At the Women In Music Awards 2023, we celebrated the achievements of 13 game changing executives and artists as the industry came together to honour their work. Music Week has spoken to all of the winners to tell their stories.
Interview: Miranda Bardsley
They need no introduction, but let's do one anyway! After forming in 1998 in their early teens, Mutya Buena, Keisha Buchanan and Siobhán Donaghy exploded onto the UK music scene with their critically-acclaimed debut single Overload. Their debut album One Touch followed and the Sugababes went on to become one of the most successful British girl bands of the 21st century, scoring six No.1 singles, millions of global sales and numerous multi-platinum albums.
Whilst the name itself saw different iterations, the original trio returned to the charts in 2013 under the moniker MKS with the single Flatline, before later securing the rights to once again release as Sugababes. With a celebratory Mighty Hoopla headline set in 2022, and their epic Glastonbury performance later that year, the Sugababes set the wheels in motion for one of the most exciting music returns of recent memory.
The last two years have seen the group headline London’s O2 Arena, release their new single When The Rain Comes, play a flurry of sold-out gigs, feature on the cover of numerous magazines and, more recently, bring in an enormous crowd at their recorded Boiler Room set, which became the most subscribed event in the platform’s history.
Here, we meet Buena, Buchanan and Donaghy to honour their incredible career so far, reflect on how they navigated the ups and downs throughout the years, and find out why they are only looking to the future these days…
Congratulations on winning the Inspirational Artist award at this year’s Music Week Women In Music Awards! How does it feel?
Keisha Buchanan: “I was so shocked! We've had such an amazing year and a half, this launch has been like everything that we've wanted for the past 10 years and it just feels so nice to be recognised and embraced by our peers and our fans in this way. It’s amazing.”
Were you taken by surprise at how much people were excited for your return?
Siobhán Donaghy: “It feels the same to me as when we first came out 20 years ago. The fact that we're doing the Boiler Room stuff and Glastonbury, and we've got our Drumsheds night coming up, I'm just so happy that we're doing all that tastemaker stuff again, that feels like it's back to the Sugababes' roots. We’ve always straddled the pop and commercial side and the alternative stuff, which just makes it such an exciting journey. So to have all of that back, it's amazing. I wasn't expecting it. Even when we went out and played Glastonbury last year, it was amazing that we were there, but I certainly didn’t think we’d be the talk of the town!”
KB: “We’ve been back singing together for the best part of 10 years, and there were a lot of stops and starts, but you just really never know how people are going to embrace you again. So it's been a shock to the system!”
SD: “But a good one!”
Mutya Buena: “Definitely a good one!”
It's really important that we keep to the authenticity of how we first started
Your recent single, When The Rain Comes, was your first single as the original Sugababes for more than 20 years. What was the process like working together again?
MB: “When we work together, it always feels natural. Everything always comes together how it should, everything feels normal and we know what we want. Everyone has their own ideas of things, so it's really nice and refreshing.”
SD: “We really lean on each other's strengths. If there's a particular thing that we need in the music, we naturally just agree on who the person is for it and what vibe we want. The three of us each just bring such a different vibe to it. We never really step on each other's toes, we totally have our own lane, which is amazing.”
Keisha and Mutya, it must’ve been really nice to see Siobhán embrace the songs you hadn’t done together – what was that experience like?
KB: “I feel like it's really important that we keep to the authenticity of how we first started. So, originally, our music was more indie, alternative R&B. And obviously, as the Sugababes grew, there were a lot of pop hits, and although we did still keep to that formula, having Siobhán back was really refreshing. It was nice to hear her take on it and I feel like it brought some of that edge back. We also have a fantastic band who came in with new fresh ears and took a different approach on those older tracks, because for us it was really important that we weren’t going out doing karaoke. That’s why we hate the word ‘reunion’, it just feels like something that’s just for today, if that makes sense.”
SD: “I agree with Keisha, it’s so important to us that it all stays a creative process. Our new band has just been so incredible these past couple of summers. There are songs like Red Dress that I just thought I would never do, and yet our band were like, ‘Let us just do our take on it and see how you feel.’ And it ended up being one of my favourites in the set, which is just so hilarious! We’ve had to stay really open-minded and I’ve really enjoyed it.”
I certainly didn’t think we’d be the talk of the town at Glastonbury last year!
Going right back to the start, you had huge success straight away. Can you paint a picture of yourselves at that time? What do you remember about being teenagers in the industry?
KB: “I mean, it was strange because we were working a lot and our friends were at school. I remember the transition of my friends all starting their A levels, and I'd been told that I couldn't do them because the three of us were homeschooled together. We were getting busier and busier and travelling more. It's funny because they were such exciting things, but we couldn't help sitting there and thinking, ‘My friends are all having a great time this weekend and I'm not around for it’. The nice thing this time around is that I feel like we've been able to just really embrace it and live in the moment more. We don't sit around in the hotel room, for example, when we’re away, we’ll get up and out and have a great time together.”
How well-equipped were you for fame and navigating the industry? How do you look back at that now as adults in the business?
KB: “We initially just loved singing and wanted to just be in the studio all the time. I don't think we were really prepared for it all, it was just like, ‘Oh cool, our song is coming out’, or, ‘Oh cool, we're gonna be on Top Of The Pops!’ You can never really be prepared for the pressure of being under the spotlight, and I don’t think our environment was necessarily set up to support us in terms of our emotional and mental capacity to deal with everything and the stress that comes with trying to blend three girls together. When I think back to that, it all feels quite heavy, so it’s really nice that since then, and over the last 10 years, we’ve been able to really make decisions as businesswomen to make sure that we are flourishing in the right environment with the right people. Every single person around us has to have kindness and treat people well, and support us as individuals, as well as our relationship together. That has been the biggest difference, and it's made such an amazing impact, and I think people really see that.”
