The U.K. pop icon talks about the girl group’s triumphant return, working with Amy Winehouse, and her dream of performing in the Philippines.
Two months ago, the Sugababes—the U.K. pop icons behind 2000s hits like “Round Round” and “Push the Button”—played the biggest show of their lives, 23 years into their career, at the O2 Arena. “There was a lot of preparation for it,” Mutya Buena, the band’s Filipino-British member tells me on a Zoom call, a few weeks after the milestone. “It felt like we were starting all over again.”
In many ways, they were. Twenty-three years after the Sugababes first crashed the charts, the show at the O2 served as the climax of a victory lap that started in 2019, when the original members of the band—Buena, Keisha Buchanan, and Siobhan Donaghy—finally won back the rights to the Sugababes name after a lengthy lawsuit. In a recent interview with The Guardian, Buchanan said, “[This comeback] is way more than just a financial thing for us. It is about restoring what was meant to be. And about justice. There’s been a lot of unfairness, a lot of things behind the scenes, and we felt like we had to reclaim back what was rightfully ours.”
When the Sugababes debuted at the turn of the millennium with “Overload,” it was a genuine jolt to the senses. First, there was the girl group’s musical adventurousness—moodily singing about teenage anxiety over a skipping bassline that eventually gave way to a rollicking surf rock guitar solo. And then there was the shock of the visual—three teenage girls of different nationalities moodily staring down the camera in a stark clip directed by fashion photographer Phil Poynter. The biggest surprise of all? The girls had a hand in writing the hit themselves.
In an era of manufactured pop acts, the original Sugababes were outliers. Stylistically interesting and sonically adventurous, their immaculately locked-in harmonies and street sensibilities set them apart from the cheery but musically limp acts that crowded Top of the Pops. Key to that magic? Each girl brought a unique point of view to the group—Donaghy’s indie stylings, Buchanan’s unimpeachable pop instincts, Buena’s gritty soulfulness—creating a sound that was as unpredictable as it was distinctive. Today, the influence of that hard-edged pop sound can be heard on everyone from Charli XCX to Rina Sawayama, and the band has been mentioned as an influence by acts as varied as Blood Orange’s Dev Hynes and Gen Z girl group Flo.
By 2009 though, all three original members were out of the group, picked off systematically by management and a patriarchal music industry culture. As the group chugged along largely identity-less and suddenly generic, the message seemed to be that the three girls were replaceable. “People [we worked with] would say it boldly – ‘this is the brand’, and ‘one in one out’,” Buchanan said in The Guardian interview.
But that was never true—and the rapturous reception to their return has been testament to this. This second wave for the group really started at the 2022 Glastonbury Festival, when security had to close off the Avalon stage because it was too overcrowded. And when they released The Lost Tapes, a collection of songs the girls tried to release in 2013, when they first reformed but were barred by legal complications, the album shot to number two on the UK Album Downloads Chart Top 100.
Vocally, Buena—who is routinely lauded by the industry and the press as the best British singer of her generation—has always been the group’s trump card, a husky-voiced crooner who brings intimate conviction to every line she sings. “She’s undoubtedly the finest female singer this country has produced in years,” legendary music producer Brian Higgins of Xenomania once said. “For me the closest comparison is Dusty Springfield.”
Buena tried out a solo career in 2007, releasing the hit album Real Girl after leaving the Sugababes two years before. While that solo jaunt was short-lived, it was certainly eventful. With just one album, she collaborated with icons like George Michael and Amy Winehouse, made a fan of the legendary Prince (more on that later) and proved that her vocal stylings could fit everywhere from a Lenny Kravitz sample club classic “Song 4 Mutya”.
But now she’s back in the Sugababes fold and with the release of a new single—the ‘90s R&B-tinged “When the Rain Comes”—and an album in the works, it seems the best is yet to come for the group. A few weeks after their O2 triumph, Buena talked to Vogue Philippines about the group’s triumphant return, working with Winehouse and Michael and her dream of performing in the Philippines.
