‘We had to reclaim what was rightfully ours’: the triumphant return of the Sugababes | Music


The OG lineup of Mutya, Keisha and Siobhán returned a decade ago as MKS, but were thwarted by industry shenanigans. Now they’re back, with the Sugababes name under their control, and won’t let anything – or anyone – stand in their way

Sat 16 Sep 2023 06.55 EDT

Mutya Buena – the husky-voiced heart and soul of the Sugababes – is both late and early for our interview. We bump into each other in the street outside the band’s management offices in east London where Buena is huffing on a glittery pink vape. When she extends a heavily tattooed hand to greet me she accidentally pierces the skin of my palm with one of her razor-sharp nails. It’s 10.40am and when I mention the fact we’re both early for our 11am appointment, Buena looks confused. “I was told 10.30,” she says, “I thought I was late.” When it dawns on her she’s been told an earlier time, perhaps on purpose, she offers a characteristically blunt summation of the situation: “Little fuckers!”

Her bandmates Keisha Buchanan and Siobhán Donaghy arrive shortly after. They all look incredibly fresh-faced despite battling extreme tiredness: Buchanan, 38, has just landed in London from Toronto via the red-eye; Donaghy, 39, is at her wits’ end given it’s the summer holidays and she has two small children to wrangle; and Buena, 38, has just returned from a family holiday to Disneyland. “There were 22 of us,” she sighs, pulling her olive -green bomber jacket up around her like a sleeping bag.

The exhaustion is tinged with an undercurrent of mania, the three of them chatting over each other with hurried life updates and various concerns about the final mix of their soulful new single, When the Rain Comes, their first in this lineup as the Sugababes in more than 20 years. They seem genuinely thrilled to be in each other’s presence. “I get so excited when I have to go into work,” smiles Buchanan, the Sugababe most likely to answer a question first. “Oh my God, it’s the thing I most look forward to,” agrees Buena, who favours brevity over chit-chat. “What’s the day going to bring?” laughs Donaghy, ever pragmatic. “It’s always something.”

Three of a kind … Siobhán Donaghy, Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

She’s not wrong. The story of the Sugababes is one of the most complicated in pop history. Formed in north London in 1998, when Buchanan and Buena were both 13, and Donaghy was 14, the group were the cool, attitude-heavy antidote to the DayGlo, perma-smiling pop of Steps and S Club 7. Their critically lauded debut single, Overload, an aloof mix of R&B, hip-hop and indie, crashed into the Top 10 in 2000, but sales of the subsequent album, One Touch, were disappointing and Donaghy left under a cloud of acrimony a year later. She was swiftly replaced by the bubbly Heidi Range, who sang on the band’s biggest hits, including UK No 1s Freak Like Me, Round Round, Push the Button and About You Now. At the end of 2005 Buena suddenly quit, shortly after having a baby, and was replaced by soundalike Amelle Berrabah. Was Donaghy surprised when Buena left? “I could see that it was a toxic enough environment that someone else might,” she says.

Everyone, however, was surprised by what happened next. In 2009 Buchanan, the only remaining original member of the group, was replaced by that year’s Eurovision song contest fifth-placed runner-up Jade Ewen. “I found out when everyone else did,” laughs Buchanan. “At the time they were going to replace [Berrabah] and I was against her leaving. Then I thought the band had disbanded – that was the agreement.” The Sugababes brand had steadily become more important than its constituent parts. “People [we worked with] would say it boldly – ‘this is the brand’, and ‘one in one out’,” continues Buchanan.

The Keisha-less lineup would release the Sugababes’ seventh album, Sweet 7, in 2010, before going on hiatus. That hiatus, as opposed to a split that would potentially free up the Sugababes name, meant that when Buena, Buchanan and Donaghy – a lineup that had gained almost mythical status among pop fans in the interim – announced their return in 2012 it was under the slightly unwieldy moniker of Mutya Keisha Siobhán (MKS).

Who made the first attempts at reconciliation? “Nine months [after being ousted from the Sugababes] I was contacted about the [original] girls wanting to get back together,” explains Buchanan. “I was hesitant because I needed to heal, like, ‘Leave me alone, these girl band bitches are crazy!’” They all laugh. “But I knew that I would have regretted it if I hadn’t. Even at the height of Sugababes I used to think, ‘I wonder what would have happened after One Touch’.” Buena nods in agreement.

“I didn’t!” shouts Donaghy suddenly to mock horror from the other two. “I never thought the day would come.” However, once Buchanan was ousted, Donaghy says, “a light went on and reuniting just became a possibility for me again. I allowed myself to think it.”

What did the people around Donaghy think about her returning to a band that, according to a 2003 interview, made you feel like “a dead person”? “‘You’re fucking nuts!’” answers Buena quickly. “They were secretly quite happy to see me back doing music again,” Donaghy counters. “They always felt like that’s what I should be doing.”

About them now … Sugababes back on stage at the Mighty Hoopla festival, south London, 2022. Photograph: Lorne Thomson/Redferns

The initial MKS excitement – a major label record deal with Polydor, a near-religious launch gig at London’s Scala, a Dev Hynes-produced single, Flatline – soon fizzled out as the band disappeared for almost a decade. In 2021 they re-emerged again, this time back under the Sugababes name, to celebrate the Covid-delayed 20th anniversary of One Touch, before surprise-releasing an album, The Lost Tapes, on Christmas Eve last year. Even that was tinged with sadness; The Lost Tapes was a collection of songs recorded as MKS, all 13 of which had leaked online shortly after Flatline missed the UK Top 40. It has, as they like to say in pop, been A Journey.

