’ll only be 20 minutes. ‘Is it even possible to go anywhere and be back in 20 minutes?’ she muses as he leaves, with the wry grin of somebody who knows the difference between what her husband says and what he means.
She must be a hugely energetic person, but Sophie insists she is ‘inherently lazy, so I put lots of things in [the diary] to stop me being in my natural state of doing not much at all.’ But she agrees that she likes being busy. ‘I like the constant momentum of family life, in among the work. If family life is feeling quite full-on, then being able to go on stage and sing and write songs is a lovely catharsis, and if everything at work is quite intense and quite… egocentric by its nature, then I like coming home and leaving it outside. I like that my kids aren’t going to ask how my gig was, they’re going to tell me what’s been going on in their life instead. And that’s the right way round.’
But don’t you sometimes want the kids to notice that you’re on the cover of a magazine, or on TV? ‘Oh God, no! I don’t think that’s particularly tasteful really. I do love it if they come to the gigs because it’s lovely for me to look out and see their faces in the crowd – but they don’t always want to and that’s fine. At the end of the day, I’m their mum. I don’t want the kids to think about what I do.’
The story behind Sophie’s floral showstopper
To celebrate this year’s RHS Chelsea Flower Show, which kicks off on Tuesday, YOU collaborated with top London florists JamJar Flowers and the milliners at Lock & Co – the world’s oldest hat shop – to create Sophie’s fabulous headpiece (see below for how we made it).
JamJar, which specialises in seasonal blooms, has also been chosen by the RHS to transform the Flower Show’s London Gate. Its founder Melissa Richardson and florist Talena Rolfe have created a pair of ‘living curtains’ made from English garden flowers and herbs, which reflects a cause close to their hearts: saving bees. ‘They’re so important,’ says Melissa. ‘If we didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have pollination. All of the plants used in our installation, including foxgloves and peonies, are great pollinators. A healthy bee population is an indication of a thriving ecosystem.’
So how can we do our bit? ‘Have lots of plants!’ she says. ‘Bees love variety, scent and colour– that’s why lavender is always abuzz with them.’
1. First, Sophie met with Lock & Co to measure her head and see what shape would fit. Not difficult, says YOU’s acting picture director Siân Parry, given that ‘she looks good in every single hat shape’.
2. The idea for a ‘modern romantic’ floral headpiece emerged from a meeting held at Lock & Co with JamJar, Siân and YOU’s creative director Natasha Tomalin-Hall. It was decided that the headpiece would incorporate many of the same flowers that will feature in JamJar’s living curtains installation at the Chelsea Flower Show.
3. At the meeting, the milliner sketched the rough shape of the headpiece – ‘something linear to frame the face’ – while discussing with JamJar its engineering and how many flowers it could hold. Like floral arrangements, hats have to be balanced.
4. It took the milliner two days to create the base of the headpiece and the ornamental bees (made from seed beads) that buzz around it. First she covered a head shape with fabric before using wire to create the structure then blocking this with Paris net, a holey material to hold the wired flowers. She also added some elastic to keep the headpiece in place.
5. On the day of the shoot, the milliner (above right) and the florists, including JamJar’s Talena Rolfe (left), spent two hours building the final structure, improvising with tulle and crates of fresh flowers including roses, sweet peas and begonias, each hooked through the head and hand-wired to the base.
Sophie’s album The Song Diaries is out now. For more information on her tour, visit bit.ly/2GThw4C
Interview by Sophie Heawood. Fashion director: Shelly Vella