Tim Hughes speaks to St. Etienne pin-up girl Sarah Cracknell about a new book charting her band's history
For indie-music lovers of a certain vintage, Sarah Cracknell is the ultimate pin-up girl. The sugar-voiced,
blonde bombshell frontwoman of St Etienne is responsible for some of the most imaginative tunes of the 1990s and is still pushing boundaries with new music and film scores.
|Bombshell: Sarah Cracknell |
photographed by Paul Kelly
For Sarah, who lives with husband, Heavenly Records supremo Martin Kelly, and their children Spencer, 12, and Sam, nine, in a “village near Oxford”, the book is a record of a band who may not have changed the world, but who made it a better place. “I’m proud of it,” she tells me, while relaxing in the home office she calls her “hub”.
“It’s been quite a good opportunity to go through loads of old photos and figure where they were taken and when. Some I don’t remember at all and I need someone to jog my memory.”
With a name borrowed from French football club AS Saint-Étienne, St Etienne began life as a vehicle for Stanley and Wiggs’s music and featured a floating roster of vocalists, though settled on Sarah after her contribution to the dreamy dance-pop classic Nothing Can Stop Us Now.
“Bob and Pete were massive music fans and through sampling they realised they could do it themselves, says Sarah, originally from Windsor. “The original plan was to have a different singer on every record, but they figured out the logistics of touring would mean they’d need a special coach just for singers. We gelled well, had the same reference points.”
Drawing inspiration from the ’60s pop and soul as well as ’70s rock and ’80s dance music, they went on to release dance-pop classic Only Love Can Break Your Heart, followed by hits including You’re in a Bad Way, Join Our Club, Only Love Can Break Your Heart, and He’s on the Phone (itself based on French singer Etienne Daho’s Week-end à Rome), I Was Born On Christmas Day (alongside The Charlatan’s Tim Burgess), and 7 Ways to Love — the latter released under the moniker Cola Boy.
After a series of high-profile collaborations, and a playful dabble in Eurovision mockery, they moved more heavily into intelligent electronica and film, culminating in 2012’s critically acclaimed synth-pop masterpiece Words and Music by Saint Etienne — their eighth studio album.
|Compact: Sarah backstage, photographed by Rachael Cassells|
|Mirror Image: Sarah as captured by John Stoddart|
“Sometimes the photographer would say ‘go and do that again’. They knew what they wanted. But generally they were just around. It was reportage.”
She says the process brought back the buzz of being a young woman in a successful band. “It was exciting,” she says wistfully. “Especially when we were travelling. There were so many places I’d never been before. We were good at making the most of our time in interesting places, in case we didn't go back.”
So were they suitably ‘rock and roll’ on the road? “We’ve had our moments,” she laughs. “Someone once said our tours were more damaging to the health than Primal Scream’s!
“It sounds cheesy but we tried to make it all fun. We laughed all the time. We’ve got the same sense of humour and always surrounded ourselves with people we knew. It’s like going on holiday with your mates. We are clean living now, though. You can’t maintain that level of fun.”
So what were the best moments? “Loads!” she giggles. “The first time on Top of The Pops, which was a dream, from when I was a kid. We did it half-a-dozen times and it was no less exciting. There was a buzz and a bar full of EastEnders characters from the studio next door.”
|Heart: The band photographed by John Stoddart|
“The drummer went missing with two Swedish girls and only turned up 20 minutes before going on. At least there was no time to get nervous. It was funny.
“Afterwards me and Pete did an interview and Pete was worse for wear, speaking in tongues, talking about [fictional Japanese flying monster] Mothra!”
|Drive: The band by Paul Kelly|
Sarah has not performed in Oxfordshire since taking part in a Heavenly Records collaboration at Truck festival, a few years ago, but is keen to play locally. “Maybe next year,” she laughs. “I love Oxford life. It’s a fantastic place to live.
“I go to gigs and films and go walking a lot. it clears your head I’m also into ruins. I love Minster Lovell and Hampton Gay.”
And what is she most proud of? “All of it really,” she says. “This book makes you go back over everything — I get prouder the further things are away.”
Saint Etienne is published by First Third Books. Order from firstthirdbooks.com. A special edition of 300 copies come with coloured linen bindings signed by Sarah, Bob and Pete and a seven-inch vinyl single of two unreleased recordings.
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