Sequins, songs, kids, dance! This is what saved mother-of-five Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s sanity during lockdown – and her wonderfully joyous discos filmed in the family kitchen helped lift the nation’s spirits too. She tells Hattie Crisell why Friday nights round at hers became so precious.
Sophie Ellis-Bextor opens the door to me with a toddler in her arms – smiley 18-month-old Mickey – and her four-year-old son Jesse behind her, his hair a deep shade of copper. ‘You have the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen,’ I tell him, genuinely quite dazzled, and he replies bashfully, ‘Well, I’ve just had it cut.’
Welcome to Sophie’s world: a large and glittering house in West London, packed to the rafters with kitsch, toys, cats and boys. I don’t know how many cats are around, but the boys number five: Mickey, Jesse, eight-year-old Ray, 11-year-old Kit and 16-year-old Sonny. Managing the lot are the singer, her husband Richard Jones (bass guitar player with The Feeling and the supergroup Loup GarouX), and a nanny, who joins them Monday to Friday during the working day. ‘I used to have a nanny who was with us all the time, and to be honest I felt like it was too much,’ says Sophie. ‘I think it’s healthy for other people to have their own life away from it all. It’s five kids – it’s a lot.’
It certainly is, and it’s hard to imagine how demanding it must have been during lockdown, when the only one missing was the nanny. The public got a glimpse of this when Sophie performed a weekly series of ‘kitchen discos’, broadcasting them live via Instagram, her husband filming on his phone. They launched these shows during the bleakest part of the pandemic, and the good will that emanated from them was enormously cheering. She would appear in a sequined jumpsuit or rainbow-striped dress, a pair of platforms at the end of her mile-long legs, and would serenade the camera while children wandered casually in and out of view. Sometimes her teenage son would jump in to rescue the baby from a trailing wire, or one of the boys would need a cuddle, and their mother would pull them in close, keeping her other hand on the mic.
It was charming chaos. The music encompassed hits from Sophie’s back catalogue such as ‘Murder on the Dancefloor’ and ‘Take Me Home’ – or ‘Stay at Home’, as she rechristened it – but also crowd-pleasing covers and theatrical numbers from shows such as Grease. For the audience, it offered uplifting relief from the frightening reality of the time: climbing death rates and isolation. It was comfort music, I say. ‘Exactly,’ she agrees. ‘And disco’s always had that for me anyway. It’s so euphoric and joyful, and it’s complex. In disco you can have the most painful, heartbreaking scenarios, but they’re in among something that makes you want to put your hands in the air and sing along. I think music can allow you the space to feel joy and anxiety at once.’
I am delighted to find that one end of their large kitchen still looks very much as it did, with the disco ball and a half-deflated helium balloon in place over the sofa. She confirms that it’s more or less always like this, perhaps minus the tinsel curtain. colour and fun are everywhere in the house, from the framed retro artworks filling every wall, to the pinball machine in pride of place. At the other end of the kitchen, a diner-style menu-board for the kids bears the words, ‘Be polite or no service.’
Leaving the children with the nanny, Sophie and I head out to chat on a bench in the park. She’s wearing an embroidered navy dress and a red fluffy cardigan, with red lipstick that has mostly worn off; at 41, she’s truly beautiful, with very pale green eyes. Despite what we’ve seen from her on Instagram, it hasn’t been an easy time. For one thing, there was the fall from her bike in June that left her in hospital with a gory head wound. When I mention it, though, she brushes it off with, ‘I cannot dine out on that any more.’ Then she adds, ‘I mean, I don’t recommend cycling off a towpath – it did hurt.’
But an accident that might have been a big deal in a quieter year seems rather trivial to Sophie in 2020. Her stepfather John – married to her mother, the novelist and former Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis – has stage-four lung cancer (sadly, he passed away last month just a few days after our interview). ‘He hasn’t really left the house for anything other than medical reasons since January, and I think that brought home the worry of what was going on,’ she explains. ‘I knew that this was something that was happening in millions of households. I do worry about all my parents – I say “all” because I’ve got step-parents as well – but I think really it was focused on John, because he’s so vulnerable. It’s such a weird, torturous thing isn’t it for human beings, if you say that hanging out with someone you love is the one thing that might actually endanger them? How can you wrap your head around that?’
She hasn’t been thrilled with the government messaging around the virus. ‘“Stay at home” is clear and concise and all ages get it. “Stay alert”? I hardly ever feel alert. I don’t feel alert now. And we’ve all shown we’re good at following guidelines that make sense, but you can’t keep bending it for people. Look at the effect when the rules were made flexible.’ She seems to be referring obliquely to the Dominic Cummings/Barnard Castle debacle. ‘We all thought, “Oh well, if we could have been going off and having day trips all this time, why was I staying at home and not seeing my mum, who lives ten minutes away?” I found that really tough.’
