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All Saints

All Saints: ‘We always felt like we were the outsiders’

The iconic ‘90s pop group talk about teaming up with “Pure Shores” producer William Orbit again for their new album

Though All Saints only released two albums during their late ‘90s imperial phase, they're rightly recognised as one of the era's iconic pop groups. That's partly because their trademark cargo pants made them stand out, but mainly because they recorded a clutch of genuine pop classics. Their hits “Never Ever”, “Bootie Call”, “Pure Shores”, and “Black Coffee” were both chart-friendly and effortlessly cool, and their legacy can still be heard in the forward-thinking pop of today: Charli XCX has said they're the inspiration for her spoken-word breakdowns.

Having reformed for 2016's Red Flag album and a successful tour, All Saints are back again with glistening new single “Love Lasts Forever” and fifth album Testament, due in July. Back in the day, the sexist tabloid media feasted on any suggestion of inter-band tension, but hanging out with All Saints in 2018 is a blast. They’re funny, self-deprecating, and completely comfortable in one another's company. After Shaznay Lewis tells a story about being mortified when she took her kids to a restaurant and a waiter deliberately played an All Saints banger, her bandmates Melanie Blatt and sisters Natalie and Nicole Appleton howl with laughter.

They're also happy to talk about everything – from the battles they faced as a '90s pop group, to reuniting with visionary producer William Orbit. He teamed up with All Saints for “Pure Shores” and “Black Coffee” shortly after he'd produced Madonna's landmark Ray of Light album, and now he's working with the group again for the first time in 18 years. When you hear the new album's gorgeous centrepiece ballad “After All”, you'll see why Lewis calls him “the king of beautiful interesting sounds”.

The fans are going to freak out about you working with William Orbit again.

Shaznay Lewis: I've seen and spoken to William here and there throughout the years. The contact has never completely been lost. But Nicole and I ran into William one night, and he was like, 'I've heard you guys are doing new music and shows and it's going really well, so when are we going to do something again?' We were literally like, 'Okay yeah, let's do it.'

Nicole Appleton: Honestly, it was like working with an old friend. Things just happened really naturally and fell into place.

Shaznay Lewis: At the end of the day, he's old-school and we're old-school. We come from the school of doing another take, and another take, and another take, until we have a vocal that works. With us, it's not about chopping up the vocals and piecing them together.

Were you apprehensive about working with him again, because “Pure Shores” and “Black Coffee” are such iconic pop songs?

Shaznay Lewis: I know what you mean – but I hate to think that we could never have gone back in the studio with him because we were too scared. We can't make another “Pure Shores” – we'd be mad to try. But at the end of the day, it's about evolving. William is someone who's renowned for a certain sound,  so there's always going to be inflections and reminders of past songs. But as long as what we're working on now is good, and we all like what we're creating, it definitely feels right.

How did “Pure Shores” originally come about? Obviously you recorded it for the soundtrack to The Beach.

Shaznay Lewis: It was really Danny Boyle allowing me to see about a minute or so of The Beach. I just saw the scene where they're under the water. William's music was on it already and I went away and wrote to that. I really enjoyed the process because you don't really have to dig too deep into your own thoughts.

Shaznay, “Black Coffee” is one of the few All Saints singles you didn't write. How did that song come to you?

Shaznay Lewis: Someone at London Records played it to us. And it wasn't anything like the version we recorded. But I remember we all thought it was a good song.

Natalie Appleton: Originally, it was almost like a rock ballad or something.

Shaznay Lewis: I think it was definitely the right song to get handed to William to work his magic on. He's quite good like that – he'll take a part that you may have thought was a verse and make it into a chorus, and generally just swap things around. He definitely messed around with that song and made it what it was.

“We did shows with all the indie bands too. We were able to go between the two worlds” – Nicole Appleton

When you started out in the music industry in the '90s, did you feel as though opinions were respected? Sometimes we hear horror stories about young female artists being completely dismissed by middle-aged male record execs.

Shaznay Lewis: Compared to other bands at the time, creatively we were able to just get on with it. But more so on the first album, because no one knew what to expect, and there was no success yet. By the time the second album came around, people were talking about sales figures and different international markets and all the rest of it. So I do feel like the focus changed. With the second album, we weren't really allowed to make the sort of album we should have made.

Melanie Blatt: But I don't think that was because we were women – it was because we had success. I think having a songwriter like Shaz in our band made us different to everyone else. Obviously we were pop music, but for us it wasn't a fixed genre. In the '90s there were so many boy bands and girl bands and it all kind of sounded a little bit the same. 'Oh, that's a Max Martin production.' We definitely stood out from that. And that in turn gave us a little more power. And also, we came to our deal with London Records with our songs in the bag.

Nicole Appleton: The label didn't say to us: 'You're going to work with this person and that person'. Because we had all our songs already.

When you were promoting your singles in the '90s, you were on the circuit with a lot of manufactured pop groups. Did you feel like outsiders?

Shaznay Lewis: Completely. I always felt like we were the outsiders. I never felt that we were shiny. That was probably why we seemed 'grumpy' or like we 'had attitude'. Because we didn't come from that world.

Natalie Appleton: There were all these manufactured groups, and then there was us. It was almost like, 'There's All Saints in the corner, staring, growling!'

Shaznay Lewis: You know, a lot of the time we said no to things, where other bands of the time probably said yes. We said no a lot and it gave us a certain stigma. But you know what, I'm a mother now to a daughter, and I'm quite proud of our ‘no’s.

Nicole Appleton: Somebody wrote on Instagram that we were the best indie band ever, which made me laugh. But actually, we did shows with all the indie bands too. We were able to go between the two worlds.

Melanie Blatt: We didn't really fit in anywhere. I mean, we came from an R&B and hip-hop background. It was like we were in the wrong era!

What did you say no to?

Natalie Appleton: Well, there was the Top of the Pops thing, though we didn't actually say no to that in the end.

Melanie Blatt: Basically we got asked to perform behind a screen with our tops down so it would look like we were naked. We were completely uncomfortable with it, but we were told at the time that if we didn't do it, we'd lose the booking.

Shaznay Lewis: The tricky part of it was that the TV promo woman from our label happened to be married to the producer of Top of the Pops. So she was in tears about it the whole thing.

Nicole Appleton: Really, we did it for her.

Natalie Appleton: But we hated it, and we complained. We did it under duress, and we never did anything like that again.

Melanie Blatt: And we said no to a Pepsi commercial. At the time, the Spice Girls were promoting everything, and we made a decision very early on that we didn't want to be that band. I'm very proud that we said no, because if we hadn't, we would have been like everyone else.

All Saints’ fifth album Testament is out on July 13