By: Tom Lamont
They don't like it when I call them the original Sugababes. "I hate that word, 'original'," says Mutya Buena.
"Hate it!" says Siobhán Donaghy, pulling in her shoulders.
"It makes us feel," says Keisha Buchanan, "150 years old."
What else to call them? Back in 2000 this trio debuted as the Sugababes with a bristling single, "Overload", that established them as one of the most interesting acts in millennial pop – teenagers, scowlers, minimalist dancers. The band began a piecemeal breakup almost immediately, Siobhán quitting within a year and Mutya departing in 2005. Substitutes were brought in around Keisha, who was herself replaced in 2009. A group called the Sugababes still exists, made up of new-Siobhán (Heidi Range), new-Mutya (Amelle Berrabah) and new-Keisha (Jade Ewan); an album from them is due next year. Meanwhile, the founding three have reunited to make an album of their own. A first single, "Flatline", comes out this month. They call themselves Mutya Keisha Siobhan – or MKS – now.
Well it's clearer than the alternatives I was going to suggest – the Sugadults, Splendababes, Sugababes 5.0. Or would that be a legal infringement?
"It doesn't matter who owns the name now," says Siobhán. "That's paperwork." (I take this to mean their rivals have formal rights.)
"Our music speaks for us," says Mutya.
Siobhán: "Only the three of us can write and sing the way we do."
Mutya: "Unfortunately they [the other Sugababes] don't have our vocals. Well, fortunately, actually."
Keisha: "Why are we even talking about them?"
"Everyone calls us the Sugababes anyway," says Mutya.
"Like last night on Old Compton Street," says Siobhán.
"Well, there you go."
They draw attention when they go out, Mutya Keisha Siobhan. Pop allows no definitive endings (Ginger Spice rejoined and Gary and Robbie made up; Backstreet, just this year, came back), but even so – this lot? Pals again? We meet for lunch in a London restaurant and strangers keep looming up from nearby tables to take pictures on cameraphones. I can almost hear the O, the M, the G being tapped in for Twitter dispersal. It's the original Sugababes! And I thought they couldn't stand each other…
Consider the she-said-she-said, at least as it played out in the press. Keisha once told Touch magazine that Siobhán had ditched the band, back in 2001, by going to the loo and never coming back. "After three hours we thought she's been in there a bit long," Keisha was quoted as saying, and this repeatable bit of fiction tailed Siobhán for a decade. Siobhán, for her part, once admitted: "We just didn't get on." When Mutya left the band Keisha said: "There was love there but no friendship". Siobhán, in 2004: "It was all hate, hate, hate."
"Well, our mums always got on," Siobhán tells me, over lunch.
"Even when we didn't," says Keisha.
Of mean statements in the past, they agree, "It's important we remember we were kids."
And that toilet thing, says Mutya, "was quite funny."
Siobhán: "But it kind of gets old after a while."
Keisha has always been wonderfully blunt about the pop industry – beneath the sparkle that relentless push for profit. Whenever a Sugababe left and was replaced Keisha would say something like, "That's business." Was it a business decision to reform? "No," she says. "For us it was deeply personal. Let me use the right words: people didn't allow us to enjoy the experience the first time round."
They've earned enough money, Keisha says, not to have to do this. "I own five houses. Mutya has two properties. Siobhán bought a house a year ago. Making money is amazing, absolutely, but for us the idea of getting back together was more: 'Why don't we try again, and this time enjoy it?'"
During a recent fortnight in Los Angles, a trip to write and record with the producer Dev Hynes (aka Lightspeed Champion), they made time to visit theme parks. They went clubbing in Koreatown. An experiment with an over-the-counter energy supplement left them aching and hungover and wondering if they'd inadvertently taken speed to hike Runyon Canyon.
"To be honest we were pissed half the time," admits Siobhán. She is dressed in hugging jeans, boots, a patterned scarf over a vest. Her basic daily uniform, says Siobhán – and a contrast to Keisha's all-over black bodysuit and aviator jacket. At a time when Keisha was still a Sugababe and Mutya was intermittently touring her solo stuff, Siobhán had re-entered civilian life. From 2006 to 2011 she worked as a model booker in London. Sometimes clients would ask: that Siobhán? But mostly "there wasn't enough time. The phone would be ringing. Paris every season. It was a nice job."
