She’s just launched a campaign to reissue ‘Hands,’ her 2009 debut. Here, the self-made pop icon reflects on the DIY spirit that’s motivated her career and her bond with her fans.
With a decade’s worth of pop hits and her synth-nerd sensibilities, Victoria Hesketh, aka Little Boots, has carved out her very own niche in music.
She’s come a long way from writing her first songs in her mother’s garage in Blackpool, England. Following a stint with wave-pop trio Dead Disco, she broke out as a solo artist by uploading self-edited videos to YouTube at a time when that was barely a thing. In 2009, the buzz around her debut album culminated in her winning the BBC’s Sound of 2009 critics’ award. Ten years, three albums, and hundreds of performances in every corner of the world later, she’s learned a thing or two about self-made pop stardom. She writes and performs all her own songs, owns the masters, runs her own label, and is generally very much in charge of every aspect of her career.
That tireless DIY ethos motivated her to launch a Kickstarter campaign for a vinyl reissue of her debut album, Hands, which fans have been clamoring for for years. And she’s taking a rare moment to reflect on what she’s achieved so far.
We recently caught up with Little Boots in London to chat about her anniversary project, the wide-eyed naivete that defined her early career, and the merits of being stubborn when you’re doing things on your own terms.
— Julian Brimmers
Kickstarter: Revisiting the past is always a delicate thing to do. Now that you’re getting ready to reissue your debut album, Hands, what’s your impression of 2009-era Little Boots?
Victoria Hesketh (Little Boots): It’s funny. I see a real sense of naivete — in a nice way. I look back at old pictures and old songs and there’s a sense of wide-eyed possibility. Every day that it carried on happening felt like, “Whoa, this is still going on, cool!” I miss the innocence of that time. I didn’t really understand the meaning of a lot of things that were happening until later. But that was cool because you didn’t overthink things.
Now I overthink everything! Back then, I was just this nerdy girl. I recently read one of the first interviews I did with Pitchfork. It was me going on about Miley Cyrus and synths and other really dweeby stuff. I wasn’t cool at all, and then, for a hot minute, I became cool and I didn’t know what to do with it.
At that point you’d already had a career in various music groups. You said being a pop star was your ultimate goal, so going solo must have taken some confidence.
I don’t think I was that confident. I’m just DIY, and I always have been. If I want things to happen, I’ve got to make it happen with what I have around me. There are all those videos that I uploaded myself simply because I was bored of it not happening for me. I was bored of waiting for a record label to do something about my songs.
Even now, no one else is gonna do it but me. That’s just who I am as a person. I like to roll my sleeves up and get my hands dirty. Nothing at the time was thought out or cynical, or even planned. That’s when things work — when they’re really genuine and natural. When they’re not contrived. People can see when things are contrived straight away.
I was bored of waiting for a record label to do something about my songs.
What was your career like before ‘Hands’ came out? What were you waiting for or hoping to have happen?
[I was] in a million bands and projects as a teenager. Then I was in an indie band that was semi-successful called Dead Disco. We were into New York indie and new wave. At some point it didn’t work out and got kinda messy. We had done some stuff with [producer] Greg Kurstin. Greg told me, “You should keep doing this. You’re really good at writing pop songs.” That’s where a lot of the early songs, like “New in Town,” came from.
Somewhere in this messy process I had every A&R from every label hitting me up. But I was still contracted in this weird deal. I remember there was this long period, six to eight months, where I just didn’t know what was going on. I was half living in my mum’s house in Blackpool, writing songs in the garage in the freezing cold. And the other half [of the time] I spent in London, learning to DJ at The Old Blue Last, the Shoreditch pub owned by Vice, not making any money and not having any idea if I was ever getting a chance to be a pop singer.
It comes down to this: Half of it is talent, but half of it is getting through those periods of complete unknown and keeping faith. It was a strange time, but I guess the pressure didn’t really start until the BBC Sound of 2009 thing. That’s when it got crazy and I started to feel it.
Half of it is talent, but half of it is getting through those periods of complete unknown and keeping faith.
That must have felt surreal. Although I would assume it was also a huge sign of validation.
But I didn’t know what it was! Someone told me, “I think you’re gonna win this BBC thing,” and I was like, “What’s this BBC thing?”
