In February 2020, Sophie Ellis-Bextor visited Japan for the first time.
The 43-year-old had just written a song called Tokyo with long-time collaborator Ed Harcourt, the first steps towards a tentative seventh studio album.
It was to be the third in a trilogy of records she’d made with the multi-instrumentalist, beginning in 2014 with the critically and commercially successful Wanderlust (inspired by Eastern Europe), and continuing with 2016’s Familia (inspired by Latin America) – each built around the thematic frame of a location.
Imagining “what [the trip] might be like, and its aftermath,” one of the song’s lyrics ended up being strangely prophetic: “Maybe one day we’ll think of this as some exotic last refrain.”
Less than a month later: lockdown. “Everything went woosh,” Ellis-Bextor says today.
Of course, what happened next doesn’t need retelling. Not even, really, in career terms for Ellis-Bextor, who for the most casual observer became a joyous and much needed mainstay during those first pandemic weeks via her Kitchen Disco live streams.
“Richard [Jones – Ellis-Bextor’s husband of 17 years] and I are both musicians, so obviously went from busy diaries to tumbleweed,” she says, sitting outside of a cafe in West London some two and a half years removed. “The Kitchen Disco felt like an outlet.”
Taking the form of a weekly house party, during which Ellis-Bextor, Jones, and their five sons, would dance and sing underneath a glitter ball, the Kitchen Discos became an opportunity to rattle through “a lot of music that really comforted me”: Abba’s Dancing Queen, Madness’ Our House and Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie.
“All of the covers I was choosing had really happy memories associated with them,” Ellis-Bextor says. “When we weren’t allowed to go anywhere, going back to things that already had a familiar, sealed connection in my brain were what fired me up.”
And fired up she was. In the next few months, those performances would spawn a greatest hits (her fourth UK top 10 album in November 2020), a family cookbook (Love. Food. Family: Recipes from the Kitchen Disco), a weekly Radio 2 show, as well as an extraordinary Children in Need dance challenge in which Ellis-Bextor raised more than £1m by moving non-stop for an entire day and night in November 2021.
More recently, the Kitchen Disco has become a glorious, giddy live show, calling at festivals (Latitude, Wilderness, Victorious, Wychwood) as well as theatres such as Manchester’s Bridgewater Hall and the London Palladium (the final night now an equally glorious live album).
“It’s been a really busy summer – possibly one of the busiest years I’ve ever had,” Ellis-Bextor says of the creative purple patch. “I’ve always done festivals but this summer was crazy. It was brilliant.”
But if you’re expecting the new album to be Kitchen Disco 2.0, think again.
“You might think, oh, the next album will just be a disco party record. But I wanted to be a bit more selfish than that,” Ellis-Bextor confirms. “I’m an adult and there are lots of things that I’ve experienced, and there are a lot of different facets to what excites me when I sing or write or perform. The album’s really a space for me to be a bit more indulgent about the other things that I love as well. Because I need that. I need to have the other sides of me. Otherwise, I’d feel like I’d lost some of my edges.”
In Harcourt’s words, Ellis-Bextor is “like a glorious pinball machine that never pauses. Not stopping until the canines touch. A cornucopia of curveballs, chaos, beauty and glitter.” Listening to Hana, as that seventh record has finally become known, it’s hard to argue.
Take opening track A Thousand Orchids. Built around a coiling, escalating synth loop, the song was written while the pair were, in Harcourt’s words, “thinking of some of my favourite films from South Korea, Japan and China, like Oldboy, Zatōichi, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the vivid colours they use. I mentioned to Sophie about the scene in Kill Bill with Lucy Liu and Uma Thurman in the garden and it sort of gestated from there.”
“The last albums that Ed and I have done together all had a landscape in my head,” Ellis-Bextor says. “I found it a really brilliant way to write because you have a cast of characters and a scene to get into.”
It’s something the pair had implemented on the aforementioned Wanderlust (2014 and inspired by Eastern Europe), Familia (2016 and inspired by Latin America), and were planning to try again here (pre-pandemic and inspired by East Asia).
“I think initially it was going to be this synthy, electro, proggy thing, and it’s got elements of that,” Ellis-Bextor confirms. “But it kind of drifted into something ‘other’ because everything [i.e the post-pandemic world] changed. The album ended up going into different places. And I thought that’s really fitting considering everything that went on. Things did change. Plates did shift.”
For Ellis-Bextor, plates shifted in a significant way when her step father, John, passed away from cancer in July 2020. The album’s emotional centre, the Springsteenian Until the Wheels Fall Off, was inspired by a letter he had left behind for Ellis-Bextor’s mother.
“He said, look, when we found out we didn’t have long left together, we lit all the best candles, we drank all the best champagne, we just lived. I thought it was such a great sentiment. So that’s what that song is about.”
While Ellis-Bextor believes “a lot of this album almost sounds as though it could be part of Theaudience [her first band, active from 1996-1999] or my first record [2001’s Read My Lips, which sold more than 2 million copies worldwide],” the inclusion of such personal subject matter is something she may not have considered at the start of her career.
“And that doesn’t mean I would have wanted to either,” she agrees. “You have to do the things that align with where you’re at.”
That openness has been aligning with Ellis-Bextor more and more since she first let audiences into her home during those early pandemic months. In October 2021, she released the book Spinning Plates, in which she wrote frankly about her life, relationships, body image and motherhood. That, too, was based on a podcast, for which Ellis-Bextor speaks weekly to working mothers about how they balance career and life decisions.
“How brilliant that you get to evolve,” Ellis-Bextor says of her growing candour. “How boring would it be if you pitched your stall and just continued?”
The new album follows the same dynamic ethos. There’s the barnstorming Breaking the Circle, a thump of a song built around a house music-inspired piano riff. There’s Lost in the Sunshine, an exquisite example of post-SAULT soul pop. And there’s even space in the “cornucopia of curveballs”, as Harcourt put it, for Reflections, an ABBA-inspired number about the passing of time.
“I’m 43 now, and as I get older, I feel like I’ve been the most sort of ‘me’ on stage only the last few years. And it feels really nice. You have more experience. That lovely thing of not worrying what people think or trying to second guess what their expectation is. I don’t have that as much as when I was younger.”
She talks about her transition from singer in an indie band to shooting to fame on Spiller’s huge number one single Groovejet (If This Ain’t Love) in 2000 (a song topped by an even bigger worldwide smash in Murder on the Dancefloor the next year). Or following Not Giving Up on Love, her 2010 Armin van Buuren collaboration, with the gentle piano ballad, Young Blood in 2014: “So, I don’t know [about] next. I might do something completely different,” Ellis-Bextor laughs. “I have a tendency to go in one direction, then run in the other.”
Hana is the perfect encapsulation of that sentiment: “an escapist, kaleidoscopic record,” as Harcourt puts it. “Wonky, heartfelt, technicoloured and epic in equal measure.”
“I suppose I feel a little bit like I did before Wanderlust,” confirms Ellis-Bextor, comparing Hana to the dramatic left turn she made after appearing on Strictly Come Dancing in 2013. “In the sense that I don’t think people are going to quite expect this next.
“Ever since I started making albums at my own speed and my own label [EBGB’s], I’ve been a lot more selfish about what I want them to be like. Because I’m not asking anyone else to take a punt on me. I’m answerable for it. I get on with it. And it’s really nice.
“There are no real rules here. No one else is keeping tabs on it. And anyway – I don’t want a straight path. I like stepping stones. I like somewhere I have to jump to,” she says, about to take another curveball, in a career of curveballs. “It leads for a more interesting life.”