How ‘Shrek’ Blew My Band Up
Photo-Illustration: by Vulture; Photo by Dream Works
Frou Frou was never intended to be a long-term band. When songwriter and producer Guy Sigsworth was approached to produce a cover of Bonnie Tylerâs exuberant â80s bop âHolding Out for a Heroâ for the 2004 Shrek 2 soundtrack, the British electropop duo, comprised of Sigsworth and vocalist Imogen Heap, was not technically active. Both independently successful (Heap as a Grammy-winning solo artist and Sigsworth as an in-demand songwriter to top-tier talent like Britney Spears and BjÃ¶rk), Frou Frou had dropped one album in 2002, aughts-pop staple Details. When record sales didnât materialize, they left it at that.
So when Shrek 2 music supervisor and KCRW DJ Chris Douridas, an early Frou Frou supporter, approached Sigsworth to reimagine âHolding Out for a Hero,â which originally showed up on the Footloose soundtrack, the producer was eager to get Heapâs vocals on the track. Just like that, thanks to the power of a box-office-topping big green ogre, Frou Frou was back. (It bears mentioning that the Shrek films â especially the first and the second â have aged much better than 2004âs manic-pixie mopefest Garden State, which prominently featured Frou Frouâs âLet Goâ and exposed the duo to mainstream audiences well beyond the U.K. and Europe.)
The result, driven by Heapâs trademark layered vocals and Sigsworthâs futuristic production, is not only a sharp, modern reimagining of Tylerâs original â itâs also a simmering synth-pop gem that shows the power in a coverâs ability to both pay homage to and also reinvent a beloved classic. Selected to kick off Shrek 2âs closing credits (the movie also features another cover of the song, performed by Jennifer Saundersâs Fairy Godmother), âHolding Out for a Heroâ remains an early-2000s favorite of younger fans who grew up with the Shrek franchise.
Though it isnât available to stream â itâs one of a handful of songs from the soundtrack not legally available anywhere â Frou Frouâs cover has been uploaded unofficially to YouTube several times over, with each video racking up millions of views. (Multiple streaming and label sources declined to comment on the record for this story about why the cover is not streamable.) âAll of these streaming services donât own the copyright,â suggests music supervisor and composer Timothy Andrew Edwards, the creative director of Move Music LLC. âTheyâre basically licensing these different works and compositions â a lot of it comes down to licensing terms. It doesnât really come from a site having or not having something; oftentimes, itâs about whether something is available to be licensed. Itâs not like radio or record retailers where itâs whatever gets played gets up there. It really comes down to licensing the rights.â
Despite its lack of legal availability, the long tail of âHolding Out for a Heroâ is, of course, inextricably tied to the overall reach and success of both Shrek soundtracks, which neatly mirrored the animated franchiseâs universal appeal to both kids and adults. For every Baha Men and Smash Mouth needle-drop, the films also had classic-rock hits from David Bowie, Eels, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Tom Waits, Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, and Dashboard Confessional. (Hey, it was 2004. We were all listening to Dashboard Confessional.) For millions of kids around the world, it was likely their first exposure to pop staples like âFunkytownâ and âChangesâ; many of the moviesâ youngest viewers walked away thinking the songs existed only in the Shrek vacuum, newly created tracks made only to soundtrack our titular ogreâs flatulent adventures.
To this day, Shrekâs legally available soundtrack singles put up major numbers on streaming, with Eelsâ âI Need Some Sleepâ (heard in Shrek 2) landing the bandâs No. 1 spot at more than 41 million streams. Naturally, both Smash Mouth singles lead the Shrek bandâs Spotify plays, too, with âAll Starâ and âIâm a Believerâ coming in at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. Coincidence?
