Two thirds of Saint Etienne are sat outside The Old Bridge pub in Holmfirth on a sunny Wednesday afternoon, next door to the venue they will be performing in that evening, the Picturedrome.
Surrounded by pub-goers, Sarah Cracknell greets me with a welcoming wave as I approach the blonde frontwoman of one of England’s most unique pop bands.
Despite a few autograph requests, she remains quite anonymous among the regulars, taking a seat on a separate table in the bright Yorkshire sunshine and sipping a pint as we launch into a conversation about her new record, the future of Saint Etienne, and feather boas.
Saint Etienne are here to play a live show with an orchestra, sound-tracking their latest film, How We Used to Live; but the biggest news for their fans at the moment is that Cracknell has finally got around to releasing a second solo album – 18 years after her first.
Red Kite was released on Monday, and while the English pop element of Saint Etienne is very much in essence, Cracknell has pulled the plug on electronica for this folky outing, reminiscent of 1960s pop singers such as Marianne Faithfull. “There’s lots of different influences, but we wanted some of that 60’s rock-pop stuff. There’s a bit of Beach Boys type production; production-wise I wanted to use lots of different instruments and make things stand out that you don’t normally hear, so it’s quite pastoral as opposed to electronic, but it’s still pop and it’s still quite upbeat,” she explains.
Sarah attributes the stripped-back sound partially to how the album was recorded, which differs to how her band generally cut an LP. “With Saint Etienne albums, lots have been recorded in all sorts of different ways, so I can’t really compare them. This album though, I did one week before Christmas, one week after and set up a studio in a barn, so it was very disciplined about how long we had because it took a long time to set it all up and pack it all down.
“We did two albums with Saint Etienne where we were residential: we went to Sweden with Good Humour, and then Sound of Water we did in Berlin, so they were quite concentrated, as well.”
Prior to Saint Etienne’s soundcheck, the orchestra in the Picturedrome can be heard outside, tuning up; so punctuated by the occasional sharp note of a trombone in the background, Cracknell explains what audiences can expect from her upcoming solo tour. “For my own tour we’re going to do the whole of the album, actually, which is a lot of work to learn everything. Then we’ll do some things from my other solo record, a cover that I really like and a couple of Saint Etienne songs, so there’ll be a real mixture of stuff.”
Limited to 1,000 copies, Red Kite is also available on vinyl, along with the lead single, Nothing Left to Talk About – a duet with Manic Street Preachers’ Nicky Wire – which is available as a 7in single. Cracknell says this was her idea, but gives credit to her record label for making it a reality. “They were quite up for it, Cherry Red, they’re kind of old school. And there’s the vinyl chart now as well, isn’t there?”
Anyone present at Glastonbury in 1994 could hardly forget Saint Etienne’s pulsing performance, not to mention Cracknell’s effortlessly cool, Debbie Harry-esque style. She has always had a penchant for feather boas as part of her stage get-up, does she still wear them? “I do sometimes, but I run out, I’m always giving them to people. Whenever I do gigs, I’m always throwing them out into the audience and then going ‘oh, I’ve got none left, now!’. I always buy them in John Lewis in Oxford Street, they’re the best quality.”
There was a seven-year gap between Saint Etienne’s last two studio albums. Technically, this band has never been more active, with many different projects currently in the works, but are they going to get back in the studio, soon? “I think we are, yeah. We keep muttering about it, going ‘should we do it next year? Yeah, maybe we’ll do it next year’. There are other things; Bob’s writing books, Pete’s been doing film scores... and I’m just lazy.”, she jokes. “But we’re always doing something, it seems like we’re not active, but we are active.”
Sarah Cracknell plays at Leeds City Varieties on June 21. For tickets visit https://www.cityvarieties.co.uk/Online/default.asp?doWork::WScontent::loadArticle=Load&BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::article_id=4F63B8AE-23B9-4299-932E-E407BCE3B804