Shaznay Lewis is a Brit Award and Ivor Novello Award-winning singer songwriter and one of the founding members of girl group All Saints. The band had five number ones, released two studio albums and won two Brit Awards before splitting in 2001. 17 years later, the four-piece reunited and have since released what Shaznay would describe as her most creatively rich work to date.
This week’s Guest Editor Michelle Escoffery, who has in the past collaborated with All Saints, talks openly with Shaznay about her journey into the music industry, what success looks like and how she maintained her sense of self throughout it all.
'Back then it was more success but, I feel, less quality in what we were doing. Whereas now, it’s less successful, but I prefer the quality in what we’re doing, we all do.'
Michelle: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview!
Shaznay: No, I’m glad to be doing it.
Michelle: What is your earliest memory, or what are your earliest memories of writing songs?
Shaznay: My earliest memory of writing songs would be when I was probably around 11. Once I discovered that I enjoyed poetry and writing, I used to go to the top of the house and just write by myself. I learned very early on that I enjoyed it. I loved finding my own space to do it and I can’t explain the feeling that it gave me, but I just know that it became a passion very early on.
Michelle: So, what was your journey into the music business?
Shaznay: As a teenager I used to go to our local youth club a lot. I used to make music; I learnt to play the drums and learnt to put tracks together and I kind of ended up being friends with other aspiring musicians. I was in a group with a friend from school actually. We used to make demos together at our youth club and then enter teenage competitions from radio.
I later became friends with Rodney C from the original Double Trouble, the American rapper. He used to be married to Faith Evans. He was doing a lot of stuff with Choice FM. After that I started doing tracks with, do you remember The Boogie Bunch?
Michelle: Oh yes. I was a Boogie Bunch girl. Who were you doing tracks with?
Shaznay: I used to do tracks with Robert.
Michelle: Oh, 279.
Shaznay: Yes. I went from Rodney C to Robert. Then, by chance, I was out one night with a friend and we went to a party in Leicester Square. I was quite shy at the time. I went around with my rucksack with my lyrics in and my tapes, but in my mind, all I was doing was what I enjoyed doing. I knew I wanted to make music. I never approached people. Me and my friend who was quite ballsy went to this party and Ben from Curiosity Killed the Cat was DJing there. Ron Tom happened to be there with him and my friend just bowled up to Ben and Ron and was like, ‘My friend is a singer and she writes music.’ Ron was like, ‘Oh yeah, really? Okay come back to our studio in West London,’ and we went. When I think about this now, if my daughter went back to somebody’s studio late at night... It would just never happen.
We went back there and they just put instrumentals on and they were like, ‘Okay, sing over this. Write over that.’ I then went back the next day and that’s where I met [Melanie Blatt].
Michelle: What are your biggest influences?
Shaznay: It depends in which context. If I look back and try to think about who influenced me musically, I would have to go back really early in my childhood and say, obviously the music that my parents played. My mum played a lot of Bob Marley. I remember I’d be in the living room and I’d be taking out the 45s and I just loved the harmonies on the backing vocals on all of his records.
After that, I listened to all these pop songs on the radio. I was probably influenced more in a performance way in terms of looking in the mirror, hairbrush in hand and all that kind of stuff. They were both two very different influences that brought different things to the table, in terms of the journey that I wanted to go on. I think, also, culturally they are both very different.
Michelle: What stood out for me when All Saints came out was the harmony, and it was close harmonies, but it was quirky at the same time.
Shaznay: Yes, definitely and I think that all probably comes back to what I say about how I used to just sit and listen to all those Marley records and just be so drawn into harmonies and learning, really early on, that I loved harmonies.
Michelle: What do you think the biggest challenges were while on your journey into the music industry?
Shaznay: One of my biggest challenges would have been when Mel and I first signed as a three-piece along with another girl, Simone Rainford, as All Saints. We signed to ZTT and, at that time, I was at college. I was studying business and I suddenly got offered this record deal with Mel. So, I left college and started the band.
At the time it was like, ‘Oh my God, wow, okay. I’ve got a deal, wow this is really happening.’ The graft didn’t seem too hard. I went from Robert to Ron Tom to suddenly signing with ZTT. So, that was all great. I think when we did our first single Let’s Get Started and then we were just about to do I Know Where It’s At, and then we got dropped. That was probably really hard, as it would be at that age. Up until that point I had tunnel vision and definitely knew what I was doing. I wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, but all I knew is that was what I was doing.
Michelle: Did that affect your writing in any way?
Shaznay: It probably enhanced it. At the time when the three of us were with Ron, we did a cover of Silver Shadow. All three of us, myself, Melanie and Simone, were working individually with Ron. In the end when Ron Tom tried to get us individual deals at ZTT, it was ZTT that said, ‘Why don’t you just ask the girls to work together?’
