Shaznay Lewis knew from the start that she would always be the outsider in All Saints. Soon after the notoriously volatile band signed their first major label deal with London records, she discovered that the rest of the girls - Mel Blatt and the Canadian sisters Nicole and Natalie Appleton - had presented the label head with a tape of vocal recordings they'd made without her. As it turned out, it was their version of Shaznay's own song "Never Ever" that made him sit up and pay attention.
"He asked who had written it, so then they were forced to come back and get me," she recalls ruefully. "Looking back on it, that was pretty low. I think that's why the whole time I knew that if I didn't write I'd be out on my ear."
She's too polite to say it, of course, but Shaznay's had the last laugh. Having been the principal songwriter in the band, she now gets the lion's share of the royalties. She's also the only member of the group to have emerged with any artistic credibility. While her blonde counterparts were willing paparazzi fodder, with their relentless partying and roll-call of celebrity boyfriends, Shaznay remained in the background studiously churning out the hits. "I think that Nic and Nat saw that as a negative thing," she reflects despondently. "They used to make out it was the Shaznay show just because I was the only one that was allowed to write material. There were times when we tried to write songs together but we'd always end up fighting."
I find Shaznay sitting on the sun-dappled terrace of a country hotel outside Great Yarmouth feeding chips to some unfeasibly hungry ducks. The following day she is due to make her live début as a solo artist at the Channel 4-sponsored festival Pop Beach. With rehearsals over, she says she's making the most of the peace and quiet before the madness begins. The off-duty Shaznay is dressed in a black tracksuit with a baseball cap pulled low over her head. Beneath the sporting camouflage is an angelic face with big Bambi eyes and a girlish sprinkling of freckles across her cheeks. Her publicity shots always made her look pouty and serious but in person she is warm and giggly. Her conversation is punctuated with bawdy cackles that are so piercing they send the ducks running for cover.
All Saints eventually called it a day in 2001 after an argument over who was going to wear a particular jacket for a photo shoot. The Appletons have since dished the dirt in their autobiography Together. Shaznay says the fight was the last straw for a band, which was already split down the middle, with neither side talking to the other. "Towards the end it became quite clear to me and Mel the difference in the four of us," she explains. "Nic and Nat were very much into the lifestyle. To see two people not loving [the band] the way you do and not respecting it hurt a lot. That's why at the end there were no more conversations. You're bearing your soul about something you really love to someone who doesn't give a shit."
Does she see the Appletons now? "No, I've not seen them for years but I do hope they're all right. I didn't read their book though from what I hear they came across as if they'd been through hell in the group, but, from where I'm standing, I can't see it. I know we had dodgy times, but we had good times too."
Unlike the Appletons who've clung to their celebrity status like limpets to a rock, Shaznay's been off the radar for more than three years, save for a small role as the team captain in the hit film Bend It Like Beckham. A year ago she also appeared alongside Saffron Burrows and Emilia Fox in Hideous Man, a short film written and directed by John Malkovich, which was screened at the London Film Festival. How did she find Malkovich? "He was frighteningly intelligent though really quite shy," she replies. "He wrote me a really nice letter saying 'Thank you', which I've still got up on my kitchen wall. I'll be saving that to show my kids." Happily, Shaznay was spared the humiliation of Honest, Dave Stewart's gangster flick in which the other Saints hoped to launch their film careers. The £4.2m film, which featured the girls indulging in orgies and drug-taking, took just £500 at the box office on its opening weekend. "Yeah, but that was due to Dave Stewart's dodgy writing," Shaznay protests. "What a dirty old man! His motives for casting them were clear though they obviously didn't see it. I think they were misled and ended up taking the shit for his film."
These days Shaznay doesn't much care for the showbiz merry-go-round of parties, awards ceremonies and visits to The Ivy. She lives with her boyfriend of six years, Christian, whom she is due to marry later this year, in a large house in the Hertfordshire countryside. She makes regular trips to the studio in London though wherever possible she'll stay at home, taking long walks with her chocolate labrador or just "slobbing around" indoors.
She continues to receive a steady flow of film offers, many of them for leading roles, though she's wary of getting out of her depth. "I'm no fool," she giggles. "I know I'm not ready for any large roles just yet. Music is something that I've always done, but with acting it's different. It would be great to do something completely new but at 28 learning something like that can be hard. Anyway, I'm not killing myself to make it as a film star."
