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Sugababes - the perfect pop Three-some?


Feature: Jack Foley

THE easiest pop quiz question ever might go like this: which all girl group played the main stage at Glastonbury and performed at the Mobos, won a Brit Award, Q Award and Smash Hits award, grabbed two UK number 1 singles and sold 1.5 million copies of their third album, all within a 14-month period?

The only group, let alone girl group, who could possibly have had such an astounding crossover success in recent British music history is of course, Sugababes: the pop winners you can admit to liking.

Despite the crazy schedule of 2002- 2003, which saw the British threesome - Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena and Heidi Range - catapult through the months following the No 1 chart placing of their April 2003 re-introductory single Freak Like Me, the girls have started noticing that the wide world is into them.

Macy Gray hangs out at the side of the stage watching and smiling. De La Soul rush up at an airport to say they're loving it. Redman, Pink, Kelly Roland, Oxide and Neutrino big them up and wish them well.

The invitations to present award ceremonies across Europe and play gigs in far flung places are stacking up.

Given the level of approval handed out to their summer 2002 album, Angels With Dirty Faces, it would not have been unreasonable for the girls to step back for a long while and consider their next move.

Perhaps a relocation to some more blinging accomodation. A few leisurely shopping trips to LA and back?

Instead, they took a mere two weeks out, Keisha checking out sounds in Ayia Napa, Heidi on a beach in Mexico and Mutya in North London, wondering how she's lost her passport.

Sugababes loss of holiday time is however an immense gain for those hungry for supercrafted new century pop highs.

Their swift return to the studio means that a heavily addictive new single - Hole In The Head - makes its appearance in October 2003, and a third album is ready to fly.

"Everyone's saying, 'oh you've been away, you've had a break', but we haven't," says Heidi. "We had like two weeks off since we disappeared, but every day we've been in the studio since then."

Produced by Brian Higgins and Jeremy Wheatly, first single, Hole In The Head, is the classic mixture of sweetness and toughness, an instant fix of melody, uniquely meshed neo-R'n'B vocal interplay, and a combination of genres that creates hyphen overload.

It went straight to number one, knocking the Black Eyed Peas off their residency.

"Hole In The Head basically says a guy's broken up with you and at first you were sulking and upset," explains Keisha.

"And then after a couple of hours you go, 'You know what... I'm going to go and get my hair done, and get myself ready, because I'd rather sell my ass than think of you again!"

Taking no nonsense is almost a motto for Sugababes.

From their early beginnings, in 2000, when original members, North London schoolfriends Keisha and Mutya, were too authentically teenage-street to fit into the stereotypes of girls groups, they've prioritised songcraft and musical knowledge over glam posturing.

A lot of fluffy pop acts have dwindled away. Keisha, Mutya and Liverpool raised Heidi (who joined the band in 2001) have now reaped the rewards of commitment to the music.

Angels With Dirty Faces went platinum in the UK and provided the songs that would define that year.

With Angels the band that had begun with the innovative indie flecked soul pop of the One Touch album in 2000 had reached a new maturity, capturing the sound of young, unprejudiced urban Britain, and setting the stage for their transformation into international stars.

"We didn't really realise how successful Angels had been," says Heidi. "Then when we got the discs, that's when it sank in.

"We don't compete against other bands, but I was reading Music Week, and it was surprising to find out that we'd actually sold quite a lot compared to some really successful pop bands."

"Last year was just amazing," says Keisha. "We were just winning so many awards. A few people did say Angels was a 'comeback' record and they didn't know what we were going to do afterwards, so we're really proud of the new album. We did get sick of performing Angels With Dirty Faces so we can't wait to go back and do all our new songs! "

Work started on the band's third album while still completing the schedule for Angels.

In June 2003, the girls flew to LA to write with legendary songwriter, Diane Warren (her songs have been covered by Whitney, Tina Turner and Aretha) and with Christina Aguilera and Pink collaborator, Linda Perry.

Taking time out for a rapturously received appearance at Glastonbury, where they were the only pop-tinged act invited, they then re-convened in Linford Manor studios, Milton Keynes in July.

The set up at Linford Manor was a creative hothouse. Producer Brian Higgins (Round Round) was also on board at his own studio in Kent.

The rest of the team at Linford Manor were an expanded version of the team who worked on Angels, including Jony Rockstar (Robbie Williams, Bjork), Guy Sigsworth (Madonna), Stuart Crichton (Kylie Minogue), Craig Dodds and Karen Poole.

"It was a really good way of doing an album," says Keisha. "I'd be with one producer doing some writing and the girls would be in another studio with someone else, and we all swapped rooms during the day.

"So there's not just one person writing each song, it's like there'll be one song where Mutya has written all of it with a producer, some together with all of us."

"I think it's really cool because it shows our writing skills and lets our fans know a little bit more about who we are. Because even on Angels we did a lot of the production and the melodies and I don't think we really got noticed for that side of things."

"Now I just think 'God knows how we did the last album together'," continues Heidi. "Because we didn't know each other really, knowing how well we know each other now, and how close we are. We thought we knew each other but we didn't really. So I think this is a lot more comfortable."

If the third album works as an emotional rainbow, reflecting the ups and downs of real life, it's just one example of how the three girls support and compliment each other.

Vocally, the ballad strengths of Heidi back up Mutya's instantly compelling tone and Keisha's acrobatic abilities.

While Mutya is getting drawn more into production, Heidi imagines how the live side of the band will work, and Keisha avidly studies the urban competition to the point where she knows the dance moves on every MTV Bass video.

"I think one reason for the group doing well is that the three of us have got an opinion on the music," says Heidi. "Its not like maybe in some bands there's one person who wants a direction for the album and the others go along with it, we've all got ideas."

"I think our music is so different, I think the good thing about Sugababes is it's hard to put us in a category," adds Keisha. "We cross over to the urban market, as well as pop and indie, and still be respected. And I think that's a good thing, I think as an artist breaking barriers is something that you should be able to do, and it's nice that we've got a chance to do that."

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