Sugababes became the most successful British girlbands of the 21st century with six Number One singles, millions of global sales and multiple multi-platinum albums. Along the way they told one of the most spectacular stories of the modern pop era, but it all started in the summer of 2000 with one song, three voices and a mysterious white label 7”. “The first time Overload was played on the radio they announced it as Sugababes, but they didn’t know anything else about us,” remembers Siobhan Donaghy. “They had no idea who was in the band, what we looked like, how old we were. Nothing. It was a mystery: who are these girls?”
Those girls were north-Londoners Siobhan Donaghy (then 16), Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan (both 15) and for the last year and a half they’d been working on One Touch, an album whose nonchalant magnetism dragged pop music into the 21st century. It bewitched critics everywhere from Smash Hits and TOTP to the NME and The Face, with the Independent praising its ability to “skip playfully between upbeat R&B, poppy soul and groove-laden ballads” and the Guardian, making it album of the week, noting “One Touch is all about experiencing the pain of growing up while retaining that invincible teenage glow”.
In the twenty years that followed, the album’s own glow has never diminished. It went gold at the time while singles Overload, New Year, Run For Cover and Soul Sound hit the charts around the world, but it was in that space between then and now, as the Sugababes story took its various twists and turns, that One Touch slowly took on a life of its own. In 2021 One Touch remains a blueprint for genre-hopping mainstream music and a byword for effortlessly stylish British pop. “Both a quintessential product of its time and years ahead of it,” noted a Vice article published 17 years after the album’s release and titled Sugababes’ One Touch Is Lowkey One of the Greatest British Coming of Age Albums’. “It was a magical thing to be a part of,” Siobhan says now. “We knew at the time, too. I remember being in the studio thinking: ‘Wow, everyone who works in music must feel like this all the time.’ It was so special. It felt like the centre of the universe.”
The story usually goes that Sugababes started off via schoolfriends Mutya and Keisha but the detail, like so much in the world of Sugababes, is a little more complicated. It starts with Siobhan’s singing making an impression on her best friend, whose brother-in-law happened to be former All Saints manager Ron Tom. “He was dropping us at the cinema one night in Harrow, and I jumped in the car and sang an En Vogue song for him,” Siobhan remembers. “He was like, ‘I’m gonna sign you immediately!’ I was 12 and had no idea what that even meant.” Soon after, Ron bumped into Mutya’s Dad in a supermarket, got chatting, and ended up inviting Mutya to the studio. She and Siobhan hit it off and decided they wanted to record something together. On the second day, Mutya’s mate Keisha came along to see what was what. It took a moment for everyone to twig what had happened. “After
a while Ron was just like: ‘This is it’,” Siobhan recalls. “We went: ‘It’s what?’ And he went: ‘It’s a band.’”
“I remember eating a lot of Chinese food,” Keisha says of the sessions that followed. “Then we’d leave the studio at 6am each morning, get dressed in the car and go straight to school.” The band’s work truly clicked following the arrival of producer Cameron McVey, known for previous work with Neneh Cherry, All Saints and Massive Attack. Various writers would ultimately contribute to the album, but on day one Cameron gave each of the girls a backing track on cassette and asked them to go home, write something — anything — then bring it in on the tape. “He explained the importance of using our own creativity and putting our own stamp on our own careers,” Siobhan remembers. “He wanted everything to be from our perspective. He wanted to give us a voice. From that day on we then considered it our right that when we went into a room we would write.”
Months passed. Eventually the band found themselves holed up for weeks at the studio in Primrose Hill with Cameron and Matt Rowe, whittling forty demos down to the twelve songs that would eventually form One Touch. It being the tail end of the 1990s, the studio hadn’t gone fully digital. “They actually had a little blade to cut the tape with,” Mutya splutters. “And God knows what all the fucking buttons were for. But we were so lucky to experience that amazing way of recording music — you just had to go straight in for the kill and if it worked, it worked. I listen to it now and I think, ‘Oh my god, I hit that note and we left it in?’ But that’s better than perfecting everything and making it sound like everyone else sounded. That’s why the album worked. You can hear all our faults. You can hear the honesty. ” "In reality the record took longer than 18 months to come together. But with Cam involved it was a matter of a few weeks to write with him and finish the record. "
“I really remember all the grown-ups being super excited,” Keisha continues. “There was a lot of giggling and people being like, ‘Oh my god, they’re so cool’. The three of us were being very northwest London about the whole thing, but I knew we had something special.” The first official Sugababes gig took place at London’s Ronnie Scott’s, but Ron Tom had been preparing the band for some time. “He would always get us to go somewhere random like his friend’s uncle’s house,” Keisha remembers, “and everyone would stand around while we sang in the living room.” The preparation worked, to a point. “I was so nervous about performing that I literally couldn’t stand and sing at the same time,” Siobhan laughs. “So if anyone’s still wondering how the Overload chair routine came about, there’s your answer.”
As the band’s profile grew around the world Sugababes hit the charts in Germany, New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland. In the context of exuberant and rather toothy turn-of-the-century pop, the media weren’t always sure what to make of this particular girlband’s more laissez-faire approach to promotion. The girls’ ages came up a lot. In one Der Spiegel interview, Keisha was asked what counted as ‘old’. “All people over 30,” she responded. “It’s beyond anything I can imagine.”
Mutya, Keisha and Siobhan were all approaching thirty when they reappeared in 2012 and the events of the intervening years had, indeed, been beyond anything teenage Keisha might have imagined. “When the girls reached out to me I’d only been out of the band for a year,” she says today, “so it took me a while to come around to the idea, but when we met up again it was effortless. We laughed, sang, harmonised for 90 seconds and it felt like we’d never been apart. Ever since One Touch I’d always wondered what might have happened if we’d stayed together, and this was a chance to find out. To this day I feel like we’re each other’s musical soulmates.”
And Keisha, who’s done more time as a Sugababe than anyone else, has taken the twentieth anniversary of One Touch as an opportunity to reflect on where that extraordinary album took her. “It’s been the toughest journey of my life, but also the most beautiful,” she smiles. “It’s made me the person I am today, and I’m very, very proud to be that person.”
“There was all sorts going on around us,” Siobhan adds, “but we never blinked an eyelid. As much as we were excited by it all, we were genuinely quite unfazed. Looking back it was quite extraordinary really. I really do remember everything. As you get older, you learn that just because something’s hard, that doesn’t mean that it’s not worth doing. And if it’s worth doing, it’s worth fighting for.”
As for Mutya? “I’ve never had another job,” she laughs. “I’ve lived, breathed, sweated for the Sugababes. If anyone asks me for a CV it’ll have one line: ‘Sugababe’. When I go out in the street, people go, ‘You’re that girl, from the Sugababes.’ I’ll always be known as a Sugababe.” She pauses. “How cool is that?”