THERE are various ways you can try to persuade straight society to buy weekly magazines from homeless people – free gifts, guilt trips, having a picture of Danger Mouse on the cover – but for a time at the Big Issue in the North, we decided to use instantly recognisable celebrities instead.
The idea to capitalise on the street-wise cachet a high-profile interview with the magazine could deliver came after people like the Stone Roses and Morrissey ignored Fleet Street and the music press to give us world exclusives on their post-hiatus returns to the limelight.
It worked for a while, but the emphasis on finding easily-recognisable faces week in week out led to us going for whatever pop culture dreck was ploughing their way through the grim regional press grind that particular week – telly, movies, music, the lowest common denominator stuff you could ever imagine.
Ultimately, it looked like we were just another celeb-focussed magazine, but crucially, unlike Heat or OK, you had to buy our magazine from someone who was very often a drug addict.
This Mis-Teeq interview dates from a period when I was commissioning interviews – and occasionally, as with this one, writing them myself – with the likes of various Spice Girls, Atomic Kitten, Hear Say and Westlife (as well as, in my defence, people like Macy Gray, Craig David and Amy Winehouse). It is nobody’s finest moment.
* * *
THERE’S something about three girls, singing and dancing together, that does it for us. From the Ronettes, the Emotions and the Supremes to Bananarama, Atomic Kitten and Destiny’s Child, the trio has become the classic line-up for a female vocal act.
The latest trio to bring their sweet harmonies to the pop charts provide a particularly British spin to this tried-and-tested formula. Mis-Teeq have harnessed the vibrant, pulsating sound of UK garage and given it a pop edge with their first three singles – Why? All I Want and One Night Stand – all hitting the top 10. Three heads are plainly better than one.
Not today though, because one third of Mis-Teeq, Sabrina Washington, is absent with toothache when we meet up in the reassuringly west London offices of their PR company. However, the voluble Alesha Dixon and the more reserved Su-Elise Nash, looking every bit as glamorous as they do in their videos, have more than enough energy and charisma to make up for it.
So what is it about that three-girl line-up, I wonder. Why does it work for you? Is it a case of balancing each other out?
“That’s what I would say,” agrees Alesha. “There’s someone in the middle, doing this-” – she mimes gently pushing two opposing forces apart. “Four is cool, but three, I don’t what it is, it’s just… a chemistry thing I suppose. It’s just feels like it balances itself out.”
Nobody mentions the recently-departed fourth member of the group, Zena McNally.
Do they each have different roles within the group? Is there someone who is the peacemaker, someone else the motivator and someone who is good at sleeping in?
“She’s good at sleeping in,” hoots Alesha, pointing at Su-Elise and doubling up with laughter.
In fact, a former business student, Su-Elise is the most ‘on-the-ball’ business-wise and “really good at getting her head down and making sure that stuff gets done,” which is particularly important since Mis-Teeq, as they put it, “look after” themselves – there is no shady managerial Svengali cutting deals in the background.
The absent Sabrina, I discover, “can be very chilled and cool and quiet – or she can be madder than me,” says Alesha.
And what about Alesha herself?
She is, she decides, the group’s motivator: “I’ve got the most energy. I try and keep their energy levels high, as much as possible, because you know, you do get tired, you’re travelling around and,” she shoots a glance at the over-sleeper to her left, “getting up at hours you never knew existed..”
“Except when you were coming back from raves in the morning,” qualifies Su-Elise with a chortle.
“I think if all three of us was like me, we’d be in trouble,’ says Alesha, like she’s only half joking. “We’re all interested in every aspect of it, we can all fit into different shoes but we do naturally fall into those roles.”
Alesha and Sabrina met at college in London about five years ago and began working together as Face2Face, as Alesha remembers it, “just us two, developing ourselves as artists.”
Two years ago, they tell me, they met Su-Elise over a hot chocolate in a break at a dance studio and immediately clicked. The process, it turns out, wasn’t quite as organic as it appears, since Su-Elise was in fact auditioning, alongside NcNally, for a place in Face2Face after had Tina Barret left to join S Club 7. Either way, it did the trick.
“We didn’t go out looking for the deal – it kinda found us, like by fate really,” remembers Alesha.
In fact, producer David Brant played a demo to his mate Darren Stokes (aka Tin Tin Out) who loved it and raved about it to another mate (Pat Travers), who ended up getting them signed to the TV-advertised, pop compilation specialist Telstar. The group was renamed Mis-Teeq.
