Title: Patience of a saint
Author: Polly Vernon
Source: The Observer
Publish date: Sunday October 10, 2004
When a band breaks up, says Shaznay Lewis, survivor of one of the most acrimonious pop splits ever, it’s like a four-way divorce. ‘It is, it really is! We had had quite a few "It’s Overs". But then the next day (she cradles an imaginary Nokia against the side of her face) it’s all ..."I’m sorry, I love you ... Oh, I love you too ..." The tears, the hugging, the fighting, the making up ... but you do love them. They were like sisters to me.’
She sits on the bed in a fashionable south-west London hotel and makes insistent gestures with her hands. She’s talking intensely, tripping over words, and her Bambi eyes grow bigger and rounder yet with her desire to be understood and believed. Then she slows down, quietens, deflates into the stylish satin bedspread a little. ‘And then it was over. And I knew it.’
It’s been four years since All Saints imploded over disputed ownership of a combat jacket. Lewis had been allotted it for a photo shoot, one of the others wanted it, and: ‘I would never in a million years have put money on the group ending over a jacket incident. But when that incident happened, it fired up so strong, it had to be over.’ She smiles ruefully. ‘And the way I was then, the state we’d got into then, there was no way she was getting that stupid jacket.’
So the band that for several years had churned out consistently deft, surprising, hip and credible R ‘n’ B edged pop went into meltdown. It was an appropriate end. All Saints were the hard-edged, unsmiling, mean girls alternative to the Spice Girls; a four-piece, combat-pant-clad, midriff-exposing, slutty Rolling Stones to the Spices’s Beatles. Bitchiness, competitiveness, volatility and cat fighting were all part of their brand - of course they’d go down in a searing flame of pettiness, melodrama, and fashion-related over-reaction.
It was equally, delightfully fitting when, a year-and-a-half later, Nicole and Natalie Appleton, the blond, pap-and-publicity-addled sisters who dominated the group (despite having the weakest voices of the four and being described more than once by the music press as ‘superannuated back-up singers’), published Together . This memoir of their time in All Saints claimed, among other things, that Lewis reacted with fury on discovering that Nicole was pregnant by then-boyfriend Robbie Williams.
For most of her twenties Lewis was one quarter of this band of hard-living hellcats. Subsequently she’s been living through the gruesome and public aftermath. Accordingly, I expect certain things from Shaznay Lewis. We meet because she is in the throes of launching her solo career. ‘You’, the second single from debut album, Open, is out this month. She would like to talk about it. So I prepare myself for Trial By Ex-All Saint. I anticipate 45 minutes in the presence of a hardbitten, jaded, old-beyond-her 28-years kind of glamour. An enduring bitterness. An arrogance - it was Lewis, after all, who wrote the vast majority of All Saint’s hits; Lewis who won an Ivor Novello for ‘Pure Shores’, who was responsible for the exquisite ‘Never Ever’.
I expect a sullen reluctance to rehash the finer details of the All Saints break-up and a kind of residual, background hum of sneering and stroppiness, characteristics I’d always associated with Lewis’s pouting public face. On meeting her I instantly discover I’m mistaken on every count. She is, above and beyond everything else, quite ordinary. Pretty, but averagely so. Shy. Sweet. Fantastically eager to please - she thinks very hard about questions before she answers - she’s desperate to get it all absolutely right and clear. She’s inclined to rephrase responses so that she can use my words. She’s full of mild-mannered Oprah book club type psychology: ‘I couldn’t get my shit together for ages [after the group ended]. I hadn’t closed one book before I’d opened another. It wasn’t until I confronted how hurt I was and dealt with that, that I was able to ... exhale.’
She’s giggly, she seems younger than she actually is. And she’s gratifyingly happy to discuss the old days.
Unlike pretty much every other group of its type, All Saints was a truly organic proposition, rather than being masterminded by a shadowy, unscrupulous Svengali figure with a marketing vision. Shaznay Lewis grew up on a council estate off London’s Caledonian Road, tap-dancing, loving music, and writing angst-ridden ballads. ‘I was very much into things that rhymed.’
She didn’t go to stage school because she ‘didn’t know they existed’ but by the time she left school at 18 she knew she wanted to write and sing, so signed on and began working at it in earnest: hanging out in the right creative circles, spending time in studios, ingratiating herself with the likes of producer and ex-Curiosity Killed the Cat front man Ben Volpierre Pierrot. But she insists: ‘I didn’t want to be famous. I never even thought about it. When I got famous, that was a bit like... oooh, shit. That was a bit of an Oops.’
She met Melanie Blatt in a studio on All Saints Road. ‘My first impression of Mel was: she fancies that bloke! There was another artist in the room, and she was sat behind this desk going [Lewis adopts a coquettish voice]: "I’m thinking of dying my hair. What do you think?" ‘
Lewis thought Blatt would be too girly to be a friend, but they became close none the less. ‘She started coming out clubbing with me and my friends, which she hadn’t done before, and we changed her from tight skirts into baggy trousers and little tops.’
You styled her up?
The signature All Saints look - the look which would eventually be recreated by several hundred thousand teenage girls - was born.
Blatt and Lewis began singing Lewis’s songs together. They made demos and eventually signed with the ZTT label as an early incarnation of All Saints. They played the Smash Hits Poll Winners party. ‘And that was like, "Oh my God! Biggest thing ever".’
