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After getting back from the states two days previously, I hot stepped it over to gay Paris for a night out to celebrate Monsieur Gaultier's new fragrance Madame and then over to club Le Baron! I got the eurostar with 40 of the Ponystep crowd...uh huh...40! Fab night had all round, especially everything being edible and mostly from Laduree....heaven!!
Au Revoir Siobhan
Jean Paul Gaultier Paris June 4th
Siobhan Donaghy - The one that got away by Andreas Soteriou (16/9/2009)
Siobhan Donaghy was the sulky redhead credited with giving the original Sugababes line-up an edge of cool. Tiring of a punishing schedule and band 'in-fighting', Siobhan boarded a London bound flight during an exhausting tour of Japan and never returned to the band. Since then she has become a star in her own right, producing two acclaimed solo albums in the process. Here, she talks candidly to Ponystep and reveals what REALLY happened! Photos by Jonathan Hallam. Styling by Phoebe Arnold.
“I don’t often dress up”, confides SiobhŠn Donaghy, “But I thought I should make an effort for you today”. As a long-time admirer of the acclaimed singer-songwriter and former Sugababe, it is hard not to feel flattered. She has quite sensibly decided to forgo the heightened theatrics of her last album cover for fear of looking slightly ridiculous on the streets of East London on a sunny afternoon, the high-necked white ceremonial gown and taxidermy abandoned in favour of a green summer dress and smart jacket. She is carrying her trusty laptop, containing work-in-progress from a new musical project; words that will be a comfort to the members of her fanbase who felt a sense of mild panic when she recently announced that she would be taking a sabbatical from the industry. “I feel like I have had that break now” she says, though her relaxed demeanour and self-confessed perfectionism betray the fact that she won’t be rushed.
There are plenty of questions about SiobhŠn’s life and career that have been left unanswered. For better or worse, this has mostly been her own choosing, as she has often taken a step back from the promotional machine and decided to let the personal lyrics on her solo albums speak for themselves. She would have the makings of a perfect musical enigma, if only she weren’t so down-to-earth and approachable. Shattering yet another illusion by ordering a glass of Coke instead of tea in a china cup, she sits down and takes the time to reflect on thirteen eventful years within an ever-changing pop landscape. “Does that make me sound old?” she wonders aloud. Not at all, though it probably does make her wiser than most...
Andreas Soteriou: What were the reasons behind your decision to take a break before working on your new material?
Siobhan Donaghy: I just feel like you need a direction for a record and you can't find that until you've gone out and lived a little bit. I don't know how you could go straight from one album to another because you become so immersed in it that you need to come out of that hole and back into the world. When you've finished all the promo, you need to slip back into listening to music and reading popular culture. You become quite detached from that, though I do cut myself off on purpose to block out any outside influences.
AS: We probably shouldn’t be too worried, though, as it took you a while to produce a follow-up to your debut album. The result was Ghosts, which was a bit of a masterpiece.
SD: I am sure that took about three years. I think that sometimes I can be a bit of a slowcoach.
AS: Was it a difficult album to make?
SD: Yes. The hardest. It takes longer with every record because you become more of a perfectionist. I am quite hard on myself and then I end up working with heroin addicts and stuff, which doesn't help (laughs). We'd made a point of having the first album be quite rough-around-the-edges. I was working with Cameron McVey, who'd also produced One Touch by the Sugababes. Back then, we wrote Overload together, which was the lead single. It was done in one take on a 58 hand-held mic. That was what he saw in me and wanted for Revolution.. A live band, a one-take vocal. That completely changed when I met James Simon, who produced Ghosts. He announced that he hated everything I'd ever done, which I later found out was actually the complete opposite. He loved my first record but it inspired him to see me try something different with my voice. He wanted it to be perfect so we bloody laboured over that record.
AS: You managed to combine your leftfield musical influences with a strong pop sensibility.
SD: Once I know what I want to do, I like to listen to certain things from my music library. For Ghosts it was Shakespear's Sister and a lot of Kate Bush. Stuff like that.
AS: The striking visuals were also integral to the work. Did you enjoy collaborating with people like Sophie Muller and Floria Sigismondi?
SD: Floria is amazing. I had to speak to her for, like, three months from my mobile to her mobile in LA. And I mean for hours at a time. She's really eccentric, she lives in her own creative world with her family around her. She wants to create a bond with you or she's not going to work with you. I really had to convince her to work with me. I didn't realise it at the time. I just thought that we were throwing ideas at each other. But I look back now and think that I was actually convincing her to work with me.