VOGUE: You guys have had an amazing last few years leading up to the show at the O2 Arena. What does it mean for you to be in a pop group that’s 20 plus years in and still reaching new heights? The life cycle of a pop act isn’t usually that long.
Mutya Buena: It’s amazing. It just shows that music speaks for itself and it shows that as long as you believe in yourselves, things can happen. And we have such a great following—our [fans] are just amazing. A lot of people flew in from Australia, America, a lot from Europe as well [just for that show].
For us, as long as we have these amazing people that still believe in us, you can work as long as you want. It’s possible.
Did you prepare for the show in any special way? I know you three have been touring so you have a lot of the stuff locked down already. But was there anything different for the O2 since it was such a milestone?
There was so much preparation for it! We had to find the old footage of us from 20 years ago [that played during the concert]. And then obviously preparing the [debut album] One Touch section—we haven’t sung those songs since they came out. We had to relearn the lyrics again. And then, we were relearning the dance routines [from that time] and wanting to do them in sync with the videos of us in rehearsals from the ages of 14, 15… but doing it at the ages that we are now—we’re 21 obviously. [Laughs]
But I’m praying and hoping and I’ve got big belief that we will do another one again. We’ve got so many things we want to do. We want to try and go and start doing America because we have so many supporters there—it’s one place that we’ve never been able to do. And I want to do Southeast Asia!
You’re such an icon in the U.K. but even there, I feel like some people don’t know that you’re half Filipino.
I know! I talk about my race all the time. And I feel like it’s something I’ve always been proud of. I grew up in the Filipino community over here. Literally every weekend, I was at a Filipino performing arts school, which was called Euro-Fil.
And then when I was a little bit older, I went with a Filipino group called Pippa, and we toured. I toured Europe at the age of nine upwards doing tinikling, the candle dance (pandanggo sa ilaw).
I used to sing a lot of Filipino songs like “Dahil Sa Yo,” “Matud Nila,” “Usahay”—I know they’re very old school songs but that’s what I grew up with. I used to sing between Visayan and Tagalog. I’m so proud of my heritage. I always say to people, “I cannot wait to go home.” My home is the Philippines.
I also feel in the early 2000s, people weren’t really talking about race and making space for other cultures.
To be honest, I think a lot of people were very small-minded back then. Trying to explain to someone where the Philippines was, was like having to teach a child a new language. And I think now everyone knows Filipinos and they know Filipino culture and most of the people over here have all got Filipino friends. We are a lot more known but back then it was so hard.
And I present myself as Filipino-British because that’s basically what I am.
And it is so much nicer to know that there’s so many more people out there that actually [are representing]. You’ve got H.E.R., you have Saweetie, you have Apl from Black Eyed Peas, you have Bruno Mars. Our culture is being put out there for everyone to recognize now. It’s beautiful to see.
I was going to say though, the representation you provided was so powerful. Even for me growing up in Manila, I always thought it was so amazing that a Filipino was on Top of the Pops and the Brit Awards, in one of the biggest pop acts in the world. You’re such a trailblazer in that way. Now, there are so many of us out there—which is amazing—but you were the first one we really saw doing it big.
Oh, that makes me so happy. It’s so hard because obviously [the Sugababes] haven’t been to the Philippines to sing or promote anything. So to know that, it’s such a rewarding feeling that without having [performed] there, it’s recognized. And I just cannot wait til we get that phone call, and we’re on our way to the Philippines to actually perform and I can invite all my family and be like, “I’ve made it.” I can’t wait. I’m really pushing and I’m praying to God that we get a chance to go over there soon.
For many, many years, the girls have always wanted to go to the Philippines. And I think it just makes it so much easier when we know that we’re going for work. Because I never go to the Philippines for a short time, I go there for a month or months so because it’s such a long way [from the U.K.]. When I go to the Philippines, I live in Bohol. I always fly into Cebu—stay in Cebu sometimes or I go back and forth—and then I catch my boat to Bohol. And we have a house in Tagbilaran City so I always go there.
