“It’s even better than I imagined,” Sarah Cracknell tells Clash of her forthcoming album, ‘Red Kite’.
The Saint Etienne singer’s second solo record comes a mere 18 years after 1997’s ‘Lipslide’. Moving away from the electronic pop of that album and what is usually associated with her band, ‘Red Kite’ was inspired by and evokes the countryside where she and her family now live in rural Oxfordshire. “I am surrounded by fields and trees and wildlife, which I really like. All the birds. I’m quite into birdsong at the moment. I don’t know what’s happened to me," she laughs, "I’ve gone mad!”
The album was even made in a neighbor’s barn, temporarily converted into a recording studio for the project. “It was great. We could just walk to the studio and walk home for lunch, and go there anytime we liked. We hired in an old Neve mixing desk and had a week before Christmas and a week after Christmas. It was good because we had a finishing point and that meant we had to get on with it. It stops you re-playing things over and over. You can miss the point a bit sometimes if you’ve got too much time on your hands (laughs). So it worked pretty well.”
Reflective of this environment, Sarah was looking to create something with ‘more space to sing in’. “When I’m writing I tend not to listen to much else. I just focus in on the music that I’m doing. But I have been listening to a lot of Jane Weaver. Her album, ‘The Silver Globe’, is really good. That’s got a lot of space in that. And I used to be a massive Felt fan. There’s a lot of space in Felt records. I was a big Cocteau Twins fan as well. I like that slightly ethereal, mood-led, more spacey feel.”
- - -
I’ve always been interested in slightly out-there production
- - -
To achieve this end, she brought in Colorama’s Carwyn Ellis (who co-wrote half of the album with Sarah) and Seb Lewsley, best know for his work at Edwyn Collins’ studio. “They’re great. Carwyn is someone I’ve known for quite some time. He’s one of those really prolific people. He came to my house a while back and was playing a load of stuff that he’d done. I was really taken with it, especially the instrumentals. He’d used lots of interesting sounds, lots of instruments that don’t get used very much. And I really wanted to do something quite similar."
"I’ve always been interested in slightly out-there production," she continues. "Even The Beach Boys are quite out there, the focal instrument - the sound of the instrument that’s the hook - is often something that you haven’t really heard that many times before and this makes you take notice. So I wanted to work with Carwyn very much for that reason. And I think he writes great songs so we wrote some songs together, which was fab."
"I’ve known Seb for a long time too. I did some recording with him years ago with Saint Etienne. He gets really good sounds as well. So I thought between the two of them, we’d come up with something good.”
Which they did. Twelve songs wrapping lovely melodies up in those intriguing sounds Sarah was aiming for. Stylistically the record is quite expansive too – from baroque pop and sylvan folk to the closing lullaby of ‘Favourite Chair’, there’s even two country-esque songs in ‘Rag Doll’ and ‘Take The Silver’.
“Nancy Griffith is one of my favourites but I don’t know a huge amount about country," she admits. "I wrote those two songs with my friend, Robin Bennett. He’d come around and we’d sit in the kitchen and write songs. That style came from him but I was very happy with it, I wanted to do something like that.”
Is the kitchen a good place to write songs? “Yeah, it’s got really good natural reverb, good for singing,” she laughs.
- - -
I like that slightly ethereal, mood-led, more spacey feel.
- - -
The record also contains two top-notch pop tunes in ‘Nothing Left To Talk About’ (a duet with Nicky Wire) and ‘Hearts Are For Breaking’. The titles alone betray a melancholy mood that seems to permeate the record. While much is being spoken of regarding ‘Red Kite’s pastoral feel, if you follow the twilight spirits lurking at the edges of those rustic fields, there is also a darkness pulsing at its centre.
“I was hoping people wouldn’t notice," she laughs. "It’s not usual for me. Although some Saint Etienne songs are pretty dark. ‘Like A Motorway’ is very dark (laughs). ‘Sylvie’s quite dark as well. I didn’t want that to come out too much but I couldn’t help it, that subject matter just seemed to suit the melodies we were writing.”
The theme of relationships declining is prevalent, though Sarah’s always been more of a character-based storyteller with her lyrics lest her husband begin to worry. “Most of it was written in the autumn actually. So perhaps, perhaps, it resonates with summer coming to an end. Maybe. If you wanna get really deep about it! For ‘Underneath The Stars’, those lyrics came because I was reading a Pattie Boyd biography. She was married to George Harrison and then Eric Clapton. He stole her from George, although George was behaving badly anyway so… it wasn’t directly a story about her but it was influenced by reading that book."
"I think with ‘Nothing Left To Talk About’ there’s a little element of hope right at the end. There’s a twist you get that makes you think perhaps they’re having another go at it after all (laughs). The main reason I got Nicky Wire to sing is that he’s got a twinkle in his voice. I didn’t want it to sound too negative, and he’s got a lot of charm in his voice, so he was the perfect person to sing it with me.”
The flow of the song order shows this upswing as well. After the previous pessimism, there’s a shift towards the positive side of love with ‘It’s Never Too Late’. “I felt it was very important where I put that song within the album. I also think that it’s quite a key element style-wise for the record. One of the first things that we wanted to do was a baroque pop song and it really comes together in ‘It’s Never Too Late’. I didn’t want to put it right at the beginning, like ‘Woo-hoo! Here we go, this is what it’s all about’. Towards the end seemed a better place for it, so the record picks up there.”
And now that the record is done, what’s next? “We’ve got some shows coming up the week of release. That’ll be fun. Besides the album, we’re doing some songs from ‘Lipslide’, a couple of Etienne songs, and a cover. I decided to do intimate venues for this week of gigs and then I’ll be doing some bigger ones later in the year. And next year we might do another Saint Etienne record. I think we’ve got some more Saint Etienne gigs coming up doing Foxbase Alpha as well.”
Sounds like there’s much left to talk about.
- - -
- - -
Words: Aug Stone
'Red Kite' will be released on June 15th through Cherry Red.