By Jena Ardell
By Brian McManus
By Chaz Kangas
By Sound of the City
By Peter Gerstenzang
By Katherine Turman
By Chris Kornelis
By Brian McManus
Good news for Stateside fans of English electro-pop: An American edition of Hands, singer-synthmeister Victoria Hesketh's outstanding 2009 debut as Little Boots, is out next week, and, to mark the occasion, Hesketh and her four-piece live band are launching a North American tour.
Bad news for Little Boots fans: Hesketh lands on our shores without her laser harp. "Apparently, you've got to have a certified laser operator to travel with it," she laments over the phone from the gym, on break from a workout she sounds none too eager to return to. "It's a little bit gutting."
Indeed. For the past two years, Hesketh has been posting videos online, mostly depicting the artist doing stripped-down covers of songs by the likes of Cyndi Lauper and Kid Cudi in her bedroom at her parents' house in Blackpool; in one of the most popular clips, she sings Hot Chip's "Ready for the Floor" while accompanying herself on the Tenori-On, a nifty Japanese instrument best described as a kind of musical Lite-Brite. The performances are assured but unassuming, Hesketh's natural vocal ability contrasting nicely with her fresh-from-a-nap attire. Think Diva Taking Five, not Desperate Showbiz Hopeful.
But my favorite Little Boots video follows Hesketh as she determinedly goes about assembling a harp that utilizes lasers where the strings usually go. The device isn't her invention—cheeseball French futurist Jean Michel Jarre, for one, has been playing a laser harp for years. But Hesketh's unabashed enthusiasm for it reflects the way she merges pop-star spectacle with gearhead technology, the same synthesis that differentiates Little Boots from the rest of the increasingly crowded indie-disco pack—think Annie, La Roux, Ladyhawke, etc.
"People really struggle with the idea of, 'Oh, this girl is playing synths, but she's also onstage in a glittery dress with blonde hair dancing around,' " Hesketh says. "But why must the two things be separated? Why must you be either the bimbo or the button-pusher? They're not contradictory impulses—there's no need to resolve them. I find that such an old-fashioned notion. Just because I like being a nerd doesn't mean I can't dress up."
True to her word, Hesketh promises to unveil a great many costumes at the Highline, along with an "amazing" light show and arrangements she describes as "99 percent live." (Says drummer Ben Chetwood: "It's always been important to us from the beginning to make sure we're playing as much as we can.") Another significant feature of the Little Boots package: songs, the best of which rival the lower-wattage work of such A-list stars as Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, and Britney Spears. "I don't have a lot of money, but we'll be fine," she sings in opener "New in Town," "I don't have a penny, but I'll show you a real good time." And so she does, rolling out a series of shiny uptempo gems that frame expertly designed melodies with loads of ear-candy detail.
Hesketh began crafting the material on Hands—much of which shades the night-out abandon with just a trace of morning-after melancholy—when her so-so synth-rock group, Dead Disco, disintegrated following a stint recording with producer Greg Kurstin in Los Angeles. "It was a tough time for her," says Kurstin, who has also worked with Minogue and Lily Allen, among others, and plays in L.A.'s the Bird and the Bee. "But Victoria's such a strong songwriter that I really encouraged her to continue writing after the band split."
The pep talks were effective: "I'm not sure I'd be doing this if it weren't for Greg," Hesketh admits. "When you've been in a band your whole life and then you're not, you kind of start questioning your ability to do a solo thing. His encouragement was huge."
The singer's YouTube output serves as a sort of public record of her artistic development; you can watch her figuring out what kind of music she wants to make. "I just started doing them for fun," Hesketh says of the videos, some of which have been viewed over half a million times. "Now, everybody makes a big deal out of it, but there wasn't any big motivation. I think people liked them because they look genuine. They don't look like digital marketing." She laughs. "It was basically the product of someone with far too much free time."
Eventually, Little Boots went pro: In addition to several tracks produced by Kurstin, Hands contains collaborations with Joe Goddard of Hot Chip, Spice Girls sideman Richard Stannard, and, on "Remedy," current Top 40 habitué RedOne, best known for his stuff on Gaga's The Fame. (Hesketh also shares a duet, "Symmetry," with Human League frontman Philip Oakey—the result, perhaps, of her tender YouTube rendition of "Don't You Want Me.") Of the RedOne hook-up, Hesketh says the experience was strangely liberating: "I just wanted to do a fun dance song and didn't want to have to pour my heart out. We spent a half-day together."
For the next Little Boots album, she reckons she's less likely to recruit brand-name producers associated with a certain sound. "I'm obviously in the early days of thinking about it," she says, "but after this sort of escapist, head-in-the-clouds record, I think I wanna make something more honest and personal." And there's always the laser harp, right? "We'll see!" says Hesketh. "Who knows what will happen?"
Little Boots plays Highline Ballroom March 2