Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell brings glamour and dream-pop to new festival
SARAH Cracknell is not like most pop stars. Sure, the singer with synth-pop band Saint Etienne is a formidable presence on stage, a chic frontwoman for a band who have lost none of their hip elegance. She is still touring the world, playing hip venues and the best festivals – including, tomorrow, the new Kite festival at Kirtlington near Bicester, followed by Glastonbury – and her voice is as fresh as it was when she first lulled and captivated us with the dreamy Nothing Can Stop Us.
But Sarah has a secret life: that of an Oxfordshire mum who keeps her glamorous career as much of a secret as possible. “I never tell anyone what I do!” laughs the honey-toned vocalist who lives with her husband – Heavenly Records supremo Martin Kelly – and two kids in a pleasant, but perfectly normal corner of the county. “I try to stay anonymous.” Sarah plays Common People festival in Oxford.
Picture by Tim Hughes She laughs: “I may go on tour leaving my poor children, but no one finds out. No, I’m a very hands-on mum – and they’ve been all over the world with me.”
It is 32 years since Saint Etienne got together, founded by friends and music writers Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs. With a name borrowed from a French football club, the group began life as a vehicle for Bob and Pete’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. Taking their cue from 60s pop and soul, 70s rock and 80s dance music, dance-pop classic Only Love Can Break Your Heart was followed by such engaging hits as You’re in a Bad Way, Join Our Club, He’s on the Phone, I Was Born On Christmas Day (alongside The Charlatan’s Tim Burgess), and 7 Ways to Love – which was released under the moniker Cola Boy.
After a series of high-profile collaborations, they moved more heavily into intelligent electronica and film, culminating in 2012’s critically acclaimed synth-pop masterpiece ‘Words and Music by Saint Etienne’. A fiercely relevant band, their 10 studio albums include 2017’s concept work Home Counties and last year’s optimistic, sample-rich LP I’ve Been Trying to Tell You.
An increasingly Oxfordshire band, the line-up has expanded to feature musician brothers Robin and Joe Bennett – of country-rockers Dreaming Spires and founders of the county’s Truck and Wood festivals – the latter of which they still run. Both will join the band on stage this weekend at Oxfordshire’s freshest festival – Kite, in grand Kirtlington Park. “I’m absolutely thrilled to be playing Kite,” says Sarah. “It’s going to be absolutely brilliant and with an amazing line-up.
We might stay for the whole weekend – which we rarely do at a festival.” The gathering, billed as a festival of music and ideas, has an eclectic line-up of thought-provoking acts which also includes Grace Jones, Tom Misch, Self Esteem, Mavis Staples, Nubiyan Twist and Flamingods.
Its speakers include Pulp’s Jarvis Cocker, artist Ai Weiwei, Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and political thinkers David Miliband and Rory Stewart. “It’s going to be spectacular,” says Sarah. “And the fact it’s the first one, so will be finding its feet, makes it even more interesting.” It will also give fans a sneak preview of the band’s Glastonbury set – though Sarah teases that their Worthy Farm show may well include a “special Glastonbury surprise.”
She says, it will be a crowd pleasing set: “It will be mostly familiar songs, because we want to keep the crowd happy – but also a couple of unfamiliar ones… and lots of visuals.” Sarah at Common People festival.
Picture by Guy Henstock @guyhenstock She goes on: “We haven’t changed at all. Our set is still a load of songs we’ve done and like playing.”
Their longevity as a creative force, when most of their early 90s contemporaries either keeled over, crashed out, or put their feet up years ago, is impressive. Sarah puts the secret down to one key thing: friendship. This is, above everything, a happy band.
“When we made our first album we certainly didn’t think we’d go on this long,” she says. “But it is also to do with us getting on incredibly well.” As an experienced festival goer, does she have any advice to those making their first foray out to a field for this weekend’s fun? “Just go with it, and don’t worry about cleanliness… or godliness!” she laughs.
“And try to catch all the bands you want to see, so don’t drink too much. I did that once and missed everything. “Don’t worry about wellies, because they kill your ankles, but do bring a raincoat just in case… ideally a nice Sou’wester in bright yellow.”
Stylish! Saint Etienne play Kite at Kirtlington Park on Saturday. The ticket runs until Sunday, June 12.