SD: “There’s a part of me that does sort of feel sad about that. When I think back, I think, ‘Gosh, imagine if we'd had the setup we have today back then, where people are just supporting each other.’ It's so hard to be a teenager, and instead of supporting our well being [people were] using us as chess pieces and looking at us as a business, all of those things were not good for relationships. I feel like we were just too young to be treated like that. It’s just amazing that we’ve been able to come full circle, and as Keisha said, run our own business, be in charge and make sure that those mistakes are never repeated.”
Has it been a healing experience getting back together under the name Sugababes, then?
KB: “I think that we've all had our own individual experiences throughout the years. You know, my exit out of the group was no secret, I lost friends and felt betrayed and there were all these different things. But I think for all of us, we've all said that this experience coming back has been a very healing experience. As we've gotten to know each other as adults, we’ve started to establish more of a family-like relationship and a safety net. Us fighting for the name and standing our ground with that was really hard, and there have been times over the last 10 years where at least one of us tapped out and has taken some time off. But I think through us not giving up and seeing it through, it has just made our bond stronger. We don't have too many conversations about the past, but we have a better understanding of each other and who we are as people now.”
SD: “I feel like when we were MKS, that was a time for us to try to unpick and understand what had happened to us in the past. Now it feels like it’s sort of time to draw a line under that, it’s onwards and upwards, it’s time to take as much joy from this as possible.”
The last two years have been so amazing – I’ve been able to enjoy everything this time around
Looking back on old interviews, the different iterations of the group often fuelled unnecessary criticism from the media. Do you feel that has ever diluted or altered your reputation as a musical group?
SD: “We've had nothing but positivity thrown at us in the last two years. Before that, I think it definitely did affect the legacy, and personally, I have always felt like a thorn in the side in that respect, because I feel like it's my presence that really brings that narrative, which makes me really sad. Having had the past two summers just be such a massive success and for everyone to have embraced us in such a positive way, I've loved how much of that has just turned around and now it feels like, for people looking at it, they can see that it’s such a positive story. It’s about friendship and reconciliation and about how you take control of things yourself. I'm just so proud of us that we did stick on in there.”
MB: “I totally agree. I feel like, for the last few years, there has been such a great reception towards us and it doesn't feel new, it just feels like everything's kind of just falling into place. I feel like people do pick up on the music we’re making more than anything now, which is what's most important, because it is all about the music. And it's nice to carry on from where we left off and just be recognised for something that we love.”
KB: “We also set the tone for that ourselves, we make a really conscious effort of actually having our own voice. Whether we're speaking to journalists or whoever, it's really important for us to be authentic and honest, but also to direct it, because some journalists want to talk about certain things and they forget that we were just children, and there are so many narratives around the group. Even my personal experience of it, as the Black girl in the group, those narratives are annoying. I'm just so proud of us because I really feel like we've stuck together. We’re not going to allow anyone who can’t see beyond any narratives or ‘drama’ to overshadow what we’re doing now. We’re taking that power and rewriting it!”
On the subject of life as a pop group in the early days, what could have been done better?
KB: “The most important thing is to have someone that has your back, someone who is between the label and the artist, who understands you as an artist but also works well with the label. It is a business, and especially back then, if you didn’t sell records, that was kind of the end of it. So I think that going into it, understanding that it's a business, but surrounding yourself with the right people that you trust, who tell you the truth, is super-important. Honestly, having the [right] environment is key to an artist thriving.”
Whitney Asomani and Matt Johnson started co-managing you in 2020. How do they support you and what is your relationship like with them?
SD: “It’s been good! It is definitely a different dynamic to what we’ve had with managers historically, just because of how much more we look after ourselves. We’re adults now, so it’s important we’re at a point where everyone understands each other.”
MB: “And how we want to work.”
KB: “Yeah, I feel like for us, being 25 years in, it’s more about having people supporting our vision. For example, if we go into the studio and we are writing or recording, we don't sit there with a label or team who are telling us what our next single is going to be, we are very much hands on now. It’s a very different setup.”
This time around, you have also gone the independent route. How has the exprience been so far?
SD: “We’ve had various different experiences with labels in the past, and some have been incredibly positive. You never want to be in a position where you are being creatively stunted, so all we’ve been doing is making sure we’re working with people that align with us and who we respect, and who we know are going to have good intentions to have with us.”
SD: “I also just feel so relaxed with our agent, Paul Franklin at CAA.”
MB: “He is amazing!”
KB: “He is just one of the good guys, he has just given me back faith in the music industry, just him by himself! We love him. He has been with us from the very early years, and not a lot of people had a lot of faith in us to come back like we did, but he stood by us. We never forget people like that, he has just been such a confidence booster and he comes backstage after every show to give us critiques, though he seems to like every show we do! Paul Franklin is the GOAT. ”
Finally, looking ahead to 2024 for the Sugababes. What’s next? Are there any new projects you’re excited about right now?
KB: “We’re working on our new project, which we started earlier this year when we wrote When The Rain Comes, which came out of the first session for it, and we’ve got quite a few other things booked in for next year which are exciting.”
MB: “It’s still early days and as Keisha said, there are already a few things coming in for next year, but I just want it to be fun. The last two years have been so amazing and I’ve been able to enjoy everything this time around, so I just want to keep enjoying it, be busy and out there!”
KB: “We don't take anything for granted, we enjoy every moment. We love being on the tour bus, we just want more of that, we want to meet more fans around the world and just really, truly be happy and enjoy it.”