At 22, Siobhan is unrecognizable from the 16-year-old songbird whose laconic gaze first swept across the Sugababes’ ‘Overload’ video in the summer of 2000. She’s unrecognizable visually, musically and emotionally, her second solo album, ‘Ghosts’, a stunning sonic progression from her debut in 2003, ‘Revolution in Me’, the startling result of a collaborative “vision” from the enigmatic mind of producer/programmer James Sanger, best known for his multi-million-selling work with Keane, U2, Dido and Brian Eno. Certainly, as Siobhan says, there’s nothing else out there like it: as coolly dramatic as vintage Kate Bush, as vocally ephemeral as the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser, as electro-dazzling as ‘Ray of Light’-era Madonna – a vivid dreamscape created in what Siobhan calls “a twilight zone” in coastal, north east France by an artist now fully emerged from the chrysalis her teenage self only hinted at.
“I wanted emotive sounds,” says Siobhan, “but sounds that were universal. I wouldn’t wanna be some obscure, poncey artist y’know? I am still pop.” This is pop sophistication at its classiest; dazzling, planet-sized future-pop pulsing with loss, pain, fear, forgiveness, running away – and hope. Made in a tiny French town, it’s a Big sound: from the orchestral swell of ‘So You Say’, to the soaring dramatics of ‘Coming Up For Air’, to the booming bass of the epic ‘Medivac’, to the eastern-tinged disco-pop of ‘Sometimes’ to the guitar-fried ’12 Bar Acid Blues’ to the head-spinning sorcery of colossal first single, ‘Don’t Give It Up’, a masterclass in mesmerizing, psychedelic longing. And then there’s the magical, lush-stringed beauty of ‘There Is A Place’, as if young Olivia Newton John suddenly turned up on one of Noel Gallagher’s greatest ballads. And the extraordinary title-track ‘Ghosts’, full of random words and backwards production trickery, no less than a sonic monastery.
“I’m now obsessed with my music,” she beams, “and I’ve become a real perfectionist. If I want a specific thing I have to have it and it feels good to know what I want. And this is what I want.”
2003 changed everything for then-19 year old Siobhan. Mere months after the release of the critically well-received ‘Revolution In Me (produced by pop guru Cameron McVey), she was dropped from London Records, a victim of the label’s 2003 take-over by Warners. “Everyone was dropped,” Siobhan laughs today, “everyone! But I like London Records, they signed me when I was 14, with the girls, they kept me on solo and let me make whatever kind of record I wanted to make. So I got it out of my system. And I decided from then on I’d just take everything on the chin. Much worse things, in life, can happen.”
In 2004, after an extended holiday in America, Portugal and Thailand, now a searching soul who was reading ‘Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance’, Siobhan returned to a phone call, out of the blue, from James Sanger - through her long-term management at CMO (home to Blur, Gorillaz, Graham Coxon, Turin Brakes). Inspired by ‘Revolution In Me’, Sanger was interested in a collaboration and Siobhan, intrigued and won over by his enthusiasm, hooked up with this producer she’d never even heard of, who would go on to push her musically and emotionally to unforeseeable creative heights, recording in his studio in north-west coastal France. Here was the “ghost-town” setting which would inspire the most unearthly and sophisticated music of Siobhan’s life. There would be musical “listening sessions”: intense studies in appreciation of the Cocteau Twins, Kate Bush, Shakespear’s Sister, Brian Eno and experimental ambient music.
“The more the record went on the more I wanted it to be really other-worldly.” The partnership, sometimes, was fraught. James, a quintessential creative, was prone to emotional peaks and troughs while Siobhan, too, was coming to terms with her own break-up. But it was great for the writing.” It was great, too, for vocal freedom, Siobhan using dramatic new techniques, “and I was left thinking James is quite the eccentric genius. We definitely brought out the best in each other, music-wise”.
In November 2005, the still-unsigned Siobhan approached Parlophone records, her ideal label, “all British artists want to sign to Parlophone”, with a three-track demo-tape, including ‘So You Say’, ‘There Is A Place’ and ‘Don’t Give It Up’. They signed her immediately.
“There can be a lot of rejection in this industry,” smiles Siobhan, “so it was a real confidence booster! And they really find the time to have a relationship with their artists. They’ve been working with me, not against me. It doesn’t feel corporate. It feels like an indie label.”
They encouraged her visual ideas, too, which reflect the music of ‘Ghosts’, through dreamscape imagery from acclaimed photographer/director/visual artist Floria Sigismondi who’s created visuals for Christina Aguilera, the White Stripes, and Bjork.
“It is glam,” laughs Siobhan. “I wanted fantasy. I wanted to create a world around me. Trippy and fantastical. I’m not a teenager anymore. And I’m glad to be rid of it. Bring on the 20s. The 30s even!”
This year, staggeringly, is Siobhan’s 10th anniversary of life as a professional artist, the London school-girl discovered aged 12 by Ron Tom, the ex-All Saints manager who went on to manage the fledgling Sugababes. No wonder her three and a half years in the ‘Babes have almost faded to insignificance, a band Siobhan rightly sees as “a brand now, and that’s not something I could be involved in, we just couldn’t be more different”. She concentrates fully on today, eyeing the future.
“The things that have happened to me,” ponders Siobhan, “leaving the Sugababes and then what happened with my last record, people might think ‘God, she must be gutted’. And it’s actually been the complete opposite. I think it’s been wonderful. For me it’s all been a positive, the people I’ve met, the people I’ve worked with. It’s so bizarre; I grew up not wanting to be a singer and then when I became a singer I wasn’t writing songs and suddenly I’m this songwriter. My life could’ve been so different. What if I’d never had that chance meeting with my first manager and I sang him some random song? I think, ‘what would I be doing?’ and then I think, ‘God, I am so lucky’. It goes without saying how many people wanna do this. And I seem to be this cat with nine lives. And people keep letting me come back. From the dead!”•
‘Don’t Give It Up’, the first single from ‘Ghosts’ will be released 8th Jan 2007
‘Ghosts’ released March 2007