The quartet worked with a variety of pop-orientated and perhaps more credible producers and writers – from Stargate and Ed Case to Ceri Evans and Rishi Rich – and the smouldering latin-flavoured Why? duly appearing as their first single. McNally left the group soon soon after.
The pair give the appearance of being relaxed about their career path. They know enough about the business to refer to the countries in which their records are sold as ‘territories’ but they obviously still get a major buzz out of seeing their video on MTV. Unfortunately, their chart success has brought accusations of turning their backs on the underground club scene from which they sprang.
Their ‘crime’ was that their third single had more of an R&B-feel, with smoother, slower beats rather than the skittering two-steps rhythms with which they made their name. But their debut single wasn’t remotely garage until Matt ‘Jam’ Lamont got his hands on it. And, given UK garage’s origins as a uniquely British hybrid sound that owes as much to straight-ahead soul as it does house music (not to mention reggae, hip hop and hardcore), what’s the problem?
Craig David had exactly the same accusations levelled at him following his own chart success over the last couple of years. Alesha and Su-Elise take such criticism in their stride. Clearly, they have about as much attachment to UK garage as their label mate.
There’s no big secret – they work in different styles of music because the pop-buying public are into a lot of different styles of music, “and we don’t want anyone to get missed out!”
“And it’s all music that we’ve listened to, and still listen to and love,” says Su-Elise. “That’s why we make it.”
Their superb debut album, Lickin’ on Both Sides, finds them singing over a variety of different styles and tempos, but it all seems entirely natural, fitting as perfectly into smooth soul jams such as the Blacksmith-produced Roll On as the rough and tough proto-grime cut They’ll Never Know, a collaboration with So Solid Crew.
“I think that’s just us,” says Alesha. “We’re naturally quite versatile. We love the raw garage and we love the chilling out, Sunday smooth R&B..”
“Ballads,” offers Su-Elise.
“We put on different hats to suit different moods,” continues Alesha, “and with So Solid, we did that collaboration because we felt like being in a dark underground mood, we wanted to give you the other side of garage, cos with Mis-Teeq you usually all you hear is the sweet side, like All I Want and Why? and I think They’ll Never Know was just the complete opposite. It’s just raw.”
“Diversity is definitely the key to a long career,” pinpoints Su-Elise. “The people that we look up to, like Madonna and Michael Jackson, all those people that have been around for years, it’s because they’re able to reinvent themselves and change their style and their image, even their vocal style, to fit in with the times and what’s going on at the moment. We’re trying to develop a similar way of thinking.”
“We’ve come from the garage scene,” explains Alesha, “because our track blew up on the underground and people knew our music before they knew us and we’re making sure that we don’t leave all that behind.”
She tells me, just a little miffed, that she’s read a recent comment, from one of the scene’s movers and shakers, asking, are Mis-Teeq going to do a Craig David?
“And I thought that was an interesting comment. What is doing a Craig David? Craig David is doing something great with his life. There’s different viewpoints. We do what we feel is the right thing and there are pressures from other people but you have to go forward in what you believe is the right way.”
“You have to trust your own judgement,” says Su-Elise.
“Right,” agrees Alesha. “The way we’ve come through is slightly different to other bands. Su-Elise mentioned Madonna earlier – you know, she really worked the club scene at the start of her career.
“She’s never really looked back but at the same time, she still creates music for the clubs. Her music still gets you up on the dancefloor and that’s all we want to do, create music that gets you up on the dancefloor. That’s all it’s about.”
Well, that and slogging around the hotels of Europe, ‘doing promo’, getting up early to do television shows where they say the same things about the same songs, endlessly. How are they taking to the sheer hard work of being popstars?
“We’ve always been very realistic,” says Alesha, matter of fact. “We’re grounded. This is our job. When you’re younger and you dream and you want to be a singer, it seems like another world, it’s so far away and so glamourous.
“But when you get older and more mature, you realise it’s not another world, it’s just going through another door. You make the transition.
“The fact is, we’re doing a job, but we’re living our dreams. It is possible. Everything that comes our way has come because of our hard work. We know it’s going to get harder. It was hard before we had a deal, it was hard once we had a deal…”
“And it’s still hard now!” finishes Su-Elise, laughing.
“Yeah, it’s hard, but fun,” says Alesha. “You just keep going. You can get up at four in the morning and do a full day’s work, and go to work the next day with very little sleep and you’re smiling and you’re happy.”
She shrugs. “You just write a song about it, dontcha? That’s all you do, you write a song about the bad times and then you flip it and write a song about the good times…”
[This is an edited version of an interview that was first published in the Big Issue in the North in January 2002]