Sarah Cracknell, the glamorous chanteuse of the iconic British indie band Saint Etienne, has always possessed one of pop’s most incandescent and shimmering voices, capable of eliciting euphoria against a synth-driven beat; heartbreak over a strummed guitar; melancholia and longing over the varied electronic and stripped down sounds the band—now in its astounding 25th year—has experimented with over the years; but, above all else, a simple charm. Chic and mod, Cracknell’s style and voice have complemented the band well (from a modernized ’60s girl group pastiche to disco dolly to balladeer and seemingly back again) as well as the many side projects and collaborations she’s lent that voice to. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone else in popdom today who can convey so much with a seemingly-simple “la la la,” but makes it sound fluently easy.
Those familiar with the band likely remember her slightly-ahead-of-its-time 1997 solo album debut—a gem called Lipslide. Mostly upbeat and dance-oriented, its b-sides were unique for possessing a shared-trait with her band: quality tunes that could have been album tracks. Released three years later stateside—with new tracks on it and also on the generously pretty Kelly’s Locker EP—most (but not all) of these songs made it onto 2012’s remastered deluxe edition, which also contained more new material and demos. 18 years later, those expecting a Lipslide sequel should probably look elsewhere, as Red Kite’s 12 mostly bucolic tracks envelop the natural elements surrounding their recording, yet sound modern and fresh, revealing layers of beauty and an indelibly rich background through repeated listening. In other words, it’s been more than worth the wait.
Produced and recorded by Carwyn Ellis (Colorama, Pretenders) and Seb Lewsley (Edwyn Collins), Red Kite possesses an economy and purity that benefits it, and the fanciful album opener “On the Swings,” with its swirls and woodwinds, is a perfect taster for what’s to come. Manic Street Preachers vocalist Nicky Wire is an apt foil for its lead single—the smashingly catchy duet, “Nothing Left To Talk About,” which subtly nods to Cracknell’s Saint Etienne debut single. The urgent strums of “In The Dark” partially recall Goldfrapp’s Seventh Tree but, like the bluesy “Ragdoll,” it maintains a separate integrity to its music. The dramatic torch song “Underneath The Stars” could almost be sung by Marianne Faithful, while the delicious “Hearts Are For Breaking,” with its fuzz box guitars, oozes girl-group charm and charisma and hopefully will be a single. Joined by UK folk duo The Rails on the gorgeous folk-pop of “Take The Silver,” the orchestration and harmonizing highlight Cracknell’s versatility with adaptation to various styles and especially to other singers. Red Kite’s sole cover, an illuminating take on Mojave 3’s “The Mutineer,” features some of the prettiest vocals she’s ever done, as do the redemptive reflections of “I Close My Eyes.” The profoundly uncomplicated message of self-acceptance in “It’s Never Too Late” is buoyed by its upbeat chords and flute, while the reverb-fueled guitars and swaggering vocals of “I Am Not Your Enemy” recall a Bond theme but with more attitude. Closer “Favourite Chair” is part lullaby, part reflection of what’s come before and makes one long to hear the whole thing again.
Discussing a number of topics—from the dual meaning of her new album’s title, the discipline and freedom of a strict recording process, collaborations and trust, to the importance of how music is shared these days—I recently spoke with the charming and often humorous Cracknell. We begin our conversation examining Red Kite’s catchy duet with Nicky Wire…
SLUG: I wanted to start with the first single, “Nothing Left To Talk About”—it’s so instantly memorable. I’ve now listened to Red Kite about 30 times and it’s just so smooth. It just bears repeating over and over again, which is such a lovely thing. So, when you’re speaking on that song, when you and Nicky Wire sing the “nothing” parts, it kinda recalled to me the “nothing” parts in “Nothing Can Stop Us.” Was that on purpose?
Sarah Cracknell: Right. Yeah, I know exactly what you mean, it’s funny actually it’s more something that I do when I do “Nothing Can Stop Us” live. I do it a bit like that. I know what you mean! [Laughs] There’s a “crossover.”
SLUG: I love that part, and to me—even if it was unintentional—it’s brilliant, because it recalls, really, the first single you were on with the band. It’s just brilliant! When I first heard “On The Swings” on SoundCloud about a month ago I think, I was just blown away by how whimsical and free it was. Was that the starting point for the album?
