Siobhán Donaghy first hit the music spotlight at just 15 years old with Mutya Buena and Keisha Buchanan as the original members of The Sugababes. In 2000 the release of the trio’s debut album One Touch saw four of their singles hit the top 40. Then in August of 2001, Donaghy abruptly left the group amid swirls of controversy and speculation. Originally Siobhán claimed she left the group to pursue a career in fashion. Later on she would reveal she really left due to depression and constant differences with band mate Keisha, whom she described as a ‘bully.’
In 2003 Siobhán released her first solo project Revolution in Me, an album that was a collaborative effort mostly between herself and previous Sugababe’s writer/producer Cameron McVey. The album received reasonably positive acclaim from fans and critics, but failed to preform great commercially. The first single ‘Overrated’ peaked at 19 on the singles chart, while the album itself peaked at 117. At this point Siobhán parted ways with London Records, the label that had signed her as a Sugababe and as a solo recording artist.
Over the next four years very little was heard from Siobhán. She spent a lot of time with her family in London, and in therapists’ offices. Having been diagnosed with clinical depression, some time out of the spotlight was much needed. She appeared as a backing vocalist on albums by Morcheeba and Mattafix. Then quietly in late 2005 Donaghy used her own money to begin recording an album independently. In a small recording studio in Barneville-Carteret, France, Siobhán created her second solo album Ghosts.
Enlisting the help of song-writer/producer James Sanger (Dido, U2, Keane), the two created a haunting and beautiful collection of 11 songs. Opening track and lead single ‘Don’t Give It Up’ (featured below) hints lyrically at Donaghy’s determination to continue making music despite personal struggles and fear of public scrutiny: ‘don’t give it up / I heal and hide / forgive this hurt of mine’. Amid half-spoken vocals and dark, precise electronica, you are immediately drawn into Siobhán’s off-kilter sonic world.
Later in the album, the beautifully reflective ‘There’s A Place’ airily drifts with gorgeous strings and acoustic guitar work. Siobhán sings angelically in her highest register amid this tale of dreamlike faith. ‘Sometimes’ uses a simple melody but unique beat to deliver a story of a relationship in which no common ground can be found between two people. ‘12 Bar Acid Blues’ is one of the more straight forward tracks on the album with even a bit of humour thrown in. Amid some classic guitar/pop production Siobhán playfully documents a day that was riddled with bad luck.
Towards the end of the album the trio of tracks 7, 8 and 9 create a brilliant thesis at the heart of Ghosts’ complex and emotional musical journey. ‘Coming Up For Air’ sees Siobhán at her lowest point on the album, with punctuated and sophisticated production sonically painting a world of anxiety and uncertainty. This is cleverly followed up with ‘Goldfish’, a hymn-like enchantment of a song that feels like an underwater realm of self-reflection. The album climaxes as a whole with ‘Medevac’ – a vaguely told story of seeking some form of physical or psychological emergency treatment ‘help me out here / cause I’m strung out / I can’t go back there / ‘cause I’ll burn out / medic / medevac me up.’ Swooping layered vocals and a menacing reoccurring synth line build and swell until the final chorus, which practically explodes with sonic desperation.
Track 10 ‘Halcyon Days’ finally provides some lightness after the powerfully dark journey the previous tracks document. Closing song and title track ‘Ghosts’ finishes off the album on an intriguingly experimental note. Most of Donaghy’s vocals are processed backwards, yet were originally delivered by her backwards so that parts of what she’s singing end up forward-sounding and decipherable. The result is an odd backwards-sounding effect of a forward moving lyric. This all happens amid strange oriental-sounding chimes and synths. The backwards vocal trick is something Kate Bush once did on a track in 1982 called ‘Leave It Open’, causing a similar bewilderment upon listeners at the time.
The themes on Ghosts are fairly common for a dark alterna-pop production; lost love, depression, isolation, survival. Donaghy and Sanger’s lush and unique electro-nuances mixed with occasional acoustic flourishes help create something much more complex than simple emo-pop though. In ‘Coming Up For Air’ she sings ‘back with myself again / all my fears just like a ball and chain / and though I am alone / I’m at home here with my selfish pain’ a truly depressing lyric when read on its own, yet there’s an oddly uplifting and freeing feel to the music and vocal delivery that mostly evokes a feeling of hopefulness.
Siobhán shopped Ghosts around to record labels before signing a new deal with Parlophone Records. In June of 2007 Siobhán’s creation finally saw the light of day and was released. Ghosts immediately garnered extremely positive reviews from almost all of the critics who heard it. Digital Spy raved that ‘nobody else in 2007 is making records this bold, this big-hearted and this defiantly different’ giving it five out of five stars. The Times called it ‘head-turning’ while BBC heralded it as ‘liquid-like, mature, sophisticated pop, with just the right balance of dreamy fantasy and terse grit.’
Unfortunately Ghosts would suffer a similar commercial fate as her debut solo album did. Although peaking on the charts at 92, slightly higher than her first record, Ghosts suffered from a lack of label promotion and a major manufacturing error. The physical album didn’t make it to store shelves until over a month after official release. The first pressings were incorrectly manufactured with someone else’s music actually on them. Once the error was noticed all copies were obviously pulled off the shelves. A problem like that is more than enough to effectively kill an album launch. By the time the correctly manufactured albums made it to the stores, what remained in terms of label sponsored promotion was barely an afterthought.
A second single ‘So You Say’ was released with an accompanying video and peaked at 76. Shortly after, Donaghy was dropped by Parlophone Records and retreated back into obscurity. Until quite recently of course, as it’s been confirmed that the original Sugababes line-up will be reunited under new band name – Mutya Keisha Siobhan. It seems that over ten years later, the girls have been able to patch up their differences.
Siobhán once said to the London Paper about Ghosts: ‘I make left field pop music, and it’s a difficult genre to be in because it’s not straight pop, it’s not alternative, and it’s quite hard to market.’ Indeed, but what Siobhan created of her own volition on Ghosts is nothing short of a lost alternative-pop masterpiece. It remains a unique, unlikely, and underrated triumph.
Ghosts is available on Amazon and iTunes.