Saint Etienne’s Words and Music By Saint Etienne was quite a bit more than the long-awaited return of the much-loved British pop band. The trio took the razor-sharp observational skills of its last album, Tales From Turnpike House, and applied them to its fans and in some cases, themselves. What resulted is a collection of affecting songs that offer a careful and caring depiction of what it feels like to have music matter in your life. Saint Etienne vocalist Sarah Cracknell took time from her tour preparations to talk with Prefix about her feelings on the album and the music that’s important to her.
What made this the right time to record the next full Saint Etienne record?
It wasn’t really thought out. There wasn’t a huge master plan or anything. It was more of an organic process- I’m starting to sound like a hippie or something, but it was. We’d just done loads and loads of different things; we’d done film music and music for cartoon series. We’d reissued everything and had records out in various places. Bob is writing a book. We’d been artists in residence. There were a million things that we’d all been doing, and they all tied up and finished, so it seemed like the right time to be going back and making a record.
Words and Music By Saint Etienne is almost a concept album about music fandom. Did you find that thread in the studio, or was this something you’d been kicking around?
We started with a couple of songs that we’d written with Xenomania, who had written loads of pop songs for bands like Sugarbabes and Girls Aloud; they wrote for New Order and The Pet Shop Boys as well, actually. We did a couple of songs with a guy named Tim Powell from there, and then the idea kind of spun to mind. From that point it really flowed; it was like our previous album where we had this idea about people living in a block of houses and having their paths cross, sometimes without them even knowing it. It’s such a nice thing to have, a theme running through an album. It makes, for me, the writing process so much easier- without sounding like a lazy ass. If you’ve got an idea to build lyrics around, you’re not going to be covering old ground or spend hours trying to pluck an idea out of thin air.
How much on the record is based on your own personal music fandom?
It’s a bit of both. The first song, “Over the Border,” is very much about all three of us in fact. It’s based on the fact that music has been very integral in all of our lives from the moment we’ve been very young until now, and how it’s followed around for most of our lives. Another part of it is very made up; there are fictitious characters and places. We don’t normally write songs that are autobiographical, although I would say that “Over the Border” is quite autobiographical.
What was one part of your personal experience that had to be on the record?
“Heading for the Fair” is not strictly autobiographical, but it’s a cross between myself as a young teenage girl at fourteen or fifteen, and where I lived, in a village outside of Windsor. We had a fair that came every year and it was on the recreation ground opposite my house. I used to walk this long path to get there; it was in the middle of this large field. As I was walking towards it, it was this quite heady experience. There was lots of music and the smell of candy apples and candy floss and lots of young guys working the grounds. It’s kind of a cross between that and That’ll Be the Day- that film with David Essex and everything. It’s semiautobiographical, but I expanded on it by having a character that got swept away by a young man that promised much and delivered very little.
One of the songs I really connected with on the record was “Tonight,” which captures the excitement before a show. Can you tell me about a time you’ve felt that way?
It’s not actually about any particular concert, although there are plenty that I’ve been really excited about going to. It’s like you said- it’s about that really brilliant feeling when you’re going to see a band that you love. You listen to the album over and over again to get all ramped up, and you imagine how you’ll feel when you get there. We wanted that song to have that same feeling, because it’s brilliant, isn’t it? Recently I went to see Dexys-actually quite near to me. Kevin Rowland was doing his new album, and it’s like half theater and half a gig. I was really blown away by the whole experience, and I’d gotten to the point where I felt like I might not get blown away like that again. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to see something totally new and awe-inspiring, and then it happened two weeks ago. You can never underestimate the power of a live concert.
Was there any thought given to writing about the disappointments or letdowns associated with fandom?
Obviously there have been moments of being disappointed as a fan, but you don’t want to dwell on that. We just wanted to celebrate the wonder of music- without sounding like a total tosser. The record is about how music can totally change your mood and help you remember things you thought you’d forgotten about- a person or place or even a feeling. It’s a very powerful thing, really.
Are you still as much of a fan as you always were?
I can only speak for myself, and I have to admit that I’m as much of a fan of music as I was, but I don’t seek out as much new music as I used to. I think Bob and Pete keep up much better than I do; actually Pete is kind of our touchstone, because he really seems to have his finger on the pulse of what’s new at the moment.
I’ve found that a lot of music fans tend to fossilize. It happened to me in college. Did something like that happen to you?
To be honest, luckily my children are asleep, so they won’t hear this, but I probably shut off a bit after I had children. My eldest son is ten, so I guess it happened about ten years ago. I’m very lucky, because I have a lot of people around me that keep me slightly on the ball, if not hugely on the ball. I also do get to see a lot of bands at festivals; that’s a useful way to keep up, and my husband works in the music industry. He’s always telling me that I have to listen to this and have to listen to that.
Do you ever see yourself stepping away from music as a profession, and just being a fan again?
At the moment, it would make me quite uncomfortable, sad really, to not make music at all. How I would feel about that in five years’ time, I don’t know, but at the moment I enjoy it so much. I would just feel very sad I knew that I wasn’t going to do that anymore.
A creative person always creates, but do you see then band going on as an entity?
I don’t know. We haven’t talked about what we’re going to do after this record, because it still has life in it, and we’re coming over to the states. We’re going to Japan and South America, really doing all sorts of things. We’re not to the end of this record, and we never move on to the next thing until we finish the current one. It’s only then that we might consider what to do next.
So the rumors I’ve heard of a follow-up album aren’t necessarily true?
When we come to the States, we’re selling the album at shows, but we also have a bonus disc, which is like another album, really. That’s really the main thing. It’s not been out in the States, and it’s like a proper album. It’s unique to America.
Other than seeing Dexys, who are the artists that could still trigger your inner fan?
Well, obviously if I met Marc Bolan, but he’s dead. Marc Bolan was one of the first people to me that was a massive pop star. My parents introduced him to me. Growing up in the Seventies, he was just so stunning and identifiable in his sound and his singing. I would be absolutely gobsmacked to meet him, but I can’t. I did sit by Chrissie Hynde at a wedding the other day, and that was quite exciting. She’s amazing.