Cracknell: It was one of the starting points. It was one of the first things we recorded, but I think, more than anything, I wanted that one to go out first, as a taster. Mainly to make sure that people realized that this record’s very different to my last one. I didn’t want people to just think, “oh,” [and] assume they know what it’s gonna be like—you know, what it’s gonna sound like?
Cracknell: Because it’s different, you know?
SLUG: It is, it’s so organic.
Cracknell: Yeah, that’s really what I wanted! And it’s no disrespect to the last one. I like the last one too, but I just wanted to do something that had no programming and stuff.
SLUG: Definitely! Well, that’s what’s so great about solo work sometimes, I believe you can experiment with things, and I think I read that this kinda allowed you to free your voice a little bit. Is that true?
Cracknell: Yeah, it is true. I mean, some of the stuff with Saint Etienne gives me space to free my voice, and is a bit more pastoral-sounding, but some of the more kind of dance, programmed-dance stuff [requires] a very specific way of singing—it’s quite a disciplined way of singing. It’s kinda nice to do more “drifty” stuff!
SLUG: Oh, absolutely! There’s so many influences in your sound and, going back to Lipslide really quickly, I revisited the Deluxe Remaster last week, and—at the time when that came out—it sounded ahead of its time.
Cracknell: Did it? Well, that’s good!
SLUG: Yeah, in a way so does Red Kite, because it seems like its kind of bucking a trend. There’s obviously no hip-hop and it doesn’t sound programmed. It’s just a lovely, kind of encapsulated sound that you’ve captured here. It’s really brilliant!
Cracknell: Well, thank you very much! I wanted it to sound current, but I wanted to use some influences from the past as well, if you know what I mean.
SLUG: I do, definitely, there’s a nod kind of to Marianne Faithfull, seems like there’s some Bond-type theme, you know thematic/cinematic type sounds here and there—
SLUG: And yet, yes, it does sound very modern.
Cracknell: Well, that’s good, I don’t want it to just sound, you know, like a nostalgia trip. [laughs]
SLUG: Oh sure, absolutely! And how long have these songs been in gestation?
Cracknell: Well, there were a couple that, I wrote sort of mid–last year, and then the rest of them were written pretty much—well, they were all written last year, but some of them were written quite close to the recording schedule, to be honest.
SLUG: And the recording schedule, I can’t believe you made this album in two weeks!
Cracknell: Yeah, I know!
SLUG: Was that on purpose?
Cracknell: Yeah, we set up a studio in a barn near where I live, and we had to hire in some equipment—like speakers and an old Neve desk—and all these bits and pieces and microphones—we needed lots of microphones and things. So we hired them for a week before Christmas and we hired everything for a week after Christmas—and it takes a bit setting up and packing down, so we couldn’t just waffle on and keep going. We had these strict boundaries basically, which is really good. I like that, you know?
SLUG: I think that’s great!
Cracknell: Yeah, so often, the first thing you record is actually the better one, the better take. And I think if you’re given too long to kind of keep going over and over and over things, you start changing them too much.
SLUG: Sure, sure. There’s one cover on the album, “The Mutineer.” I think that’s one of the loveliest songs that you’ve ever put your voice to. It’s so gorgeous!
Cracknell: It’s a great song, isn’t it?
SLUG: It is! So how do that come into your awareness or was that Seb Lewsley and Carwyn Ellis’ influence? Or did you find that song on your own?
No, I found it. I’m quite a big fan of Loose Salute
. Funny enough, I saw them play last August at a festival called Port Eliot
—and met Ian [McCutcheon] there, actually—and it just occurred to me. It was just one of those songs that I played over and over, you know how you do?
Cracknell: And I just thought that the lyrics were so touching.
SLUG: Absolutely! And they’re relevant to you, ’cause it mentions being in a band. It’s so sincere, it’s just gorgeous. And what you’ve done with it, you should be really proud, it’s so perfect on the album. That’s kinda one of those songs that I keep revisiting, if I can be honest.
Cracknell: Right, good! I’m really glad also that Ian likes it, ’cause you know when you take other people’s songs, you want them to appreciate what you’ve done—well, not appreciate it, you want them to like it—and he came back and said he was really enjoying it, so that’s good!
