Pop Essays #9: Siobhan Donaghy, ‘Man Without Friends’

Good afternoon, it’s Thursday and time as always for our latest post in the Pop Essays series, where we bring you a second light on forgotten gems from pop music history. Bit of a first this week, as I write about my first non-single of the series…

  • Artist: Siobhan Donaghy
  • Song: Man Without Friends
  • Release Date: 29/09/2003 (on ‘Revolution In Me’ album)
  • Writers: Siobhan Donaghy / Marlon Roudette / Preetesh Hirji / Matt Kent
  • Producers: Siobhan Donaghy / Marlon Roudette / Preetesh Hirji / Matt Kent

I’ve said many a time on this blog before that my absolute Mastermind specialist subject would be ‘clever but not quite big solo projects from former girl group members’. And it is the featured lost song I’ve chosen for this week’s post which delivers on that in spades, an album track from a former member of a band who ended up being, rightly or wrongly, known more for the sum of their parts at any given time.

When Siobhan Donaghy excused herself to the ladies’ room during an interview in Japan as a member of Sugababes in the summer of 2001 and then never returned, what happened next is the stuff of pop legend. Though the era defining ‘Overload’ had been a big hit for the fledgling R&B pop trio, and critical acclaim and a BRIT nomination had come their way, commercially they had had an uphill struggle with their debut album, hence why London Records passed up on releasing a second album with them.

Within the 18 months that followed, a new addition to the lineup in the form of Heidi Range, a new record deal with Universal Island, two massive number one singles (‘Freak Like Me’ and ‘Round Round’) and a triple platinum album (Angels With Dirty Faces) saw to it that they were both the coolest and biggest girl group in Britain at that point.

It was against this backdrop that Siobhan was quietly beavering away on a solo album, so anxious was she to finally unveil it that she initially did low key gigs to launch it under the alias Shanghai Nobody. Unfortunately, viewed in the more enlightened times of 2021, she was probably right to do so, given that when she did finally put her name to her music, she had an uphill battle on her hands to do so.

As anyone who’s seen the raw and honest account of her bandmate Keisha Buchanan’s experiences both during and after the time Donaghy and Mutya Buena were in the band that was uploaded on her YouTube last year will testify, it’s extremely problematic now that girls as young as they were back then – all in their mid/late teens – were being thrust at the centre of a culture and narrative that pitted them against one another, where the off stage dynamics engineered by both their own team and the media overshadowed the music and their standing as performers and vocalists, something that ultimately would dilate and destroy the Sugababes name as time wore on.

Still, even if all the press interviews solely focussed lazily on why she left the band and if she regretted doing so before the mega success happened, what the opportunity did afford Siobhan was the chance to make two sonically rich, clever and musically diverse solo albums over the four years that followed. 2007’s Ghosts is undoubtedly the more decorated of the two, but we could write a whole seperate essay as to why her debut from 2003, Revolution In Me, is equally worthy of praise and revisitation.

Instead, let us concentrate on what we feel is one of its key tracks. Produced and co-written with Marlon Roudette (son of Cameron McVey, who had a hand in that first Sugababes album, but also stepson of Neneh Cherry and thus half brother of Mabel), ‘Man Without Friends’ is definitely a song that takes multiple listens to click, but the effort to do so is rewarded several times over.

It’s a bit like that saying about art galleries: stare at a painting long enough and you’ll begin to see and appreciate new things. What starts as a folksy sounding ballad with trip hop leanings gradually builds in depth and intensity, with the lyrics seeming to be about being trapped in a stale relationship – maybe an abusive one – and wanting to walk away from it.

‘I’ve been shown without deserving / That you’re at home with my unnerving / So I suppose I’ll take to healing and be getting on / Getting on’. Vocally she branches out from lower to higher register in the space of a few verses, the effect being that she sounds almost Kate Bush-esque when she reaches the lines: ‘Answer / You got no clever answer / No answer / So we get no further answer, no sir’.

It is this refrain in the absence of a definite chorus that’s a key moment, for just as the song is at the point of dropping out completely after the second of these, that it suddenly bursts into life with the almost chanted, gospel like repeated end verses: ‘I’ve been trying to travel / But my ways are going nowhere / Knowing that somewhere’s hard to find / But I, I start to unravel / I start to unravel in my mind’.

It’s erratic, uneasy feel is part of what makes this song such an engaging listen and a highlight of Siobhan’s solo work. She delivers the heightened vulnerability that it requires. It doesn’t resolve itself, the idea that the protagonist in the song is at odds with their situation to the point they are about to ‘unravel in my mind’, and you wonder if it wasn’t her way of musically interpreting wanting to leave the band but not feeling like she was in a position to do so.

Of course, the performance of the Revolution In Me album (chart peak of #117) and its two singles (‘Overrated’, #19 and ‘Twist of Fate’, #47) means that this is why you’re probably only hearing about this now. But definitely check the album out when you get a chance. One proud tradition it did carry on from Siobhan’s time in Sugababes was to position herself in left of centre pop that challenges you and compels you to engage with it as ‘Man Without Friends’ does.

Don’t forget to follow our brand new Pop Essays playlist on Spotify, which includes all the songs we’ve written about. What are your memories of this week’s featured song or band? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below or message us on our Instagram.

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