THEY were one of the biggest pop groups of the late ’90s, offering an uber-cool alternative to the cartoonish Spice Girls as they clocked up an unassailable run of hit singles: I Know Where It’s At, Never Ever, Pure Shores, Black Coffee.
But just as quickly as they rose to the top, All Saints imploded, the UK four-piece splintering into two warring factions midway through promotion of their second album.
Somehow — 17 years after that bitter split — All Saints are back together, releasing new music, touring Australia next year, and revelling in the sort of second act pop groups are rarely afforded.
“We fell out because of a lot of things that were going on around us. We had to rediscover our friendships before we could reunite. Our friendship always came first,” one half of the band, Canadian-born sisters Natalie and Nicole Appleton, tell news.com.au.
(A note: The Appleton sisters both look and sound incredibly similar, making it near impossible for this reporter to decipher which one is actually speaking during our a three-way phone conversation. “The Appletons” will have to do.)
The band’s breakup was scorched earth stuff: The Appleton sisters even released a tell-all book, Together, in 2002, lifting the lid on the layers of dysfunction and rivalry that existed between them and the two other members, Mel Blatt and the group’s primary songwriter Shaznay Lewis.
It was a bombshell read, as the duo detailed the immense pressure they were living under as they grappled with their new-found fame. The most shocking revelation: Nicole had been forced to abort then-fiance Robbie Williams’ baby due to pressure from her record company, eager to keep the band’s momentum going.
“I was horrified, violated by what I felt was the power of an industry that leads a woman to sacrifice her child to keep a band together,” she wrote, revealing the abortion nearly drove her to take her own life. “What mattered was our success and our ability to make money.”
Four years after that book was published, All Saints patched things up and made their first attempt at a comeback. Their 2006 reunion was short-lived, though it did birth perhaps their most underrated album, Studio 1.
They’d signed a million-pound deal to reunite before they’d even recorded a note of music, and they were feeling that familiar pressure once more.
“It didn’t happen the right way. We got signed first and then we had to make the music, which didn’t really work well for us. With our first album, we had the music written and there was no pressure. I think it all just came at the wrong time, and for the wrong reasons,” The Appletons say now of the ill-fated reunion.
They disbanded again, the band remaining dormant until 2014, when the foursome united to support the Backstreet Boys on a UK tour. It was a toe in the water, and further dates soon followed. In 2016, All Saints released their first album in a decade, Red Flag, to rave reviews.
Check comeback single One Strike: Brooding verses, an anthemic chorus and a sure-fire contender for a number one single had they released it in 1998.
The sisters said adding to their slender back catalogue was a priority when reuniting: “Always in our band it’s been about making new music, not just going out and playing our old hits.
“Of course we love our old hits, and we love to tour them because we never really toured much. But we’re always growing as a band and I always think it’s important for us to make new music.”
Their latest album, Testament, even sees them reunite with the producer responsible for their very best song, the shimmering, sun-kissed UK number one Pure Shores. William Orbit returned to produce their most recent single After All;with his trademark twinkly synths flooding the track, it could be Pure Shores older, wiser sister.
Turns out, the legendary producer didn’t take much convincing to return to the fold.
“We’re out one evening and happened to bump into him,” the Appletons said. “We were reminiscing … he hadn’t been working for a while, he took some time out. We suggested doing something together and his face lit up. It was such a lovely reaction: instant joy. Sooner than we thought, we were all back in the studio together and he worked his magic.”
This time around, All Saints are getting to do a lot of the stuff they didn’t in the past — like tour. (A planned 2001 world tour was nixed as the band fell apart.) Their summer 2019 Australian visit, co-headlining shows with Bo Selecta himself Craig David and performing outdoor gigs at wineries across Australia, will be their first concerts in Australia — ever.
“It’s something we’ve always wanted to do, and we’re FINALLY doing it. Eighteen years, you know? We did a lot of promo back in the late ’90s but we never actually got to do shows.” they said.
“We had a great time in Australia (they visited our shores for a brief promo visit in 1998) and we always wanted to go back.”
And while their singles aren’t bothering the top of the charts these days, the sisters said that five albums deep and with the band members all mums in their 40s, the goalposts for success have changed.
“Success for us now is having a good album and having it be received well. The reviews for this album, the feedback from the fans — we couldn’t have asked for more. Touring and seeing fans sing the words to the new songs back at us — we’re happy with that. We’re buzzing.”
And in Lewis, the band has a secret weapon — a woman seemingly incapable of writing a bad song (and who in fact has a sideline career churning out killer tunes for the likes of Sugababes and Little Mix). She wrote or co-wrote all 13 songs on Testament.
“Shaz just doesn’t stop writing, she’s like a machine. There’ll be new music in future … one step at a time. Shaz was on fire with this album, so we let her go and do her thing. We just wanted the best album for us, and she delivered,” they said.
But even if it all dries up — the hits, the fans, the tours — the sisters insist that one thing will remain: the now unbreakable friendship between Nat, Nic, Mel and Shaz.
“God, absolutely. We love each other. We’ve known each other too long!” they said.
“If it all stopped tomorrow we’d still be the closest friends. We’re family now.”
All Saints play five R&B Vine Days dates with Nelly, Craig David, Amerie and Yo! Mafia across Australia in February 2019.
They also play co-headlining shows with Craig David in Sydney, Canberra and the Gold Coast during the visit.