One of the coolest things about the Sugababes—and what really distinguished you guys from the other acts outside of the music—is how multicultural the Sugababes is. It’s so interesting how at that time in the 2000s, people weren’t really championing that aspect of you guys, when I feel that’s so important.
It was so weird! I was like, “We should really be getting United Colors of Benetton.” [Laughs] “Everything should be handed on a platter right now if you ask me.” Because we are three different races, three different cultures. We come from three different backgrounds. We should have had campaigns—of different foundations of makeup, loads of different things. And I just thought to myself, “This is really weird.”
The blessing of it is that people took our music very seriously. And I think that’s what we wanted. But I didn’t understand why no one was jumping on the fact that we were from three different cultures. It would work.
You have one of the most distinctive voices in pop music—George Michael himself was a fan. Brian Higgins compared you to Dusty Springfield. I’m curious, when did you first realize you could sing and that your voice was different?
Oh, it’s so funny because I first sang when I entered Little Miss Philippines—we love our beauty contests. [Laughs] I entered Little Miss Philippines when I was six years old in London. For my talent—because I was actually dancing before I sang—I thought I’d try singing.
I was always singing with my dad because he used to always strum the guitar at home and we’d sing together. My mom used to love singing around the house but my dad would sit there and play the guitar every weekend and I’d just sit down with him and sing with him. And so I sang for my talent on the Little Miss Philippines, and from then onwards, loads of Filipinos families—for the [different] functions, like parties and stuff—were like, “Can you sing at our party?” And I literally became the person they would call for weddings, funerals, birthdays, anything. I would turn up to all of the parties and just sing.
What were the songs you and your dad would sing at home?
Oh, my God. A lot of Whitney Houston songs. I sang “The Greatest Love of All,” “Saving All My Love [For You].” Barbara Streisand—bascially anything that you most probably would sing in karaoke in the Philippines. That’s what I was singing during that times.
It’s so funny how wherever Filipinos are, it’s the same experience. I interviewed H.E.R. for the Vogue Philippines cover and that’s what she was saying too—karaoke and singing with her dad at home.
Yeah, I think it is one of them things. You just grow up in a musical household.
But when did you realize your voice was different? Because for example, yes, a lot of Filipinos can sing but your voice is so distinctive.
Thank you. I never even looked at it in any type of way though. Even when I got approached by George Michael [for a duet], it was more of a thing where I just thought, “Oh, he liked my voice.”
I never really looked at my voice in any type of special way. I guess because it’s [always] just been there. But the appreciation of being able to work with such amazing people and having such amazing reviews on how I sing and all that, it’s very, very touching. I’ve never looked at myself different but when I hear it, I’m like, “Oh, thank you. It’s very sweet.”
George Michael, who only sang duets with Aretha, Whitney, Mary J. Blige…
And then me! I know.
That man was picky, that man was picky.
He was. And I actually was able to share the studio moment with him. It’s not like I went to the studio and he wasn’t there. He was in there with me. I was following his lead. I kept asking him, “How do you want [this]?” And he was like, “I want you to be you.” And I was like, “Oh, my God.”
And another guy I was that close to working with was Prince. I opened for Prince in London at the O2. And I remember just meeting him and being really scared because everyone tells you so many different stories. He was by himself and he was literally like, “I love your album. For the after-show party, will you sing ‘Suffer for Love’ with me?” I was like, “My song?” And he was like, “Yeah.” And then I was told [by management], I had to leave straight afterwards to go and do another show in the morning, and I was so upset. I was like, “What’s more important than singing with bloody Prince? This is crazy.”
You’re like, “I don’t need to sleep, I don’t need to sleep.”
No, no. To be honest, I was ready to cancel the show the next day.
I’ve always felt like even when you were very young, your phrasing was so distinctive. You have such a way of really imbibing emotion to a song—and you can’t teach that. Not everyone has that. Obviously there are bigger voices, some voices are [really powerful like] Whitney. Or even someone like a Leona Lewis has a big range. But you, when you sing something it’s yours. I remember when you sang “Naive” by The Kooks or ” Fast Car” by Tracy Chapman, they sounded like your songs.
