A few months ago Victoria Hesketh was bashing out tunes in her folks' garage, now her relatives are being doorstepped because she has been hailed the saviour of pop, finds Aidan Smith...
HOXTON, London at 10am on a Saturday is a depressing place to be. Everything is shut, and the broken glass and odd stiletto littering the pavements suggests a fab party has been missed, although in truth this was a tragically hip neighbourhood six long years ago, on the strict proviso you were sporting a Hoxton Fin. Hang on, did I say depressing? I meant exciting. Any minute now I'm going to be meeting The Future.
Little Boots, real name Victoria Hesketh, 25, is the Future of Pop. That's what they're calling her, the taste-makers and cool-hunters who've decided that girls are the new boys, that synthesisers are the new guitars. Lady GaGa, Florence & the Machine and La Roux were all prominent in the BBC's annual roll-call of the shiniest new talent but Little Boots was voted the Sound of 2009. This morning she's been doing yet another photo-shoot, for women's mag In Style, in a boutique opened early for her, J-Lo-style, and here she comes in her little boots, stepping over the lost shoes, a tiny blonde figure in a firmly belted mac, head down, stern face, as she enters the cafe.
"It's nonsense," she sighs, when I ask about all the hype. "The other day my friend said to me: 'Are you saving pop? Are you actually the Barrack Obama of the synth?' I had to laugh at that." Hesketh isn't laughing, though, and during an interview cut short by repeated phone calls from her boyfriend, she will reveal many of the unique stresses of being a pop act with more glowing write-ups than she's played gigs, and more front covers than she's released records (to date: one EP).
"I'm recording my album in LA and the label have put me up in this hotel, the Roosevelt, which hosted the first Oscars and is supposed to be haunted by Marilyn Monroe. I've got a vivid imagination so obviously I've seen her ghost," she says. "But I was having nightmares and sleep trouble anyway. Writing songs out there has been really tough, compared with before." Hesketh is talking about those blissful days, not that long ago, in her parents' draughty garage in Blackpool when she bashed out choons intended for Kylie. "I didn't think the pressure would get to me but it has."
Remarkably, the new tracks she's managed to complete include one called 'Catch 22' about media intrusion. Fidgeting with her phone, she explains: "I've had a lot of press, which for a new artist is great, but my grandparents have been doorstepped by journalists and that was a bit disturbing. I've got to presume they were looking for dirt because some old school friends have been asked for stories about me. There's no story, really. The worst thing I ever did was get purple hair. I've never even smoked. If you want to ask me about music I'll tell you everything because that's my one true obsession."
We've got a bit ahead of ourselves. This must be the first song penned about fame's downside, from the perspective of someone who has not appeared in Heat, never mind its sister publication Lukewarm. Before Hesketh's career gets any more back to front, before she enters rehab in advance of a cocaine-induced breakdown, she should at least be allowed to tell us how she got here. It's an interesting story…
She was born in Blackpool, a big sister to three brothers, the daughter of a car dealer. Hesketh quickly changes this to businessman, and prefers not to elaborate on the children's books her mother has written, but since her family have already been buffeted by the Little Boots stampede, her reticence is understandable. Anyway, the most important event in her young life, aged five, was when an uncle found a beat-up piano in a pub.
"My mum never had to tell me to practise, I was always playing. Always plonking away, and always reading books. I remember a family outing to a theme park and I read all that day too – my mum went mental. I read lots of fantasy, Lord Of The Rings, those cash-in Stars Wars books – I was pretty nerdy. At school I was always writing essays and getting distinctions." (At this point, her voice goes gurgly-mechanical, like ET.) "I was little, with frizzy hair. All the cool girls smoked and got off with rugby boys. So that's why this idea of me being the coolest person just now is just such a joke."
Endearingly, Hesketh has no interest in being a trendy artist, only a popular one. Tutorials in popular culture at uni taught her that the masses weren't dull and unthinking; they could be challenged. "So I try to write pop songs that have a dark side. It's the spoonful-of-sugar idea." Her idols in this realm are David Bowie and Kate Bush – "massive artists but bloody weird".
Maybe Blackpool – a seaside resort with a seamy side, an ice-cream cone with baby crab in it – influences her here; it certainly fires that over-active imagination for spectacular live shows should she really make it big. "I want lasers and loads of lights and a choir and volcanos and I want to arrive on stage on a horse. Yeah, that probably comes from a childhood spent in fairgrounds, ice shows, tons of glitter, loads of feathers, men dressed as toast, women dangling by the hair over crocodile pits." But if you think this also sounds very prog-rock then remember that Blackpool has connections with Jethro Tull, the Nolans too, so maybe Little Boots is somewhere in the middle, on horseback, because "in a depression we all need spectacle".
Right now, though, the act is Hesketh and some keyboards. During an eye-catching performance on Later… with Jools Holland she played her best song 'Meddle' on piano and, sitting on top, a flashing box called a Tenori-On to trigger samples and one of Rolf Harris' old stylophones. She loves synths for their "unearthliness" and again her voice returns to ET mode. Still, composer confidence hasn't come easy. "I was 21 before I showed anyone stuff I'd written – it was like getting naked." There's a YouTube channel of bedroom cover versions, performed in her "jammys".
The apprenticeship relying on other people's songs has been a rickety rollercoaster involving prog on a harp, brass band tours, wedding reception jazz, indie rock, some malarkey dressed as a Blues Brother, in Belgium, and pasta-joint requests where it was "Katie bloody Melua over and over again". She says it's been a "journey", which is the term favoured by reality-show wannabes, and Hesketh did try her luck on Pop Idol as well – "but they wanted crying and laughing and drama and dirt and I was too young, too nervous".
Today she's been too nervous and, after yet another call from her boyfriend, she's gone. But, just when I'm thinking that a media feeding-frenzy over a pop singer boasting three songs, however kookily talented, does no one any favours, I get the chance to speak to her again and I'd glad because, down the phone from LA, she sounds much happier.
The Little Boots "project", as she calls it, is going well and the anti-songwriting ghosts have vanished. "I've written four new tracks this week, including one about how everyone seems to be on drugs except me." Does she feel in control of her career, her life? "Yes. I make all the decisions. If artwork comes back blue instead of red, it gets changed. I've got this fantastic opportunity and I don't want to waste anything." She talks, with enthusiasm, about her work with Youth Music, the kids' charity, and then she talks about synths – in her ET voice. "The other night, playing a gig here, the Tenori-On didn't work. If that had happened during the mood I was in when we met, I would have freaked. But I wasn't going to let it beat me. There's a lovely little community among synth-geeks, you know. Website forums like Synthtopia are great. One time I had a problem with my Moog so I put out an SOS, save our synths ha ha: 'Can anyone help me with my oscillator? It's making a strange sine-wave on the C and E of the second octave.'
"Straight away a reply came back from a guy in Colorado. He couldn't help, but he knew a guy in Berlin who possibly could. Then from somewhere else came 'Damsel in distress!' I reckon I was being passed round the world by a bunch of guys who'd never spoken to a girl before."
A pin-up for knob-twiddlers everywhere, Hesketh has been invited to guest on her favourite webcam chat show devoted to synths. "In my world," she laughs, "I've already made it!" v
Little Boots plays Cabaret Voltaire, Edinburgh, February 26, 8pm; Mad Hatters, Inverness, February 27, 8pm; Moshulu, Aberdeen, February 28, 8pm; The Sub Club, Glasgow; March 1 www.myspace.com/littlebootsmusic