Siobhán has a pleasant, maternal manner – "I miss my girls," she says of the young models she worked with – and it seems obvious to me she's returning to music from a more conventional world. Keisha's different. She arrives at lunch a little flustered, admitting she's not properly familiar, at 28, with public transport. A decade as a Sugababe always meant a driver, but this time the band are "taking control", "no external forces", "organising shoots, preparing our own diary", "girl-powering this shit up". And that sometimes means getting the tube.
"I'm hands-on with the business side of things," says Keisha. "Siobhán does the creative side. And Mutya…"
Mutya's the balance, explains Siobhán.
"What it is," says Mutya, "is there's no point me trying to butt in. I know Siobhán knows her business. I know Keisha knows her business. And I know that eventually they'll tell me about it."
Mutya is like nobody I've met. She wears a leather jacket studded with metal spikes and is smothered in tattoos including one, in Latin, that she can no longer remember how to translate. She's a tireless boob adjuster, "double-Ds, dropping now." She has a habit of inserting strange punctuation into her speech, so that one sentence might unexpectedly become three.
"Jesus! I'm about to fall in. The water."
It is a week after our lunch and the girls have gathered by the River Colne in Hertfordshire for the Observer Magazine's shoot. Wearing white dresses they step off the grassy bank and into the water, wading up to their waists to have dramatic pictures taken. Siobhán is professional about the discomfort and helps to pat beasties from her bandmates' clothes. Keisha, surrounded by the floating tails of her dress, makes an unprintable joke about menstrual cycles. Mutya is struggling – her bra is waterlogged and there's pond-life everywhere. "What is it? I don't even. Fish! Dragonfly! For the love! If I get eaten by the Loch Ness monster I swear. To god."
After a 40-minute dip the girls change their sodden outfits and take a break in the sun. Siobhán mentions her wedding, earlier in the year, to a sailor, Chris. Keisha's boyfriend, a football agent, ferries in a McDonald's. Mutya talks about her daughter, eight-year-old Tahlia. "Look at them," says Siobhán's sister, Róisin, on hand to do make-up, "married and mums".
Soon Mutya and Keisha are reminiscing about how this all started. "My parents called me from downstairs," says Keisha. "I was probably about six. They said, 'Look, look!'"
A talent show hosted by Michael Barrymore was on TV. "And there was this little Filipino girl, with long hair down her back, singing 'The Greatest Love of All'. I'd never seen anyone as small as me sing like that." Not long afterwards Keisha's family, Jamaican northwest Londoners, moved home and Keisha started at a new primary school. "She was the first person I saw, hair on the carpet – the Filipino girl from Barrymore." Mutya became a friend and they belted out "Feed the World" together in the playground.
Siobhán was another talented child, a champion Irish dancer at five. A manager introduced the young redhead to Mutya and as young teens the pair were taken to sing for label bosses, Siobhán doing the high notes, Mutya the low. When Keisha joined them they almost became "The Q-tees" but one of their managers (this was a growing crowd) suggested a different name. "We ate a lot of junk food and sweets," Keisha recalls, and by the time they were recording together, "we were the Sugar Babes. With an 'r'. I think we had to change that, legally, because Sugar Babes was a porn site or something."
Sugababes at age 16 and 17, standing against a wall 'When people saw pound signs, everything changed. They took away our teenage years': (from left) Keisha, age 16; Siobhán, 17, and Mutya, 16.
Keisha still has their old demo CDs. "Adorable, very 90s… I stopped listening to them after a while. I would think: 'Oh, if we were just left to it, we could have done so much.'" A deal with London Records came in 1998 and One Touch, their first album, was released in November 2000. They think back on those years with some fondness and a lot of scepticism. All-night sessions in the studio. Piercings. Snuck cigarettes. "Harmless stuff, really. And there was a lot of shit going on around us," says Siobhán. "We never did any of it." They left school at 14, to be home-tutored. Their retinue grew.
