All Saints have descended into giggles in the middle of a quiet North London pub, a bottle of rosé open on the table. I’ve just asked what it’s like seeing Shaznay Lewis balancing being the band’s lead songwriter with two young children, Tigerlily, eight, and Tyler, 12. ‘It’s funny as hell!’ says Nicole Appleton. ‘HILARIOUS!’ shouts Melanie Blatt. Not quite the response I was expecting. They’re also – surprisingly – hysterical when I mention One Strike, their 2016 comeback single written about the breakdown of Nicole’s marriage to Liam Gallagher after he fathered a child with another woman.
For four women who once couldn’t bear to be in the same room,_All Saints_certainly laugh a lot when they get together. We’re here to discuss their new album, Testament. It’s what they should have released, in Natalie Appleton’s words, if the band hadn’t imploded after two records back in 2001 (more on that later).
Given how loud they’re being in this rather polite pub, I’m surprised no one seems to take much notice of them. ‘That sums up All Saints’ career!’ says Mel, with a dirty, gravelly laugh. And yet, that’s not altogether accurate: as Britain’s second-biggest girl group of the ’90s, they produced some of the best-selling singles of that era. In 2016, they announced a comeback to much fanfare (a decade after a previous attempt), while fourth album Red Flag garnered rave reviews.
Still, a lot has changed since their eponymous debut in 1997. Yes, they’re all in their forties now, all have children, and are no longer wearing combat trousers (although Nicole rather pleasingly turns up today in a combat-print dungaree dress). But, as women, they’re also operating in a different environment to the one they once dominated. Following the #MeToo movement across film, politics, sport and music last year, I wonder how they look back on their ’90s heyday. ‘We were lucky in that we were strong, forceful women,’ says Shaznay, 42. She recalls a now famous incident when the girls were asked to dance topless behind a screen on Top Of The Pops. ‘Saying no caused a bit of a stink. But we were never scared, which is probably what a lot of people found back in the day.’
They can all agree, however, on the pressure they faced to look good. Natalie remembers a time ‘when we were asked to lose weight. I remember there was a trainer.’ Worse than that, they were patently aware that as women they were supposed to look sexy. ‘Looking beautiful was the last thing on my mind,’ Shaznay continues. ‘We were a band, we sang, we wrote our own music. In my head, that was the drive. And then you realise that’s not the main thing people were interested in. We learned very quickly that we were objects.’
Are things better today? They’re not sure. For one, they’re all alarmed at how ‘overtly sexy’ young women in pop seem to be. Shaznay is dismayed by the number of music videos she sees featuring pouting pop stars ruffling their hair. Mel says, ‘I feel way more under pressure today. A lot of the interviews we’ve done since we’ve come back have been about how we feel about our bodies, what we do to keep fit, whether we train. We never got asked that back in the day. This is a new thing. Our culture is obsessed with it, with social media, filters, all that shit. I get involved and I hate myself for it. I’m an intelligent, strong woman. Why do I give a shit?’ At this point, her bandmates all chime in. ‘You look great in a bikini!’ ‘You’re so hard on yourself !’
They do the same when we discuss the huge gender gap in music: in all their time of writing and recording as a band, they’ve never once met a female producer or technician. Mel wishes she’d been given the chance. ‘You could have been our producer!’ Nat tells her. ‘Or our technician!’ says Nicole, in a very sweet show of support. In fact, barely an hour goes by in_All Saints_’ company where they don’t pay one another a compliment – about their clothes, their hair, their shoes. Just listening to them support one another feels like a boost to my own self-esteem. All of which makes it easy to see why, when Nicole’s marriage to Liam Gallagher broke down in 2013, after he cheated on her, it was her bandmates who got her through it.