But back to Frou Frou: Sigsworth and Heap did find time to reunite semi-recently, with a 2018 mini-tour, where, Sigsworth laughs, it didnât even occur to them to perform âHolding Out for a Hero.â He doesnât rule it out in the future, though. âYou value your own stuff in a different kind of way,â he says over Zoom. âI still love [âHolding Out for a Heroâ]. Itâs just probably that it doesnât occupy as much bandwidth as the stuff that I remember fretting over.â
Speaking to Vulture on Zoom from his London studio, with the framed Shrek 2 soundtrack in the background, Sigsworth opens up about the genesis of Frou Frouâs âHolding Out for a Heroâ cover, fielding fan questions about why itâs not on Spotify (âI donât think we have the power to force that!â), and the possibility of Frou Frou reuniting for the upcoming 20th anniversary.
Between Garden State and Shrek 2, 2004 was a pivotal year for Frou Frou. Do you remember how you were approached to work on the âHolding Out for a Heroâ cover?
This is how I remember it, and obviously your memory can lie to you, but what happened was a guy called Chris Douridas got in touch with me. He was on KCRW, and heâd been one of the first people playing Frou Frou demos. I was asked by Chris to do a version of the song âHolding Out for a Hero.â And it was one of these funny things where he didnât ask for it as a Frou Frou thing.
Thereâs another singer that was quite well known at that time â sheâd done a version of the song [that she submitted for the soundtrack]. The song is at a tempo where itâs quite fast; this other artist had done a version where sheâd half-timed it, but that made it into a really slow, languorous ballad. And I said, âCould I have a go? I can just do it with Immi.â
Chris said, âOh, okay. I was actually waiting for you to say that.â I did it really quickly. After that, I listened to the song and then I was kind of like, Oh, this is a crazy tempo. And then I worked out a very basic beat. Iâd just got this new piece of software that was completely impenetrable. And I was determined to use it, come what may, and was driving my engineer crazy. It was one of these things where you kind of had to create sounds almost in theory. You say, âImagine thereâs a force of newtons hitting the drum.â Then you press a button, and youâd wait five minutes, and it would render this sound.
I finally got this beat going and then Immi popped in, and we listened to the original, the Jim Steinman one, which is relevant because Jim Steinman recently passed away. And itâs kind of gloriously â80s, and itâs almost impossible not to laugh at it because itâs so exuberantly over the top.
Yeah, Bonnie Tylerâs original is such a signpost of 1980s excess.
You know Team America, the famous song âAmerica, Fuck Yeahâ? Listen to that track and take out the vocals. Itâs more or less like a carbon copy of his backing track of the original. Itâs like theyâve taken that as the model. âHolding Out for a Heroâ is actually the model of the song. And it was just â as Immi and I were listening to it, we were kind of like, âI canât stop laughing.â
Oh my God, youâre right.
I mean, no disrespect to the original, because the original is what it is. Itâs fun. And thatâs why itâs so brilliant for a Shrek movie. But itâs almost like if youâre trying to do a cover and you try and take it somewhere new, if you listen too much to the original, itâs just going to hold you back. And I liked the fact that [Immi] would just be herself and wouldnât try and imitate the original Bonnie Tyler vocal in any way whatsoever.
What was the reception like when you submitted your version?
They loved it. I think it came after weâd done most of the Frou Frou record. There was a weird catch-up whereby I think Garden State â the song in the film had a different title and then we just forgot about it. Weâd already done loads of stuff. And then suddenly everybodyâs saying, âOh, thereâs this movie, and youâve got to see it.â And we didnât even know what the meaning was because of the changing title. And then we were really honored when we saw that [Zach Braff] used our song so perfectly that it was almost like heâd written the script to do it.
I think [Shrek 2] is one of those films where they crack the secret of making films that the kids can enjoy on one level and the parents can enjoy it on a different level. It does it so well. Even the music is like that, because they got really smart people to cover old songs in all kinds of clever ways.
Yeah, I also just rewatched the scene where Jennifer Saunders as Fairy Godmother is doing her version of âHolding Out for a Hero,â and the character is totally hamming it up and sitting atop a piano.