SLUG: That’s really good, what an honor!
Cracknell: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
SLUG: So Sarah, when I Googled the title “Red Kite,” the very first thing that pulls up is a bird in the UK.
Cracknell: That’s right.
And so that didn’t instantly tell me “oh this is obviously what this album is about,” so I added “film,” because of Saint Etienne’s love for film, and your contribution to film scores, and I found a 1965 short film called The Red Kite
Cracknell: Oh how amazing! Is it that the one were they just follow a kite literally?
SLUG: No, it’s not. It’s a father and his daughter and he buys her a red kite, and as he’s on the bus home, he overhears a priest talking to someone else. And it’s 1965, and it’s a Canadian film—it’s a short film—it’s beautiful. And it’s kinda just questioning the meaning of his life.
SLUG: And the little girl is so cute, and she’s a little towhead and when I was watching it, it reminded me of pictures I’ve seen with your late father.
SLUG: And so I just wondered where the title came from and hope you could elaborate a little bit with that?
Cracknell: Yeah, well I’ll tell you what, I’m going to go check the film out now. No, I didn’t know about that film, that sounds amazing. No, it was more … I like things that have two meanings, kind of thing. And I like kites. Kite flying is a nice idea, isn’t it, you know?
SLUG: It is, it’s a lovely idea.
Cracknell: And also, where I live in this part of the country, I’m surrounded by red kites. They’re massive birds of prey. Well, actually, they mostly eat carrion—they’re scavengers, really—they were driven out the UK, they were shot a lot by farmers and stuff I think, so we didn’t have any left. And then somebody reintroduced a couple of pairs of red kites quite close to where I live. And they’re really going for it now—they’re everywhere! [laughs]
SLUG: So the conservation effort worked!
Cracknell: Yeah, almost a bit too much. We’re going to end up now with that imbalance where they’re going to start wiping out—I don’t know, something else! We’ll end up being overrun by lizards or something. Doesn’t that happen in an episode of The Simpsons? I think it does!
SLUG: I think it does, too! For “Whacking Day” or something?
Cracknell: Yeah, that’s it!
SLUG: So, can I ask you what the collaboration process is like for you? Either with Bob [Stanley] and Pete [Wiggs] obviously, or when you’re working with other writers and songwriters?
Cracknell: Um, it generally depends. I mean, with this album, it’s all songs that I wrote with people—more kinda “both sat there together” type thing. Well, there’s a couple where people sent me ideas and I took them away and kinda wrote a melody and words. So it varies. With Saint Etienne, it varies, but quite often we’ll just sit and write together, the three of us, which is quite good fun.
SLUG: Oh, I bet!
Cracknell: But yeah, I’m just trying to think—a combination of ways, I would say. But some were literally just sat with someone with a guitar or a keyboard—you know, across the kitchen table or somewhere! [laughs]
SLUG: And so when you personally hear melody in your head, how does it express itself? Is it like a “la la la” or do you hear a word or a phrase?
Cracknell: Again, it depends. But quite often—you have to be careful—’cause quite often what happens is I get some kind of—you know, gobbledygook words—and if I start singing them, they sometimes end up in the final thing. You have to be really careful, ’cause you get really used to them and then Bob and Pete will go, “Oh yeah, no—I really like that bit … anyway, we’ll just leave it like that!” and you think, “Uh-oh!” But melodies do—I’m very lucky—that melodies do seem to just spring into my head, which is a relief, you know? That they’re there in there somewhere! You know that’s good!
SLUG: That is good! And do you have to get somewhere or do you record them on your phone? Or do you record them somewhere? Or do you just tuck them away? For you personally, how does that work?
Cracknell: I have to record them! I record them on my phone. I used to have this ancient kinda cassette dictaphone, which I used constantly, but that died! Now I use my phone, because if I don’t record it pretty much straightaway, it’s gone! [laughs]
SLUG: Sure, well that happens to all of us!
Cracknell: Oh, good!
SLUG: So, when you are composing and you hear those melodies, do you separate them and say “Oh, this is for Saint Etienne, or I’d like to try this solo?” Or does that come later?