The divorce provided Shaznay with the inspiration for the band’s killer comeback single, One Strike, released two years ago. ‘It literally floored me,’ says Nicole, 43. ‘It was difficult to perform at first. I had to think, “OK, hold it together.” But I don’t feel that way about him anymore, at all, so it’s actually quite funny now.’ The couple share a son, Gene, together, ‘so we have to talk. But it feels a lifetime ago now.’ Earlier this year, Liam finally met his daughter Molly (from a previous relationship with the singer Lisa Moorish) for the first time. Gene, now 17, was by their side. What does Nicole think? ‘It’s lovely. She’s a beautiful girl. I’ve met her and she’s such a darl. He’s lucky he’s got her, actually.’
I suggest I’d feel somewhat wary of a friend like Shaznay, taking the worst moments of my life and turning them into hit singles. This provokes the biggest laugh of all, and Shaznay assures me it’s not like that. ‘With_One Strike_, I was so consumed by someone else’s situation,’ she says. ‘I didn’t purposefully set out to write about someone else’s life, it was just feelings.’ Natalie agrees, ‘Nic’s life was our life. We were affected by it every day. It was our sister.’ And so we come to the elephant in the room. How did four women who allowed their band to implode amid infighting get to this point? ‘We spoke about the jacket all fucking night,’ jokes Shaznay, as the others hoot with laughter (again). She is, of course, referring to the urban legend – that_All Saints_split after an argument over who got to wear a jacket on a photo shoot – something they say is the most sexist thing they’ve ever heard. ‘Was that because we’re just girls in pop and people loved the fact that we fell out over a jacket?’ says Mel. ‘It made us angry that everyone kept rehashing that as the reason why we split.’
So why did they? ‘Because we were best mates and fucking had proper feelings, and it was really hard to work and be best mates at the same time. We couldn’t handle it.’ There were two years when they didn’t speak (‘It was heartbreaking,’ says Nat), but slowly they began to be in touch again. Mel, 43, fled to Ibiza after their break-up with her daughter and was the last to come round (‘I didn’t want to speak to any of them, I was like, “Bye!”’).
Eventually, their close friendships flourished again. Then the Backstreet Boys asked them to go on tour with them in 2014, and the ‘second leg’ of their career was sealed. How do they know they won’t break up again? ‘We’re real. This isn’t just a job,’ says Natalie, 45. ‘We’re family. Our kids hang out.’ There’s her son, Ace, 14, with her husband Liam Howlett of The Prodigy, and her daughter, Rachel, who she had at 20. Then Mel’s daughter Lilyella Zender, now 19, whose father is former Jamiroquai bassist Stuart Zender (he and Mel divorced in 2006), Gene, and Shaznay’s two young children with her husband Christian Storm. That family dynamic is perhaps what’s missing when it comes to the Spice Girls getting their reunion off the ground. ‘They’re a whole different entity,’ says Shaznay. ‘Mel and I knew each other from when we were 16. It’s a lot deeper than that.’ In any case, their relationship is unlikely to become so strained again: there simply isn’t the relentless pressure that there was back then. ‘We were taking three or four flights a day. We were so tired that we weren’t enjoying it,’ says Nicole. She recalls pretending to faint after landing at Heathrow so that they could skip the next flight to Spain and go home. ‘I remember someone saying, “If you don’t do this, you’ll lose Spain.” So I got up and said I was fine. Sometimes, we tried to sabotage our own journey.’
‘We were just four dumb arses, travelling around, not knowing what the fuck we were doing,’ adds Mel, rather bluntly. They hope All Saints will go on for a long time yet, and Nicole lets slip that there will be a tour later in the year. After everything they’ve been through, there’s only one thing they really seem to want: to have fun, to tour together, to keep meeting up in pubs. Perhaps that’s all they ever wanted. ‘It was never our intention to conquer the world,’ says Mel. ‘We just wanted to do Smash Hits and Top Of The Pops.’ Shaznay turns to her friends.
‘What do you call success?’ she asks. ‘Back then, we were successful, we were huge. But personally, I would say we were all less happy. Now, what we’re doing is relatively small. But I’ll tell you, we’re so much happier.’ They pour another glass of rosé: cheers to that.
‘Testament’ is out 27 July.