Sometimes when I watch music biopics or go to a gig, I get a big pang of nostalgia right in my stomach. I sometimes feel like a crucial part of me is missing, and that part is being a musician in a band.
My day job now does involve music, of course; but it’s not the same as the buzz of getting up on stage, the satisfaction of a really creative studio session, or the wonder of setting up for a live session in Radio 1’s Maida Vale. Back in the heady peak of indie music around 2007-2008, I was in a band that enjoyed minor indie success… and one of the last things we did was play at Glastonbury. I used to be cool once!
How It Started
I was studying Popular Music at The University of Liverpool at the time (no, it’s not a degree in Britney Spears or a Mickey Mouse course as people used to tease – it’s exactly the same as any other music degree except the course content is music post-1940 rather than classical!). I loved studying music and the vibe around campus; my university buildings were huge Georgian houses with pianos in the basements where we would all gather to jam and write songs. I was a proper little indie kid back then… all vintage dresses, eyeliner, vinyl records and basement gigs. My friend told me that someone had asked him if he knew any female musicians that could sing and play piano/keyboard to be part of a trio, in a sort of boy/girl Yeah Yeah Yeahs/Mates of State/She & Him/White Stripes kind of dynamic. I jumped at the chance, met the other two lads (Andy and Owen), and our band was born. When trying to think of a name, we were all sat in my uni bedroom which was plastered with posters and paraphernalia from Paris, and Andy asked me to think up a nice French phrase that would sound good and look good written down. So our band Elle s’appelle was born.
The whole thing happened in what was almost a blur. We squirrelled ourselves away in dank practice rooms in Liverpool city centre and perfected our craft. From the start, Andy (bassist) wrote the songs and gave Owen (drummer) and I our parts, which we would diligently learn. Andy and I sang, and I played a microKORG synth and a really cool organ that we plugged into a guitar amp with a distortion pedal so it sounded really gritty like a distorted electric guitar. We started practicing in January 2007, and were ready to play our first gig by the summer.
We all had a lot of musical friends already in the city, and Liverpool was fast becoming a really buzzy place for indie music, so it wasn’t hard to get our first gig. And it was only after one gig at the Barfly that a local band that were signed to Moshi Moshi records told us that Moshi Moshi were interested!
We continued to play locally, and quickly our small town gig reviews and our rapidly growing Myspace was noticed by industry professionals (remember Myspace? Seriously though… it was how bands got anywhere back in the day!). The gig requests started to come from further afield, and soon we were spending the end of every gig talking to industry professionals that wanted to work with us. We recorded songs in Andy’s mum’s house and put them on our Myspace… little did we know that one of them would end up getting released!
It happened so quickly! I remember those late Summer/early Autumn months being full of meetings and coffees with A&R representatives from labels, prospective managers and lawyers that all wanted to work with us. It was mind bending and like being whipped up in a hurricane; none of us had done this before and we didn’t have a clue what to say yes to. We quickly appointed a manager, who then sourced us a booking agent to make sure we got paid for and fed at gigs, a press agent who got us on the radio and TV, and a lawyer for negotiating contracts and PRS stuff (the usage of your music on TV/adverts/radio and getting paid for it – a clip of our song was used on Keeping Up With the Kardashians once!). Our music lawyer was Ben Mawson, who was then a bright eyed and bushy tailed brand new laywer… he now manages Dua Lipa and Lana Del Rey. Suddenly we had a bank account and staff, and then… a record label.
We signed a singles release deal with Moshi Moshi Records, who were responsible for a lot of the top indie releases of the time. They had artists like Kate Nash, Bloc Party, Florence & The Machine, Friendly Fires, Hot Chip, Tom Vek and Slow Club on their books. We agreed to do a limited single run of our song Little Flame on vinyl. It sold out within two hours of being released! It’s still available on iTunes though, and it was on Spotify for a bit but seems to have disappeared.
During this time, I was entering my final year at university. Everybody else was starting their dissertations, whilst I was barely able to attend lectures as I was constantly either on tour or up and down to London for meetings and press. Pressure was put on me to leave my degree or defer a year, but I defiantly refused. I didn’t know how long this would last, whether it would turn into anything proper… and I wasn’t prepared to give up 2 years of working hard and student loans. Given the degree that I was doing and the end goal to be part of the music industry, my lecturers were super supportive of it and would send me the lecture notes to read whilst I was away. This was a time before wifi; it was only juuust becoming a thing, and my laptop didn’t have it… so it was actually really hard to keep up. I was completely unable to start my dissertation because I couldn’t get anywhere near the library to get the texts I needed… and my amazing dissertation supervisor suggested I changed the focus to something I could write about on tour and get lots of anecdotal evidence for rather than a heavy focus on literary texts. So, I wrote my dissertation on the effect of the internet on independent music, and I collected interviews and soundbites from people like the radio DJ Steve Lamacq and the head A&R guys at our label. It was totally surreal… but I managed to pull it off and got a 2:1 overall (I narrowly missed a 1st!).
