Cate Blanchett recently had her way with Mahler’s Fifth on screen, but she really digs her dancing heels into Sparks’ 26th — a song from the duo’s 26th album, that is — with the brand new music video for the record’s title track, “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte.” Blanchett seems to be caught up in her own dance symphony as, rocking a yellow suit and bright red headphones, she alternately hoofs and sulks her way through the spirited track, in which tears and overcaffeination make for a natural brew.
Ron and Russell Mael told Variety how a chance meeting with Blanchett at a film festival led to shooting the video in Los Angeles just two weeks ago. (The currently Oscar-nominated “Tar” star corroborated details of their surprise collaboration in a separate interview.) The brothers also talked about the pleasures of bringing the “Latte” album to the public after drawing in new fans with the recent “Sparks Brothers” and “Annette” films, and what it means to finally be playing both the Hollywood Bowl and Royal Albert Hall this summer, 52 years after the start of their recording career.
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“When she first heard it, she said, ‘I’m laughing and I’m crying at the same time,’ and I thought that was a really apt comment about this song,” says singer Russell Mael. When it came to her final participation in the video, “we didn’t even know she was gonna necessarily be dancing. It was more like ‘Come and stand in our video’ — you know, that would’ve been fine too. But that was what she felt like doing to that song. She came in with the red headphones she’s wearing in the video, and… she seemed like she’d actually been on a stage before or something,” he remarks, with bemused understatement.
Adds keyboard player/songwriter Ron Mael, “She adopted a character really in the video. The way that she organized what she did to be kind of still in the verses and then hyper in the choruses was so perfect for the song.” The brothers say they had no input into what she did on camera; there were no “A bit more frugging, please, Ms. Blanchett?” notes on their part. “I mean, we would like to take credit for having directed her, but we had nothing to do with that. It’s a little bit presumptuous to be directing Cate Blanchett. We were extras in our own video, in a certain way.”
“I love Russell and Ron,” Blanchett says in an interview recorded this week for Clayton Davis’ “Awards Circuit” podcast. “We were at the Cesar Awards together in France and got on really well… and we just stayed in touch. And then Russell asked: Would I, on my mobile phone, record just me mugging around to their latest single? I said, sure… It was one of those kind of crazy nights and, at 3 o’clock in the morning, I did something,” dancing on her smartphone, in solitary. “But then I said, ‘You know, I’m gonna be in L.A.,’ and they said, ‘Come round.’ … It was really quick. It was so much fun.”
She adds, “I love the way they think. I love their sense of humor, and how they take the work seriously, but not themselves. You know, ‘the girl is crying in her latte’ — it’s so deep and shallow, simultaneously.”
After a five-decade career, the Mael brothers can inspire some abashedness in fans themselves, but they don’t mind admitting they were a little starstruck upon first meeting. Both were being honored at the Cesars last year — Blanchett with a lifetime achievement award, and Sparks for a best film music award for their song score for the dramatic movie musical “Annette” (they also performed at the ceremony). The actor stopped by backstage to announce herself as a fan.
“Ron had gone out for a second, and I’m just sitting there by myself,” recalls Russell, “and there’s a little knock on the door and a woman walks in that looked an awful lot like Cate Blanchett. She said, ‘Hi, I’m Cate.’ And I went, ‘Oh my God, that’s Cate Blanchett. What is she doing in our dressing room?’ — but, you know, a happy ‘What is she doing in our dressing room?’ I was saying to myself in the back of my head, ‘Ron better get back here soon, because if she leaves and I have no proof that Cate Blanchett was in our dressing room, he won’t believe me or he’ll kill me’ — one of the two.”
“Then I got back and I said, ‘You know, hey, Cate Blanchett is in our dressing room’,” adds Ron.
Numbers were exchanged, and Blanchett turned up at the Roundhouse in London on the last night of their U.K. tour last April. (Is it possible she was inspired by the part of each night’s show in which the otherwise stoic Ron emerges from behind his synths to bust out into a vaudeville-style dance? Possible, but probably not.) Then it was Russell’s idea just this past month to use that DM capability to enlist possibly the most lauded actor in the land at the moment to do something that, on the serious artiste scale, lands above Lydia Tar taking a commission to conduct the orchestra at a “Monster Hunter” cosplay event, but “not in the same stratosphere as conducting Gustav Mahler,” as Ron will cheerfully admit.
Anyway, whatever the opposite of Lydia bottoming out is, that’s where Sparks is right now, still riding a career-renaissance high after filmmaker Edgar Wright raised their long-plateaued profile with the feature documentary “The Sparks Brothers,” not long before their dream of having a movie musical they wrote reach the big screen was realized with the release of the Leos Carax-directed “Annette,” both in 2021. The new album will be their first since “A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip” in early 2020 and will inevitably be greeted by many sets of eyes and ears that weren’t there for them prior to Sparks becoming a veritable one-band film festival two years ago.
