At the tail-end of the last millennium, there was no cooler or better - female group than All Saints. Natalie, Nicole, Mel and Shaznay got together in London in the mid-'90s, hoping to emulate the sassy, streetwise pop success of US R&B acts like SWV and TLC. They wrote their own tunes, wore their own clothes (combat pants, because they were cheap) and made music that was as popular with the fashionistas and festival goers as it was with pop tarts.
From the moment All Saints released their debut single, the punchy Sept '97 statement-of-intent I Know Where It's At, the band embarked on three years of astonishing success. Not one of their eight singles charted outside the UK Top 10 - indeed five of them reached number one- and their two critically-lauded albums sold over ten million copies across the globe. But then, amid punishing promo schedules and fervid tabloid interest, the friendships All Saints' success had been built on crumbled. "It became like playground arguing," remembers Nat, "Talking behind each other's backs, holding feelings in and not being honest. That obviously led to a lot of anger and bad feelings. A lot of it was to do with the age we were, we didn't handle things very well."
Over the next few years, Shaznay and Mel embarked on solo careers, with Nat and Nic teaming up as a duo. They all racked up Top 10 hits, but it wasn't the same. The girls all found promoting their records quite lonely. Shaznay and Mel kept in touch ("because we didn't have sisters," grins Mel), but neither spoke to the Appletons. The chance of a reunion looked remote. But then towards the end of last year, feeling older and wiser, the quartet made contact and decided to go for a meal. It was the first time the four of them had been in the same room together for over five years.
The evening was a resounding success. "It felt like we'd never been apart," says Nic. "All we did was just laugh." They got their feelings out and restored their friendships. "Us not talking had been like an open wound," says Shaznay. "But I guess we healed it that night." Natalie had been having nightmares for several years before that night - she hasn't had one since. Spend any time with them and it's obvious how close they are again.
"For the last five years, my husband has been saying, 'You guys are so good together'. He's right you know." Shaznay Lewis
Word soon got out that the four All Saints were friends again. Parlophone had already been in negotiations with Shaznay, hoping that the Ivor Novello winner would write for some of their acts. Hearing about the rekindled friendships, the label told Shaznay that if they wanted to make music together they would offer them a deal. Delighted by the offer, the four women remember thinking, 'We're all mums, we're all in our 30s, can we still do this?'," says Mel. "Then we were like, 'Of course we can, let's go for it!'"
The reinvigorated band have spent the last few months in a London studio with producers/writers KG (who's worked with them since their earliest days), Greg Kurstin (Peaches, Jamelia, Flaming Lips and Lily Allen) and Rick Nowels (Madonna, Dido and kd lang).
"I've been a fan of All Saints since the very beginning," says Nowels, "so I was really happy to have the chance to write with Shaz now they've reformed. The spirit among the girls during the recording was incredible. They're a proper vocal group - they can stand in a room together and sing beautiful harmony with a blend that you only get from working together for years. Each of them has a unique and cool vocal texture. When you put them all together you get that unmistakable All Saints sound. We're lucky to have them back."
"We have fresh interests now, so we've incorporated that. It's the ska sound, the beats and the brass. We can't wait to tour this record." Nicole Appleton
The result of those sessions is All Saints' third album, Studio 1. As implied by that titular nod to the great Studio One label, the band have added some new sounds to their sonic arsenal, with the album bursting with 60s-tinged reggae, ska, dancehall and rock steady. In fact, that last style provides the title to the band's first single since January 2001.
One listen to its sultry, infectious skank and you realise how much we've missed them. Rock Steady opens Studio 1, where it's followed by the electro-pulsin' tales of desire (Chick Fit) and the glorious, trumpet-soaked bounce of Scar. From there, the album is a joyful blast through dreamy love songs (On & On), jilted rants (Hell No) and super-confident put-downs (Too Nasty). It's punchy and fresh as a daisy. In other words, it's exactly how you'd hope All Saints would sound in 2006.
"We were very aware that there would be no point in doing this unless the music is at least as good as it was before," says Mel. "We had to move forward," agrees Natalie, "and we have".
All Saints will be back with another new album in 2008.