The week after Glastonbury is always a strange one. Its attendees shuffle around like the ground has fallen out beneath them, many unable to return to the rhythms of the urban life they cheerily lived a week before. Those of us who stayed at home end up coaxing small talk out of depressed husks, desperate for something like a sentient response. This year, the talking point of choice was not an audacious headliner or a classic legacy act, but “did you see the Sugababes?!”. Their headline set in the modest Avalon tent was so overcrowded that the area had to be cordoned off. Seasoned festival-heads spoke of it to me as the best show of the weekend. It was the second festival gig in their summer reunion, which will move to arenas around the UK this autumn.
The story of the Sugababes is a breathless epic, waiting to be put on film. At the height of the British girlband boom, Mutya Buena, Keisha Buchanan and Siobhán Donaghy are three disaffected north London teenagers. Buena and Buchanan are schoolmates, even. They release the 2000 album One Touch, their distinctive harmonies offset by garage and alternative soundscapes. Donaghy leaves amid reports of infighting, and is soon replaced by ex-Atomic Kitten candidate Heidi Range. The new three enter a period of commercial boom and critical affection including legendary mash-up hit “Freak Like Me” and the earwig “Push the Button”. Donaghy quietly releases two underrated alternative albums, then goes to work as a model booker.
Buena, by then a new mother, exits the group at the height of their 2005 success. She is replaced by Amelle Berrabah, who stays with the group for two albums while they reach poppier heights with their biggest-ever single “About You Now”. By 2009, on the cusp of a synth-y urban era partly backed by Jay Z’s Roc Nation, Buchanan leaves the group and is replaced by Jade Ewen, then a soloist fresh off a Eurovision attempt. (It later transpired that it was her or the other two.)
The group is left with no original members and fizzles out after that poorly-received 2010 album Sweet 7, but does not quite confirm a split. By 2013, the original three reunite under the moniker ‘Mutya Keisha Siobhan’ (they legally couldn’t secure the rights to the ‘Sugababes’ name). After releasing a well-loved but understated Dev Hynes-produced ballad “Flatline”, they tour. An album is recorded with R&B-pop mainstays like MNEK but it is never released; though most of it leaks online.
Now, they are back, and back as the Sugababes. I catch up with them over Zoom, a few days after their sellout show at Margate Pride. I am mischievously hoping to run through two-and-a-half decades of chaos, but am met instead with the calm of three school friends. Buchanan might vividly retell those years, but now does it with a certain reflective distance. Buena is the group’s punctuationist, more likely to provide one-word agreements than philosophise at length. Donaghy is passionately musical and, despite years out of the spotlight, consummately professional. She is keen to reorient the conversation away from the noise, and towards the band’s rightful future as one of the great UK bands.
You’re fresh from performing your first Pride in years. Which of you has the biggest claim to being a gay icon?
Siobhán Donaghy: Probably Mutya.
Mutya Buena: Yeah. I mean, I guess I do a lot of shows for Pride. It’s always a great time to party and celebrate.
Are they going to let you do ‘Song 4 Mutya’ [her celebrated gay-club anthem] on this tour?
Mutya Buena: No! No.
Siobhán Donaghy: What do you mean ‘let her’?! It’s actually quite hard to do the setlist, there’s so many you want to let in. I wouldn’t rule anything out in the future…
On your shows, you’ve ended up doing some of your stuff from ten years ago [when the band briefly reformed as Mutya Keisha Siobhan, but most tracks went unreleased]. Do you have plans for those songs?
Keisha Buchanan: Sorry guys, I went into a lovely quiet coffee shop to do this call and now everyone and their gran and auntie is in here…
On that, they basically all leaked and I think people want to hear something fresh. That was really upsetting for us, you put your all into it and you’re on such a vibe. We were dealing with label stuff, team, there was the name stuff as well. I love that the fans had a great reaction but every time I get tagged in stuff I’m like, ‘you’re not supposed to hear that!’.
Mutya Buena: There were some great tracks there.
Siobhán Donaghy: I loved that body of work and I’d love it to see the light of day at some point, so it’s definitely an open discussion.
Do you feel like those leaks took the momentum out of your last era?
