Natural Women: All Saints on friendship and new album Testament
We chat to Shaznay Lewis, Melanie Blatt and Natalie and Nicole Appleton, aka All Saints, about their latest album Testament and the importance of friendship
In the 90s, being a teenager was interesting – to say the least. With so many sound and style clashes going on it was often difficult trying to figure out where you fit, and Take That’s mantra of ‘everything changes but you’ couldn’t have been further from the truth. Everything changed, constantly, and so did we. Following on from the release of Black Box’s Ride on Time at the tail end of the 80s came an explosion of 90s rave and boy bands mimicking it (see East 17’s House of Love and It’s Alright for proof).
One week we were fully into 90s rave, the next obsessed with Green Day’s Dookie, and then came the incredible Shirley Manson and Garbage, complete with bangers like Only Happy When It Rains and Stupid Girl. No Doubt and the inimitable Gwen Stefani followed, and our world was flipped upside down. Don’t Speak wrapped us up in its emotionally raw blanket and Tragic Kingdom took us to places musically that we’d never before experienced. We all wanted to be Gwen Stefani. Republica made a brief cameo in the summer of 96 and we started putting streaks of red through our hair like Saffron, thinking we were punk as fuck.
Next came Girl Power (insert peace hand emoji here): Spice Girls released Spice and were in everyone’s face with Wannabe – it was a banger and a sign that things were changing. We ripped up our best Levi’s and proudly wore them, littered with hand-drawn messages of Girl Power and peace symbols, paired with tie-dye shirts because we were cool – or at least we thought we were, until we heard the smoking-hot spoken word intro – ‘A few questions that I need to know / How you could ever hurt me so’ – of All Saints’ forever classic Never Ever. We were instantly done with tie dye and for the next four years, at least, pretty much lived in cargo trousers and vest tops. We all wanted to be Shaznay Lewis.
“I really loved Salt-N-Pepa... but I really loved when Salt-N-Pepa started doing collaborations with En Vogue, and I remember being really inspired by that, and also people like Mary J Blige,” Shaznay Lewis herself tells us down a patchy phone line. “That whole kind of 90s era had a big effect on the kind of music I wanted to make.”
Just like us, so too were All Saints inspired by strong women: “I would say Janet Jackson,” Melanie Blatt adds, “she was a big influence, just everything about her really, I just thought she was top dog back in the day.” Natalie Appleton continues, “One of the first people that I was completely fascinated by was Madonna, I loved her. I loved Whitney [Houston], Tina Turner... female artists like that, major major strong women. To this day I still listen to their music.” “They all said everybody I was gonna say,” Nicole Appleton chimes in at the last second and the four erupt into laughter, their strong bond and friendship obvious from the off.
As they get ready to grace us with their all singing, all dancing presence at Glasgow’s O2 Academy on 10 December, just two years since they were last in the city, we chat to them about their latest album, Testament, which marked the shortest gap between releases in the 21 years since their eponymous debut came out. So what sparked the initial return of All Saints with Red Flag in 2016?
“Well, we’d gone on tour before that,” Lewis says. “We supported The Backstreet Boys, and that simply came about being asked to be special guests… and because touring was one of the things we hadn’t ever really done since our first album, we jumped at the chance. Off the back of doing that tour, we then realised we wanted to do more shows because we absolutely loved it and enjoyed it. Our manager suggested it would be a good idea to put new material to it, so that’s kind of how Red Flag came about. It was such an organic way of coming together, which is probably I think one of the reasons that led us on to doing the next album, Testament, because it just all felt very natural.”
In the past, tensions have been fraught within the group; they first split in 2001 over who would get to wear a combat jacket in a photoshoot and then after reforming in 2006 split again just a few years later with Melanie Blatt stating in 2009: “All Saints are never getting back together again”, but returning with Red Flag in 2016 brought us fresh and instantly infectious tracks One Strike and Puppet On a String – it was like All Saints had never been away. So how are the four doing things differently this time round?
“Being really close friends and also having a business relationship together, it’s quite a hard thing to do, and I think we are now just working out how to do it,” Lewis explains. “I think when we were back in our teens and 20s, how on earth would we have known how to be four business partners and best friends together in a band? A big band as well… going through such a major strange experience together and being able to keep our feet on the ground with it all. So now I think we’ve learnt, we’re mature enough to have a good balance with it all and [have] worked out that, actually, first and foremost our friendship is most important. And I think as long as we’re mindful of making sure we’re okay, then I think everything else falls into place.”
Not wanting to fall back into the trap and constraints of working with a major label this time round, as well as focusing on their personal relationships with each other, the four are sounding more confident than ever on Testament. “I think it’s from being older,” Natalie explains, “having our kids and being married and stuff… [we] feel really comfortable in our skin now – when you’re younger you’re so critical of everything about yourself and then you try to get to know who you are.”
Lewis adds: “I think it’s just simply because we’ve made these last two albums under our own umbrella and, you know, while we made the other albums with a major label, you have that pressure of making sure that you’re creating hits, like singles, and I think because we have just made these last two records ourselves without anybody to answer to, we’ve trusted our own instincts and we’ve allowed ourselves to just make music and not be too concerned with what sounds like a standout single and what doesn’t. Everything’s just happened naturally and I think it’s because we’ve been left on our own.”
This year’s Testament has also seen the four working once again with legendary producer William Orbit – on album tracks After All and Testament in Motion – who co-wrote and produced a few tracks from the group’s 2000 sophomore record Saints & Sinners, most famously Pure Shores. “[We were] really flattered and honoured that he wanted to work with us again,” Blatt says, “especially ‘cause he hasn’t really done much music in the last ten years, so to get him out of the house and working is just an honour really.”
As well as Orbit, Testament features production work from long-time collaborator Karl ‘K-Gee’ Gordon, George Moore and Frederik Ball. As chief songwriter and lyricist, Lewis tells us: “I’m quite lucky now, I’m at a point where I’ve found the right kind of people to work with us... because obviously I’m not musical in terms of playing instruments, but I can hum a melody or an idea, and I know who can translate them into music form and they come out exactly how I’ve imagined.”
‘You thought I couldn’t survive / I was born to be brave / I was born to recover’ the lyrics on Testament in Motion go. How have All Saints survived this long in the pop industry, being as tough as it is? “I know, it really is,” Lewis agrees. “Somebody made a joke to us actually, not long ago,” she pauses, adopting a silly voice, “‘You girls, you just won’t go away, will you!’” which is met with a roar of laughter.
“Do you know what,” Lewis begins again, “I must say, I’m really proud of us all, I’m proud of the girls. The plan was never to go away, come back, go away and come back, that was never the plan; there was never a plan with anything, so I feel fortunate and really happy that we are able to, [after] however many breaks there are, we’re able to come back together, regroup, make music, which is obviously what we love doing and if it’s decent enough it flies, and we watch and embrace people and enjoy it and that’s all we can really hope for.
“I think with four women it’s probably quite hard in any industry... I’ve noticed in recent years that there’s a big pressure on women when you get to a certain age in certain industries and to see how far you can go, and it suddenly becomes a big thing of how old you are, which I never thought of before, but whilst it’s to me quite a negative thing, on the other hand it just makes me really proud that the four of us can still do it.
“There’s no age limit to art, there’s no age limit to anything, right? I mean, what’s the natural age where people actually retire? It’s like 75,” Lewis laughs. “We’re nowhere near that!” “We’re not far off!” one of others shouts, we think it’s Blatt, and with that the four erupt once more into a fit of laughter.
Testament is out now via AS Recordings; All Saints play O2 Academy, Glasgow, 10 Dec