I love Tracy Chapman! She [has her own thing] of course.
I feel like maybe it’s because everything I sing, I do feel it. And it’s such an emotional thing for me. Even if it’s a song that I didn’t write, as soon as I put my emotion and my thoughts to it, it does become mine. I look at everything I do as more of a feeling than just a song to sing.
In 2010, you said you felt uncertain about continuing in the music industry, and that you planned to become a children’s psychologist. Can you tell me about that time and how did you decide to stay in the industry?’
Well, it was really, really hard because obviously, you have so many setbacks. And the music industry is a very rough place to be in. I was always so blessed to be able to be recognized for my vocals. So no matter how long I would say I didn’t want to be in the industry, I was always getting offered jobs here and there.
And that’s one thing I did do—I kept one foot in and I performed a lot, especially in the LGBTQ+ shows. I did always have a weekend show [at an event for the LGBTQ+ community], and then there was Pride month, and then I was always getting booked. [Laughs] And then I was like, “Oh, my God. There’s no getting away. Literally, it doesn’t matter if I want to sit down, I can’t because … “
The gays wouldn’t let you leave.
Absolutely not. And I feel like the people I need to give thanks to is the LGBTQ+ community. Without getting all them bookings, I would’ve probably have given up.
Because there was so much [rejection] and just hearing, “No.” But it was like someone was saying, “You’re not sitting down. You’re going to keep going.” And I did.
And thank God I carried on. And then obviously it got to the point where me and the girls were like, “Yeah, we have a chance to get back together.” It always proves to you that you’ve got to have the faith. I was that close to being like, “I don’t want to do this anymore.”
Thank God honestly. You’re a once in a generation singer. We cannot lose a talent like this.
Oh no, I’m here forever. [Laughs]
We need to talk about the new single, “When the Rain Comes.” To me, it’s classic Sugababes but also very influenced by the great ‘90s R&B groups. It feels like SWV and TLC a bit.
We wanted [to do] what we were true to. We’ve all grown up with a lot of ‘90s R&B groups. We wanted to keep it fresh but also we wanted to have something that can bring our three-part harmonies in, something that means something to us.
Basically that song is given to you guys, the people that supported us, our family that supported us, throughout the many, many years of when things weren’t really going well. We’ve struggled trying to get back our name, which we finally did. There was a lot going on.
We just wanted to make it something that was true to us and that we could enjoy singing on stage and just give back [to the fans]. When we first recorded it, we knew this is something that we wanted to put out [right away even without an album].
Back in the day, you had to have a whole album ready. Now, you release one or two singles and an album if you want to. And a lot of people just release singles these days, they don’t even release albums as much. We are working on the album but for “When the Rain Comes,” we just wanted to give something to all our fans and have something new and fresh for them to hear.
It feels so triumphant. I’m curious though sonically where you guys are, especially working on the new album. Because I feel like you’re into a lot of soulful R&B, Keisha is very pop, Siobhan has an almost alternative, indie take on pop. You guys come from three different points of view but then you meet in this magical place. How does that happen in the studio?
As much as I listen to a lot of ‘90s R&B, we all grew up on different types of music. Growing up in my household, my dad would listen to Black Sabbath and Bon Jovi, Guns and Roses. And then my mom would listen to a lot of Motown. And then same for the girls. I think we put everything together and we can literally jump on different genres of music and still make it [Sugababes].
We’re so blessed to be able to go be invited to an NME Awards [which focuses on rock and indie music] and then be invited to a MOBOs [which focuses on R&B and soul music] and then be invited to a BRITs [which is a broader, more pop-oriented awards show], and be able to do all different genres of award ceremonies and be able to just go there and be cool with it. We are very diverse.
So that R&B sound of “When the Rain Comes,” also kind of reminds me of your great solo album, Real Girl.
A few people have said that, it’s so funny.