Siobhán Donaghy: It wasn’t the leaks that did that, there was so much going on behind the scenes. Being out this summer has really felt like it’s our time. We love what we do and are hard-working and write great tunes but you still need the stars to align.
“That was really the era of girl groups. It all comes around. I’m just waiting for the day it’s loads of girl groups and boybands coming from nowhere. It will one day soon” – Mutya Buena
It does feel like the stars aligned at Glastonbury. Were you expecting that kind of reception?
Keisha Buchanan: There’ve been such starts and stops since we got back together and sometimes you get a bit nervous. Will people still be as excited? Even though we’re back, we’ve been back before. So to hear that response from everyone, it was such a nice feeling. I’m way more grateful than I’ve ever been in my entire career.
Siobhán Donaghy: We came on and could barely hear, they had to get the sound to reach a bigger crowd than the tent because the whole area spilled out and had to be closed off. It was quite intense, but there are certain moments that you just remember, where there’s something special in the air. I remember we played Ronnie Scott’s back in the day, and that felt like a real moment. Glastonbury definitely did that again for us.
Mutya Buena: Buzzing.
In this same magazine a couple of months ago I discussed the decline of the British girlband. There were so many when you were coming up, and now beyond new band FLO, it’s slowed up so much. Do you ever think about why that is?
Mutya Buena: That was really the era of girl groups. It all comes around. I’m just waiting for the day it’s loads of girl groups and boybands coming from nowhere. It will one day soon.
Keisha Buchanan: Everyone just jumps on the wave as soon as something works. I remember when grime was something you had to listen to on pirate radio, and then So Solid were opening doors, but it was a really long time until it happened again. It takes people to think outside of the box.
Siobhán Donaghy: For a long time it’s been dance music with a single female voice. When you’re a harmony group like us, that’s really difficult because that’s not what’s magic about the three of us singing together. We’d sound really different if you do a wall of sound vibe over a dance track. I just hate when someone wants to try and make you do what works on radio – that’s not how you get people’s best work.
Have you been in that position before, of having to do the commercial stuff that your heart wasn’t in?
Keisha Buchanan: I was never really a fan of the poppy, poppy stuff, like the Red Dresses [‘Red Dress’ was their thumping Xenomania-produced 2006 single. Mutya had left the band a few weeks before its release].
There was actually a fan favourite from that time called ‘Ace Reject’. I once said I really hated that song and the backlash I got was insane. I was like, ‘you like that?!’. Now I have more of an appreciation for it. I still feel like it’s got the longest verse you’ve ever heard in your life.
That was one of those Xenomania songs [eccentric British production company] where you’d all have been put in different rooms in that big house to write different sections.
Keisha Buchanan: Yeah. I had written about four different verses and expected to use one. And then they used four of them!
Siobhán Donaghy: Is this the delicatessen song?
Keisha Buchanan: No, that’s ‘Joy Division’. [‘Joy Division’ is a song on the same 2005 album, Taller in More Ways, which contains the improbable line, ‘I ain’t just a piece of meat sitting in a delicatessen.’]
Mutya Buena: [hums the chorus of ‘Ace Reject’]
Keisha Buchanan: Oh God. Siobhán you’ve got to listen to it. It’s a lot.
You’ve all had time out of the Sugababes, hearing them from the outside. Were there moments where you heard something and thought, ‘that’s a good one’ – or where you were like ‘thank God I got out of that’?
Mutya Buena: From the time I left I used to always hear the girls on the radio. I learned the songs without knowing I’d learned them. But it was always enjoyable to hear the stuff.
Siobhán Donaghy: It becomes very separate, doesn’t it? You don’t really associate yourself with it when it’s moved on. You can kind of listen to it and enjoy it and it not be anything to do with you.
Keisha Buchanan: So you guys liked the songs after we…
Mutya Buena: Not after you left, no. [laughs]
Siobhán Donaghy: I liked the first record!
Keisha Buchanan: I feel like ‘About You Now’ has grown on us.
Siobhán Donaghy: [hesitates] Erm… I enjoy it live. I’m not going home and listening to it. But given what the tour band have done, even with songs like ‘Overload’, our musical director has just reimagined things and they all have a real new energy.