Cracknell: As I said, with this record, it kind of … it was all really written for me. With Lipslide, it was more a case of there were some songs that didn’t seem to fit so much with Saint Etienne. They were actually a little bit autobiographical. Not about me, but about places I’d grown up and stuff like that, you know?
Cracknell: Whereas this one is a bit more ambiguous.
SLUG: Oh sure, sure.
Cracknell: It’s more “characters from a film” type, you know.
SLUG: And do you have a preference for that? Like in Saint Etienne songs, when you’re singing, obviously some of the lyrics you’re interchanging and you can be—you’re talking about “her” or “she”—obviously sometimes. But do you prefer to become a character to sing about someone else or do you like the more autobiographical?
Cracknell: I prefer to be a character, to be honest. I’m not entirely sure why. I don’t know. I’m not really into talking about myself very much, so I don’t want to sing about myself, either!
SLUG: It’s a bit embarrassing, isn’t it?
Cracknell: Yeah, for me!
SLUG: So, I’m just glancing down at one of my questions and one of my other “return to” songs that I seem to not be able to get enough of is the beautiful “I Close My Eyes.”
Cracknell: Alright, cool! That’s funny someone else mentioned that yesterday. That’s interesting.
SLUG: It’s so pretty and just the couplet—you know, where you’re talking about thoughts of love and marriage and then children … forgive me, I’m not quoting your lyrics right—it’s just so pretty and you kinda just answered that you’d rather be more singing about someone or becoming someone else. It’s probably more of your public persona, I would assume?
Cracknell: Yeah. You know, it’s funny—I wrote those words with Pete from Saint Etienne.
SLUG: Yes, I saw that was credited to “Wiggs.”
Cracknell: Yeah, that’s right. We wrote the lyrics while I was in Spain and he was—I think he was at home in Brighton—and we were e-mailing, furiously, lyrics backwards and forwards. So, there you go. [laughs]
SLUG: And Pete just had his birthday l think last week ?
Cracknell: He did have his birthday. Same day as my mum’s!
SLUG: Nice, very, very nice!
So I was looking at the credits of the album and see a name that is very familiar to you: Mr. Kelly. And I’m assuming would that be Martin
who wrote that song with you, ah—
Cracknell: No, it’s my nephew, Noah!
SLUG: I didn’t know that, interesting!
Cracknell: Yeah, he’s a grown-up nephew—he’s about 23 or something like that. Twenty five, maybe … I can’t believe he’s 25, but …
SLUG: That’s “Under the Stars” right?
Cracknell: That’s right, yeah. “Underneath The Stars.”
SLUG: Such a pretty song!
That was inspired by…I just read Pattie Boyd’s autobiography
—actually not “just” read it, I read it a few months before—and it sort of stayed with me, you know how some books do?
Cracknell: And it sort of inspired that song, a little. I mean not really really, not like—
Cracknell: Just a little. Yeah.
SLUG: I think sometimes those are the best songs. Are the ones that can take someone else’s presentation and just reinterpret as, you know, gleaning something from it and stuff. It’s so pretty, I love that song.
Cracknell: Awww, thank you! I’ll tell Noah!
SLUG: Please do.
Cracknell: Just after I’ve given him a clip ’round the ear! [laughs]
SLUG: So when I’m also listening to the album, I’m really struck by—I’m not a muso, so I don’t know exactly the type of guitar it is—but I love the kind of reverb on “I’m Not Your Enemy.”
Cracknell: Oh right, yeah yeah.
SLUG: And was that or did you have that in your head when it was being composed?
Cracknell: Yeah, we wanted it to sound a bit sorta ’60s garage-y and we wanted it to have a lot of attitude, you know, and the vocal as well: we wanted that to have a bit of attitude. And I think it works because it’s quite a contrast within the album to other stuff. Do you know what I mean?
SLUG: I do, and that’s why I think it’s so brilliant, ’cause it just kinda stands out. And when you’re listening to it—and I don’t know if you appreciate this—I just let the album repeat the playlist over and over again. And when I separated from it to go back to Lipslide for a little bit, I missed it!
Cracknell: Oh, OK!
SLUG: So that was one of the ones that I could just hear the guitar. It’s just so brilliant!
Cracknell: Cool! Oh, well that’s interesting. I’ll tell Carwyn!
