"Fans have asked me, 'Where’s the album? What are you doing?' I think everyone just thought I was having a pina colada in Ibiza for three years."
Victoria Christina Hesketh, aka UK dance-pop musician Little Boots, is sitting in the lobby of New York's Ace Hotel discussing her unintended absence from music. While the singer has stayed busy touring, ghostwriting, DJing and releasing brilliant mixtapes, it's been four years since her debut album Hands dropped and fans have increasingly wondered about her perceived hiatus.
Hesketh's story is becoming more familiar each year, as the 29-year-old musician split from her label 679/Atlantic Records to release her new album Nocturnes on her own label On Repeat Records. A mix of dark electro-pop, buoyant '70s disco, '80s New Wave and '90s house, Nocturnes eschews the various producers of Hands and features Mo' Wax and DFA Records co-founder Tim Goldsworthy producing nearly every track.
Hesketh spoke candidly about past regrets, misguided record label suggestions and "growing some balls."
The cliché is that you have your whole life to record your debut album and six months to record your sophomore. Yours took four years.
[Laughs] Yeah, mine was the opposite. I had six months to write the first album and three years to write the second album. After the first album, it was a very overwhelming experience and crazy time. The last thing we did was Coachella in 2010, which was ending on this huge high. It was this insane show and I got home, unpacked and was like, "Okay, now go away and write some more songs." I opened my computer at my studio at home and was like, "Oh my God. How the hell do I even get back into this?" I spent the first summer after that writing some terrible songs.
“I’ve got one foot in Hot Chip and one foot in Madonna. If you don’t like that, then bugger off.”
That we’ve never heard?
Yeah, no one should ever hear them. They’re terrible. I started writing with lots of different people all over the world and trying different things and I knew I didn’t want to do exactly what I did before. I wanted to make sure I did something I was super happy with because there were a couple of compromises and mistakes on the first album that, with hindsight, I didn't want to repeat. There was a lot of finding my feet and realizing that wasn’t right and having to come all the way back, so it did take me some time. I wish that I had managed to juggle touring and writing together.
You’re not Lil Wayne with the mobile studio on his tour bus?
I wish I could. I mean, looking back I wish I treated it more like that, but no one told me that the clock’s ticking and you better be writing on the go. Rihanna releases an album every other week and that's crazy.
Do you regret that this album hasn’t come out earlier?
Yeah, and there’s a lot of reasons for that: It took me some time to get my head around everything and figure out what I wanted to do and it was difficult with the label because they wanted me to repeat what I did last time. It was like, "Someone else is doing this type of song, so I should do that." It really just took me a while to get the confidence to stop listening to them.
What was the worst suggestion you got from a label person?
There was one song where the A&R direction was, "This is a really big song and really good, but you need to make it sound like Calvin Harris 'cause Calvin Harris is massive," and then literally a week later, they were like, "Actually, Adele is really big, so can you make it sound like Adele?" I was just like, whoa. You like an EDM ballad. I'm sure if they can make A&R test tube babies, they would get Adele and Calvin Harris aboard and make a horrible hit robot.
You mentioned making compromises on the first record. Can you elaborate on that?
Sonically, I’m pretty happy with the first album and I think I made the best record I could in that time and context. A lot of people love it and say nice things about it and that makes me super happy. My whole thing is that I’ve got one foot in Hot Chip and one foot in Madonna and I used to be stressed like, "I have to be one of these two things" and a lot of journalists found that difficult. And I’ve now really just gotten comfortable with, "Actually, that’s what defines me and if you don’t like that, then bugger off."
So it's easier to be both now?
I can be both and be neither and that's my thing actually, and it’s not that I should feel pressured to be one or the other. On the first record, there's this real lack of consistency and when you listen to the songs next to each other, it doesn’t feel like an artistic vision for a record. It feels like we’re trying to jam all these things together. I was happy with the songwriting, but it didn’t really hold together as a feeling and atmosphere like some of the records I love.
What was so amazing about doing it all with Tim was we sat down with all the songs in one studio and took six weeks and recorded them all with the same synths in the same room with the same vibe. You can feel that in a way that when I listen to a David Bowie album, I can hear that was all recorded in Berlin.
“I’ve given everything away and I don’t want to do that again. Major labels are [screwed] bad and they know it.”
With all the external pressure, did you also feel any internal pressure to create a certain sound before writing Nocturnes?
A lot of this album and the process of it is my internal thing with feeling comfortable in my own skin and the space I occupy and I can be both or neither of those things and not worry about it. I love great new pop artists and so I try and write songs like that. I don’t want to deny that part of me because it’s not cool and doesn’t fit in with this hipster model. Earlier on, I had countless conversations about, "You're going to get stuck in this in-between world if you're not pop enough to be cool and you're not cool enough to be pop." And nowadays, I’m like, "Well I don't give a sh-t. That's someone else's problem."
I’m definitely a lot more confident and I'll listen to my own instincts more. When I started, I was pretty young and naive and didn't know how things worked. It took me a while to get that confidence in myself and grow some balls.
Does that translate to your videos and visual aesthetic as well?