“It’s really crazy because this is not the typical career arc, that a band with 26 albums is now finding a new phase that’s so positive and bringing on a lot of new fans,” says Russell. “And for us now to be playing these really bigger and more prestigious sort of venues at this point is just such an amazing position to be in. When we moved to the U.K. in ‘74” — a move that paid off with Sparks becoming bigger in England than they were at home — “we lived in an area that wasn’t far from the Royal Albert Hall and, for us for Americans as well as real Anglophiles, Royal Albert Hall signifies something. So now we’re doing two nights there, and they both sold out already. And especially the Hollywood Bowl — it’s gonna be really a treat.” (The Albert Hall shows are May 29-30, and the Bowl gig is July 16, on an international tour that also stops by Japan, France, Germany and New York’s Beacon Theatre.)
The Bowl has hometown meaning, in that “the first time we ever went there, our mother took us to see the Beatles,” Russell recalls. “We owe it all to our mom for having the foresight to take her boys to see the Beatles, even though I don’t know how much she really cared about seeing them.”
Adds Ron, “We’ll be playing a longer set than the 25 minutes that they played, though.”
The new album comes out May 26 and, as is evident from just the song titles alone — like “Nothing Is As Good as They Say It Is,” “The Mona Lisa’s Packing, Leaving Late Tonight” and “Not That Well-Defined” — strays from typical pop subject matter in, as is Sparks’ wont, finding a kind of drollery in modern anxiety. Reflecting Ron’s love of Hollywood lore, there’s also a song devoted to a famous blonde who well precedes Blanchett, “Veronica Lake,” which takes as its focus how Lake’s peekaboo haircut was seen as endangering the women of America as they worked on assembly lines during World War II.
The song “The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte” itself is in the timeless Sparks tradition of taking a small moment or observation and elevating it into something almost comically, yet still somehow appropriately, grand.
“So many bands start with a big issue, either like love or world peace, and then work kind of down,” says Ron. “But we kind of start with a detail, like, with the song ‘The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte,’ just with a view of a coffee shop and a girl kind of by herself — the loneliness and the question about why she appears to be in the state that she’s in, and just a song around that. You know, I think that sometimes people think that we’re a bit cartoony in the lyrics, and sometimes in the music as well. But there’s another aspect to the lyrics, at least if we’re succeeding in what we’re attempting to do, where there’s kind of some sort of emotional depth to it. And that’s what we’re always pursuing. But (it’s) just kind of something small blown up, and that is the case with this song and I think others on the album as well.”
Although there may be a comic tinge to it, anyone who has paid attention to the current interest in an Edward Hopper art exhibit may be drawn to thinking about the song’s parallels with Hopper’s famous painting of a woman drinking coffee alone. “It’s really weird because when we had the album done and we had the artwork and everything, then it just kind of struck me that the atmosphere of the song somehow in a general way was Edward Hopper-esque. And so I went online and I saw that one painting of his of a girl sitting at a coffee shop, obviously in a different decade, but with just a cup of coffee and looking really forlorn. That would’ve been an equally good album jacket.”
“The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte” is Sparks’ first album for the Island label since their initial run with that imprint ended all the way back in 1975. They believe it lives up to that initial celebrated series of seminal LPs.
“We wanted this album to be something that was equally as striking as anything as that Sparks has done throughout our history,” says Russell. “And, you know, we don’t have board meetings where we discuss between ourselves about how can we make this be something really unique. But we go at it with that kind of spirit that we’re kind of not resting on our past in any kind of way. It’s in our hands to kind of come up with the goods each time. But after the fact, we’re now signed again to Island Records. When we were with Island, with Chris Blackwell, in ‘74 when we first moved to the U.K., their vision was to do projects that were really special, but also that could also be commercially successful as well, from reggae things with Bob Marley to, at the other end of the spectrum, Sparks and Roxy Music. They’re not signing us because it was such a great time we had in the past and the nostalgia of having Sparks again, but basing it purely on what we’re doing now musically, and they thought that this album was as striking as “Kimono My House” was during the time when they signed the band in the ‘70s. So for us, that’s just an added perk that we think is a pretty amazing story.
“When they picked ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’ [a big U.K. hit in the mid-70s] as a single, that was not a mainstream pop song, but the company had a vision that you can do music that’s really unique and special, but it can also work commercially. And I think that that’s what they feel about the new album — that it’s not middle of the road pop music, but it’s accessible even as it’s coming from a unique perspective, in our own kind of universe that we’ve created. And this album we do think is special. And it’s not timid — it’s in your face.”
Having pulled off “Annette,” the Maels have other film projects on the horizon, including a movie musical in development for Focus Features for which they’ve completed the screenplay and song score.
Any chance of roping Blanchett into a film role of their devising? “Well, we have to now,” says Russell. “She doesn’t know it, but yeah, she’s in our next movie. We haven’t broken that to her yet. One thing at a time. It was hard enough asking her to be in our video. But she’ll get the call soon.”
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