Some of the biggest shocks came from getting thrown into photo shoots, award ceremonies, TV performances. You don’t get any lessons on how to do any of this, and I had to figure out quickly how to seem at least minorly convincingly glamorous or cool or whatever. It’s such a blur, but I’m very grateful for it.
I understand why there are so [many] mental health problems in the music industry and in general these days. Anxieties are off the charts. And when you’re doing things in the public eye, it’s very hard to stay grounded. Especially when you don’t stop every now and then to take it all in.
Being on top of everything you do seems to be the most reasonable way to stay sane in the music business — but then you’re also using yourself as a resource pretty much all the time.
Completely. It can be frustrating, but it’s more and more common for [musicians] to be involved, to own everything and keep creative control. But with that comes pressure, responsibilities, admin, and other stuff you don’t know how to do. You basically have to run a business on your own. It’s an overwhelming, huge process — I mean, it’s taken me years to get to grips with it.
How does this experience translate to revisiting your first album?
Even now, for the Hands reissue, there were points where I was completely overwhelmed. How are we gonna navigate the legal licenses to buy certain songs back from Warner? Things like that. It’s a minefield, but it’s an empowering learning curve. The satisfaction and the ownership you get from it is really rewarding. That’s why Kickstarter makes so much sense for someone like me. If Kickstarter had been on my radar a decade ago, there’s a good chance I would have chosen that route over doing the record deal. It completely makes sense for DIY artists like me, who like to have control and like to have a very transparent process.
However, I’m still grateful to have had the opportunity to go through the major system and have some amazing big opportunities I wouldn’t have had independently. It’s not like I’m going, “They’re all big bad labels.” It just wasn’t a sustainable model for me as an artist.
If Kickstarter had been on my radar a decade ago, there’s a good chance I would have chosen that route over doing the record deal. It completely makes sense for DIY artists like me, who like to have control and like to have a very transparent process.
Sure, it’s too easy to say there’s an inherent evil to the major-label system.
I mean, there might be a little bit of inherent evil. Just a drop. I certainly met a few people who are absolute cartoon villains in the music industry.
So how did you manage to create a sustainable path for yourself? It seems like much of it has to do with maintaining a direct connection with your fans.
A lot people who signed deals around the same time, 0.001 percent went on to be like Florence [Welch, of Florence and the Machine]. Everybody else was like, “This roller coaster is too much,” and they checked out. There have been many days of me having thought about that, too. But I can’t really do anything else but write pop songs. Well, I can, but I have to make music and I love to make pop songs.
The fans who’ve stayed with me all the way, they’re so much more invested in me. It feels like a real two-way relationship, which is why I’m really excited about doing Kickstarter. I feel like now my fan base completely understands me and wants to support where I go creatively. Doing it this way, I’m really excited to see if it takes even one more middleman out. We’re now this creative machine together.
And I guess social media can also be a really helpful way to understand your fans better and have a better relationship with them.
Yes, and to be honest, that’s one of the reasons why I’m doing this project. I floated the idea on social media and got such an overwhelming response — thousands of comments saying, “Please do this, we need these songs, we need CDs, we need vinyl and [to] hear these songs we’ve been asking about for years.” I went through all these comments and saw there’s a real demand for me to do this. This really pushed me to move forward with this project. If I hadn’t had such a direct response, I might have never finished this anniversary project.
Are you a nostalgic person? You don’t seem to be.
Hmm. Maybe not. However, working on this is making me nostalgic — just being made to look at all these things from this period. It kinda makes me sad, like, “Oh my god, look at this crazy shit we did!” It makes me feel emotional. I always try to move forward and not look back too much. But I’m sure when I play all of these songs live, I’m gonna be crying. If I remember the words.
It’s nice that this project is forcing me to be nostalgic and see all the positives. I get a lot of messages from fans that this [or] that song meant so much to them. Like it’s their coming-of-age record, or how they moved out of town, or it helped them come out. It’s really emotional when I hear people’s stories about the tracks.
What advice would you give 2009 Little Boots?
When the times were really, really crazy, I wasn’t as present as I could’ve been. I wish I had stopped now and again and taken a deep breath, been a bit more grateful. But that’s easy to say with hindsight. There are a few things I wish I’d done differently. In certain fields, I wish hadn’t been so stubborn.
The stubbornness seems to have paid off in the long run, don’t you think?
I don’t know — ask me in another 10 years!