Then We Got a Bit Famous
(when I say famous, I don’t mean properly famous – I mean indie famous. If you were into indie music around this time you probably know who we were, but if you weren’t you wouldn’t have had the foggiest!)
Autumn 2007 was absolutely crazy. We were constantly touring up and down the country, and I was doing all the driving in my dad’s Skoda Fabia (I still can’t believe my Dad let us use the car for all of that… what a hero!). We spent weeks on the road with the car full to the brim with instruments, and we played everywhere from Exeter to Aberdeen and a million places in between. We started to play better gigs and headlining better venues, with proper dressing rooms (I got so many verrucas from having to get changed in gig venue toilets, bleugh!). We started to get proper riders with food, drinks and whatever else we wanted on them. I had just started to suffer with anxiety and panic attacks the year before this, so this was really tough for me. I spent a lot of time having panic attacks in service stations and listening to hypnotherapy tapes in dressing rooms.
But, it would fade away once I got up on that stage. I lived and breathed that buzz, the electricity in the atmosphere of the crowd cheering and singing along… the way I’d get totally lost in the music and thrash about on stage, my red choppy haircut all across my face and trusting that my fingers knew exactly what to do. I barely made mistakes when I was in the moment. If we were headlining or quite high up the bill, I would watch the other acts from the wings with a warm gin in hand, desperately and excitedly wishing away the minutes until it was our turn.
Getting in and through the venues was sometimes tricky because of a healthy dose of everyday sexism; promoters who had actually booked us would sometimes say “sorry love, girlfriends need to wait outside” or “yeah the merch stand can go over there thanks”! I remember during sound checks I would be really specific about exactly what I wanted in my monitors in terms of reverb and panning and top end and lots of other fancy ways things can sound, and sound guys would be like “sorry love, do you want it LOUDER or QUIETER?” *facepalm*
We filmed a stop motion animation video for our single in a dilapidated, freezing cold and somewhat terrifying warehouse down on Liverpool’s docks. I used to see our video on MTV2, and it was quite often projected on to the huge escalator walls of Topshop back when they used to play music videos in store.
And then came the press. Suddenly my mum and dad were amassing a folder full of printouts from really big publications. We were in the NME, Q magazine and Artrock magazine countless times (I have all of the issues upstairs) and we were reviewed by all the big sites… Drowned in Sound, The Times, The Independent, The Telegraph, and The Guardian even gave us Single Of The Week and rated our single as being better than the new Spice Girls single! Funnily enough, a lot of this is physical copies that I can’t link you to as it was before the domination of the internet when people still bought newspapers and magazines.
We did countless radio appearances including a Radio 1 session with Huw Stevens at Maida Vale, an interview with Steve Lamacq and a session with Marc Riley on BBC 6 Music, sessions on XFM and countless local radio appearances. We even did a couple of performances for cable TV shows… the one we did in a studio was like nothing else I’ve ever done. I was used to performing to crowds and feeling the buzz from the audience, but performing to cameras in a silent studio with absolutely no atmosphere or reverb was completely weird!
Rubbing Shoulders With Minor Celebs
When people ask me what my favourite stories are of being in the band, one of them is most definitely when we played with Supergrass. We didn’t know it was them as it was just Danny and Gaz playing under a pseudonym (The Diamond Hoo Haa Men) and were really shocked when we got to the venue. The venue basically had one huge dressing room and one tiny one (we were obviously in the tiny one), and Gaz and Danny were absolutely brilliant – they invited us to chill with them in their huge dressing room and shared their amazing rider with us (champagne and strawberries was a lot more appetising than our lager and cheese sandwiches). I somehow ended up sitting on Danny’s knee and putting my red Chanel lipstick on him… which I do have a photo of somewhere but I can’t find! It’s up there with the top surreal moments of my life.
Another was when we played quite a big gig at what was the Carling Academy in Liverpool (I think it’s the O2 now?) with The Last Shadow Puppets. Miles Kane was just starting to hang out with Alex Turner from The Arctic Monkeys and they were in conversation about starting The Last Shadow Puppets. I remember I was walking around backstage and bumped into Miles, who introduced me to his friend Alex. I shook Alex’ hand and said hi, and he complimented us on our set. We had a little chat and he asked me how long we’d been going for, what our influences were and told us how much he liked our band. I thanked him again and then made my excuses because I had to go and pack down my gear. I remember going outside for some fresh of air when a gaggle of girls all came screaming towards me waving pads and pens, asking “IS ALEX TURNER IN THERE? CAN YOU ASK HIM TO COME OUT?” I honest to God didn’t know who Alex Turner was (weirdly being in a band and away so much, with no internet, meant I was a bit out of touch with mainstream music) and told them I didn’t know.
I only realised months later that the Alex I’d been chatting to was only Alex bloody Turner!
I was courted by Topshop for a potential sponsorship, which for a Topshop addict like me was a DREAM! I ended up DJing at some of their student nights; I’d take along my boxes of vinyl and roughly mix songs together but somehow passed it off as DJing, haha! The sponsorship never materialised, but we were featured in stores as I said before and given a couple of bits of clothing for free. That was enough for me!