To be honest, we’d only just started to work together and we were already signed. There was no time to establish ourselves as a sound collectively and cohesively as a band. What we wanted to sound like and how we wanted to come across, all that kind of stuff.
Just before we got dropped we were introduced to Karl, K-Gee. Simone always, God rest her soul, I think out of the three of us, was always on the fence about being in a band. I think she always saw herself as a solo artist. She was vocally so strong and I could understand that. She went off and did her own thing, but Mel and I stuck together.
That’s when I probably started really writing, because I was working with people like K-Gee and he was giving me everything I needed at that time, mainly hip-hop beats. It allowed me to put a commercial top line on top, but still quite cool. Karl and I we gave each other what we both needed. Then, I got this backing track from a manager that was looking after Mel and I at the time, which was just the piano chords for Never Ever. At that time, I had my first teenage relationship and was heartbroken, so it was perfect timing to suddenly realise just what a broken heart can produce.
It’s so funny, because when I look back and think about that now, although it’s a great song and it resonates with people, but if I think about the situation or how I felt, now I just think, ‘Oh my God. You were that sad over a guy at that age.’
Michelle: When you are younger your feelings are so amplified.
Shaznay: Oh my goodness. ’This is it. It’s the end. It’s the end.’ It really was the end. Even through the highs of the success of that song I was still quite sad. Do you know what I mean?
Michelle: Yes, so it’s almost like you couldn’t feel the success of the song and what was really happening because you were still mourning that relationship. Did you ever experience writer’s block, and if you did, how did you navigate that?
Shaznay: I would say I probably had writer’s block when I did my own solo record, but not so much on the All Saints stuff. With the second All Saints album it was just that typical, ‘Okay, the first album was a hit and we needed to go in now with another album,’ which is in the middle of doing all this other stuff. We wrote most of the first album unsigned. So, in that period after being dropped by ZTT and writing with Karl, we’d got our sound together and we’d got our shit together. We had established a body of work and a feel.
So, when we got signed by London Records we’d done most of the album. I think it’s vital that any artist creates their sound or writes their material away from that kind of pressure. When the second album came about, we’re already established, we’re travelling, we’re doing promo and we’re on a different plane every single day. Then, because the first album did well, you’ve then got the added pressure of A&Rs wanting you to replicate that.
I didn’t have writer’s block, but what I personally feel is that my writing was a lot more throwaway, I was just more concerned, probably, with just pleasing them in terms of being able to come up with it. ‘You asked me to do it. I can do it. You’ve spent loads of money. You’re asking me to do it. I can do it.’ There are a few songs on there that are great. I feel that, for me as a writer, I actually feel that’s probably my weakest album.
'Although they’re not as successful because we’re in a different time and a different climate, different stages in our lives and we’re not on and off of planes. It feels more rich and it feels more of a success to me, personally, from a creative point of view.'
Michelle: How did you deal with success, because everybody wants a piece of you when you’re successful?
Shaznay: I feel like I dealt with it quite well because I moved with the same group of people that I moved with before. So, my best friend, we grew up together, and she was always there. As you know, in this industry you can get a lot of people that just tell you what you want to hear. I’m not like that. I feed off honesty because I can work with that, and I can check myself.
I couldn’t be fake Shaz because I couldn’t keep that up. All I’ve had to learn is to be aware that, sometimes, no matter how shy I may be feeling or anything like that, I just be a bit more forthcoming at times. I’m old now, so I’ve learnt that.
Michelle: Looking back, is there anything that you would have done differently?
Shaznay: Going back to what I said about how I personally felt about our second album, I would definitely have taken time to not be caught up so much in the fame side of things. I wish I could have gone back to the same scenario as I was in when writing for the first album, which was just quiet, instead of jumping on planes here, there and everywhere. That’s probably one thing I would change.
I know that for a fact, because even when the girls and I came back and wrote our last two albums, I feel that’s the best work I’ve ever done. Although they’re not as successful because we’re in a different time and a different climate, different stages in our lives and we’re not on and off of planes. It feels more rich and it feels more of a success to me, personally, from a creative point of view.
From a band perspective, the girls and I were all friends first and foremost before working. Our journey going like this was very much due to our personal relationships. At that young age and with that much success, trying to separate and differentiate our friendship and our business relationship was just too much. Our journey has been rocky but we understand totally now that our friendship comes first. I wish that somebody had said to us back then. Nobody explained that to us. Everybody just kind of sat back and got their tea, got their popcorn and fucking let us tear our relationship to shreds. If somebody had said to our younger selves, ‘You need to split the two up’, only for what’s on record not for our relationship, because it’s made us stronger than ever. I wish that had been different because of what’s on record. It’s funny because it’s two different things. Back then it was more success but, I feel, less quality in what we were doing. Whereas now, it’s less successful, but I prefer the quality in what we’re doing, we all do.
