Despite the crazy schedule of 2002- 2003, which saw the British threesome Keisha Buchanan, Mutya Buena and Heidi Range, catapult through the months following the No 1 chart placing of their April 2003 re-introductory single 'Freak Like Me', the girls have started noticing that the wide world is into them. Macy Gray hangs out at the side of the stage watching and smiling. De La Soul rush up at an airport to say they're loving it. Redman, Pink, Kelly Roland, Oxide and Neutrino big them up and wish them well. The invitations to present award ceremonies across Europe and play gigs in far flung places are stacking up.
Given the level of approval handed out to their summer 2002 album 'Angels With Dirty Faces' it would not have been unreasonable for the girls to step back for a long while and consider their next move. Perhaps a relocation to some more blinging accomodation. A few leisurely shopping trips to L.A. and back. Instead they took a mere two weeks out, Keisha checking out sounds in Ayia Napa, Heidi on a beach in Mexico and Mutya in North London wondering how she's lost her passport.
Sugababes loss of holiday time is however an immense gain for those hungry for supercrafted new century pop highs. Their swift return to the studio means that a heavily addictive new single - 'Hole In The Head' - makes its appearance in October 2003, and a third album is ready to fly. "Everyone's saying oh you've been away, you've had a break, but we haven't," says Heidi. "We had like two weeks off since we disappeared, but every day we've been in the studio since then." Produced by Brian Higgins and Jeremy Wheatly, first single 'Hole In The Head' has all the hallmarks of the band at their best - a mixture of sweetness and toughness, an instant fix of melody, uniquely meshed neo-R'n'B vocal interplay, and a combination of genres that creates hyphen overload. 'Hole' is a slice of future-pop-euro-house-ska-reggae'n'b set to dominate autumn radio and brighten up pop TV with a feisty video, where the girls get to throw their groupie-ogling musician boyfriends off stage. "Hole In The Head basically says a guy's broken up with you and at first you were sulking and upset," explains Keisha. "And then after a couple of hours you go, 'You know what... I'm going to go and get my hair done, and get myself ready, because I'd rather sell my ass than think of you again!"
Taking no nonsense is almost a motto for Sugababes. From their early beginnings in 2000, when original members, North London schoolfriends Keisha and Mutya, were too authentically teenage-street to fit into the stereotypes of girls groups, they've prioritised songcraft and musical knowledge over glam posturing. A lot of fluffy pop acts have dwindled away. Keisha, Mutya and Liverpool raised Heidi (who joined the band in 2001) have now reaped the rewards of commitment to the music. 'Angels With Dirty Faces' went platinum in the UK and provided the songs that would define that year. The follow up to 'Freak' - the mesmerising 'Round Round' - also went to number 1. Both 'Stronger', and the Sting collaboration 'Shape Of My Heart', were massive hits. With 'Angels' the band that had begun with the innovative indie flecked soul pop of the 'One Touch' album in 2000 had reached a new maturity, capturing the sound of young, unprejudiced urban Britain, and setting the stage for their transformation into international stars. "We didn't really realise how successful 'Angels' had been," says Heidi. "Then when we got the discs, that's when it sank in. We don't compete against other bands, but I was reading Music Week, and it was surprising to find out that we'd actually sold quite a lot compared to some really successful pop bands." "Last year was just amazing," says Keisha. "We were just winning so many awards. A few people did say 'Angels' was a 'comeback' record and they didn't know what we were going to do afterwards, so we're really proud of the new album. We did get sick of performing 'Angels With Dirty Faces' so we can't wait to go back and do all our new songs! "
Work started on the band's third album while still completing the schedule for 'Angels' . In June 2003 the girls flew to L.A. to write with legendary songwriter, Diane Warren (her songs have been covered by Whitney, Tina Turner and Aretha) and with Christina Aguilera and Pink collaborator Linda Perry. Taking time out for a rapturously received appearance at Glastonbury festival, where they were the only pop-tinged act invited, they then re-convened in Linford Manor studios, Milton Keynes in July summer. The set up at Linford Manor was a creative hothouse. Producer Brian Higgins (Round Round) was also on board at his own studio in Kent. The rest of the team at Linford Manor were an expanded version of the team who worked on 'Angels', including Jony Rockstar (Robbie Williams, Bjork), Guy Sigsworth (Madonna), Stuart Crichton (Kylie Minogue), Craig Dodds and Karen Poole.