AS: The artwork definitely made an impact. I remember discussing the album with a friend of mine at the time. He seemed puzzled until he realised that you were the girl in the poster with the bees and the teacup that he passed on his way to work every morning.
SD: Those posters stayed up for ages. There were some on the Underground that must have had slots that don't change over that much. I am sure my record company didn't pay for them to be up that long.
AS: Though, to be honest, he comes from a family of antiques restorers, so he was probably mostly interested in the craftmanship of the armchair.
SD: It was amazing. The whole set of the photoshoot; I had never seen anything like it. It was in a disused theatre in downtown LA, really falling down. There were around a hundred people working on it.
AS: Over a decade has passed since you first started out in the music industry. How has it changed since then?
SD: A lot. It's been thirteen years. When I started out we were still on tape, we weren't even on digital. There was a real magic to that. (Pauses) I never like what's popular in the charts. I'll never make a commercial record. I wish I could, but I can't. I try to make pop records. My fans think they're pop records but radio doesn't. They always love it, but I think my biggest sticking point is that I used to be in the Sugababes. No-one can get over that hurdle.
AS: That must be frustrating. Especially as, even in the time between the release of Revolution In Me and Ghosts, a lot of the other, more traditional outlets had disappeared. No more Saturday morning children’s TV, no more Top of the Pops.
SD: There was nothing worse than those disappearing, because everyone grew up watching them. We got to go on those shows. On those tiny sets, you totally felt part of that bubble. There were so many shows were you'd meet other bands, which was amazing.
AS: You must be the only person who ever performed at BoomBox and on Loose Women in the same week.
SD: That was a time of wild panic. When Ghosts came out, it didn’t go on a new release shelf in any shop because it got delivered and there’d been a mistake on the production line. I’ve never heard the music that was on the CDs, but it wasn’t my album. When the stores were told about it, the album was lifted off the shelves and taken back. By the time it was ready, a lot of the stores didn’t take it because they were pissed off. I mean, these things are accidents, but record companies are a law unto themselves.
AS: I can’t begin to think how frustrating that must have been. Especially with the release of something that you’re proud of and want to be a success.
SD: I think that the timing of the record was also an issue. It is so important. I look around now and there’s people Florence and the Machine and Bat For Lashes. There is always one act that breaks through within a genre of music. It’s never new but it’s a new sound for the radio at that time. For example Amy Winehouse with Back to Black, and then there’s lots of other artists around that sound similar and it makes it easier for everyone. I guess mine didn’t come out at a time when anything sounded like that record. There’d certainly been things in the past. There is more of it around now but there wasn’t really then.
AS: Do you find that encouraging?
SD: No, because I wouldn’t make another record like Ghosts. What’s the point? For me, it’s the best record I could make in that sound. Otherwise, it would never have been finished. God knows what the next sound will be. I’ll let you know when I’ve found it, but I’m getting there.
AS: Do you mind if we discuss the Sugababes?
AS: What is interesting about your departure is that, looking back, it was the catalyst for what they are today. An ever-evolving pop project. They have changed their line-up, image and sound to the extent where they are essentially a completely different band to the one you started out in. In theory, they could keep to that formula and stick around for years.
SD: I think they will. I think when I left and especially when Mutya left, the last bit of steadfastness went. The band is so malleable. They are just three people that will be maneuvered by the people around them. That's why I can never look to their success and admire it or want that. Whatever producer they work with, they sound like. Whatever photographer they work with, they look like their work. I think that works for pop, but you can lose your soul in that. "Who are you?" "What do you write about?" How have they been on the scene for so long and people not know anything about them? That works as a product but that's never what I wanted.
AS: What little is revealed is done mostly by the tabloids and celebrity mags. You must feel fortunate that you didn’t have that spotlight on you at the time. Especially considering how young you were.
SD: Well, they never would have been as successful if I'd stayed in the band. I would have been too picky about what we did.
AS: When the group first appeared, your attitude set you apart from your pop contemporaries. Instead of jumping around and overselling yourselves, your ethos seemed to be “Yeah. Here we are. No, we don’t smile, there is no point. Here is our new single. By the way, it is brilliant”.
SD: Well, if you give too much away, you lose yourself. You've got to keep a bit back.
AS: That approach almost seems quite bold considering today’s media climate. But I suppose you were just doing what came naturally.
SD: Oh, we were teenagers. We were just a bit grumpy.
AS: How did you first get together?
