Saint Etienne's Sarah Cracknell on Creating One of Their Most Uplifting Albums Yet
One of the UK's pioneering dance groups went wild and weird for their homespun new effort, out now as the band celebrates their 27th anniversary.
The feeling of endless possibility conveyed by the simple image of the house, perfectly encompasses how the album feels both like a visit home, and like a tour of an exciting new world. In songs like "Something New" and "Dive", the British indie dance trio bring to mind some of their most iconic moments like the playful "Hug My Soul" or the anthemic "I've Got Your Music". The band proves why they've been at the forefront of electronic music in pieces like the sensuous "Whyteleafe" in which they sing the praises of several cities on specific decades, and the rousing "Underneath the Apple Tree" which feels like a long lost dance gem from the '60s.
The band's unique sound is in great part owed to vocalist Sarah Cracknell, the rare singer who is able to make you smirk and break your heart at the same time. Cracknell's voice is at its most haunting in songs like "Out of My Mind", in which she sings about obsession, and the trip-hoppy "Heather", which explores a sound much darker usual for the band. In 2017 Saint Etienne celebrate their 27th anniversary, but their sound has by now transcended into timelessness.
In songs like the humorously titled "Church Pew Furniture Restorer", the band showcase their ability to turn instrumental interludes into pieces that engage in conversation with the track that follows. If the album is meant to evoke the charm and comfort of life in suburbia, it's often at its best when it reminds us that home should only serve as a headquarter from which we part on adventure.
PopMatters spoke to Cracknell about crafting Home Counties, how it fits in the Saint Etienne canon, and how the band managed to create one of their most uplifting albums yet in the midst of economic and political crises.
Sarah Cracknell (Home County publicity photo)
Recreating the radio experience is such an essential part of Home Counties and the work of Saint Etienne in general. Do you miss the radio experience and is this why you keep going back to it for the structure of your albums?
God, do we? I didn't even notice that we used the radio like that. It doesn't surprise me, I suppose we did grow up with the radio. I still listen to the radio, quite a lot, I live down in Oxfordshire, in the countryside and there are a couple of local radio stations. One plays oldies: in America, you have brilliant stations, lots of oldies stations -- the sister station plays lots of dance music, it plays current stuff and stuff from the '90s. So I still listen to the radio a lot, I think with me I just like someone to decide what I'll listen to next. [laughs]
What would you listen if you had to decide for yourself? Would you end up listening to the same track or record on repeat?
I bore myself with my choices [laughs] sometimes I put an album on and go "oh God, I've had enough", I get bored easily, so I like the idea of someone doing a playlist and sending it to me.
I remember taping songs off the radio and I recently pre-ordered Home Counties and noticed you were also selling a cassette version of it. Why did you want to put the record out in this format?
[laughs] We're not the first, there are other people releasing cassettes, we're just jumping on that. We had cassette singles and everything, I love it as a format, they're such cute little things. In the UK cassettes are coming back, so we wanted to add them to the canon. I like them, have you seen one, or been given one?
No actually, I haven't seen one since 1997, I don't have a cassette player.
I've got one, but my car doesn't have one, unfortunately.
I love the story in the album, some moments of it made me think about that radio programme from the UK, The Shipping… something...
The Shipping Forecast?
Yeah! It puts me in a trance of sorts, and "The Reunion" made me think of that spell. In "Something New" however, you sing about wanting to find a savior and finding something new, it made me wonder if you make the music you make in order to listen to what you'd like to listen to and aren't getting anywhere else?
Oh, you're psychoanalyzing us now aren't you? I don't know really, I think basically we always make the music that we come up with in that moment. We come up with themes for the albums, but everything comes in an organic way, I don't think we consciously go "let's make a record of things we haven't heard anywhere else" -- we still get excited about other people's music. But subconsciously maybe, you could be right. Who knows?
Something else you've become specialists in is making love songs dedicated to music, we see this again in "Magpie Eyes", can you talk a little bit about how this keeps coming up in your work?
That is a big thing for us, especially our last album where the music was all about that. I think the reason we're so passionate about music and songs is because of the way it makes you feel, you can hear a song from 20 years ago and the sounds can transport you there almost immediately, you can smell where you were, and feel whatever the weather was like.