"It was a really good way of doing an album," says Keisha. "I'd be with one producer doing some writing and the girls would be in another studio with someone else, and we all swapped rooms during the day. So there's not just one person writing each song, it's like there'll be one song where Mutya has written all of it with a producer, some together with all of us." "I think it's really cool because it shows our writing skills and lets our fans know a little bit more about who we are. Because even on 'Angels' we did a lot of the production and the melodies and I don't think we really got noticed for that side of things." "Now I just think 'God knows how we did the last album together ' " continues Heidi. "Because we didn't know each other really, knowing how well we know each other now, and how close we are. We thought we knew each other but we didn't really. So I think this is a lot more comfortable."
The third Sugababes album sees the girls stretch their wings without losing sight of the ground. The street edge of their first record 'One Touch' is still there. The diversity and accomplishment of 'Angels' is present. This one combines all their strongest suits to deadly effect. There's maverick funk ('Whatever Makes You Happy') superplush ballads ('Conversation' and 'Too Lost In You'), glowering string laden dramas ('Caught In A Moment') and a succession of songs which pull together elements of hip hop, pop, R'n'B, garage, ragga, funk, soul and indie into uniquely idiosyncratic forms best described as Sugababe-ish ( 'Situations Heavy', 'Million Different Ways' and 'Hole In The Head'). Vitally, the lyrical perspective is straight from the girls' trove of honest, strong but vulnerable female experience.
"'Situations Heavy' is about parents in a way," says Keisha. "I was just thinking about growing up, because my mum still sees me as a baby, even now, she's very overprotective. All our mums are a bit like that. 'Whatever Makes You Happy' describes how I am as a person and how that can mean I get judged for doing things I want, whether that's with people getting the wrong idea that I'm the flirty one in the group or whatever." "When we write songs, its not always because you've experienced this," adds Heidi. "Sometimes you just come up with a concept." "But to be honest I was going though heartbreak hotel, so if there's any lyrics in any of those songs that are quite harsh, that would be coming from me," says Keisha. "On the first album I was going through heartbreak so I had a lot to say,' laughs Heidi. "But I haven't been heartbroken for two years now so it's been quite hard to write sad songs."
If the third album works as an emotional rainbow, reflecting the ups and downs of real life, it's just one example of how the three girls support and compliment each other. Vocally the ballad strengths of Heidi back up Mutya's instantly compelling tone and Keisha's acrobatic abilities. While Mutya is getting drawn more into production, Heidi imagines how the live side of the band will work, and Keisha avidly studies the urban competition to the point where she knows the dance moves on every MTV Bass video. "I think one reason for the group doing well is that the three of us have got an opinion on the music," says Heidi. "Its not like maybe in some bands there's one person who wants a direction for the album and the others go along with it, we've all got ideas." "I think our music is so different, I think the good thing about Sugababes is it's hard to put us in a category," adds Keisha. "We cross over to the urban market as well as pop and indie and still be respected. And I think that's a good thing, I think as an artist breaking barriers is something that you should be able to do, and it's nice that we've got a chance to do that."
The opportunities to break barriers and spread a lot of high class, low bass music around are only going to multiply with phase three of the band's still young career. The invitations keep coming. Even before the album comes out they're set to play in Istanbul and Portugal and then drop by Monte Carlo to present the World Music Awards. As you do. Their own award for contributions to Britain's export trade will not be long in coming. Real pop travels well. America's in their sites, and these Suga-ladies tend to get what they're after. " If we go to America I think it'll be good for us, because we're different," says Mutya. "America's all about hip hop and R'n'B, but we're not just that and it wouldn't make sense to change our sound. So hopefully we'll get to go to there and see some funky people. I just want this album to do even better than we've ever done. It's a new campaign, new styling, new everything. We're back on the road again and just excited to be here."
By the end of 2004 there's going to be a lot more pop quiz questions where the answer could only be one thing: SUGABABES!