We continued to tour, and did a complete 2 week headline tour with our friends band goFASTER.
At this point, the pressure was on to find a proper record deal. Tensions started to arise between us for many reasons that I won’t go into here. My university degree was nearing an end, and I had all of my final assignments to write. I asked for 3 weeks off to get it done, and then I could fully focus on the band once it was all handed in… and management took a lot of persuading as a lot of them wanted me to quit. I won, and I spend 3 weeks holed up in my bedroom at my parents’ house writing, writing and writing.
We Played Glastonbury 2008
And then, it was the summer. In a musician’s calendar, the Autumn is for single and album releases and tours, and the Summer is for festivals. Bookings started to roll in for festivals including Latitude, and then… Glastonbury.
We could NOT believe it! We were going to play the country’s BIGGEST music festival!
Playing Glastonbury is probably a whole other blog post within itself, but to sum up… it was like nothing else I have ever done before. I remember one of my lecturers who had played Glasto in the 80s said to me “you will never ever forget the moment you put one foot in front of the other on that huge stage” and he was right. We played as part of a showcase of Liverpool’s burgeoning music scene with The Rascals (Miles Kane of Last Shadow Puppets and of, well, Miles Kane was the frontman) and a few other bands. I never ever got nervous before gigs, but before Glastonbury my knees were actually knocking together! It was unreal, playing to a tent of thousands of people. We camped backstage with free food in catering tents, plumbed in toilets and plumbed in hot showers, and TOILET ROLL! It was amazing. Only one photo of us playing exists, and in a strange and brilliant twist of events it was taken by the group of people that my husband Michael was there with (we didn’t even know each other at this point)
The Beginning of the End
Glastonbury was pretty much the last thing we did as a band.
We still had other festivals lined up, including Latitude, but I just couldn’t face it. I had been doing all the driving, and sometimes we would drive to and from London in a day. My anxiety was becoming pretty unmanageable. When you’re at this point in your career as a band, it’s far from glamourous. We would mostly drive to and from a venue hours away to save money, and if we did need to stay over we would all pile into one room at a Travelodge. It was tough being the only girl on the road, and I struggled with panic attacks whilst driving (I’m still not amazing with motorway driving now after it all). Added to this was the uncertainty over our future. The buzz around us had started to die down, and we watched as bands who had supported us in their infancy were going on to mainstream success. I moved back in with my parents after uni and was so lucky that they were able to support me financially, but it wasn’t that easy for Owen who was miles and miles away from home and trying (and failing) to pay rent on a flat. All payment for gigs, merch (we had T shirts and tote bags) and PRS (when our song was used on TV programmes or played on radio) went on petrol, hotel rooms and food.
Owen and I found out that we had been offered some pretty big record deals from major labels, but they had been rejected without us being consulted on the premise that. they would be ‘selling out’. That was the final straw for us, absolutely skint, anxious and exhausted… I made the call that I wanted to pull a couple of the festivals that we had lined up. I still wanted to keep Latitude but our booking agent said it was all or none, so that was it. We pulled the rest of the festivals after Glastonbury, and the band was no more.
And that, as they say, was that. It feels like a completely different life and a different world to me now, like it happened to someone else. It’s so massively far removed from the life I lead now. It was in equal parts amazing and challenging. A part of me does ache from time to time remembering how fulfilled I felt when I was on stage or in the studio; the creative part of my brain was always firing away and suddenly nothing else mattered. And I was cool; people used to ask me for autographs and photos! In reality, Owen and I had absolutely no creative control over what we were doing because Andy controlled everything; from the parts we played to what we said in interviews (me especially – I was told a few times bu industry bods that I was far too chatty and it made me seem unsexy, I was an ‘indie boy’s wet dream’ until I opened my mouth – true story). It was really stressful not being able to control anything or feeling like the finished product was ‘mine’. So later on I formed a band called The Winter Falls with my friends that had been in goFASTER, where I got to write loads of parts of each song including lyrics, my own piano parts and I had a say in how it was all structured. That all faded away when careers, mortgages and marriage started to appear in our lives, but it was fun all the same.
One of the weirdest things about it was that most of us have that out of this world ambition. To win the lottery, to be a Hollywood actor, to be a rockstar. My life’s dream was to be a musician, to play gigs and festivals and be on the radio and be in photoshoots… and I achieved that. I did it when I was 20, and it was all over by the time I was 21. Afterwards, I felt completely lost. What the hell was I supposed to do with my life now that my dream had been achieved? We never got super famous of course, but I honestly don’t think I could have hacked it. What we did was enough for me. I flitted around various admin jobs in the arts that I sort of fell into, and I’d say it took me a good few years to find out who I was without being Lucy from Elle s’appelle.
I have an amazing memory box under the spare bed full of all the magazines we were in, my AAA passes from venues and a lot of BBC artist passes. At least they’ll be cool to show the grandkids!
Gold medal for you if you got all the way through this!