SLUG: Please do! So, you’ve done duets and harmonized with many males before, obviously the very latest one is with Nicky Wire, and then famously Tim Burgess, David Essex, just to name a few!
And then the only female that’s kind of a constant is Debsey [Wykes]
in any kind of recordings; Saint Etienne recordings.
SLUG: But do you have like a “dream” female vocalist—either past or present—that you’d be just: “Oh, I’d love to work with her” or “I’d love to do a duet with her?”
Cracknell: Well I’m trying to, been trying for a while to do something with Victoria Bergsman—you know, who used to be in The Concretes?
SLUG: Yes, oh I love that band!
Cracknell: She and I have been trying to do something together since we met up. Well, we met a couple of times when I’ve been to see The Concretes, then we met up once when I was in Stockholm and had an evening chatting and all that. And we said “well, we must do something together, we must do something” and we’ve been really trying to get it together. In fact, “Hearts Are For Breaking” was written very much with her in mind as a potential duet, so … But it didn’t quite work. But definitely, we’ve got to do something!
SLUG: Oh wow, yeah, I look forward to that! Absolutely! And then I was thinking, just speaking of collaboration and working with someone else, so can you tell me a little bit about working with Carywn and Seb? How did you know you could trust them? Was it like intuitive or—?
Cracknell: Yeah, it was. I think it’s just, I mean I know Carwyn—I mean I haven’t really known him for a really long time or anything—but he’s been to stay at my house a few times because my husband has a publishing company called Heavenly Songs and he publishes Carwyn. So Carwyn used to come and stay and sit and play his new stuff to Martin and I just kept thinking “I really like this! This is amazing!” Especially he came over once and he’d made up a CD with a load of instrumental stuff he’d been doing and I thought it was brilliant. And because I know him—he’s a lovely gentle soul, Carwyn, he’s a sweet man and incredibly talented—I knew I’d be in safe hands with him. Seb I’d worked with before, ’cause he was always at Edwyn Collins’ studio and we did a couple of recordings there a long time ago and I loved the sounds that he gets as well. I just thought as a combination they’d work really well. Carwyn’s worked with Seb so many times himself so they a kind of have that language where they barely need to say very much: they just understand each other. They have an intuition with each other, you know?
SLUG: Yeah, that’s probably like you with Bob and Pete I would assume?
Cracknell: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And so when we were recording they were living in the house, so it felt like a very natural process and we were just really engrossed in it for those two weeks. For me, it was brilliant being close to home, and it’s nice ’cause I live in the countryside and it’s really nice to record in that environment and not be in the city for a change.
SLUG: Yes, yes. Well, that obviously affects the vocal styling I would think, because you’re surrounded by nature and beauty and these red kites we talked about.
Cracknell: Yeah, no, it did. It was very influential I think in the whole recording of the album, the environment around us. I’m glad it comes through. I think it comes through.
SLUG: I think it comes through really brilliantly actually!
Cracknell: Good! [laughs]
SLUG: So have you—I know this album is very different from Lipslide—but it seems like almost everyone has remixes of something. Have you commissioned or are you planning on commissioning any of the songs for a remix or are you trying to take this strictly in a different direction?
Cracknell: Do you know, I haven’t even thought about it. I mean, if someone were to approach and ask to do one and they were somebody I liked, then that would be brilliant, but we hadn’t really looked to seek out that situation yet.
SLUG: Yes, well it needs to come out and the public needs to hear it.
Cracknell: Yeah, that’s right, I think.
SLUG: And so I was going to ask too, with Bob and Pete, you’re obviously supportive of each other’s projects and obviously you collaborate with each other on solo stuff and other projects and stuff. Do you show your songs in progress with them or share them?
Cracknell: No I don’t actually! The stuff on my own album, no I didn’t—I was a bit too shy! [laughs] Apart from obviously Pete helping me with the lyrics on “I Close My Eyes,” no. I was far too shy to play them anything until it was absolutely mixed and finished! [laughs]
SLUG: Have they embraced it?
Cracknell: They have very much, they’ve been lovely!
SLUG: I think you can tell, just from interviews, you guys get along. You appear to get along so well.
Cracknell: We do, we get along really well!
SLUG: Yeah, and I just think that’s part of the success of the band and how long the band’s lasted and stuff.