SD: We didn’t meet at a party, which is what they always say. I don’t think that this is going to blow the myth for everybody. I like this story, it is much more interesting. I met my manager Ron Tom when I was twelve. He was my best friend’s brother-in-law. He met Mutya’s father in a supermarket. Mutya’s father told him how much his daughter could sing and Ron drove round to the house. Mutya sang and, of course, she’s got an amazing voice. So he signed us two as solo artists. We met each other when we were doing this acapella gig, somewhere on All Saints Road, I think. A showcase for his friend. I am sure that there were some industry people there. This was when I was thirteen, or something. Me and Mutya really liked each other. We heard each other sing and said “OK, let’s do a duet.” A duet with Don E. We did that and wanted to carry on working with each other, so we started a new song. And then, I think Keisha had asked Mutya if she could visit the studio with her. So she did, and suddenly we were a band. It wasn’t any of our decision. Ron Tom just said “Right, you’re gonna to be in a band”. We were like “Really?” He was like “Yeah. It’s like United Colors of Benetton. It’s genius. You’re gonna be called Sugababes”.
AS: So that was that, then.
SD: And we hated, hated the name. The only reason we shut up about it was that our record didn’t come out for another couple of years, so we just thought “By the time it comes out, we will have got around this name problem and changed it”. I liked it by the time it came out. I got it. But when they first said “Sugababes”, I thought “Oh my God, they’re going to turn us into this naff band. And we’re going to be doing loads of cheesy pop”. Because, remember, that was back when A1 were out, and all that ****, you know (laughs). Of course, it was nice, because it was the complete opposite to our album. The Sugababes weren’t really sweet. We were a bunch of horrible teenagers. Therefore, it kind of suited us.
Last edited by Maeve; 06-11-2009 at 04:19 PM.
AS: Was it your decision to leave?
SD: Hell, yes. Though there was no doubt that I was pushed out. It was clear that there was someone in that band who never wanted me in it and thatís Keisha. She never wanted me in that band and made my life a living hell. Itís funny... all these years on, Iíve grown up and Iíve left it all behind me and Iím not bothered by it. I think a lot of the memories, I have just blocked out because I donít really like to think of the nasty stuff. I like to think about the good things in life, always focus on the positive, and Zen and all that ****. But Iíll never forgive her. Though no-one forgives that first bully in their lives, do they? No-one does. Even when youíre fifty. Though, on the other hand, it doesnít matter. You meet so many people in the world. Why would I need to reconcile with that person? I donít even know if she would want to.
AS: Perhaps we should be talking about some of the other hundreds of people that you must have met since then.
SD: Well, someone that I am really fond of is Mutya. I saw her not long ago at a party. Thereís just something between me and her that is like.. We take the piss out of each other in quite a camp way. Iíll be telling her to go and have another fag and sheíll saying to go and have another glass of wine to me. We just laugh at each other.
AS: Do your paths often cross unexpectedly, then?
SD: Yes. Itís nice because we donít force some huge, long-lasting friendship on each other because I do think we are worlds apart. But thatís kind of what we quite like about each other. And we have shared a history together. Itís funny, me and Mutya did the best bit of our bonding in the last three weeks before I left the band.
AS: Had you already put those experiences with the band behind you when you began working on Revolution In Me?
SD: Sugababes feels like it was my education and my upbringing because I didn't really go to school. As soon as I started that band, I was home-schooled. With Revolution..., I felt like I was an adult and I wrote about more political stuff, really. I was in my "teenage angst" era. I read every bit of literature that someone I admired or liked told me to read, and tried to put that to my music. Because the songs expressed quite strong views, everyone thought that I must have been, in some roundabout way, talking about the Sugababes. But I honestly wasn't.
AS: Was that when you invented Shanghai Nobody, your very own pop alter-ego?
SD: Yes, for the very first 7Ē that we put out. As a taster to what we were doing.
AS: Whatever happened to her? Is she locked in a cupboard somewhere?
SD: Well, it was never going to stick, though we did end up calling the band Shanghai Nobody.
AS: Have you done any DJing recently?
SD: Not for a while, though now that Ponystep is coming back to London... I have been hanging round that crowd for a number of years and thereís lots of familiar, very friendly faces. Theyíre just a riot. I only do it Ďcause itís fun.
AS: If you were to find yourself in a nightclub, what would you want to listen to?
SD: Well, I am quite bhangra at the moment.
AS: And when you are at home, recreating the Ghosts cover, sitting in your armchair in your white gown?
SD: I have been playing this classical piece on repeat at the moment. Whatís it called? (Checks her phone) Questa Notte by Ludovico Einaudi.
AS: By the way, what was actually in that teacup?
SD: Honey. Honey for the bees.
Photos: Jonathan Hallam.
Styling: Phoebe Arnold.
Hair: John Vial at Realhair.
Make-up: Ginni Bogado using MAC.
Special thanks to The Portabello Hotel.
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