The secret to a happy life, Oscar Wilde once observed, is to appreciate being deceived. Gigwiseâ€™s first encounter with Siobhan Donaghy begins expecting a statuesque red-haired former pop diva with a lilting Irish accent straight from a Paddy Clark novel. Lazing at EMI headquarters in Hammersmith on an early summer morning, Gigwise's preconceptions are wiped away by Donaghyâ€™s disarmingly cockney, â€œawrightâ€, accompanied by the sound of flip flopping feet. After sitting down, Starbucks coffee in hand, Donaghy chats about her latest album â€˜Ghostsâ€™, "the head fuck of working in the music industry", and That Band She Used To Be In, which, by the end of the interview, weâ€™re almost apologetic to ask about. She exudes the serenity of someone returning from six-months in Goa. It hasnâ€™t always been like this, but more of that later.
In truth, Siobhanâ€™s glowing, auburn hair and distinctive voice are about the only features remaining from when she first arrived on the scene 10 years ago in Sugababes. Calling her debut solo album â€˜Revolution In Meâ€™ was a strong statement of intent from the north Londoner; following it up with a Cocteau Twins, Brian Eno and Kate Bush influenced electro dream pop opus called â€˜Ghostsâ€™ effectively completes her transformation from her former group's sulky pop to the sonic complexity of her new material.
â€˜Ghostsâ€™ was written and recorded in a 500-year-old chateau in a sleepy town in north western France over last winter with Donaghyâ€™s producer and co-writer James Sanger (Keane, U2, Faithless). The gestation period has been long; interrupted by Sangerâ€™s two spells in rehab, and Donaghyâ€™s need to head home from her claustrophobic surroundings. The results combine shimmering pop brilliance with moments of left field instrumentation, culminating in the title track's eerie backwards vocals and 'Halcyon Days', which wouldn't sound out of place on Massive Attack's 'Mezzanine'. â€˜Hole In The Headâ€™, it ainâ€™t. So how come things took so long?
â€œI never have too much urgency in my life to get things done,â€ Donaghy explains. â€œI just wanted it to be the best record Iâ€™ve made in my career so far. The main influences were The Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, early Annie Lennox. I listened to a lot of Brian Eno and trippy 60s French music with James Sanger, the producer,â€ she ponders. â€œThe album was recorded in a ghost town. In the winter all the kids were off skiing, there was nobody there under the age of 30 and we didnâ€™t have any neighbours so it wouldâ€™ve felt quite isolated anyway. None of the doors locked or anything, I had my own building and at night it used to freak me outâ€¦â€
As most musicians will tell you, making albums is tortuous work at the best of times. Throw in Donaghyâ€™s break up blues, Sanger's heroin addiction, isolated surroundings, and heated arguments with the producer, and â€˜Ghostsâ€™ emerges as a complicated work far removed from her pop roots. â€œItâ€™s a really emotive record,â€ she explains. â€œI hear a lot of almost desperation in there, not really enjoying myself being out there with James and with him being an addict he wasnâ€™t enjoying himself either,â€ she adds. â€œIt was a really stressful time for the pair of us and I donâ€™t know why I persevered with it to be honest. We were just hating each other most of the time.â€ Gigwise nods and scribbles notes, conscious the interview is turning into a psychiatristâ€™s report.
â€œItâ€™s only when we got to the end of the record that we had immense respect for each other, really sticking it out when most people would walk away and think, I canâ€™t stand you! There was a tension there between me and James and I think thatâ€™s why it worked," she says. "I think 'Ghosts' is more of a solid direction. On the last record, while I still stand by it, I think it was a collection of different genres and ideas. It was the first time in my musical career that I had ever had the chance to just make the record I wanted to make."
Despite Gigwise's determination not to bang on about Donaghy's musical past, there's a sense of inevitability that it crops up. She beats Gigwise to the punch, describing her first experiences in the industry as she signed up for Sugababes aged 12. "Music is all I've known really," she says. "I did enjoy singing growing up, but I think all girls do. I never wanted to be a singer. It was my best friend at secondary school; her brother-in-law (Cameron McVey) founded All Saints. She told him I could sing, I don't think she'd even heard me but she was trying to chance it ha, ha."
A career in Sugababes followed, albeit curtailed. Debut single 'Overload', which was co-written by Donaghy, Keisha Buchanan and Mutya Buena - along with most of debut album 'One Touch' â€“ was a moody, urbane hit. Her split from the band in 2001 - which has since been documented to death - came amid speculation of bullying and record company pressure. She admits her experience of the industry nearly forced her to quit: "I just thought music wasn't for me, so that's why I left. It was just like, this industry isn't for me; I'm not strong enough for it. You know it was really beating me down."
Yet, by her own admission, something still irks fans and the media, who canâ€™t let go of her past. In an industry notorious for compartmentalising everything, Donaghyâ€™s changing persona makes her hard to define. "They have to put me in an ex-Sugababes bracket, which is just so difficultâ€¦if they saw me as a new artist it would be so much easier. Maybe I'll change my name," she says with a nervous laugh. "I always struggle with preconceived ideas of what I am from the band I've come from. I find it really hard that Radio One don't play me, obviously for the kind of artist I am, essentially making pop musicâ€¦I find that hard to get my head around but that's life. How many artists don't get playlisted on Radio One?"
Gigwise isn't sure, Siobhan. One thing is certain, however; her refusal to pander to the group's marketability made her situation untenable. "In my opinion I've never sold out. I left the Sugababes just before they did some campaign with McDonalds, I was like, fuck that!" She says candidly. "I got asked to appear on 'The Games', but the idea of standing in a swimsuit in front of the nation, it just makes me want to puke! I just couldn't do that." But does she still talk to the Sugababes? There's an awkward silence before she says: "I've spoken to Mutya, we wished each other luck." So that would be the other Sugababe who left then, Siobhan? Her experience of the industry hasn't put her off making records, but: "It's a complete head fuck," she says. "There's no formula to what you're doing, unless you want to make throwaway pop, but it's not what I want to do and for anyone else who's not doing that, which is 95% of the music industry it's chance."
With 'Ghosts' now unleashed on the record-buying public, a busy schedule involving an autumn tour lies ahead. Further collaborative project seem likely, with remix work by Patrick Wolf already under her belt, as does a trip to the US. But for now, Donaghy will be concentrating on her own musical development. "I just think it will only get weirder," she explains. "I was getting into medieval music! There's harpsichords on the record, all these unusual instruments I can't even remember half the names of." How 'Ghosts' will be received is an interesting question; it's a solid, ambitious work but offers the promise of better things. "I just think if you've come back with a strong record it doesn't matter how long you've been away or what your history is. Everything else is irrelevant," she says. "I know some people get a hard time in the industry and find it a struggle, but that's life isn't it?"
The Siobhan Supremacy might be about to start.