“I wouldn’t say we were complacent,” says Keisha Buchanan, attempting to describe the torpor that descended on the Sugababes around the time of their last album. “But I’d walk off stage and I wouldn’t even have broken a sweat. It was like I’d just walked to the bottom of my road.”
The fact that the pop trio she formed in 1998 have survived long enough for torpor to set is improbable enough in itself. What’s even harder to believe is that Buchanan, compact and cherubic across a London hotel-room table, is still two months short of her 25th birthday. She’s had six No. 1 singles (seven, if you include Sugababes’ participation in the 2004 remake of Do They Know It’s Christmas?) and six albums (five of them Top 10s) under her belt, and her London/Liverpool trio has outlived virtually all its pop rivals of the last decade (save Girls Aloud, with whom relations seem to be distant but mutually respectful) — yet she’s too young to remember life before mobile phones.
So are Amelle Berrabah, 25, who still has the faint fragrance of new girl about her despite having replaced original Babe Mutya Buena in 2005, and Heidi Range, 26, the Liverpudlian of the group, whose white Chanel handbag and killingly high heels say “noughties girl group” loud and clear. All three are chatty and fresh-faced, and teenish enough to post Twitter messages like this recent Berrabah tweet: “Hay people!!!! Me and heidi and r hair stylist on r way 2 durham baby!!! O yeah!! We decided 2 get the train coz will b quicker!xxx.”
These deceptively young women are about to release their seventh studio album (as yet untitled) and they’re sitting here, talking like old pros about complacency and how they’re now, as Buchanan says, “Oh my God, so reinvigorated.” It was their last album, 2008’s Catfights and Spotlights, that made them doubt themselves for the first time. Long accustomed to praise for their ultra-sharp urban pop, they were shocked by the lukewarm reviews and sales. The Guardian called it “a general transition from crisp modernity to self-consciously grown-up, Duffyesque soul,” and even the usually adulatory Popjustice.com complained that there were “no decent” uptempo numbers — this from a band renowned for the brilliance of hits such as Freak Like Me and Hole in the Head.
“We’re still really proud of [Catfights], even though it wasn’t our most successful album,” says Buchanan, who’s invariably first to answer questions. “I was surprised — I think Change should’ve got those bad reviews, because that was a lot poppier. With Catfights, we decided to go a bit old-school and stripped-back. But if we stayed in the place we were in, we’d never move on.” But she finally admits they did become complacent, and that must be a difficult thing to own up to, coming from someone who’s otherwise unswervingly on-message about how great it is to be a Sugababe. “When I say complacent, I mean we had put ourselves in boxes and said we were just singers.”
“We took our eye off the ball and didn’t concentrate on the performance and styling side,” says Range. Though presentation is a critical factor in a chart-pop band’s continuing success these days, the trio confess they’d neglected it because, crazily, they assumed fans would want to hear them sing no matter how they looked. Buchanan sighs. “The industry is changing. We used to say in interviews that we could put bin-bags over our heads and people would still come to see us. But they wouldn’t now. People want to see the whole package. They want to know all about you.”