Keisha: "At one point we had eight managers."
Siobhán: "We were like: who are these people?"
Mutya: "One did this, one did that, one picked his nose."
Keisha: "Our parents were there, but…"
Mutya: "They got pushed to the side."
Keisha: "My mum doesn't know what she was thinking, now. I think we will each always have a…"
Siobhán: "A grudge."
The girls have discussed it and believe they were manipulated.
Keisha: "They'd whisper to one of us: 'You should go solo.' And to another of us: 'So-and-so doesn't like you.'"
Siobhán: "Who would do that to young girls? We thought it was a creative environment and everyone was having fun. When people saw pound signs, everything changed. That was the taking away of our teenage years, for me."
By the spring of 2001 Siobhán wanted out. She felt isolated by the tutoring ("I was in the year above the other two so I had to take lessons on my own") and depressed – possibly a side effect of taking medication for acne. On tour in Australia she told her managers she was leaving and flew home. A press release went out announcing that Siobhán had a kidney infection ("Disgusting, they didn't even call me") and within a week her replacement, Heidi, had been signed.
Mutya left in 2005 to spend more time with her daughter. Neither she nor Siobhán have particularly fond memories of trying for solo careers. Siobhán: "I think we both did it out of necessity rather than want. All you've ever known is music. And there's the question of education. What are you going to go and do?"
Siobhán released two records, the first a No 117 flop but the second, Ghosts, a critical hit ("I won't better it"). Mutya put out an album of her own, Real Girl, in 2007 and Keisha plowed on with the Sugababes. In 2007 there was another UK No 1 single, "About You Now", the Sugababes' sixth, and then in 2009 Keisha tweeted: "It was not my choice to leave."
She says she's legally constrained from discussing her departure from the Sugababes, although "it was a pack of shite, basically, their reasons for me not being in the group any more. I believe that truth always comes out in the end. And karma…"
Mutya: "Karma's a bitch."
Keisha: "That's just a universal rule."
They might have drifted back together earlier. "I saw you both at a birthday party," remembers Siobhán. "We had a chat, to clear the air, but it was in a nightclub, the timing wasn't right." One day Keisha saw Mutya on TV again; not with Barrymore this time, but Lorraine Kelly. The TV host joked that the original Sugababes should reform. Keisha (at home) and Mutya (on set) thought: Hmm. There were talks that stalled in 2009 and then in 2011 the three of them spent a day in a studio together. "The [vocal] blend was ridiculous. So we continued."
Before a comeback gig in London in January they had to watch old YouTube videos of themselves to relearn their routines. Mutya brought along eight-year-old Tahlia for support. Siobhán's family were there, and Keisha's mum. "They hadn't seen each other for years. It was emotional." At one point Keisha tried to explain the tortured history of the Sugababes to Tahlia. "She was like, 'I don't understand!' I was like, 'Look. There were many, many, many members, yeah?'"
It's time for more photographs in the river. While the girls clamber back into the chilly water, I listen to their new album. It's polished, very good in parts, a surprising seam of electropop along with the expected, hook-y R&B. One track has this plea: "Let me stay pals again." The line is Mutya's and that funny syntax makes me think she might have written it, too. As a sentiment, anyway, it makes sense.
The girls told me over lunch they expect this second run together to be a long one. "We definitely want to establish a body of work… It might never end!" Wasn't there a risk of them going through it all again, I asked, only to repeat the same mistakes? Siobhán answered. "Yeah," she said. "But that's sort of life, isn't it?"
In the murky water Siobhán leads a teetering line of original Sugababes away from the bank. Keisha chats about birthday plans. Siobhán picks pond weed from their dresses. And Mutya maintains a running commentary, talking to the water, to the sky, to anyone who'll listen.
"Go! Away! Fish!... Oh, shit me... Fish!… Tadpoles!... I'm standing on, like, a cliff?... There are little worms up and down my legs and I've got no knickers on."
I want them to make it past the first album so bad. Mutya is amazing and candid and I love her for it. Good to see them just enjoying themselves. TAGS??!