Twelve years ago, Little Boots duetted with Abba’s Benny Andersson on an episode of Jonathan Ross’s chat show.
“I was in the green room with Sandra Bullock and Hermione from Harry Potter – Emma Watson – and we sang Thank You For The Music,” she recalls.
“I was just like, ‘Is this my life now? This is insane!’”
At the time, the singer-songwriter, whose real name is Victoria Hesketh, was one of the UK’s most hotly-tipped new pop stars.
After winning the BBC’s Sound of 2009, her debut album Hands had entered the charts at number five, and she was on Ross’s show to perform Remedy, a single she’d written with Lady Gaga’s producer Red One.
But that encounter with Andersson was portentous – because, in parallel to her pop career, Little Boots is about to make her debut in Abba’s live band.
Starting next May, she’ll be singing and playing keyboards on hits like Dancing Queen and Waterloo nine times a week at Abba’s “immersive” new concerts in East London.
Hesketh is part of a group of 10 “badass cool” musicians who’ll accompany digital avatars of the Swedish pop legends on stage. The group was put together by former Klaxons singer James Righton, who scoured the world to find people who’d be “up to the task” of bringing Abba’s music to life.
“You not only have to be an incredible musician and professional, but you also need feel, character and groove,” he told the NME.
“It’s really important to find a band of personalities and people with style [because] when you look back at Abba footage from the 70s, they were always brilliant and had amazing players.”
“James has known me for years, so he knew I was an Abba nut,” says Hesketh, “but he also knew I could play. Like properly play.”
Although a classically trained pianist, flautist and singer from the age of five, the 37-year-old still had nerves about auditioning for her all-time favourite band.
“I was just like, ‘God, everyone’s gonna have gone to conservatoires and be able to play these songs immediately in their sleep.’ I really wasn’t sure I was going to get the job.
“And then as soon as I’d done the audition I got goosebumps from head to toe. I’d never wanted anything so much in my life since I was 24 and had my first record coming out.”
To her relief, she got the job and was flown out to Stockholm to start rehearsals at the start of 2020.
“Victoria’s a great musician,” Abba’s Björn Ulvaeus tells the BBC.
“The whole band are super. We had a lot of fun during those rehearsals. We laughed all the time.”
“There was genuine excitement in the room,” Hesketh agrees. “Everyone had these little cheeky smiles, even Benny and Björn, because they’d not heard the songs played live for years and years. For them to come into the room and hear us slaughter Voulez-Vous, it was just electric.
“And then Benny would play the piano at lunchtimes and people would sing along. There was a lot of magic.”
At the same time, Hesketh faced the daunting task of learning Benny Andersson’s baroque piano lines.
“When I first had to play Chiquitita, I was like, ‘Oh My God,’” she laughs. “Then Benny showed me how to do the glissando – which he does a different way to how you’d expect.
“He’s an incredible player. Seeing him work and seeing him at the piano really affected me in quite a big way.”
In fact, studying the intimate details of Abba’s work inspired Hesketh’s own music. Before the Abba concerts begin next year, she’s releasing a new album that takes the bubbling electronic textures of Abba’s “sad disco” phase, and mixes them with her diaphanous melodies and soaring piano lines.
The first single, Silver Balloons, was written in the middle of the pandemic last year, on the same keyboard in her mum’s house that she used for her debut.
A long, tall glass of sparkling pop, the song is a metaphor for all the plans and parties Hesketh had set for 2020 that “one by one drew near, then burst in front of my eyes like shiny silver balloons”.
“You just had to get used to being disappointed, didn’t you?” she sighs. “So all we had left was each other, coming together and holding tight to hope – and that’s what the song’s about.”
A fan-funded album
Lockdown also forced Hesketh to rethink how she sustains her career as Little Boots.
With her concerts and DJ sets cancelled, she took a plunge into crowd-funding, inviting fans to pay a small monthly subscription to sponsor her recording sessions, and rewarding them with exclusive live streams, demo recordings and one-off merchandise.
A year later, she describes the scheme as a “lifeline”.
“It really is a game-changer for independent artists,” she says. “My fans literally paid for the whole album, and that means I’m actually able to do a better job, because I know the money is there.
“I don’t have to worry about playing a game with record labels or giving away my rights, because the money’s come directly from people who love what I do and want to see the album happen – and want to see it on shiny, glittery vinyl, too!”
Subscribers have creative input too, with a say on the album artwork, t-shirt designs and even song lyrics.
But are there any downsides? Can you take creative risks, for example, if fans are paying for an album “in the style of Little Boots”?
“You know, these people are essentially funding you, so you do feel that you need to ‘shut up and play the hits’ – or whatever the equivalent of that is in the digital world,” she concedes. “If someone says they want me to cover a Depeche Mode B-side, I need to do it.
“But it’s lovely and I’ve discovered so much from doing things that I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
“It really feels like that old school, major label power is becoming even more unstable and I find that quite exciting to be honest.”
Crowd-funding also gave Hesketh the freedom to produce her own music for the first time. Charmingly, she didn’t approach her famous collaborators for tips, but taught herself the ropes on a laptop.
“I just kept going until there was something I didn’t know how to do and then I’d just watch a YouTube video on it!”
In keeping with the homegrown theme, the artwork and videos have all been shot in her hometown of Blackpool, with the cover of Silver Balloons depicting Hesketh walking into the Irish Sea in full-blown party gear.
“I’ve spent more time on Blackpool promenade in the last six months than I have for years,” she says. “It feels like I’ve gone full circle back to my roots.”
The ramshackle vibe of the seaside town has even seeped into the music, she says.
“I grew up in this place that’s, on the one hand, all shiny and showbusiness, and the other hand, it’s a bit run down.
“And that’s very much a part of me, you know? It’s like fish-and-chips disco. Seaside glitz.
“That’s what I love – big cheesy pop songs with complicated piano parts. It all ties together and sums up who I am: the pop and the glamour and the nerdiness.”
With a tour due this year, and the album in early 2022, you’re left wondering why Hesketh agreed to become part of Abba’s live band at all.
“In some ways, it’s a strange thing for me to take on because I am so active doing my own music,” she confirms.
“If it was any other band, I wouldn’t have done it – but the combination of this band, me being such a huge Abba fan and this completely revolutionary show was just a triple threat. There was no way I could turn it down.”
And after sitting on the secret for the last two years, she’s relieved that she can finally share the excitement with the world.
“It’s just so nice for everybody. When it was announced, people were like, ‘Wow, Abba are back to save us from the worst two years in history.’ And it really does feel like that.”