22 Jun 2003: Siobhan Donaghy quit Sugababes at 17, disillusioned and on the edge of a breakdown. Two years later, she’s back.
Siobhan Donaghy sits in a restaurant in Primrose Hill, north London, sipping mineral water. Talking comes easily; she is, after all, one of three sisters, her family are Irish; there’s not a lot of peace and quiet. She is skinny, not unnaturally so but her slenderness accentuates a vulnerability. Although it’s a busy Friday lunchtime no one even glances at this pretty girl in loose, pale blue dungarees, strappy black T-shirt, boxfresh white Converse.
Things move fast in the world of pop. Back in 2000 Siobhan had her first top 10 single. She was 16, as was Keisha Buchanan; the third Sugababe, Mutya Buena, was 15. A smoothly produced, seductive R&B track, ‘Overload’ stayed in the top 30 for six weeks, delivered a silver disc and was nominated for Best British Single at the Brits: not bad for a debut single. At the start of 2001 Sugababes released their debut album, the mature, classy One Touch . It was critically acclaimed and went gold.
Sugababes had been brought together by Ron Tom, who worked with the fantastically successful All Saints (Ron Tom was managing Siobhan for two years before he found Mutya; Mutya had known Keisha since they were eight). The girls signed to London, the same record label as All Saints; they lured Cameron McVey, husband of Neneh Cherry, producer of Massive Attack and All Saints, into the studio. With their slick R&B pop and honey vocals, Sugababes were worthy successors to All Saints.
The girls’ look was as defined as their sound. They scowled and sulked. They were hormonal. They were real teenagers. The look was attractive; they were urban, street, tough. Yet the scowls apparently belied something more significant than adolescent sulkiness. Rumours began: Mutya and Keisha were freezing out Siobhan. Speaking their own language (by adding ‘ski’ to the end of each syllable), they were seen to be excluding the original member of the band.
In August 2001 Siobhan walked out of Sugababes. In the middle of a promotional tour of Japan she decided she’d had enough. She had just turned 17 and was heading for a nervous breakdown. It has taken her almost two years to get her life back on track. Almost two years to build-up enough confidence to release ‘Overrated’, her first solo single.
Siobhan, with pale, pale skin, the bluest of eyes and longest of lashes, talks non-stop for almost an hour. She is very cockney, very dependent on the word ‘fuck’. Sometimes she struggles to keep it together; talking is therapeutic but it also brings the memories flooding back. Not many of her memories of Sugababes are sweet.
She is 19 next month but has already experienced a lifetime’s worth of conflict. ‘I was 12 when I met the manager, 14 when I met the girls, 16 on the first release, 17 when I left. At which point I was happy never to work again. I had got to the point where I’d look in the mirror and not know who I was. I felt like I didn’t have a personality. I’d lost my identity… ‘ A nervous, self-conscious laugh. ‘I felt like a zombie. A dead person.’
Although they were jetting round the world, hanging out with celebrities, collecting gold discs when their mates were still at school, the Sugababes were miserable, Siobhan insists. ‘We didn’t have a laugh. We didn’t go out together as a band. I was trying to enjoy myself but everyone else made it so complicated.’
She fiddles with her mobile. ‘Being one of three sisters, I’m used to two ganging up on one. But at home I always knew the dynamic would change, it was never the same two. In Sugababes it was always those two and then… me. I was bewildered. Why couldn’t we all just get on? Travelling the world… why couldn’t it have been fun?’
What happened in Japan to precipitate walking out of the band and flying back to London alone? She shrugs, folds her arms. ‘We did have a falling out in Japan, me and Keisha. But. I dunno. It was just never good. Right from the start. We just didn’t get on. We ignored each other and went about our business. It was very much a working relationship and we couldn’t even work at that. You know all those photos of us refusing to smile? I was just really unhappy and I couldn’t be arsed.’
Siobhan felt isolated in the band. She was desperately lonely. She left school in year nine, hardly saw her friends, missed her family. Private tuition was disastrous; she hated all her teachers apart from the young woman who taught her Spanish. She began to wonder if she should have stayed at school, studied hard, gone to university. She still worries that she has missed out on further education; she is envious of her boyfriend of two years, who works at Warner music, because he lived with all his friends in a big house in Brighton after graduating from Sussex.
