When they sat backstage in anticipation of the opening night of their first live show in years in 2014, the world-conquering West London original All Saints, Nicole and Natalie Appleton, Shaznay Lewis and Melanie Blatt temporarily forgot what they’d achieved in their pop primacy. Those 12 million+ record sales, the five number one singles, two multi-platinum albums, the double Brit award winning generational anthem Never Ever all faded to distant memory. Instead, what they felt was huge pangs of nerves at facing an arena crowd for the first time in years.
When they arrived back off-stage to the same room, the decision to reignite the flame of one of the most successful girl-bands of all time suddenly made perfect sense once more. The reason for all that success was given an extra, poignant new layer. “After the performance,” says Mel, still warmed by the recent memory, “we went backstage and our kids came running into the dressing room, crying their eyes out.” “We thought something had happened,” recalls Nic. “I was saying ‘are you all alright?’ and they just said ‘we’re so proud of you.’ That was it.”
The deal had been sealed. 19 years after their debut instruction, against several striking odds, All Saints know exactly where it’s at again. In 2016, they are prepared to launch their dynamic, anthemic new single One Strike, a canny, charming reminder of everything huge swathes of the global pop audience loved about them in the first place. It will be followed by their first album in a decade, Red Flag. For 2016, All Saints are one big family.
As they turned from their teens to their twenties, All Saints were the symbolic British girl-band gateway to the new millennium. They were an irrepressible, immediately identifiable gang that would mascot us through to the 21st century. With music touched by a panoply of sharply honed influences, from The Shirelles through 90s hip hop, disco, slouchy club electronica and touched all over with the proximity the women grew up to Notting Hill Carnival, they were the flip-side of the tween-pop sound of their peers. “When people think of us,” demurs Nic, “they probably think of cargo pants”.
With half a life’s deep experience behind them now, the newly ignited, reinvigorated, excitable and unbreakable All Saints gang have a tendency to underestimate the rosy fondness that has grown, moss-like over All Saints’ legacy. When we think of All Saints we’re reminded of sisterhood in Adidas shell-toes, the trail end of Britpop, of a purer new British pop entering cultural ascendency, of Never Ever’s whispered introduction, of The Beach, DiCaprio directed by Danny Boyle, Pharrell remixing Black Coffee, of women who reframed the laddish dialogue of the mid-90s by injecting a massive oestrogen shot into the pop party. Mostly, we think of the string of impeccable street-pop hits delivered with those four vocal harmonies that chime like a bell, recognisable in one musical motif.
There has never quite been a girl-band to slot into the unique sweet-spot All Saints occupied since they first split. “Initially that was because there has never been an agenda with us,” says Mel. “Those thought processes of, OK, this is our market place, this is who we want to sell to, that never ever has been a part of our band. It was just about wanting to be in a band.” “It wasn’t about being a girl-band, even,” says Nat. “it was just about being in a band.” “We were always more like boys anyway,” notes Nic. All Saints were just four teenage mates from Ladbroke Grove with an ear for a chorus that zings. “I think emotionally, even though musically they weren’t similar at all, the closest predecessor we had was probably Bananarama. They didn’t give a shit about what other people thought either. They just had a laugh.”
After the tour, All Saints resolved to do something they never thought they would again, and wrote, recorded and produced a new record. What’s different this time is that the album was put together without the involvement of a record label and will be released on their own label All Saints Recordings, which sits as an imprint within their original home London Records - a fitting return to their roots. The record was not made without massive prior consideration. “We didn’t force ourselves into this situation,” says Nat, “and it couldn’t have happened at a better time in all of our lives. I just missed being with the girls. It makes us happy. Listen, if you can work with your favourite people, then why not? I have such a good time and I spend more time laughing and having fun than I do working.” “The album,” says Shaznay, “could have been made a lot quicker if we’d spent less time joking around while making it.”
It was Shaz that was charged with reconfiguring the All Saints sound to remind a captive audience what they’d missed about the four-piece, while affirming a place for them amid a barely recognisable new music industry. “I was nominated to do the writing,” she says. “The girls pretty much said, you go and do it. That was cool. It’s what I love doing. My biggest thing was I so badly wanted to please them. I just wanted everyone to be happy and excited to record again. That was my motivation.” In the interim between incarnations of All Saints, Shaz has enjoyed a successful career as a songwriter for hire. “I always go in with the best intentions of writing the best song ever but those other songs will never turn out like a song for All Saints, however talented the singer. They just don’t.” Her All Saints material has always been written from direct experience. “You always get real with Shaz,” notes Nat. “Even when we were teenagers the songs always sounded so real to me,” adds Nic. “Never Ever feels like an experience that has been lived and we were kids back then.”
This time around, with the benefit of actual experience on her side, her first All Saints writing shot out of the starting blocks was the killer single One Strike, a perceptible call to arms for anyone who experiences a moment, perhaps a phone call or conversation, that changes your life completely. The song is set against a lovelorn yet uplifting melody and the most heart-breaking middle eight likely to be sung by any harmonious assembly this year. “When I write, I just think about what’s on my mind,” says Shaz. “The lyrics came from somewhere very real. Nic was going through a lot of things at that time. That was at the forefront of my mind because it was the heaviest thing going on.” The song was written as a direct response to the younger Appleton sister’s marriage dissolving. “We spoke for hours and hours on the phone,” Nic says. “The first few times I heard it in my car,” says Nat, “I couldn’t stop crying because I could hear so clearly what it was about.”
The invigorated All Saints were free to roam right across their musical palette, from the smash and grab carnival banger Ratchet Behaviour to the sanguine ballad Who Hurt Who, a song that sits somewhere on an unprecedented continuum between Lana Del Rey and Karen Carpenter. The lyrics across the record trace the adult lives of four friends, for better and for worse. It sounds great to have them back, reminding you of something you had perhaps forgotten you missed quite so much. What is so special about the new record is how contemporary it sounds without ever losing the core essence of All Saints, forever wrapped up in the magical conflagration of their four voices. This is what they do.
Nobody can decide on a favourite track. Of course they can’t. “I love Red Flag,” says Nat. “I love Pieces,” says Mel, “And Tribal.” “Make U Love Me is the one for me,” says Shaz. “I love them all,” says Nic, “It’s driving me mad not to be able to play them to everyone.” All Saints is marked by the raucous laughter of four women who delight in each other’s company, still a little surprised and delighted by the turn of events that brought them back together and who all agree recording in the last year has been the closest they’ve got to the feeling of recording as teenagers, when they freewheeled down the All Saints Road that gave them their name. But All Saints wouldn’t be All Saints without a little variation of opinion.
They are real women, with real points of view, four individuals that become something so much bigger in one another’s musical and social company. They are here again, in 2016, for all the right reasons. “We’re not doing this to conquer the world,” says Nic, “we want to have some fun now.” They all agree that they are a tiny bit petrified about returning to the fray. They needn’t be.
Melanie Blatt moved back from a four year residency in Ibiza to rejoin All Saints last year. “You know what,” she says, “nothing would’ve made me leave Ibiza apart from these girls. It’s totally worth it.” She is currently living with Nicole Appleton. “It’s our dream really,” says Nic. “She’s been my best friend since we were 11. Eventually, it was going to happen and eventually, it happened. And we haven’t changed.” All Saints’ happy endings start here. “Seriously,” says Shaznay, “I got on such a roll writing and recording with the Girls again, we’ve started getting material for the next album together already. This couldn’t feel any more right.”