In January 2014, Sophie Ellis-Bextor – who’d scored six UK top 10 singles by that point – released Wanderlust, an album full of baroque chamber pop and experimental flirtations with folk. The sudden shift away from the disco and dance of old was seen as risky by many, including Ellis-Bextor herself. She needn’t have worried; it subsequently crashed into the UK top 5, spent three weeks inside the top 10 and went Gold. Its success – both commercially and creatively – has been a huge influence on its follow-up, the equally gorgeous, surprising and engaging Familia. The album – recorded in just ten days – finds Ellis-Bextor collaborating again with maverick musician Ed Harcourt, the pair concocting a song suite that draws inspiration from Latin America, complex mythological characters and, most importantly, the families created both by blood and by friendship. “I think of the relationship between Wanderlust and Familia a bit like when you have children,” explains Sophie. “The first child is generally a little more responsible and serious, and then the next one comes along and they’re more bolshy and extrovert. Same family, but they’ve got different traits.”
To understand Familia you need to know the mindset Wanderlust was created in. Having collaborated on and released four albums of glittering electro-pop, Sophie knew something needed to change. While the nature of the musical switch up was surprising, the very act of changing styles shouldn’t have been. “I started with The Audience which was obviously an indie band and then I literally went from playing Glastonbury one summer to singing in a club in Ibiza with Groovejet the next. Similarly the single I released before “Young Blood” [from Wanderlust] was a song called “Not Giving Up” with Armin van Buuren; so I went from trance to baroque pop. I’m capable of extremes.” Released independently, Wanderlust marked the start of a new chapter in her career. “I love being answerable for everything,” she says with a smile. “I knew it was what I had to do next, so the success of it in a way was that I’d done it and made it. I felt like I’d made something that was the real deal. I still love going to clubs but I don’t spend a lot of my time listening to dance music at home, so I felt like I could do something else and challenge myself.”
It was in this mindset that the seeds for Familia were also sewn. More comfortable with who she is as an artist now, the album expands on the musical palate still further, bringing in elements of Chic-era disco (the pulsating first single “Come With Us”), country (the delicate “Unrequited,” featuring Matthew Caws from Nada Surf on vocals) and, on Cassandra, spacious, deliciously off-kilter pop. The initial starting point for the album came from Latin America, however. “Both Ed and I went on holiday to Latin America – I went to Mexico and he went to Cuba. When we came back together we both wanted to do something with more of a Latin American lilt.” That feel is there in songs like closer “Don’t Shy Away” and the macabre fairy tale of “Hush Little Voices,” as well as in the artwork and photography once again made in collaboration with renowned artist Sophie Muller.
Feeding into the theme surrounding the album’s title isn’t just Ellis-Bextor’s own family (she was pregnant during early stages of the writing process and was holding her newborn son while recording “Hush Little Voices” late at night), but also the family of characters connecting Familia back to Wanderlust. “On Wanderlust there’s a song called ‘Love Is A Camera’ which is about a witch who when she takes your photo captures your soul. We went back to her on this album with ‘Hush Little Voices,’ which is her being driven totally mad by all these people she’s surrounded herself with and the voices won’t stop talking to her. There’s another song called ‘Cry To The Beat of The Band’ which is about a runaway bride, so on this album she’s there on ‘Don’t Shy Away’.” Family is there too in the close-knit group of musicians who helped bring the songs to life, with recording sessions made more homely by Sophie cooking for everyone. “Obviously family is very important to me and I do have billions of children,” she giggles, “but I feel like I’ve made my own family with the people I’ve made these album with. It’s all the same musicians from Wanderlust who play on this album. The kids are always in there too but I don’t know how literally really. I guess in songs like ‘Crystallise’ and the soppier moments.” She lets out a big loved-up grin.
This sense of warmth and, well, love also permeates one of the album’s highlights, “Death of Love,” a song that’s suddenly taken on a greater significance for Sophie since it was created. “Sometimes songs do seem to resonate when there’s a big emotional event. After the awful events in Orlando, I came to Soho for the vigil and I suddenly thought ‘Death of Love’ is all about that really. It even mentions the streets of Soho. We only have this moment in time and one lifetime and then you have to pass baton on for all the next generations. All you really have at the end of your life are the people you loved and who loved you back. That’s kind of it. That’s your legacy – the love you create.”
Elsewhere the album opens with the bright and bold pop of “Wild Forever” (“a real statement of intent” exclaims Sophie), a song about not losing sight of who you are, while the elegant “Here Comes The Rapture” wraps a gorgeous vocal performance in a cocoon of gossamer strings. “Come With Us”’ upbeat disco, meanwhile, does that neat pop trick of masking darker lyrics in an upbeat melody. “Ed and I couldn’t have done anything super up lyrically, you have to counter balance it with something,” she says of the song’s theme of mass brainwashing. “I love songs where you think it’s about one thing and then you realise it’s not.”
In a way that line sums up Sophie Ellis-Bextor quite well too; you think you’ve got her pegged as one thing and then slowly you realise she’s something else altogether. Continuing where Wanderlust left off, but all the while taking more risks and expanding the sound further, Familia is a deeply layered, wonderfully cohesive album with stories to tell and characters to unpick. Welcome to the family.