ZTT dropped them, but Lewis wasn’t devastated. ‘We didn’t have a lot to lose. There was no money in it. They’d give us 50 quid and send us to Mr Byrite to get clothes for the video. We were like: that doesn’t feel like it should be happening like that.’
Shortly afterwards Blatt bumped into Natalie and Nicole Appleton, her former best friends from stage school, introduced them to Lewis, and the ultimate All Saint line-up was created. ‘We went into the studio together with a producer for four or five months, making demos, building up a showcase. Then we signed to London Records.’ But not before Blatt and the Appletons went to a label executive behind Lewis’s back with their own demo, which included an early recording of Lewis singing ‘Never Ever’. The exec told them to get Lewis back on board. ‘I was a bit shocked, to be honest. That was a bit ...’
‘Yeah, sneaky. But I was like, you know Shaz, it’s something you’ve always wanted. Don’t cut your nose off. Look at the bigger picture. So I swallowed my tongue. And then we were all so excited to get the offer, nothing else mattered. The group was the four of us, and we did all want the same thing, didn’t we?’
Not entirely, it transpired. While Lewis and Blatt were essentially interested in making good records, the Appletons embraced their spiralling celebrity with terrifying dedication. They made the Met Bar (hedonistic cocktail-peddling destination bar of the moment) their second home, worked their way through a succession of high profile boyfriends and became unswervingly reliable tabloid fodder. ‘I was blown over by the fact that I had a chance to make a record,’ says Lewis. ‘The fame side - I found it more uncomfortable. But the girls [she only ever refers to her nemesis in those terms, never by name], they really wanted it. They could handle that side of things, and leave me and Mel to get on with it.’
Divisions were established. Blatt’s loyalties wavered between the Appletons, her long-standing friends, and Lewis, whose aspirations were closer to her own. Lewis’s instinctive ability to knock out a killer pop song or two became a mixed blessing. ‘I was writing all of it, which meant I got some power back, but it created ... it was all of them in the same boat, versus me.’ Yet there were always, Lewis insists, fantastic moments. ‘We were a gang! You’d be on stage, and you’d look over at how your mate was handling the crowd, and you’d be so proud.’
Was it ever as bad as it was rumoured to be, I ask.
‘No. We argued at times and we didn’t get on at times, but I’m sure not as much as it was perceived.’
The physical punch-ups never happened, for example? ‘No! We never had physical fights.’ But you heard the rumours?
‘Yeah yeah yeah. Never hit each other. Probably come close to it. Probably squared off a little bit. But definitely none of us have ever laid a hand on each other. Ever.’
If you had, do you think you’d have won?
‘Yeah, probably. Ha ha! If I’m being honest. Though the sisters are quite feisty, and if you hit one, you’d have to hit the other. That’s how it would have gone. There’s no way one of them would sit back and let the other one get hit. They would have both tried to jump in. But I never felt the need to go that far.’
So how bad did it get?
‘Just arguing really. Storming out. Which is probably quite common. It’s girls! And at that age too, when I look back now, your hormones are all over the place. You’re becoming a woman, and with that kind of success you think you’re more of a woman than you are. And egos. Oh my God. The egos! Do you know what I mean?’
Did you have an ego?
‘Ummmm, I don’t think I did. I was stubborn. That’s a regret. I shouldn’t have been so stubborn.’
So eventually, after two-and-a-half years, five No 1 singles, two albums, two Brit awards and a series of bust-ups and minor betrayals (highlight: when Blatt and the Appletons landed roles in Dave Stewart’s ill-judged cockney gangster flick Honest without telling Lewis), All Saints stumbled to a halt. Lewis was left emotionally battered, but in possession of a rumoured £7 million worth of writing credits. £7 million? Really? ‘I should hope so! At least! But you still have that worry. You always want to make sure you’re all right. Cos at the end of the day, the tax man is always going to come knocking on your door. And that’s a pain in the arse. Some days you’re like: what’s the point? Why do I even bother going to work?’
Life after All Saints is a relatively calm affair, Lewis says. Blatt is still a close friend - she was recently a bridesmaid at Lewis’s wedding to long-term boyfriend Christian - but she hasn’t spoken to either of the Appletons since the publication of Together . She says she has never read the book but comments: ‘That was that for me. I know so much shit on them, on everybody, but you would never get me to say. Never. You don’t do that.’
Lewis has moved out of London into a big house in the Hertfordshire countryside and splits her time between there and her studio in the capital. Apart from a cameo in the 2002 movie Bend It Like Beckham she has largely avoided a public existence, eschewing the red carpets, launches and high profile parties she never particularly enjoyed when she was in All Saints. Unsurprising then that she is hesitant about her solo career, about the attention it will bring. ‘I didn’t know if I was built for it or not. I loved being in a group, sharing the pressure of promo, all the in-jokes... I miss it.’
Yet Open is a convincing starting bid. It took her a lot longer than both she and her public expected. After all, she was the talented one. But it’s better for it. Unrushed, considered, accomplished, Lewis insists it’s a departure from All Saints material - but, happily, it isn’t. Not really. Possibly because it’s monopolised by Lewis’s glorious, tender, lovelorn vocals. Possibly because her writing was so much of All Saints’ identity. It feels like the starting point for an enduring career.
It’s good, I tell her. Really good.
‘Yeah?’ She laughs. ‘Ha ha! You can put that in if you like. Finish it like that. That would be nice.’
• ‘You’ is released on 18 October on London Records