Tim Hughes talks to Julia Sophie Heslop about exchanging raucous rock for chic pop

Few people know more about life in the rock and roll fast lane as Julia Sophie Heslop.

As frontwoman with sky-scraping rock band Little Fish ‘Juju’ became one of Oxford’s biggest musical exports, cutting an album in Los Angeles and playing everywhere from Johnny Depp’s old Hollywood hangout The Viper Room to The Royal Albert Hall.

But despite the glamour that comes from sharing stages with the likes of Blondie and Courtney Love, she wanted something else; something simpler. And she found it somewhere far more down to earth – right back where she started.

She swapped the bigtime for motherhood, California for a bungalow in west Oxford, and swish recording studios for a couple of microphones and an old laptop in her garage. And, she says, she has never been more content.

“I am super happy to be doing what I am doing,” she tells me, relaxing at Candy Says HQ while partner and bandmate Ben Walker goes out to get beer.

“I wanted to do everything I’d never done before and to explore a whole other side of me, and that’s what I’m doing. I wanted things to be different in every way.

“Little Fish was very rock and roll, sweaty and loud, guitar-led and shouty, but this is the opposite. It’s poppy and chic, classy, and with more harmonies, different instrumentation and loads of beats. The music is very restrained and well-arranged throughout. It’s a lot easier to listen to and a lot cooler!“

While fizzing with enthusiasm for her new band, Juju remains justifiably proud of what Little Fish achieved. Starting life as a hardworking live band, Juju and bandmate Neil ‘Nez’ Greenaway got their break when they were spotted by 4 Non Blondes’ Linda Perry at The Wheatsheaf, off Oxford High Street.

Perry, who was responsible for hits by Gwen Stefani, Pink and Christina Aguilera, took them under her wing and flew them out to California to record their album Baffled & Beat.

They found themselves living a rock and roll fairy tale, playing LA’s Sunset Strip, rocking crowds at Knebworth and Reading Festival and gigging with Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Alice in Chains, Eagles of Death Metal and Juliette Lewis. But while it was fun to start with, Juju wanted more.

“We’d got to the point where we didn’t feel we could tour the world and pay our bills,” she says. “I wasn’t inspired anymore and didn’t want to keep going.

“It was a weight on my shoulders and I wasn’t happy. “I’d felt that Little Fish had come to a natural end and I was no longer inspired to write the same music I’d been writing before. I wanted to explore a whole new world of music. Nez left (he is now working as a carpenter though the pair remain friends) and Juju and Ben, who assumed keyboard duties in 2010, took time out.

“I wrote a new record with a whole new sound,” she says. “I felt inspired again. The only way was to go away and do it – and not explain it.”

She and Ben recruited singer and percussionist Elisa Zoot and drummer Mike Monaghan and bounced back with a new band. And it looked, and sounded, nothing like Little Fish.

They unveiled their new line up at a party to celebrate the 150th anniversary of our sister paper, The Oxford Times, at Oxford Castle last September.

Three months later they played their last gig under the name Little Fish at The Rotunda, Iffley, morphing seamlessly into Candy Says, with one new addition – a slender shop mannequin. Her name? “Candy, of course!”

The name Candy Says is taken from a Velvet Underground song about New York transsexual Candy Darling, a member of Andy Warhol’s clique. “That song is one of our favourites,” says Juju. “And it’s about someone who is transforming and changing image, so it’s suitably appropriate.

“We’ve taken a lot of the Velvet Underground’s spirit,” she goes on. “We are recording in a garage with a few mics so have taken on that Velvety vibe. But while we have a candy-pop edge we are not sweet and sugary – it’s more 60s psychedelic pop.”

The story of Little Fish’s transformation from deal-chasing rock band to organic pop collective in charge of their own destiny, is documented in a new book written by fan Miranda Ward. It is called F**k the Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice. And while the title may offend some, it neatly sums up the ethos behind Juju’s lifestyle reboot and shift to a more organic DIY lifestyle.

The title refers to one of the band’s more unlikely sidelines. “We are into making new things, and one of them is apple juice,” says Juju. The apples come from Ben’s parents’ home “in the middle of Oxfordshire”.

“It’s amazing how good it tastes, and it lasts all year,” she says with genuine delight.

The band are having a busy spring. They supported their old friend, former Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes, at the O2 Academy; played a storming set at the Oxford Punt; and, this Tuesday, play their first headline show under their new moniker in the hallowed surroundings of St Barnabas Church in Jericho. And everything is good.

“Little Fish was intense, dark and heavy but I felt that wasn’t me,” she says. “I’m a happy person. I’m serious about what I write, and want it to be good, but there has to be an element of fun – and I’m trying to get that across. I’ve written so many new songs, am super-inspired and have a great band who are so talented.

“I can now just write, play... and enjoy it!”

  • Candy Says play St Barnabas Church, Oxford, on Tuesday. Tickets £8 from candysaysit.bandcamp.com
  • The band also play a free in-store set at the Truck Store in Cowley Road, at 6pm tomorrow.
  • Single Melt into the Sun is out now and Favourite Flavour on May 20.
  • F**k the Radio, We’ve Got Apple Juice is out now, published by Unbound.co.uk Click here for details