Mutya Buena: I enjoy singing ‘About You Now’ live. The crowd loves it, you can just rock to it.
Keisha Buchanan: I was on a lot of the records, I think they released maybe 2 singles when I left. If I’m being honest, ‘About A Girl’ is the only one that brings up things for me because it was around that time. I’ve still never watched the video. [‘About A Girl’ was a RedOne-produced dance single, in the Lady Gaga vein, released in 2009 just as Keisha was ejected from the group.]
Mutya Buena: No way!
Siobhán Donaghy: Don’t think I have either.
Mutya Buena: Me neither actually.
Keisha Buchanan: I was there when that was being filmed, you know.
Mutya Buena: That’s mental.
Siobhán Donaghy: Savage.
Keisha Buchanan: I was on the way to the site. That wasn’t a good day. But disclaimer, they’ve wished us well on these shows, they’re really happy for us.
Mutya Buena: Aww!
Keisha Buchanan: So a lot has changed since then. Amelle’s sent through a message, Heidi’s really happy for us and is rooting for us. You have to get to a point where you laugh at these things because it was a shitshow. But you move on, it’s all love.
Mutya Buena: I love that. That’s nice.
“Amelle’s sent through a message, Heidi’s really happy for us and is rooting for us. You have to get to a point where you laugh at these things because it was a shitshow. But you move on, it’s all love” – Keisha Buchanan
The way it was told in the press, you were made out as these catfighting girls. But wouldn’t anyone have fought and cracked under the stress you were all under?
Keisha Buchanan: Yes and no… I think we all just had such different outlooks. Before this comeback, the line-up I had the most fun in, you guys tell him.
Siobhán Donaghy: Amelle and Heidi.
Keisha Buchanan: I was able to be a bit more Disney with it.
Siobhán Donaghy: Well I’m glad you said it and not me.
Keisha Buchanan: Yeah, I always was the girl in school who did the Spice Girls routines.
Mutya Buena: You really were as well.
Keisha Buchanan: And this was like, oh my God, we all get to dress alike?! It was my bloody dream. Obviously not now it isn’t, but back then. Mutya and Siobhan keep the Disney a bit under wraps. I had a moment the other day on stage when I did a double spin and my mic dropped out and that for me was a wake-up call.
Mutya Buena: I don’t think it was a double, it was a triple.
Keisha Buchanan: Well whatever it was, I got a bit too excited. Anyway, every circumstance is different. It’s key to have the right people around us. When you have people who are just about getting on with stuff, it works better for us, rather than people who intervene in personal relationships.
Siobhán Donaghy: Back then we were laying the foundations for the band. A lot of thought had to go into that, a lot of studio sessions, it was a lot of us giving our time as teenagers to make it work. We really got behind something that was our dream. The difference is now we can be a little bit more relaxed. We’ve got this amazing thing to be proud of that we can go out and celebrate. The pressure is off. All three of us have proven ourselves now, we can enjoy it and our downtime together. The whole summer has been so lovely.
Mutya Buena: I agree.
You’ve been working with people like Blood Orange and Metronomy on remixes of older songs – do you have plans to get back in the studio soon?
Siobhán Donaghy: There’s that word, ‘soon’.
Mutya Buena: At the moment, we haven’t really had the time to get it together.
Siobhán Donaghy: It’s not a no, I think with us people will just find out that the song’s come out. The last thing we want to do is get everyone excited for something to get in the way. When it happens people will hear it.
It’s a bit more like that nowadays though.
Keisha Buchanan: I love that about the industry now.
Mutya Buena: You can release music pretty much whenever you want these days.
Do you have anyone you’d try to work with?
Keisha Buchanan: Pharrell.
Siobhán Donaghy: I always say Burna Boy. Keisha just introduced me to Juls, that stuff’s amazing.
Keisha Buchanan: Temz, she’s great.
Siobhán Donaghy: Little Simz too. We are lucky that we’ve never gone out to ask to work with someone and they’ve said no.
And any surprises on the tour later in the year?
Siobhán Donaghy: We’re adding a lot to the show. There’s one song people might not expect me to want to sing, but I want to sing it.
Mutya Buena: It’ll be a great show.
Tickets for the Sugababes’ 2022 tour are on sale now at livenation.co.uk