If You’re Feeling Finisterre
There is Britpop, and then there is British pop; Saint Etienne has always resided in the latter camp. The group formed by Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs around the turn of the 1990s first made its mark with a dance-pop cover of Neil Young’s "Only Love Can Break Your Heart" that took the world by surprise and became a U.K. hit. In many ways, it’s a recording whose importance has grown massively over the years, paving the way for so much swank, pop-oriented electronic music that has been spawned worldwide since.
Sarah Cracknell joined Saint Etienne soon after that song made its mark, and has been the band’s lead singer ever since. Over the course of six studio albums, Cracknell has been an integral part of the group’s fiercely danceable pop, gently lulling ambient grooves, and experimental moments. It’s a diverse swath of musical territory, but a unifying context has been laid down throughout by the constant presence of retro-leaning electronic-heavy arrangements.
Quality has always been paramount for this band. Their most recent album Finisterre (Mantra/Beggars Group) keeps the bar set quite high. A largely upbeat affair, its dozen songs continue building an impressive body of work for this band. Soon after the album’s U.S. release in late 2002, YEAH YEAH YEAH called London for a quick chat with the bubbly, buoyant Ms. Cracknell, proud mother of then-10-month-old son Spencer.
Y3: It seems like there’s some sort of theme running through Finisterre. Is there one?
SARAH: As far as we’re concerned, the record is about London as it is today. I think it’s probably lyrically our most spiky record to date. Kind of pointing out people’s greed and things like that. I think a lot of it, with me, was the fact that while we were recording the album, I was pregnant. And I think I was quite aware of bringing someone into the world in Britain’’cause that’s what I know best’and what that world is all about. And so it’s our most political album.
Y3: Who does the spoken song intros?
SARAH: That’s an actor called Michael Jayston. He does lots of Radio 4 plays. And he’s got this brilliant, slightly tragic voice we just really like. And so we got him to come and say things.
Y3: Those spoken intros--like "Our Father, who art in Heaven, please stay there"--sort of put each song in its place within the theme.
SARAH: Well good, that’s what it’s meant to do. Most of them are quotes, actually. I don’t want to say particularly where they’re from. Some of them are quotes from friends and people we know. And some of them are quotes from things we’ve seen, TV programs we’ve watched. They come from all over the place. And then some were written.
Y3: It seems like you’ve gotten more heavily involved with the songwriting as the band has progressed.
SARAH: Yeah, which is obviously a natural progression.
Y3: And that continues here, so you were more involved in the writing of this one than on, say, Sound Of Water?
SARAH: Well, probably about the same on Sound Of Water as it was with this one. But the first two albums, particularly the first one, was written before I even met [Bob and Pete]. And the second one was just continuing what they had done. And then I started getting more involved. But it was more about bringing in things I’d worked on with other people on Tiger Bay. When it came to Good Humor, that’s when we started working together. And we work really well as a team. ˜Cause there’s no egos in our group. There’s no drummer, guitarist, bass player, blah blah, everyone just sticks in and out and plays different things. There’s no strict roles for each person. So with each song, I could write a bass line or I could write anything, really. It leaves a lot more scope for getting involved.
Y3: I feel like I hear some of your solo record Lipslide on this album as well, on some of the more dance-oriented songs. And I thought your influence, not just vocally and lyrically but also musically, is very much felt on songs like "Action" and "New Thing." Is that fair?
SARAH: Well, I don’t know. Honestly, we do just work on each song together. I was quite into all the uptempo stuff. I think all three of us wanted to be more uptempo on this one. I mean, the last album was very mood oriented, it was very mellow, sort of chill-outty type album. And with this one, we wanted it to be more varied and more rock. And that’s what we did.
Y3: Do you think you’ll make another solo record?
SARAH: I’d like to, eventually. But I really like being in a group. It’s much more fun. You get to share all the experiences together, and when you’re traveling you’re with people you like. So I would do it in a gap in the Saint Etienne schedule, as opposed to taking time out. Sometimes you need a bit of time out, we’ll take a couple months out to go on holiday. Pete’s girlfriend’s having a baby in the spring, so he might need a little time out then, so maybe I’ll do it around that time. [laughs]
Y3: One phrase that comes to mind about music, and what is modern pop music, and a type of music a lot of our readers like, is "retro-futuristic." Have you heard that phrase?