Cracknell: Yeah, well, I’m sure it does make a big difference, doesn’t it? I mean we love touring together and being in the studio together, you know? There’s no friction in our band.
SLUG: Well that’s really brilliant. You’re really lucky!
Cracknell: Yeah, I think so!
SLUG: And then that makes me think about different styles that Saint Etienne has incorporated over the years and not necessarily mentioning any artists—or specific artists—but is there a genre that you personally wish would go away? Or would never incorporate into Saint Etienne?
Cracknell: Um … oof … I don’t really know. I mean, we’re not really big fans of—you know it’s difficult to say. I wouldn’t put anything past us, to be honest. [laughs] I’m trying to think of an absolute “dirty” word. We’re not a fan of the saxophone, but again, I just can’t imagine us saying “never, never, never.” We might use the saxophone and do something strange to it. [laughs]
SLUG: Yeah, yeah, distort it or something.
Cracknell: Yeah! But, no, I wouldn’t like to say that there’s anything we wouldn’t do.
SLUG: Well, that was just an obscure question and so that makes me think about collecting music and obviously Mr. Stanley probably has the world’s largest record collection—
Cracknell: I reckon! [laughs]
SLUG: And so how does Sarah enjoy her music? Are you a digital person? Do you prefer the vinyl, CDs?
Cracknell: I’m a very sort of chaotic music listener. [laughs] I don’t know, I have some CDs, some in my—I’m really disorganized, I mean horribly disorganized with my listening. Obviously, my husband’s a bit of a collector as well. And he’s really good, ’cause he always has decks set up and boxes of 7”s and things, so there’s that at my fingertips as well. So it’s a real mixture!
SLUG: Well that’s great and I still buy vinyl—I don’t even have a turntable—and I prefer the physical product myself, you know over a digital copy and stuff.
Cracknell: Yeah, I know what you mean.
SLUG: But some things only come digitally.
Cracknell: I know, also I find there are some things that appear in the charts, that I catch on the radio or something and so they’re sorta of “faceless,” a lot of people, so you don’t have any particular interest in what they look like or what they stand for or whatever … that sounds really awful. [laughs]
SLUG: Yes, well, the industry has changed so much since you guys started, hasn’t it?
Cracknell: It has massively! So they’re the kind of artists that I literally would just buy the song on iTunes and that’s it.
SLUG: And if you like it and it’s kind of disposable that way.
Cracknell: Yes, yeah. Which is great and that’s fine.
SLUG: It has its place.
Cracknell: It has its place. It’s funny, it’s interesting with having kids and how they approach music. It’s quite different. It’s a shame: they don’t have that thing where they get to be a teenager and then they discover bands that aren’t being played on the radio and that nobody’s ever heard of, apart from you and your selected group of friends. You know, they won’t ever have that, I don’t think. I don’t know, but…
SLUG: I think you’re right: they won’t ever have that. It’s kind of a sad thing. I mean, unless you’re taking your child to like say Record Store Day and introducing that to them, but there’s so few record stores now.
Cracknell: Yeah, exactly. And the way they hear new music is very, very different. It’s not a friend playing—although sometimes it is a friend playing them something—but I don’t know. It’s just definitely changed.
SLUG: And change is part of our lives.
SLUG: But it’s kinda sad because there’s something beautiful about looking at the album artwork, which someone’s taken the time to create, and if there’s lyrics, to read the lyrics, and read the credits. That’s just something that you can’t necessarily teach someone you know, or they’re going to necessarily appreciate.
Cracknell: No, I know. It’s funny there’s a new album chart now in the UK, which I’m quite pleased about.
SLUG: Which is what?
Cracknell: Well, there’s an album chart, you know I’m not even sure whether it’s—sorry, vinyl is what I’m trying to say: “vinyl chart”—
SLUG: Oh, nice!
Cracknell: But you know I’m not entirely really sure it’s 7” and albums or whether it’s just albums. I think it might be 7”s as well. Anyway, so that’s quite exciting!
SLUG: Congratulations, and I wish you nothing but success for Red Kite!
Cracknell: Well, thank you very much! That’s really kind of you!
SLUG: It’s been really charming talking to you!
Cracknell: Alright, it’s been nice talking to you too, Dean!