Given Shaznay's reluctance to bask in the limelight, it's with more than a little trepidation that she's throwing herself back into the fray with her first solo album, Open, a sunny collection of funk, soul and reggae-inflected pop songs. She assumes, rather optimistically, that her comeback will be ignored by the paparazzi though she admits to feeling vulnerable at putting out an album under her own name - "It wasn't until recently that I thought to myself, 'Oh shit, people are actually going to hear it. What if they don't hear it the way I hear it?'"
Her former bandmates were considerably quicker off the mark to get their solo careers off the ground. Mel Blatt released her first single in the autumn of 2001 while the Appletons emerged with an album last year, to frosty critical reception. "They were a lot more up for it than I was to go back out there," Shaznay says. "I admired that in them actually. I always thought I was quite ballsy, but it made me think that they had a lot more balls than me."
In fact, it only took a month for Shaznay to get back in the studio after the band's split. She spent a year recording demos, though at the end she could hear nothing she was prepared to release. "I was frustrated that, for the first time in my life, I didn't have a musical direction. I thought it might be a sign that I shouldn't be doing it anymore, that I should be grateful for what I've already achieved and move aside for someone else to have that same dream. But then my friends just told me not to be so stupid and get on with it."
After two and a half years of indecision, Shaznay found her footing with the help of the producer Rick Nowells. "Once we had written [the first single] 'Never Felt Like This Before' I felt at ease with myself, it was as if I'd found the new me. I realised there was no structure or style I had to adhere to and that I was free to experiment. After that it was very easy to write the rest of the album."
Now, with the record finished and the single already playing on the radio, Shaznay must turn her attention to promotional duties. "I know it's part of the job and I'm prepared to do it," she sighs. "If there was a way I could just make the record, put it out and disappear, that would be heaven."
Shaznay was born and bred on a council estate off the Caledonian Road in north London at a time "when everyone could leave their doors open." Her parents worked long hours - her mother as a school dinner lady, her father as a bus driver - so she spent a lot of time at neighbours' houses and larking about in the playground across the road. For a while she thought she might become a dancer - she tried tap and ballet but it was a contemporary dance class that finally put her off. "I can't remember how old I was, but I got this leaflet for a class at the YMCA. I went down by myself and watched everyone contorting their bodies and crawling around the floor. My fascination with dance ended there and then. I was too shy."
When she was 14 her parents got divorced although Shaznay claims not to have been damaged by this. "My mum was a toughie and when she ended it I saw a change for the better in her. She was able to look after herself rather than be stuck behind an ironing board or slaving at the cooker. She would put a bit of lipstick on and go out shopping and get her hair done. This was stuff I'd never seen her do before. I was really happy for her." Instead of getting a job when she left school, Shaznay signed on the dole so she could pursue her dream as a songwriter. When she was 18 she met Mel Blatt at the All Saints studio in west London and the pair formed the pop duo All Saints 1975, the figures signifying the year they were born. They put out a single called "If You Wanna Party" on ZTT and toured the country playing to pissed-up clubbers at two in the morning. But the label proved resistant to their talents and they were dropped a year later. In 1995 Blatt got in contact with a former classmate at drama school called Nicole Appleton and asked if she'd like to join the group. "I was up for it," Shaznay remembers, "but there was no chance that Nic would have got away with being in a band without Nat. It was clear that there was a lot of rivalry there."
Nowadays Shaznay needn't worry about difficult bandmates. But watching her in action at Pop Beach the following day, going solo sure looks like a lonely job. For most of the day she retains a wide-eyed, disorientated look as she mingles backstage with ex-Spice Girls, Fame Academy graduates and assorted EastEnders. By now glammed up in a skirt, strappy heels, and pretty green eyeshadow, she valiantly grins her way through the endless photo calls and vox pops. It's only when she's asked to pose in front of a fake seaside scene holding a beach ball that the smile fades and she declines politely. Eventually, after a last-minute buffing from her stylist, the time comes for her to go on-stage. There, as the crowd scream themselves silly, she performs a faultless version of "Never Felt Like This Before". At last she is in her element, smiling broadly and touching hands with the fans at the front. Then, as quickly as it started, it's all over and it's time to go home.
With palpable relief Shaznay climbs into the back of the waiting car, waves through the window and disappears back to the sanctity of her house, her fiancé and her dog. Her work is done, for now at least.
The single 'Never Felt Like This Before' (London) is out on Monday. 'Open' is released on 19 JulyReuse content