Keisha Buchanan, Heidi Range and Amelle Berrabah were about to embark on the Change tour. Having worked virtually non-stop since Amelle replaced Mutya Buena in December 2005, the Sugababes were all set for a break after the latest acclaimed tour finished in May 2008. Logic dictated that they take their time with their forthcoming sixth album, search for the usual bevy of skilled pop producers at their leisure, write when they felt like it, take in everything they had achieved and take a well-deserved rest on their many laurels.
But then, as we mentioned, the girls had a meeting. And everything changed.
They had plenty to talk about. When Amelle joined Sugababes in the middle of promoting the Taller In More Ways album - you remember: debuted at No.1 in the UK album charts; featured the sublime Dallas Austin-produced Push The Button single; made them the first act ever to have No.1 album, single and download simultaneously in The UK; went on to sell over a million copies in Europe alone - it was always a gamble. And, it worked. The 2006 Greatest Hits album and triumphant subsequent sold out tour; the Walk This Way single with Girls Aloud for Comic Relief in 2007; last year’s fifth Sugababes album Change and its massive lead single About You Now, which saw them pull off the No.1 album/single/download feat for a second time… all ample evidence that Amelle’s emergence as an accepted and much-loved Sugababe had been seamless.
From the moment Sugababes made their first single - the still-stunning Overload - in 2000, at the tender ages of sixteen, it was clearly marked out that they were young girls with attitude that weren’t your usual dance-and-pose poppets… it was about the vocals and the songs. But by the time you reach your sixth album - almost uncharted territory for a pure pop group in these fickle times - you have to take greater stock and ask yourselves why you’re still musically relevant. Why should the girls still be excited about being in the Sugababes? How has Amelle breathed fresh life into the group? And, the most crucial question of all… what are they gonna do now?
One answer was simple: the Sugababes wanted their sixth album to showcase the close bond the three had formed over the last two years, while simultaneously showcasing the separate strengths of Amelle, Heidi and Keisha. Amelle gave a fresh perspective and a new dynamic to Sugababes. She brings a more urgent, sassy element to the group. Keisha has grown into the consummate professional. Vocally, she’s matured so much. She understands what makes the group tick. She’s a woman with experience that belies her 24 years. And Heidi has always - and especially on this record - created special moments for the band.
It was time to bring a whole new energy to the Sugababes. After all, this is a band that signed to Island as teens. They’re now aged 23 to 25 and held in such high esteem by those in the know that they got an invite to dinner with Nelson Mandela this Summer and shared the great man’s table with Gordon Brown, Bill Clinton and Oprah Winfrey.
There had also been another recent turning point. The ’Babes topped the bill at the glittering Swarovski Fashion Rocks event at The Royal Albert Hall in October 2007. Their blistering version of Lady Marmalade was presented by Whitney Houston and featured a surprise contribution from the great Patti Labelle. In such exalted company and in front of a crowd full of A-listers, they brought the place down with a spine-tingling combination of soulful vocals and sophisticated glamour. Modesty has always been one of the Sugababes’ USPs. But, with this performance and the more glamorous staging of the 2008 tour, they’ve become big performers, full of mature confidence and showmanship. Add their unique ability to wow festival crowds full of indie fans with the kind of pop show they wouldn‘t normally cross the road to watch, and Sugababes knew that they hadn’t achieved all that they could as recording artists. They wanted to step up their game, and make an album that reflected their major leap as a show-stopping live act. It was high time that the Sugababes asserted themselves as Stars… and women who know exactly what they’re doing.
So far, so good. But the girls needed a catalyst. When Sugababes first signed to Island, they knew that they couldn’t simply make another version of 2000’s One Touch, their debut album. Then Richard X’s bootleg mix of Adele Howard’s Freak Like Me dropped into their laps, and inspired a hit-studded trip down the cutting-edge electro-pop route. They needed similar inspiration this time around.
Fate intervened, when two relatively unknown producers from Italy, Melvin Kuiters and Si Hulbert, brought to Island a new track based around a sample of Ernie K. Doe’s classic soul-funk anthem Here Come The Girls. ’Girls’ was the perfect vehicle for the Sugababes to announce their return and assert their themes of no-compromise female independence. A few lyrics had to be rewritten by the girls to suit them, because that’s what Sugababes have always done (Keisha has the itchiest trigger finger when it comes to rewriting. But all of them are adamant that they’ll never sing a line that doesn’t feel true to them). But they immediately knew that this was the Sugababes’ latest flag in the ground; the place where they could both announce their return and make a creative change.
Suddenly, the plan to take it easy, chill out, maybe make an album in 2009, was scrapped. Inspired by ‘Girls’ and their desire to remake themselves into a new, improved Sugababes, they wanted to make their sixth album… NOW. The result is “CATFIGHTS AND SPOTLIGHTS”, in which Sugababes come right back at us with a greater emphasis on earthiness, great lyrics and some fun.
So, while the ebullient ‘Girls’ gets right in-your-face with the new Sugababes agenda - ‘All independent women know/It takes a lot to run the show/I am the fire and the coal/I am a woman in control’ speaks for itself, wouldn’t you say? - other highlights from their most artful, sophisticated and eclectic collection so far provide the more subtle dimensions. Robyn producer Klas Ahlund brings that Swedish genius for high concept-pop to the table with the self-referential reinvention of vintage Motown on the bittersweet ‘You On A Good Day‘, and the extraordinary, darkly comic Abba-meets-street-beats drama that is ‘Every Heart Broken’, where Heidi relishes the opportunity to play the ultimate Black Widow. Amelle takes an edgy lead on Klas’s superbly creepy, G-funk-tinged ‘Beware’ and the tear-stained minimalism of ‘We Can Call A Truce‘.
The ‘Babes and Duffy collaborator Steve Booker were always going to be a perfect fit: ‘Sunday Rain’ is a torchy orchestral epic, full of melodrama and agony, and ‘Sound Of Goodbye’ sees Keisha and Booker making sweet music together. ‘Denial’ producers Invisible Men take the girls to the feminist funk high ground with the delicious ‘No Can Do‘, built on the tough and tender riff from rare groove masterpiece ‘Yes, Its You’ by Sweet Charles. And Hanging On A Star? Pure girl-group disco magic.
All prove that Sugababes have taken yet another giant leap forward. Because the girls are well aware that, unlike their pure pop peers, the Sugababes mean something to people. Push The Button, Freak Like Me, Overload… these were era-defining records that transcended the boring stuff about units shifted and celebrity recognition and defined big moments in our lives. “CATFIGHTS AND SPOTLIGHTS” is about bringing all those definitive Sugababes moments back, making them brand new, and cramming them all into one classic album. Commercial success isn’t enough for Keisha, Heidi and Amelle… they want people who live and breathe music to be blown away by them again.
Six albums is unheard of unless you’re a rock act. “CATFIGHTS AND SPOTLIGHTS” explains why Sugababes have such staying power, and why you’ll be gagging to hear albums seven and eight.
So, one day, the girls had a meeting. Sounds like it went pretty well.