Back In Business

Back In Business

Written by Joe Stone
Photography by Catherine Servel
Styling by Joanna Schlenzka

After 10 years apart, the original (and arguably the best) line-up of Sugababes are back together under the moniker of MKS. Looking and sounding better than ever, the talented trio give an exclusive interview to Ponystep!

Siobhan wears shirt by Jonathan Saunders care of Matches. Mutya wears coat by Emilio Pucci, poloneck by Joseph. Keisha wears poloneck by Joseph.

For anyone who can recall the singular joy of watching Mutya Buena giving the camera evils on Top Of the Pops back in 2000, hearing that the original Sugababes have regrouped is big news. Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan (see what they did there?) were responsible for one of the most soulful, sophisticated and trailblazing debuts in girlband history – an album that sounds as relevant today as it did on its release over a decade ago. Since then the Sugababes have weathered four line-up changes, becoming  pop’s equivalent of a rubik’s cube with seemingly endless combinations, and losing much of their unique appeal along the way. As The Saturdays attempt to break America (bless) and Girls Aloud struggle to keep Sarah ‘honker’ Harding out of rehab long enough to perform a greatest hits tour, the reconciliation couldn’t have come at a better time. Welcome back girls.

Believe it or not, we have Lorraine Kelly to thank for getting the ball rolling. “I remember sitting on my couch watching Mutya being interviewed on Lorraine just after I’d left Sugababes,” explains Keisha, “and Lorraine said ‘you might as well call Siobhan and get the original band back together’. I could see Mutya thinking ‘perhaps’.”

“That was the start,” confirms Mutya, between slurps of her KFC coke. “I forgot I was on TV for a second and thought, ‘yeah’. After that I Facebooked Siobhan and said we should meet up.”

We were never media trained! They just threw us out there,” says Mutya, before Keisha disagrees. “They tried to, but as soon as we got on camera we forgot everything we’d been told. We’d go into interviews with faces like thunder

As with most of pop music’s greatest moments in the last decade, Brian Higgins (the mastermind behind hit-factory Xenomania) also had a hand to play in the group’s reunion. He originally got in contact with Siobhan, who “couldn’t think of anything worse” than making another solo record, having been traumatised by the loneliness and intensity of producing two solo LPs following her early departure from the band in 2001. “I made an off the cuff remark that the only thing I’d find interesting  would be to work with the girls again,” she says. “I think Brian went into overdrive and started to set it up.”

Perhaps even more remarkable than the group’s decision to reform amid the commonly held consensus that they all hate each other (more on which later, suffice to say they don’t) is the fact that in the ten years since they were last a three piece, not a single girl-band has managed to capture the effortless cool of their debut. Did I mention that at the time of recording they were 13-years-old?

“What were our parents thinking?” laughs Keisha. “Mine didn’t want me to do it,” adds Siobhan, “they never would have stopped me, but they saw trouble ahead. It’s not a normal upbringing.”

“Mine were all up for it!” – this from Mutya, accompanied with a trademark dirty cackle. “But I’d been performing at Filipino festivals since I was six, travelling round Europe from nine. It was a cultural thing.”

“This one was in fur coats and heels at six years old,” laughs Keisha.


Siobhan wears suit by Chanel, poloneck by Joseph

The idea of a trio of teenage girls forming a pop band conjures saccharine images of stage school veterans, eager to please. The reality was somewhat different, and the band soon earned a reputation for approaching promotional duties with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for invasive dental treatment. “We were never media trained! They just threw us out there,” says Mutya, before Keisha disagrees. “They tried to, but as soon as we got on camera we forgot everything we’d been told. We’d go into interviews with faces like thunder.”

“We weren’t even moody,” insists Siobhan, “we just didn’t realise that you have to smile or else you look aloof when you’re on TV. A lot of it was nerves, I was crippled with them. Perhaps people thought we were encouraged to be [moody], but we weren’t old enough to be contrived.”

The girls’ hard-faced demeanor set them apart from their bubblegum contemporaries, but also sparked rumours of in-fighting. When Siobhan suddenly left during a promotional tour of Japan, fans and press alike were convinced that it was bullying which had driven her out. Since then she’s publicly admitted that she didn’t get on with Keisha. Were there old wounds to address this time around? “Err, yeah!” exclaims Keisha, with an are-you-joking? expression. “Me and Siobhan had to sit down and have that conversation before anything else. There were a lot of things misconstrued over the years and we weren’t in a good place. We realised that things were a lot more complicated than we thought. When you’re 13 you don’t sit and say ‘this is how I feel’ and discuss things. We never really spoke to each other the first time around. It was almost like ‘you’ve offended me, so I’m not going to deal with you.’ But we reached an understanding and were able to move forward.”

Of the many myths surrounding the Sugababes early configuration, perhaps the most persistent (and, admittedly, amusing) is that Mutya and Keisha had developed a secret language in order to slag Siobhan off without having to go to the ‘effort of doing it privately. Is that true? “Oh my God, don’t,” begins an exasperated Mutya.