So it feels miraculous that Sugababes are back and that they’ve spent most of the last two years playing sold-out tours and huge festival stages. At Glastonbury 2022 their appearance on the Avalon stage led to the entire field being closed due to over-crowding, while a recent performance at indie festival Tramlines went viral after someone filmed a rain-soaked bunch of bucket hat-sporting lads losing it to About You Now. by the time you read this they will have also played a headline show at London’s 20,000-seater O2 arena. Why are people still so fascinated? “People are rooting for us,” says Donaghy. “There’s been such an overwhelming feeling of positivity and people wanting to see us do well. I’m aware that if we walk down the street together that it is a bit of a motley crew,” she laughs. “But people find it fascinating to look at us and then hear us sing.”

“It’s nice to feel like you’re wanted,” agrees Buchanan, before admitting to a hint of nerves. “Me and Mutya were shocked – not to say we didn’t have any faith in us three coming back, but it’s always a thing of ‘Is anyone going to be out there?’” Buena still has fears about being pelted with bottles of urine a la Daphne and Celeste at Reading festival 2000. “That’s what goes on in my head,” she says. “I’m overly nervous every time we go out.” A quick drink eases things along, however: “Rum punch is our thing,” she smiles.

When Buena adds that she feels like people are happy to see them get a second chance, I assume she’s alluding to finally following up that original One Touch era, a time damaged by a lack of communication between the group, and adults pitting them against each other (in a 2021 interview Buchanan revealed she was told by the producers to go into a room and Entertainment/music/news/sugababes-keisha-buchanan-mutya-buena-fight-b1931375.html”>fight with Buena). But she’s actually referring to their more recent struggles, specifically the short-lived MKS era and the behind-the-scenes fight to get their name back. Shortly after signing with Polydor in 2012 things went sour. “Within eight weeks they shelved us,” says Buchanan. “It’s literally like a toxic relationship. They get you and then they try and change you and then ghost you. That’s fine, but just let us go. The issue is being held there.” Assuming a big first single would move things along, the trio reached out to Hynes themselves and paid for various recording trips to LA out of their own pockets. “They didn’t want to fund us,” sighs Buena. In the end, they managed to extricate themselves from the deal. “We got our masters back and we got our advances back,” Buchanan adds proudly.

The happiness was short-lived, however. Not only did those masters leak (when I ask how, Donaghy says: “Well who would have all of them? It’s not the producers …”), there’s also talk of shadowy figures intent on sabotage. “We would have things lined up for us and then we were told that ‘a phone call had been made and you’re not allowed to be on this particular show,’” explains Buchanan. “There was someone from our past that was constantly blocking us.” They won’t name names: “I can’t be bothered to get into another legal thing,” says Donaghy when pressed. Buena, now comfortably ensconced in the very corner of the sofa, refers to them only as “a stale smell”.

‘This comeback is about restoring what was meant to be’: Mutya, Keisha and Siobhán. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Knowing that the only way this lineup could succeed was to get the Sugababes name back, Buchanan trawled through reams of legal paperwork. “It was hard,” she says. “But whenever I would listen to the music, I would think: ‘Oh my gosh there’s something there.’” She leans forward. “[This comeback] is way more than just a financial thing for us. It is about restoring what was meant to be. And about justice. There’s been a lot of unfairness, a lot of things behind the scenes, and we felt like we had to reclaim back what was rightfully ours.”

Did you ever think about giving up? “No, we all knew it would work,” Donaghy says. “Some of us checked out. But that just meant you couldn’t continue to push. We couldn’t always get over some of the humps.” Buchanan says that it was during the trio’s time in “the trenches”, as she calls the last decade or so, that their already-scrutinised relationship was tested the most. “We had to establish a new form of patience with each other,” she says. “When everything’s going well it’s fine, but actually can you stick through these things when it’s not going the way you’d like them to?”

Donaghy immediately notices Buchanan’s neat segue into the themes of When the Rain Comes, a harmony-laden, retro-soul number reminiscent of Buena’s unfairly forgotten 2007 solo debut, Real Girl. It was inspired by the recent re-emergence of ghosts from their past keen to get a slice of the action now that the Sugababes are riding high.

“It’s a celebration of the people who are really there for you,” Donaghy says. “We’re not teenagers, we’re not figuring out who our tribes are, we’ve got amazing friends and family. That core bit of it is set and we’re lucky to have that.” There’s a lovely bit in the song where Donaghy answers the central question – will you be there through thick and thin, basically – with cooed “I will, I will” ad-libs, as if singing to her bandmates. “Ultimately these are the only two people I’m relying on in the entire setup,” she says looking at Buena and Buchanan. “These are the two women I trust.”

Buchanan recently got some old VHS footage of the band converted to digital and she’s keen to play Buena and Donaghy a specific video on her phone. The three of them watch their teenage selves doing rudimentary dance rehearsals and enduring a hilarious mock interview they can now barely sit through due to the embarrassment. The air may be thick with nostalgia but after finally getting a taste of the success they felt was taken away, not once but twice, it also feels like there’s a future. “We are over the start and stop of it all,” Buchanan states. “We have some exciting things coming.” So, there’s more music? “There has to be,” Buena insists. “We can’t just release one song and then go missing again.” For Buchanan and Donaghy the “sky’s the limit” when it comes to the future. And for Buena? “I’m really happy,” she smiles. “And really knackered.”

When the Rain Comes is out now.

The Post ‘We had to reclaim what was rightfully ours’: the triumphant return of the Sugababes | Music Originally Posted on amp.theguardian.com

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