By the late 90s a formula had been established for a sassy, glossy, seductive girl band. The music, choreography and the look were shaped by set laws. Then along came a band who blew the formula apart and proved that a fresh attitude, a passion for music and an instinctive grasp of UK street reality could run rings round market researched midriff appeal. They were Sugababes. They still are Sugababes. But this time round the sugar's fermented.
Original founding members Keisha Buchanan and Mutya Buena remain at the urban pop core of the band but now they've been joined by supreme Liverpool vocalist Heidi Range. If in their first incarnation, they demonstrated a cutting edge musicality way in advance of their then 16 years, the wiser, happier, braver and more balanced threesome are now fully qualified to scare the three part harmonies out of the big league competitors and have major fun while doing it.
"I don't know if our personalities were coming across before but now I think we're getting
a chance to do that," says Keisha. "You would never think that I'm really really bubbly and a kind of Jim Carrey pulling faces type girl, and that Mutya's quite fresh, and obviously there's plenty of personality on Heidi, and now I think we're getting a chance to show all of that."
The first song to emerge from the new line up, sees the Sugababes hook up with 80s electronic pop icon Gary Numan via his 'Are Friends Electric?' After hearing a bootleg version of the 1979 hit spliced with an Adina Howard vocal, Sugababes took to the studio to try their own flow on the re-worked track and the results were so hot, 'Freak Like Me' became the obvious first single.
"We're really happy with it." says Keisha. " It doesn't sound like pop people trying to sing on an R'n'B record."
Still in their teens, but with doubled self-confidence, Sugababes have laid the foundations for a wild decade ahead. The band moved to a new label in autumn 2001, signing to Universal, and making sure that this time their
creative input would be fully attended to. In addition they brought Heidi Range into the line up following the departure of Siobhan Donaghy in late summer 2001.
The latter change was a natural re-configuration for the group, as Keisha and Mutya were getting deeper into garage and hip-hop and Siobhan was more into indie rock. "We'd grown apart and that's about it," comments Keisha.
Auditions for the new Sugababe took place without letting the potential members know who they were trying out for.
"Keisha and Mutya weren't in the room when I was singing and then I saw these two little heads looking through the door," recalls Heidi. "They've got a code which they speak in and I didn't know it then. They were talking in it in the auditions, and I'd be sitting there thinking 'what are they saying?'"
Thanks to her superdeluxe voice and easy assurance Heidi was brought on board.
"I think we've gained more than we lost because Heidi has a different flavour vocally and she brings something new to the group, and I'm not just saying that," says Keisha. "When people first saw her, because she's very pretty, they thought maybe she couldn't sing. Which is really weird because in a way Sugababes is singing. We're a vocal group."
Schooldays appearances in musicals and theatre led Heidi to join the earliest incarnation of popettes Atomic Kitten, aged only 15. It was all good experience, but subsequently she spent three years pursuing her solo career.
"I wanted to do more R'n'B and go in a different direction," she says." Like now we sing with a live band and we write our own stuff, and that's what I love."
Heidi's experience outside the band dovetails perfectly into Keisha and Mutya's progress from schoolmates soaking up underage garage parties to pop smart females with a genius for transatlantic harmonies. The group's roots go back to NW London schooldays when Keisha and Mutya's lead took them in an R'n'B direction, gradually honing a sound and picking up on the flavours of underground London clubland and US diva ensembles.
Keisha and Mutya had their first record deal by 14. At 16 (Sept 2000) they stepped over the public barricades with the uber-fresh, irresistible 'Overload'. Their debut single went immediately into the charts, peaking at number 6. The public love for the band's comparative 'naturalness' was instant. In a blur of Top Of The Pops appearances, photo sessions, award ceremonies and fiercely scrutinised early live shows, Sugababes ascended their learning curve.
Their introductory 'One Touch' album came out in November 2000 to rave reviews and a consensus was established that the group's mix of R'n'B, garage and soul was 'more TLC than Mel C'. 'Overload' was nominated for a Brit Award, the girls were made the toast of the Mobo ceremony and by the summer of the following year, in the wake of two more exquisitely crafted singles 'New Year' and 'Soul Sound' Sugababes were playing festivals and touring the world as the nation's premier exponents of teenage cyber Motown'n' two step street soul.
All entries in the group's 'story so far' book are, however, written in pencil. The sketchbook years are about to be eclipsed by the full technicolour, widescreen, digi-soul picture.
The new album promises a feast of flavours. There's talk of dark R'n'B street sounds, rock and hip hop influences, mutated garage, tracks where the girls are rapping, Alicia style ballads, and subject matter that befits the cusp of adulthood, where maybe your boyfriends are MCs, and the weekends are opening up, and the weekdays are spent appreciating the all round worth of So Solid Crew and Oxide And Neutrino, particularly Asher D and Romeo.
The creative direction is now more down to the three of them. Keisha and Mutya's voices have matured. Heidi has confidence to spare. They'll be singing out this time. The natural hyper-expressiveness of their vocal style is rubbing up against an evolved sense of what's heavy in the clubs, bars, cars, bedrooms. Never just another girl band, Sugababes have come through with their enthusiasm intact and their vision clear.
"We've grown up a lot," concludes Keisha. "The whole thing of 'aren't they sweet' just doesn't apply now. And we're going to show that to people. The reason why we're doing this is because we love music and we're not going to let anything else that happens or anything that people say stand in the way of that."
Beware wielders of the lazy stereotype. Out of little Sugababes, world conquering, superfine soul star Sugaladies grow. Raw cane anybody?