Music is very evocative, so we are very reverential and celebrate it as much as possible, that's why we always wanna share things we love. If we listen to something and like it, we want to share it with people, music is something to be shared and enjoyed by everyone. Spread the word!
You and Pete no longer live in London, do you still think of the city as the hub for all your new music fix, and are the suburbs where you seek quiet?
I suppose there's an element of that because Pete and I have children now and they're similar ages, teenager, 11-12-year-olds, and we moved to somewhere where they could spend more time outside running around. Pete lives down in Brighton, he's near the beach, and I live in the countryside with fields, cows and stuff like that. Bob lives in London, he now has a little boy who's just lovely, he's one and a bit, and he bought a house in Yorkshire, so he spends time in both places. I think as a band, our spiritual home is London, all three of us grew up in the outskirts, in the home counties basically, and London was a magnet. I moved to London properly when I was 17 and I didn't leave until 12 years ago. It's my spiritual place, I'm still close, it takes me about an hour to get there, so I go a few times a week. We're all extremely fond of London.
You mentioned in an interview that when you were young you wanted to be an actress because you were fascinated by the theatricality. Now that you're a musician, have you guys thought about making a musical?
No [laughs] we haven't thought about it. Musical theatre is not necessarily my thing, but I'll ponder it and see what comes up.
Geography is also very important in Saint Etienne sounds, with many songs dedicated to specific places. As a selfish New Yorker I have to ask what music makes you think of New York city?
Things like The Strokes, Velvet Underground, Debbie Harry, and Blondie.
We are wholly independent, with no corporate backers.
Simply whitelisting PopMatters is a show of support.
You guys never seem to stop being on tour, if you're not promoting an album you always seem to be doing DJ sets, what makes you most excited about being on the road?
We're excited about coming to America, as a threesome we get excited about traveling. A lot of bands spend most of their time in the hotel room and don't engage with the cities they're visiting, we're very into traveling and experiencing new places and new food. We always seek out hanging out with people, being taken to new clubs and restaurants, sightseeing, all the silly, nerdy stuff really.
In "Whyteleafe" you sing about different cities in different eras, Stockholm in the '90s, Paris in the '60s ... what do you think of as the perfect era in a specific city?
Probably London in the '20s, I've got this feeling the '20s was the best decade and everyone was having an amazing time. But you had to be wealthy, mind you [laughs]. If you weren't wealthy you'd be having a very shitty time. With a certain amount of money the '20s might have been very decadent, they were always partying and dancing, clothes were really important, they had gone from being really dowdy and Victorian, and suddenly everyone had glitter and tassels!
I love the transition between "Angel of Woodhatch" and "The Reunion", can you talk about structuring the album and picking what song goes where?
It takes quite a while to do the tracklisting, we spend a lot of time listening to it in different orders, sending it to each other in different order until we all agree. The album needs a good flow so you don't get distracted and nothing jumps out in a weird place. We care about that.
You also make a lot of music, is it hard to know when you've completed an album? When you don't wanna add an extra CD or a bonus track?
It's very difficult actually, we finish an album and master it, and we go and listen to B-sides and go "that could've been in the album, but it's too late now", it can be quite frustrating, we need to be very decisive about things. You have to have a full stop at some point with everything you do though, you can't just keep going. Many people have that problem where they keep going "maybe if", but you need to go "that's it!", so the fact we have a B-side or two that could've been in the album, it's too late now.
Home Counties is so optimistic and full of hope, so I was shocked to discover you wrote it during one of the harshest years Britain has been through in contemporary history...
[laughs] I know!
How were you able to pull off Home Counties in the year of Brexit?
I think probably because we're quite political people but we have humor. In the face of adversity, you have to use humor to get through, don't you? We need to put stuff into songs, that's where you put your feelings and frustrations, you turn them into songs.
In your last album you sang about the "Record Doctor", where there any songs that helped heal you post-Brexit?
I suppose jubilant stuff, but I also like melancholy, it's one of my favorite emotions in a song. Melancholy is bittersweet, that feeling of everything's a little bit shit, but hey, we're going to be alright in the end! I love that feeling in a film, song, but I can't think of songs that get me to that point ... let me think. I don't think I have something off the top of my head, but when something comes to me I will email it to you.
A few days later an email from Sarah: My Brexit song is "I Believe In Miracles" by The Jackson Sisters.