The kitchen discos were as much for her and the family as they were for the audience. ‘It was Richard’s idea. One day we were making plans and doing stuff, and the next day it was like, boomph, everything shut down. Suddenly we were just home all the time, all work cancelled, all the festivals… I was supposed to be going to Australia, New Zealand, I had gigs all round Europe. And Richard was, like, “Well, why don’t we do a gig here, and it gives us something to do and a bit of fun?” I think we missed everybody.’
Performing during that time, even via Instagram, gave her a huge sense of connection, she says. ‘I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t had that, and I don’t know how it would have been for our family, because it became really precious.’ She’s now planning a Kitchen Disco Tour next May (there will also be an album, out this October), and hopes it will offer audiences a cathartic experience. ‘I want to provide a place where people can get lost in the moment. I want them to walk out of there and go, “Oh my goodness, I didn’t know how much I needed that.”’
It was no surprise to her boys to see her dressed up and performing; Mickey sleeps in the room where she keeps her fantastic stage wardrobe, and they’ve all been with her to festivals, gigs and recording studios. It was clear from their low-key presence in the kitchen discos (she left it up to them whether they wanted to be there or not) that they’re not fazed by it. ‘The older I’ve got, the more the me at home and the me on stage is the same person anyway,’ she says. Her first solo album came out almost 20 years ago; this one will be her eighth.
She’s also just celebrated her 15th wedding anniversary with Richard. Theirs was a whirlwind romance that stuck: ‘I found out I was having a baby after only about six weeks,’ she says with a smile. ‘We’d known each other for a while – he’d been in my band – but we’d literally just started dating and I hadn’t even really told anybody.’ Sonny was born two months prematurely, thus arriving only eight months after they’d got together.
And they’ve now got him almost to adulthood, I say. ‘Yeah, and he’s lovely; he’s his own person. You know, parenthood is so much more reactive than I ever thought,’ she says. ‘I thought it was all about what you put in. It’s not. I realised it the day I had him: I looked at this tiny baby and I thought, “Oh my goodness, you’re Sonny, and now I’ve got to help you show me who you are and what you need from me.”’
To raise five children while continually working is no mean feat, and she mentions that there were tense moments during lockdown. But she and Richard clearly make a good team. ‘I guess the thing that’s often not celebrated as much in long-term relationships – and I think this goes for family members, friends, all sorts of relationships where there’s love – is that we actually really like each other,’ she says. ‘I really like who Richard is, and I respect him and I like spending time with him.’
She took an extended break after Sonny came along, following a difficult birth. ‘But to be honest, the more babies I’ve had and the older I’ve got, the more confident I’ve become about what I can do around being pregnant and having kids,’ she says. ‘I’ve been better with the last couple at just keeping going with the work either side of it. I have a job where I can basically call the shots a bit. I’m very lucky with that and I totally exploit it. Also I like it if I do a big gig and I’m six months pregnant – I feel quite clever,’ she laughs.
The challenges of this complicated life have inspired Sophie’s new project – the podcast Spinning Plates, on which she chats to other working mums, including Caitlin Moran, Fearne Cotton, the mummy blogger Candice Brathwaite, and her own mother Janet. ‘I’ve got such a brilliant array of women, and honestly it feels like a privilege to sit there for an hour and ask them loads of nosy stuff,’ she says. ‘Obviously the springboard is the idea of the working mother, but actually what really unites us is we’re all women, and there are so many things about being a modern woman… It’s a rich pot of stuff to go through, really.’
She loved having the chance to interview her mum. ‘In my head she’s always been this real trailblazer and very confident. She never seemed to have any guilt with any of her work, and I’m glad, because it gave me a good role model of “It’s OK for me to be selfish enough to have my work and keep it separate if I want to, and do the things I want to do.” I don’t think I would have been confident enough if I hadn’t had a mum like that; I’ve struggled a bit to give myself permission sometimes even with that.’
Another chat, with Yvonne Telford, founder of the fashion brand Kemi Telford, made her realise that at times she’s too self-critical. ‘She said she hates it when she hears women say, “Oh, I’m such an idiot,” and I was, like, “God, I do that all the time.” Even with the podcast, when I first started writing to people I wanted as guests, I’d say, “Don’t worry, I know how it goes – you’re probably too busy to reply.” Then I was, like, what am I doing? I’m saying to them, “Ignore me!”’ She bursts out laughing.
It sounds as though making the podcast might be rather empowering. ‘Yes,’ she agrees. ‘I think I’m doing this for me.’ But for now, we need to head back to her house, where Sonny has appeared, and Mickey is delighted to see his mum. Plates are waiting to be spun, and as I let myself out, Jesse is putting on a show in the kitchen, with Sophie as the audience, sitting under the disco ball.
Series one of Sophie’s Spinning Plates podcast is out now. Her album Songs from the Kitchen Disco will be released on 23 October, with the Kitchen Disco Tour following next May.
Fashion director: Shelly Vella. Hair: Kevin Murphy. Make-up: Nikki Palmer using Glossier.