Michelle: Yes, I do know what you mean. Like you said, there’s richness to it.
Shaznay: Back then it was so busy and I don’t think it felt very peaceful. Even when you met me back then you probably were getting half of me. It’s a shame. Back then I just wasn’t really present, because there was just so much going on.
Michelle: Yes, I totally know what you mean.
Shaznay: I always loved the things that you were doing anyway. The love and respect has always been there.
Michelle: Yes, but it’s that thing isn’t it? When you admire somebody then you also question what you can bring to the table. So, I’ve been asking about people of influence and people who contributed to the UK sound over the last three decades. Your name is one of those names that comes up. How do you feel about that?
Shaznay: It’s an honour really. I think because I’m quite quiet and private. I think when you have those attributes in a world like this you can, not fade into the background but, yes, because I’m not out there singing and dancing, and kicking up the dust. I write and I come out when I’ve got something to sell, or I go home back to my hole and scream at my kids, and I’ll give it to my husband over the heating. I feel really honoured, because at the end of the day I’ve been in the game a little while now and I love what I do. It makes me so happy to know that people enjoy it, admire it or respect it.
It makes me feel great. I didn’t go to university and I didn’t do anything. Things like the Ivors, you know, that for me is my passion and it makes it all worthwhile. This is my graduation, and this is my everything in terms of learning and education. I feel so blessed to still be writing and still love what I’m doing, still working with talented people that teach me something that I didn’t know.
Michelle: Which black writers or producers do you feel have made the most moves over the years in terms of influencing UK sound?
Shaznay: Labrinth. As a producer, the quality in his production and the sounds that he makes, he’s a bit like what I said to you earlier how I would love, back in the day, to fill just beats and fill them with backing vocals, melodies and harmonies, all this kind of stuff. To me those were the musical instruments that were needed to make a track.
I feel like he does the same with instruments and does it so well, does it so well. Just off the top of my head as a UK producer/artist, and what he’s done on Euphoria. I saw the trailer for that series, but it was the music that I could hear behind it that made me want to watch it. I just respect him so much and I just think he’s so talented.
'The minute you get into this game and you start getting pushed here, there and everywhere, you know, it’s gone. I think the best thing you can do is just to learn your craft. That’s 100 percent what I wish I could go back and do all day long.'
Michelle: If there were any females who would you think of?
Shaznay: I love Caron Wheeler and I loved that whole Soul II Soul movement. Soul II Soul were a big injection for British music for sure.
Michelle: So what’s next for you?
Shaznay: Just writing, I suppose. After our last two albums I think I definitely needed to just take a minute before I could write again. Lockdown has probably given me that minute. I think there’s definitely a lot to be inspired by. I just want to keep writing and just to keep getting better.
Michelle: Yes, I like that. Do you think the continual searching to improve and learn ever ends?
Shaznay: I’m betting it doesn’t. I think if you’re anything within the arts, whatever the piece of work, what you’re embarking on is an improvement. I quite like it. I like that it doesn’t make it dull then, because you’re forever learning. You’re forever learning and you’re forever improving. It can never become dull and it can never become mundane.
It took me a little while to understand that. People might think, 'Michelle, you’ve written such and such which was a great hit', or 'I’ve written whatever that it’s a good hit', but they just expect you to be able to walk into a studio every single time and come up with the goods. Actually, not every artist is like that. You have some artists and some producers that are great with working with 20 other people, or just great with walking into a room and just coming up with a hit song.
Then, you have some artists that work better by themselves or need time to think. Sometimes, sadly, in this industry you’re not allowed time. I’m quite careful in what I say ‘Yes’ to, for those reasons. If not, I will end up walking in and doing stuff that I’m not happy with and I don’t feel was a great reflection of me, or something good for the other person.
Michelle: If you had one piece of advice that you could share with an upcoming songwriter, what would it be?
Shaznay: I think it would be just take time to learn your craft. I think, in this day and age, if you can actually master your craft before you even bring it to a label, or present it to anybody I think that would be the most beneficial thing you could do for yourself, definitely. The minute you get into this game and you start getting pushed here, there and everywhere, you know, it’s gone. I think the best thing you can do is just to learn your craft. That’s 100 percent what I wish I could go back and do all day long.
This piece was guest edited by Michelle Escoffery. Michelle is an award-winning singer, songwriter and vocal producer. One of the UK’s most respected songwriters, she has penned songs for acts including Tina Turner, All Saints, Beverley Knight and Artful Dodger, worked on vocal arrangements for Rod Stewart and performed with Stevie Wonder and George Michael.