Amelle Berrabah is sitting in a coffee shop in a not very trendy part of east London.
She’s done a photo shoot nearby and is in perky form, helped by her cappuccino, as she begins the promotional onslaught for her new single, Love (Is All We Need), ahead of the release of her debut solo album later this year.Berrabah is keen to point out she’s written every song but one.
‘The label let me do what I want but it has asked me to check in every couple of weeks in case I’ve gone all’ – mimes air guitar – ‘Die! Die! Die! So there’s no heavy metal on there,’ she laughs. Instead, we can expect dancey numbers, a ‘slow-building mid-tempo ballad’ and a song called Wrigley’s Extra, ‘after the chewing gum – I like quirky stuff’.
Songwriting isn’t new to Berrabah. She’s co-written Sugababes tracks and written for girl groups and a solo female singer under an alias. ‘She definitely wouldn’t have recorded it if she knew who’d written it,’ laughs Berrabah. A quick Google search suggests this song may have featured on Mutya Buena’s 2007 album, Real Girl.
If that’s true, it adds another twist in the already labyrinthine Sugababes saga – Berrabah was Buena’s replacement.She joined pop’s most action-packed girl group in 2005 after pursuing a career in the music industry for several years. First she was solo, then in a group with her sister, then solo again.
‘Then I got a deal but the label went into liquidation 24 hours before I was due to sign,’ she says. ‘I was like: “What’s happening with me?”’Berrabah was drafted into Sugababes with next to no notice and called to London for an audition before meeting her bandmates.
‘I had to buy a toothbrush and clothes that night because I didn’t have anything with me,’ she says. ‘There were photo shoots the next day. I had long hair at the time, they cut it off and then put a weave in.’Pop stardom has been ‘an amazing journey’.
Initial highlights include her first appearance on CD:UK. ‘I was like: “Oh my god, there’s Danny Dyer,”’ she laughs. ‘No one can prepare you for the amount of work you have to do. We’d do so much press, we’d glaze over,’ she says, miming slipping into a coma.
‘Your mind goes dead. You form a strong bond. If one of you feels particularly tired, the others take over. It’s not just friendship, Heidi and Jade – and even Keisha – will always be something more, you go through everything together.’
The ‘even Keisha’ comment casts our minds back to the turbulent times of 2009, when Berrabah tried to resign from Sugababes, accompanied by Heidi Range, only for management to dispense with the services of Keisha Buchanan instead, replacing her with Jade Ewen. Keeping up?
Berrabah, who clearly enjoys a chat, pauses when I ask her exactly what that problem was. ‘I’m not allowed to talk about it,’ she says. ‘But being in a girl band is a team effort. If you think you’re bigger than the group, that’s when the problems start.’ It’s not only the membership changes that have been gossip-column fodder.
Berrabah has had her own well-publicised troubles. In 2007, her ex-boyfriend was accused of raping her sister, allegations that were later withdrawn, he was then the victim of a machete attack and, months later, there was a bizarre story claiming Berrabah had gone missing and a police kidnap unit was about to called.
‘I was visiting my mum and suddenly all this mayhem started, who knows how,’ she says. ‘I wasn’t whispering “help me” into my mobile.’ A break from the band due to ‘nervous exhaustion’ followed.‘Some of those stories really got to me, they hurt my heart,’ says Berrabah.
‘I remember feeling I had to explain myself to every single person I met. I felt everyone was judging me. Feeling paranoid all the time isn’t good for your mind.’That’s all in the past now. ‘It’s hard when you feel people are seeing a caricature of how you really are but you have to get over it,’ she says. ‘There’s no point fighting it. Take it, put it in your pocket and get on with being you.’
She’s got her new solo career to focus on which coincides with the single release from Mutya Keisha Siobhan – the original Sugababes line-up. Berrabah has said the current Sugababes were due to come back from hiatus at the end of 2014, although Ewen’s quote that she thought the band was ‘pretty much done’ has called that into question.
‘We haven’t spoken about it for a while,’ says Berrabah, ‘It’s still a long time away. It could all change again. I’ll give you an update when I find out.’
She wishes MKS all the best. ‘I’m a fan of people who can sing live and have something interesting about them, which they do,’ says Berrabah.
‘I really like the song.’Does she think they’ll last any longer together second time around? ‘You get a different perspective on things as you get older,’ she says. ‘This is a great career and you don’t want to lose it until you’re ready to go.’
She’s certainly persevered to get where she is – it’s a long way from singing Mary J Blige covers in school variety shows to finally releasing her first solo record. Berrabah has a list of achievements she ticks off. A big one was performing at the V Festival.
The next one will be winning a Brit. ‘You can dream?’ she says. Most of all, Berrabah would like to write an enduring classic. ‘Something like Lionel Richie’s Hello,’ she says. ‘Something that will come on Magic when I’m 70 and I can say: “That’s me.”’ Will Wrigley’s Extra be the one? Only time will tell.
Amelle’s single with Adam J and the Nightcrashers, Love (Is All We Need), is out now.