SARAH: I don’t think so.
Y3: Maybe we made it up here. I feel like it describes your music well, because it’s so forward-looking, and always sounds so new and cutting edge, but it has so many retro things. I feel like you’re a ˜60s pop band trapped in 2002.
SARAH: [laughs] I suppose. Like you said, we like to think we’re really forward-thinking, and cutting edge, or at least doing something new and interesting, and I think what we really don’t want to do is go repeating ourselves all over the place. And so far, I don’t think we have. I think we’re quite good at coming up with new ideas. But at the same time, we do have a lot of ’60s influences. And that’s going to come out in the music.
Y3: As far as new things in the music on this record, there’s the rap in "Soft Like Me."
SARAH: Well, we did have a rap on "Filthy," but that was a long time ago, ˜92 or something like that. But I know what you mean. That’s going to be our next single. We’ve done a little tour in Britain already, and Wildflower, the girl who does the rap, has been on tour with us. She’s really fun. She comes out and starts picking up the crowd’ We had heard a record she was rapping on, and she sounded great. We were looking for a British rapper ’no disrespect’ who would not try to sound American. Where a lot of British rappers try to sound American, and we didn’t want someone who pretended to be American. And we’d written the song with the choruses in and presented it to her, and she wrote the rap. And I can’t believe what she’s done, I think it’s amazing that she’s made such sense of the chorus.
Y3: That must inspire you, when you have a vision for something, and you want somebody to add to it, and they fully understand what you want.
SARAH: Yeah, it’s amazing. I think you’ll be hearing a lot more from her. You know, you get the feeling that she’s going to make some kind of mark and she’s going to be around for a while.
Y3: Speaking of British rappers who sound British, have you heard The Streets?
SARAH: Yeah. We love that album. It’s amazing. That was a record where you get it, and you listen to it, and you think, "Ah, God, now I’m listening to something that I really haven’t heard before." And it’s really exciting.
Y3: One other song on the album I wanted to touch on is "The Way We Live Now." I couldn’t help but think it might be some kind of reference to "How We Used To Live," from the last album.
SARAH: [laughs] I know, the story just goes on.
Y3: And then the next album will have a song called "The Way We Will Be Living In Five Years."
SARAH: It’s quite confusing, you know.
Y3: Well, we want to keep track of how Saint Etienne is living. It’s very important.
SARAH: [laughs] It’s very confusing when I’m trying to announce songs on stage. "This is ˜How We Used’’no, no, it’s ˜The Way We Live Now’ no, I don’t know."
The Record That Changed My Life
By Sarah Cracknell, as told to me
"As an album, I would say Blondie’s Parallel Lines changed my life. The whole album, but ˜Picture This’ is one of my favorites. Deborah Harry is someone who I respect and who I feel was really important. She was seen as an integral part of the group as far as the writing. And I liked the idea of that. I still do.
"All my friends’ older brothers had a picture of her on their walls’and I loved all my friends’ older brothers, because I didn’t have one. I thought, ˜Let’s play with the big boys and listen to records.’ So the fact that she was on all their bedroom walls made me feel that she was doubly important.
"The whole album made me think that you could be a girl singer at the front of the band and you could be treated as part of the band, and with respect, and not just treated as a pretty face at the front. I just thought, ˜I’d like to have a band one day.’ And not just a ˜pretend to do it in a mirror’ kind of thing. I wasn’t one of those hairbrush singing into the mirror people, to be honest. Maybe I was a bit too shy, I was a bit worried about someone seeing me. It was something that I thought I’d like to do in reality, not pretend to do.
"The first single that ever made me think about music properly, as a creative production, was ˜Rock On’ by David Essex. You hear it and think, ˜Bloody, what a bizarre record.’ The production on it is fantastic. It filled me with a kind of atmosphere. There was something spooky and quite dangerous about it. It’s a completely mad record."
As the singer of the ultra-swank British trio Saint Etienne, Sarah Cracknell doesn’t just have a band’she has one of the hippest bands on the planet. Their sixth album, Finisterre (Mantra/Beggars Group), is not only their most political to date, it takes their retro-futuristic electronic stylings to lush new heights of often danceable pop majesty.
Main interview originally appeared in YEAH YEAH YEAH, 2003. Featurette on the record that changed Sarah's life originally appeared in WOMEN WHO ROCK, 2002.