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Sarah Cracknell, Saint Etienne and Home Counties

Sarah Cracknell is all too aware of the perils of small town life. Having grown up in Berkshire and now living in Oxfordshire, Saint Etienne's smooth-voiced chanteuse for more than a quarter of a century is used to everyone knowing each other's business. Playing last month's Common People Festival in Oxford, she was prepared for the worst.

“It will be excruciating for me,” she says a few days before the show. “There'll probably be loads of people there who I know from my kids school or the doctor's waiting room. Everyone knows everyone else.”

Some of this spirit has undoubtedly crept into Home Counties, the ninth album by Saint Etienne's core trio of Cracknell, Bob Stanley and Pete Wiggs, who will appear at the Queen's Hall in Edinburgh tonight leading an expanded eight-piece line-up of the band.

There has always been a sense of place to Saint Etienne's work. This has seen them move from an imagined swinging London that bridged the1960s with its 1990s flipside, to unashamedly cheesy Eurobeat. The band's seventh album, 2005's Tales of Turnpike House, was a conceptual opus set among the residents of a London high-rise. The cover of their most recent record, 2012's Words and Music by Saint Etienne, featured a map of a city made up entirely of song-titles, so Tobacco Road turns into Devil Gate Drive, which leads to Yellow Brick Road, and so on.

All of this has been delivered with a pop-literate knowingness and magpie-like musical sensibility. Over the years this has seen them work with a diverse array of collaborators, ranging from producer and mash-up auteur Richard X to Cliff Richard's vocal arranger Tony Rivers

Even so, it's perhaps a surprise to hear Saint Etienne returning to the sorts of places they grew up in on Home Counties. These were worlds of new town suburbs and green pastures, where the cliches of warm beer and the smack of cork on willow on the cricket pitch at the local green were born.

All three members of Saint Etienne now live outside the London that arguably made them. This meant that for the full six weeks it took to record the album they had to commute into town.

“It's having kids what did it,” says Cracknell of her move to just outside Oxford, where she now lives with her husband Martin Kelly, Saint Etienne's manager and co-producer with his brother Paul Kelly and Bob Stanley of feature-length documentary films. These have included impressionistic love letter to London, Finisteere. Again, this seems a long way away now. “Where I live is even more rural than where I grew up. They've cut all the buses, and one of my eldest's friends is a farmer's son. He's fifteen, and he says he was forced to drive a tractor to school.”

Cracknell's immediate surroundings – tractors not-withstanding - have been immortalised in Dive, one of the songs which appears on Home Counties.

“It's about driving down the M40 out of London to Oxfordshire, and suddenly you see all this green countryside that's there,”she says.

The song proved to be the starting point for the suite of songs that became the album.

“It triggered a bit of a theme,” says Cracknell. “Bob was looking at a book, probably something he bought at a charity shop, and started looking into where and when the phrase home counties comes from.”

With the album featuring titles such as Church Pew Furniture Restorer, Underneath the Apple Tree and the wonderful Train Drivers in Eyeliner, other songs conjure up a world of contradictions and secrets that bubble beneath its leafy facade. In a very Saint Etienne piece of pop fantasy, Whyteleafe imagines what would have happened if David Bowie had remained Davis Jones, stuck forever in a desk job in Bromley.

Following an opening blast from Radio 4's The Reunion, Something New tells the story of a teenage girl creeping through the front door after staying out all night. This may or may not reflect Cracknell's own mis-spent youth, but, as with Stanley and Wiggs, she got away.

“I couldn't wait to get out,” she says. “It was really boring growing up there, and there was nothing to do, but I was friends with a group of really cultured people. We used to sit around talking about records and films and DJs, and out of that boredom came a real spirit of creativity. A lot of those people have gone on to become fashion-designers, artists or film-makers.”

Cracknell's evocation of a small town gang mentality sounds like the sort of scene captured in Mario's Cafe, the opening track of Saint Etienne's 1993 So Tough album, which saw them crossover into the charts with the Tornados referencing You're in a Bad Way. It also sums up generations of bored teenagers who dreamed of escaping their sleepy towns and villages, using pop culture as a lifeline before running away to what they imagine to be an eternally glamorous London life-style. While Saint Etienne's series of mini musical plays for today perpetuated such a swinging mythology, it hasn't always been reflected in reality.

“You have to be careful about the places you mention in songs,” says Cracknell. “Someone said they moved to Archway because of our song Archway People, and it was just awful and they had to get out.”

With London in the midst of being gentrified so that the sorts of places Saint Etienne have romanticised now no longer recognisable, perhaps this too has been a factor in the band's ever broadening horizons.

“I said to Bob that when the kids have left school we're going to have to go on a road trip around all the places we've mentioned in our songs,” says Cracknell.

Given how busy all three members of Saint Etienne have been during the five years between albums, it's unlikely they'll find the time. While Cracknell released her solo album, Red Kite, in 2015, Stanley penned Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Story of Pop Music from Bill Haley to Beyonce. Wiggs, meanwhile, has embarked on an online master's degree in orchestration and composition.

“Get him!,” says Cracknell.

This is a long way from the band's early days, when Stanley and Wiggs were playing Edinburgh indie-dance club Floral Riot before releasing their first two, pre-Cracknell singles. These were a dubby take on Neil Young's Only Break Your Heart, followed by a similarly dreamy version of Kiss and Make Up by The Field Mice. Cracknell's arrival gave the band a stylish sheen, and before long they were appearing in pre Brit-pop magazine spreads with the likes of Pulp, The Auteurs and Suede.

With a revival of sorts of the era currently ongoing, Cracknell recently appeared on BBC 6Music's Round Table show hosted by archetypal 1990s radio voice, Steve Lamacq. Also on the programme was Bluetones singer Mark Morris.

“We were talking,” says Cracknell, “and he was just about to go off and do some big 1990s thing, and I think he was probably making an absolute packet, but apart from a brief moment of financial jealousy I don't think I'd want that. I hate nostalgia. It sounds like you're looking back and not forwards.”

With this in mind, after Home Counties, what might be next for Saint Etienne? Might they take the next logical step in their ongoing travelogue and become ex-pats, spending their dotage in sunny Spain?

“You never know,” says Cracknell. “We've recorded in Berlin and Sweden, so it would be nice to go somewhere a little warmer.”

Saint Etienne, Queen's Hall, Edinburgh, tonight. Home Counties is available now on Heavenly Records.
www.thequeenshall.net
www.sainetienne.com

 
The Herald, June 9th 2017

ends

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