I was curious because I know in the past you said that you feel like you didn’t fully appreciate the moment of that album because obviously you were so young and a new mom. How do you look back on the Real Girl era now, because you had two huge hits, plus collabs with George Michael and Amy Winehouse.
There are times now that I think, Oh, my God. I wished I’d appreciated more what I was doing then. I felt like my head was all over the place—there was so much going on. You leave a group at its height in time, and then you… I really wasn’t trying to leave the group to go solo—that wasn’t the case. I left the group because I just had my daughter and I wanted to just do motherhood for a hot second.
But then I was easily influenced. They were like, “Well, you could take a year out and you could take time to do this and do that.” I just wish I just was more in the zone of realizing, “Oh wow, this is what I’m doing.”
But being able to work with such amazing people… Amy Winehouse—God bless her soul as well, rest in peace. I knew her very well before so it was a beautiful thing to be able to know that I was able to hold something close to me and be able to work with such an amazing person.
It’s 14 years ago or something now, it’s crazy. And I’m like, “Soon that would be my 20th anniversary.” I don’t want to think about it too far because it’s still a couple of years but I am going to one day celebrate that album’s 20th anniversary and be like, “Jeez, this is what I did and what I was able to accomplish.”
Isn’t that so interesting though? I feel like hearing you talk about it, really the core of it is people weren’t talking about mental health at that time. It was like no one cared how you felt. ‘You just need to do this and that.’
I agree. Now I talk very free and open about everything because it was so hard to deal with things back in the day when people just looked at you like you were crazy instead of going, “Actually, this is what it is.”
They belittled you. There were a few songs in my album that I didn’t push to say, “This is what it’s about.” Like “Breakdown Motel” and “My Song.”
Every time I hear the stories from when you guys were really, really young and how people would treat you, it makes me sick. You were kids.
The worst is the British press—they were awful. They were absolute bullies when it comes to not letting children be able to live and they’re talking about your weight and they’re talking about how you look. And that itself puts people into depression. Whereas people your own age, your own peers are living life. They’re not getting judged but you are. It’s hard to take that all in when you’re so young but you overcome it.
Now you see the influence of the Sugababes everywhere from FLO to Rina Sawayama, to Dev Hynes, to MNEK. Your legacy is so secure in the lineage of British pop. How does it feel to see the Sugababes’ influence all over the next generation?
My God, I have to pinch myself all the time. We’ve just finished doing so many festivals this year, and a lot of the festivals we were doing had a lot younger crowds. I get so nervous. Like, “How the hell are they going to know our music?” And then we go out there and they’re singing every lyric and then everyone goes, “Oh, my God! My mom and dad used to listen to you. Love you guys.” And then you realize, they’ve obviously been brought up on it, which is so funny. But then you just think to yourself, “Now we’re hitting different generations.” My goodness me, this isn’t just for the generation you’re in. This is for everybody and everyone’s picking up on it. And it can only get better from here.
Yeah, I found it really moving at the O2, hearing the whole crowd sing along to songs like “Push the Button.” I was like, “These are national anthems at this point.”
The biggest blessing is being able to have people from all over the world know your music. And I always used to say to myself—obviously I don’t want to but—”If I passed away tomorrow, I know I’ve left my legacy and I’ve left my name printed for everyone to know who I am.”
And I think that’s one thing that everyone would always think, “How will I always be remembered?” And I just know I’ve had such a great time and I’ve still got so many more years to go to just imprint my life and be like, “This is what I’ve done. This is why I’m here.” And I’m here to just put my music out there.
My last question is, I know it’s early days but anything you want to tell fans about the new music you girls are creating?
We’re still creating the album because it’s been quite an intense two years. It’s literally just been one after the other after the other, festivals after festivals.
And so it’s quite funny because how “When the Rain Comes” came [about] is because of the fact that we had a little bit of time to run into the studio and work on music and then run back out again literally. [Laughs]
By next year, there will be an album. With all the stuff that we’ve got, we’ve got a lot to say and a lot to give, so I’m sure we’ll get the music out quick.