Yes. I have to say that sheâs one of those comedians I love because I canât do comedy at all, but I think if youâre going to make the joke work, you canât hold on to your own dignity; you have to be prepared to do whatever it takes. I was a huge Ab Fab fan, and that was the thing I saw about it: that she didnât mind making herself look absolutely terrible to get the joke. And I just love that about her â itâs kind of uninhibited, for the sake of the joke. Thereâs no indignity sheâs frightened of.
What do you think Imogen as a singer brought to the cover?Â
We just have this real understanding of each other as musicians. Iâve known Immi since she was at the BRIT School, and weâve worked so much together, and we always had this good relationship. We can always be honest with each other. So if she hasnât done it good, she doesnât need me to break it to her gently â and we both know when somethingâs good and we like it.
I just wanted her to do super-Immi things in the front of the song to more or less put her trademark â that kind of beautiful yodel-y thing she has. And then, also, she has a striking rhythmic quality that I really love in her delivery. Sheâs one of the few singers I know who if you listen to her breathing, itâs always really in time. Itâs like she breathes in the rhythm of the song. [With âHolding Out for a Hero,â] I just thought, Letâs do more of that.
Because the Bonnie Tyler vocal of the original is just so OTT in its own way, you donât even want to do a parody of it. Youâd just be like a bad karaoke â you have to do something completely different. It was one of the quickest things we did, actually â because weâre both good at taking forever on things, taking months over a snare drum, and this was really brilliant.
Do you recall what the feedback was like at the time from your fans?Â
I didnât obsess over it. I just remember going to the cinema when the thing was finally placed in the film and actually just sitting with my kids and then literally, as the story concludes, that song came on immediately and I was like, Oh, fantastic. Itâs always kind of cool when you do stuff like that and your own friends and your family [can hear it]. That matters more to me than worrying about what the sort of wider meaning of it is to other people.
Itâs been great, actually, to discover that it meant a lot to people later, because I think weâve had lots of people tweeting us about, âOh, this song isnât on Spotify.â So I realized it meant more to people than I realized â¦ Maybe because it was a cover for us, maybe we didnât think of it the same way as we thought of âLet Goâ or some song that weâd put our everything into. Itâs different when itâs a Jim Steinman song. I mean, I love him, but youâre always going to love your own more, arenât you?
Why isnât the song on streaming?Â
We canât directly control it â¦ I think itâs â¦ Is it Universal? Itâs DreamWorks, which is probably Universal, isnât it? We can encourage them to get it sorted, but we can just complain. I donât think we have the power to force that.
As the film has aged and kids have grown up with it, to what extent do kids or young adults think that âHolding Out for a Heroâ is a Frou Frou original?
Actually, I think it has been interesting to see how people mention it. Immi and me did a mini-tour two years ago, just before lockdown started, and we never thought of doing that on the tour, but maybe we should have, as an encore or something, as a laugh, but it never occurred to us to do it. Iâm sorry, I donât mean any disrespect or offense!
Iâll tell you, I was actually partly involved in BjÃ¶rk doing that song âItâs Oh So Quiet,â which is a cover â¦ It was a 1930s Hollywood singer. [âItâs Oh So Quiet!â was originally performed by Betty Hutton in 1951.] I just had this cassette of old Hollywood singers, and I played it to BjÃ¶rk; she thought it was funny, and she did a cover of it. But then I noticed that BjÃ¶rk just stopped performing it. I mean, the first time, I was doing it on tour with her. It was amazing because we do the entire set and then you play one note of that and then the audience was just going crazy.
But then I think at a certain point, youâre thinking, Hang on, I didnât even write this song. Itâs not my song. People are always like, âHang on, youâre not allowed to like that more than âArmy of Me,ââ or something. I completely understand. You value your own stuff in a different kind of way.
What are the chances you and Imogen might properly reunite Frou Frou â perhaps for a Details 20th anniversary set next year?
Iâm up for it. I think itâs just a matter of working out schedules and what weâre both up to. Iâd love to do something to mark it. There was no problem between the two of us; we still get on great. Itâs just that Immi is always discovering the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed.