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
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
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
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
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
"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,
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."