Totally. I wasn't entirely happy with the aesthetic last time. For the videos, I wasn't really a driving, creative force and I wish I had been. So it's amazing now to work really hard with people. It's moving away from the shiny, pop, in-your-face delivery to camera. I’m not Britney Spears and I don’t really want to be and I realize I don’t have to pretend to be now. I’m not going to do this sexy performance to camera of a song that's not about that.
What do you think Tim brings to the album?
It’s kind of a dream that he got what I was about and was up for doing it all, because I was like, "This is someone from cool world" and I’ve got to go into my..
But wait, aren't you in the "cool world" too?
Well, I guess that's going back to the "one foot in each world" thing. I did do [2009's "Remedy"] with [producer] RedOne, but I really wanted to make this cool record with all these added-on synths.
So you thought that he would be King Hipster judging you?
Yeah, exactly. When I met him, I was like, "Wow, Tim Goldsworthy totally gets my pop songs." I recorded two songs with him about a year and a half ago, and I wish I’d just gone, "This sounds awesome. Let’s do the whole record." Instead, I listened to my label, who were always like, "These songs rule, but they’re too weird. They’re not going to get on the radio. They don’t sound like X, Y and Z that’s on the charts, so keep trying." I wish I’d gone, "No, this is right." It wasn’t until I actually split with the label and started to do my own thing that I sat with all these songs and said, "These songs are great, but they need to sound like they’ve got a focus and a direction. What sounds the best? Oh my God, I need to call Tim. Tim, remember those songs that we did a year ago? I wonder if you’re still around and fancy doing some more."
There's a recurring theme of escape and movement on the album. Is that
a result of traveling around the world as a DJ?
Yeah, it’s funny because the first record was quite personal and heartfelt and dreamy and I definitely wanted to make it more universal and general like one of those old house records with deceptively simple lyrics that anyone can sing. I wanted to try and take it out of my own little world and make it bigger than that. The first record was this fantasy, outer space escapism whereas I wanted to make this a more realist escape. It's a nighttime album; it's that time when you finish work and escape into darkness. I tried not to write it to be too personal and when I look back, I could totally see all these things about me leaving my hometown and doing gigs.
What do you make of EDM dominating American music in recent years? Do you feel rooted at all in that scene?
I think it's funny. For a while I was like, "That's the kind of dance music that was popular. And that's how I make dance music because I make dance pop." Unless it sounds like that, it's not going to work. I got really intimidated by writing down songs, because I felt like they had to sound like that. So I wrote a lot of downbeat songs that didn’t really work. I think in some way, the album is a reaction to that, like you can make dance pop records and they don't have to sound like that. The thing that pisses me off is that it's become so derivative now. For every one great song like Sia and David Guetta's "Titanium," there’s 20 horrible, crappy copies that are not good and just have that sound and the radio will play them, go into this vicious cycle and not let anything else come through.
You played flute and harp when you were younger, which aren't exactly "cool kid" instruments. Were you the cool kid in high school?
[Laughs] People love to paint this picture like I was some tortured nerd and that's why I turned to instruments. I spent a lot of my spare time playing instruments and listening to terrible pop and dance music. It wasn't ever uncool to be spending all your break times in the music room. Luckily when I went to college, I met some people who were in bands and actually liked "cool music." I sold my harp for a synthesizer.
That seems like some sort of life metaphor.
[Laughs] That's literally what happened because it was a boy I fancied who was in a proper band and I was like, "Sh-t, I want to be in that. I can't be in that with a normal piano. What can I do?" I was watching a DVD of Yes live and this guy started playing his synth and I didn't even know what a synth was. To me, it was just a piano with more buttons that made loads of cool noises that my piano does not make. I bought a Korg MS2000 and I remember sitting in my mom's room and pressing it like, "I don't know what this does; it's just bizarre."
Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?
I started writing songs when I was 13. I remember having a little book and slipping it down and writing on the piano and I really wanted to play guitar because all the girlie bands I loved like Garbage and No Doubt were more guitar bands. And then I found Tori Amos and it was okay to be a girl on piano. You can still be '90s and angsty. I was very shy about singing for a long time. I love it, but I still don't really consider myself a singer. I'm always first and foremost a musician, like I'm not Florence or Adele; people with these huge voices. I have a tiny voice. I only ever started singing because I needed someone to sing the songs I was writing at the piano and I knew my brothers were too busy fighting and taking the piss out of me.
Going back to the album, were you courted by major labels?
Yeah, but I got burnt and they took all my money and kept all the control.
You know; the big bad major labels, and I’m not whinging about it. They did some great things as well and there are some great people there amongst the others. But ultimately, I can't face going through that again and giving up all that control. I really stopped getting anything out of the relationship and it stopped me releasing this album and it became a war.
Was Nocturnes originally going to be on a major label and then not, or
was the plan always to release it independently?
I went through 679 [Records] in the UK, which is an imprint of Atlantic that basically doesn't exist anymore. They were the buffer between me and Atlantic. It was 679 that signed me, supported me, understood me, and without that buffer, just the idea of that was not going to work. The whole deal was this horrendous 360 nightmare deal; everybody wants cuts of your life, cuts of your merch, cuts of all these other things, which I understand because otherwise it's not going to add up for them. But also I've been through that. Major labels are f-cked bad and they know it. I've given everything away and I don't want to do that again. There is another way.