There’s been no shortage of hype about rising star Little Boots, who had notched up two television appearances on Later with Jools Holland and been declared the next big thing of 2009 before she’d even released a record.
The music industry will try all sorts of ruses to gain a marketing edge: remember Sandi Thom’s 21 Nights in Tooting? The singer’s label claimed they discovered the singer after she broadcast gigs from her basement onto the internet, but cynics saw her immaculate website, considered the massive internet costs that would have been run up by the alleged 70,000 fans listening to her streamed web gigs, and smelt a rat.
Early Last year Little Boots – Victoria Hesketh to her mum – made her own internet broadcasts, only she didn’t have a band or a record label: she posted videos to YouTube of herself playing her keyboard and singing cover versions of pop records in her pyjamas. Discovered by music blogs seeking the next big thing, six months later the 25-year-old had been hailed as the BBC Sound of 2009, released a string of knock-out singles and a top five charting debut album, Hands.
So, Little Boots is busy. When I speak to her it’s through a crackly mobile as she hurries through London to the Japanese embassy to collect a visa for an upcoming visit. In one week, she’s been to Los Angeles, Leeds, Sheffield and Sweden. She’s playing at Bestival next month, played at Field Day and Underage festivals this month, and Glastonbury last month – 33 festivals this summer, all told, despite describing herself as “a bit of an Ebeneezer” and not up for “camping in horrible tents.”
Such a whirlwind 18 months should be enough to go to anyone’s head, not to mention make the cynic flush with outrage. But Victoria, a level-headed Blackpool lass, former teenage Pop Idol contestant, restaurant jazz pianist and veteran of girl-rockers Dead Disco, is taking it all in her small but perfectly-formed stride.
Does she feel her status as queen of the current crop of synthesiser-wielding pop princesses is just deserts for her hard work? No, she says, rather unexpectedly.
“That’s looking at it the wrong way. It’s not like, oh I’ve been working so hard and finally after all these knock-backs I’ve finally made it. I just live for music; it’s what I do. I live and breathe it.
“It just happens that things recently have put me in the public eye and made me popular, I guess. To me, I’m doing what I want – listening to music and playing and performing. It’s what I’ve always been doing.
It is not,” she says emphatically, “some chore that’s paid off.”
Victoria took up piano at five, and “can’t appreciate enough” how classical training has helped her song-writing – “to be able to sit at a piano like it’s a second language.”
“People think I’ve been trying to get famous all my life, but I’m just about writing songs and making music.” She’s glad singing Nina Simone’s Feeling Good for Pop Idol came to nothing, but points out that growing up in Blackpool doesn’t make cracking the London music industry any easier – as a way to meet movers and shakers it’s not a bad idea, if not a route to creativity. “When you sign your name on that contract, you’re trading yourself to the devil, I think. You don’t get to do your own thing, you do it their way.”
“The day I quit my day job because I could do music full time was probably the happiest day of my life.” She laughs. “Actually I liked my day job – but it was amazing to think I could just make music instead.”
Her pre-Little Boots activities show her efforts in channelling this musical talent: from the years fronting nearly-made-it, Leeds-based Dead Disco, or the European touring jazz band, or the punk band that played Blink 182 covers, in addition to decades playing piano and meddling with Moogs.
Hands is a pop album, but it doesn’t sound like what we’ve come to expect. There is a slight feel of the home-made – it doesn’t bear the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from pop-record-by-committee; gone are the R&B clichéd drum patterns, nowhere to be seen are the rubbery, eurocheese synthesizers of the worst kind of commercial pop music, thankfully absent are laboured lyrics – and videos – laced with sexual innuendo. In fact part of its appeal lies in its lack of perfectly processed, over-production. It sounds like one woman on a mission to empty her head of ideas that had been fit to burst out for lack of an outlet.
So Little Boots is not a pretty face backed by a production wizard, as is so often the case – Victoria stands in as both. “It’s this age-old distinction of singer with the pretty face and no brain and behind it all is the man pulling the strings, playing with the wires,” she groans. “It’s so silly. I’ve been playing with synths for years.”
“As a teenager I was writing songs but the thought of playing them to anyone was like standing naked in front of a room of people,” she says, “I just couldn’t do it.
“When I joined Dead Disco it was the first time I was writing and playing my own ideas. I began to think, I’ve done as well as I ever have with my music, so maybe I’m not that bad at it. You start having faith, believing it could go somewhere.”
Recording began last year with help from Joe Goddard of Hot Chip and shared by Greg Kurstin, who produced Dead Disco’s final single and also worked with Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Lilley Allen. The promise of the early singles has led not only to giving up the day job, but also the chance to work with musical heroes: Symmetry, a track underpinned by a catchy, pulsing, reversed synth bassline, is a duet with Phil Oakey of the Human League. “I’m such a huge fan,” she says. “We were all quite nervous before we met him, as we’d not been able to record it live in the studio together and he’d not heard the final track. He’s a great guy and his voice is still really impressive after all this time.”
Victoria borrows from but transcends such 1980s-centric nostalgia that currently seems inescapable. While contemporaries like La Roux seem intent on recreating that 80s sound right down to the harsh, low-tech synthesized sounds, though Little Boots wears Gary Newman and Human League proudly on her sleeve, you can also hear Georgio Moroder’s analogue disco, the futuristic, spacey, spartan feel of 1980s Italo disco and electropop, and the polished dance sounds of 1990s Kylie and Madonna.
The relentless hook of Stuck on Repeat, the first of her tracks to emerge, recalls Kylie’s Can’t Get You Out Of My Head or its great-grandmother, Donna Summer. But Meddle is a moody, percussive, bass-heavy monster with a skittering beat that is miles away from other more luxuriant pop tracks like Earthquake or Remedy.
When she performed Meddle on Jools Holland, it was with a piano, stylophone and Tenori-on, a new Japanese portable sequencer described as a “musical etch-a-sketch” that Victoria has become a cheerleader for.
“That was wicked,” she recalls. “The first time on that show I was scared shitless. At the time I thought it was okay, but looking back it was pretty risky – I was playing three instruments at the same time on my own, and all around me were these big bands. I’d never done it before so I thought I’d just give it a go.
It’s the tenori-on’s physicality and immediateness that appeals: “It’s very important for electronic music to be live music. For me, electronic music should be just as exciting live as anything else, I just want to demonstrate the physical act of music making.
“It doesn’t have to be two guys sitting behind a laptop or a singer with a backing track. You make it the studio, not on a computer, so it’s just about finding a way to do that in a bigger and more visual way so you can connect the images your seeing to the sounds.”
And in terms of visuals, her stage show ideas border on the epic. A plan to build a giant Tenori-on that mimics the one she plays was shelved due to cost. Instead the stage show has included a fake owl, a fibreglass wolf with glowing eyes and she’s building a laser-harp, beloved of synthesiser guru and showman Jean Michel Jarre, of whom she’s a big fan.
“He’s one of these people whose shows sell out whenever he plays, but it costs so much to tour he doesn’t do it often. I want to be a bit more practical – take the drama and visuality of it into a popular format with songs that hopefully more people can relate to.”
So after all the hype and expectation, is the exceptionally grounded Victoria still driving the Little Boots machine?
“Definitely, more so than ever,” she says. “I think I lost a bit of control around the album launch, it just got so silly with the amount of press and everything. But everything I do musically is very much mine.”
Keep following; there’s plenty more to come to fill these boots.
Little Boots’ album, Hands (Sixsevenine), is out now.
[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, June 2009]