Her desperation and confusion were enhanced by Roaccutane, an effective acne drug but with dramatic side effects thought to include severe depression. ‘I didn’t know what was wrong with me. I thought I was crazy. Going mad.’ The nervous laugh. ‘I was convinced they’d throw me in a mental institution.’ She claims that no one from the record company or management – whom she refers to as ‘the adults’ – made any attempt to look after her. ‘Even though I was obviously feeling low, I was left to fend for myself. No one gave two fucks about me.’
When she arrived in England after quitting the band, she returned to her family’s home in Eastcote, Middlesex. She never wanted to make music again. ‘My life came to a complete stop. I came home and my family were in Ireland for the first anniversary of my nan’s death. I missed that, which was crap. So I came home to an empty house and just sat there. I can’t imagine being any lower. I wouldn’t know how else to describe it other than as a breakdown.’
She suffered panic attacks when she went out. Getting drunk with her old mates became a chore. She snapped at her mum, didn’t want her boyfriend to leave her side. Finally she went to see her doctor and was prescribed anti-depressants. Although the drugs made the days shorter, she thought she was a loser, a failure. Most of all, perhaps, she was shocked by the fact that no one from her Sugababes days rang to see if she was OK. She didn’t expect the girls to get in touch but she hoped her driver might call. She thought long and hard about her own behaviour, decided she had done nothing wrong. She offers a weak smile. ‘So to be ignored was… devastating.’
At 17 she had learned the rules of the music business the hard way. Like any other big business it is motivated by money. Creativity is a means to an end. It has no time to indulge depressed young girls.
Two months after flying back from Japan, Siobhan went on holiday to Ibiza with her sister. By chance she bumped into Johnny Lipsey, who had produced some tracks on the first Sugababes album. He got in touch with Cameron McVey, who in turn invited Siobhan to his studio. He told her writing songs might be therapeutic. While slowly building her confidence, writing with a new team and signing a solo recording contract, Siobhan watched as Sugababes replaced her with Heidi Range, a former member of Atomic Kitten. She observed as their comeback single, ‘Freak Like Me’ (with its sample of Tubeway Army’s ‘Are Friends Electric?’) went to number one and the band became a phenomenon. Yet she didn’t regret leaving. ‘If I’d still been in that band, I wouldn’t have given a fuck that I was number one.’
In January Siobhan finally came off the anti-depressants. As we leave the restaurant and head for McVey’s studio, she grins and says: ‘I’m on my own now.’ She still feels delicate, but she is happy. She feels more in control of her solo career; although badly burned by her experiences, she is giving the music business a second chance. ‘I look forward to going to work now – it’s scary. I really didn’t before. There were days when I’d cry and think, “Can I give you all my money not to have to turn up?” I think maybe if I was older I would have dealt with it better… but I’m having a great time in the studio now. We have a laugh, get pissed together.’
The studio is dark and airless. McVey is bouncing around in T-shirt, shorts and Birkenstocks. He is playful with Siobhan, laughing at her dungarees. ‘I bought them for the festivals,’ she protests. ‘I’m going to tuck them in my wellies when it rains.’ She lounges on the sofa, listening to tracks from the forthcoming album. The earlier nervousness is replaced by a quiet confidence. She wants to hear a song with the working title of ‘Hate’: ‘To say that I hate you is not an easy thing to say… ‘
Another song, ‘Dialect’, is as far removed from Sugababes as possible; it rocks. ‘I was screaming on that one,’ says Siobhan, laughing. The single, ‘Overrated’, takes another swipe at her former band mates: ‘The pain is overrated/The chains so serrated… What you gonna give me?’ Therapeutic maybe, but it’s still a strong pop song.
There is work to be done. Siobhan steps into the recording booth. She is virtually hidden behind the microphone, swamped in the earphones. She looks like a skinny young girl playing around.
Then she opens her mouth and sings. From nowhere comes an incredibly soulful, pure voice. McVey grins. ‘She sings like someone from the late Fifties. Like one of Phil Spector’s girls.’
Later Siobhan is back on the sofa. She still looks vulnerable but there’s something tough about her. She’s a survivor. ‘This record is the first thing in my life that I feel really proud of. It’s a piece of me. I hope people appreciate my honesty; there aren’t too many honest records out there.’ She pauses, unable to resist. ‘You know, I really believe in fate and karma. Bad things will happen to you sooner or later.’ She starts to giggle. ‘It will come round and bite them in the arse.’
· ‘Overrated’ is released on Monday