Legally I’ve been told I can’t go into detail. I can speak for England, and I’d enjoy telling the world exactly what happened, but I can’t

“When we were young, there was a language called ski that we all spoke in’, explains Keisha. “In an interview someone asked what we were speaking and I said ‘we speak it all the time’, and Siobhan said ‘I can understand it but I don’t speak it’. From that moment, [the story] was like a fungus that grew a life of it’s own!”

I suppose, in that case, the rumour that a terrified Siobhan escaped out of a toilet window is also false? “People like to think that!”, says Siobhan. “I can’t remember which magazine said it first, but everyone picked up on it. It makes us laugh, but it’s not true I’m afraid.”

After Siobhan left, Mutya and Keisha were dropped from their label, before promptly replacing her with new member Heidi Range and releasing an era-defining slice of pop perfection, Freak Like Me. As with so much of the Sugababes history, nobody could have predicted this fortuitous turn, but Siobhan insists she’s never regretted leaving just before the group hit their commercial stride. “I’d dance to Freak Like Me in a club, and I love that song. But I never wished I had stayed,” she says. “People would say ‘God, you must be so jealous’, but not really. Some things are nicer to experience from the outside without the pressure and the stress. I left for a really good reason, and never regretted that.”

Keisha wears shirt by Miu Miu, skirt by Jitrois, shoes by Prada.

The girls have been shut away in various recording studios since last October, working with an impressive roster of collaborators, including Mojam, Biff Stannard (Kylie, Spice Girls), Cameron McVeigh (who produced their first single, Overload), and ex-All Saint, Shaznay Lewis. The music feels both like a continuation of the first album and a refresher on their original sound, combining 90s influences on Back In The Day (‘Our TLC moment’, says Siobhan), Afrobeat on Drum and EDM on Boys. A favourite track is Beat Is Gone, which Keisha describes as being “quite Jessie Ware, Wildest Moments.” Understandably, they can’t wait to unleash their sound onto a salivating public. “I think it’s a step-up from the first album,” says Mutya, “I just hope people will enjoy it. Actually, I know people will enjoy it!”

They were hesitant to commit to recording an album before they’d established whether or not their old magic still existed, and the first time in the studio was an emotional one. “On day two I had a weird panic attack. I literally had a meltdown and had to miss the next day,” says Keisha. “I was just dealing with so much stuff and everything was happening so fast. I didn’t know who I could trust anymore.”

We never really spoke to each other the first time around. It was almost like ‘you’ve offended me, so I’m not going to deal with you.’ But we reached an understanding and were able to move forward

It seems likely that her initial insecurities arose from her bafflement at being sacked from the Sugababes two years previously. It was a development which set the wheels in motion for a Mutya Keisha Siobhan reunion, and spelt the beginning of the end for the remaining Sugababes and new recruit Jade Ewan, who released three further singles to diminishing returns. The reason for her departure from the band has never been publicly clarified. “Legally I’ve been told I can’t go into detail,” says Keisha. “I can speak for England, and I’d enjoy telling the world exactly what happened, but I can’t. I pretty much found out when everyone else did. We had a really good relationship. If there was a big argument it would be easy for me to be honest now and say what happened, but actually, the night before, everyone was hanging out together.”

After investing eleven years in the Sugababes, and becoming the only founding member to remain in the band (Mutya left in 2005 following the birth of her first daughter), it must have felt like a slap in the face to be unceremoniously ejected? “I’ve accepted that it’s not personal, and I’ve come to grips with that,” she says. “It was difficult at the time, but the best thing for me to do was see the high road, wish them the best of luck and move on. I know what happened, they know what happened, and we’ve all moved on. Where I am now is what was meant to happen and was probably the best thing that ever happened to me.”

This time around, the girls have insured themselves against the possibility of any further line-up changes by choosing a name that doesn’t allow for the addition or subtraction of members. “It got to the point where we all suddenly remembered that the band didn’t have a name,” says Siobhan. ‘”I guess it felt like we didn’t want to re-brand because people know who we are and our background and where we started. It seemed quite nice to stick with our own names.”

Mutya wears coat by Emilio Pucci, dress by Stella McCartney

With the impending release of their new album to look forward to, it seems to have been a cathartic journey, returning full circle to the point at which it all began for the girls. If they had one piece of advice to offer their younger selves, what would it be? “I’d tell myself to chill out a bit and not take everything so seriously,” says Siobhan. “The idea of being a teenager again terrifies me on so many levels. Not just about being in the band, boyfriend stuff, all of it. The older I get the more I enjoy my life.”

“To express myself more, and not bottle things up,” adds Keisha. And Mutya? After a minutes deliberation she announces, “I’d tell myself to bloody smile! Since Keisha mentioned going onto Youtube, I’ve found myself having a little look late at night and wanting to punch myself. Watching interviews and thinking ‘smile! Just do something, say something!’ the way that I looked at people!’

We wouldn’t have had it any other way…

Nails Adam Slee at Streeters for Rimmel London

Hair Karin Bigler at D+V Management using Phyto

Make up Georgina Graham at Management+Artists using Chanel AW12 Christmas Colours

Assisted by Hannah Paul and Jade Amy Willis