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Shaznay Lewis is starting a new chapter

15 May 2024, 10:00
Words by Jen Long

Photography by Oscar J Ryan

After years as part of a group, working with labels and writing for other people, Shaznay Lewis has finally embraced her own direction, writes Jen Long.

With almost three decades as a member of seminal girl-group All Saints, a brief solo career, a role in the now cult-hit Bend It Like Beckham and ongoing work as a songwriter, Shaznay Lewis has plenty of industry experience to draw from. On new album Pages, the seasoned artist and performer is doing things her own way for the first time and the results are both confident and captivating.

“I don't mean this in a bad way at all, but it's the first time that I've been able to work on a body of music where other things haven't had to come first,” smiles Shaznay Lewis from the comfort of her own home. It’s a sunny spring morning and she appears relaxed and casual, ready for a day of album admin as captain of her own ship.

Independently releasing her second record Pages this week, for Lewis it marks the first time that she’s been able to work free from label intervention and the consideration of others. “I haven't had to think about how it needs to sound production-wise or who needs to sing what, or writing in a way that suits a certain voice. All these other things that start at the top of the list before I even get to the song. It just starts to take away layers of the enjoyment of creating,” she says. “With this project it was always, first and foremost, about the song. My shoulders felt light because I was just able to do art. It’s been great.”


Growing up in North London, Lewis was inspired to begin writing songs after her school’s headmistress took over an English lesson. “She introduced us to poetry, and I remember just becoming suddenly really interested in words and how you could use them and how emotive they could be,” she smiles. “That introduced me to writing poems which turned into songs, which I'd sing at home to myself.”

She attended a local youth club, collaborating with a member of the staff to utilise the onsite music room and learn how to make basic tracks. At the same time she was learning to play the drums, bringing rhythm into her poetry and songwriting. As her social circle began to expand outside the walls of the youth club, she was introduced to other artists and producers, most notably hip-hop pioneer Rodney C. “He was over here working and he took me under his wing and that introduced me into a world of other producers and making demos,” she says.


She began performing as a backing vocalist at Metamorphosis recording studios on London’s All Saints Road where she met fellow singer Melanie Blatt. Together they formed All Saints, and after a couple of lineup changes and a name tweak, launched into the UK charts with their iconic self-titled debut album All Saints in 1997.

The UK’s third-best-selling girl group album of all time, they released four more albums and enjoyed five UK number one singles, cinematic acclaim with hit “Pure Shores” as the lead single to Danny Boyle directed thriller The Beach, and trendsetting notoriety with their trademark cargo pants.

She began performing as a backing vocalist at Metamorphosis recording studios on London’s All Saints Road where she met fellow singer Melanie Blatt. Together they formed All Saints, and after a couple of lineup changes and a name tweak, launched into the UK charts with their iconic self-titled debut album All Saints in 1997.

The UK’s third-best-selling girl group album of all time, they released four more albums and enjoyed five UK number one singles, cinematic acclaim with hit “Pure Shores” as the lead single to Danny Boyle directed thriller The Beach, and trendsetting notoriety with their trademark cargo pants.


Alongside two reunions, all members embarked on their own solo careers. In 2004, Lewis released her debut album Open. Fresh from the whirlwind of All Saints and the sole signee at a struggling label, sadly it wasn’t the most rewarding experience. “When I created that first record, it was under so many constraints,” she says. “I had just come out of a very successful band and I was the only one left at that label. They kept on to me, but at the same time they were in the middle of being brought out by another major, which I actually didn't know. All these people that I had been working with were disappearing and it took me four very stressful years to make that record. I was quite lost, when I look back. I didn't really know what I was doing.”

Working on Pages free from expectation or interference, Lewis was finally free to enjoy the process. Two decades since the release of Open, working on a new record felt like more than a fresh start. “It does feel like a debut,” she smiles. “One; obviously because it's been such a long time, but two; mostly because I feel like such a different person and a different writer in comparison to the artist that I was then. There's a lot of growth in twenty-years and I'm in a completely different place in life. I'm really glad I’ve done it because I just feel like it's made me realise whilst writing this record how much growth there has been and how much I've changed.”

Alongside her work as a writer, penning hits for the likes of Little Mix and chairing the Ivor Awards Committee, the most prestigious awards in British songwriting, Lewis also started a family in the time since Open. “The kids are big now so my focus is allowed to go back to the love of writing,” she laughs. “It’s been good during that time to work with other artists. It’s enjoyable to see other people develop and flourish and grow into their own thing, but I suppose there is a sense of your own sort of fulfilment that isn't quite there. Alongside writing for other people I did always do my own writing, for my own sanity, on the side.”

The catalyst for Pages came from a writing session with Moyses Dos Santos and Charlie Stacey. Approaching the meeting with no expectations, it wasn’t until the last minute that an idea began to grow. “I hadn't worked with these guys before so I didn't know what was gonna come of it. Usually I would go into a session with producers, but these guys specifically weren't producers, they were musicians,” she says. “The whole day we weren’t really getting anywhere, nothing was sticking. We were literally coming to the last fifteen-minutes or so of that session and Moyses started playing the riff and I just loved it straight away.”

Lewis lived with that riff for months before finally finding the inspiration to flesh it out into a song. The result was album opener “Missiles,” a soulful and confident orchestration with layers of intricate musicianship supporting the song’s instant groove and propulsive vocals. “It was a lovely day, and I went into my garden with my headphones and I just started playing it on my phone and I wrote it straight away,” she smiles. “As soon as I wrote it I was like, this feels like something that I'd want to do. This, for me, is something I'd want to create. I was calling it a project at the time, I wasn't really calling it an album, but I was thinking yeah, I would love to do a project around this.”

Lewis took the skeleton of the song to longtime collaborator Karl ‘K-Gee’ Gordon, with whom she’d worked on her previous solo album and with All Saints. But after sitting with the track for a while, he instead suggested she reach out to producer Ben Cullum. In declining another opportunity to work together, Gordon opened the door for Lewis to experiment with new collaborators. ”He's a brother to me. He was really encouraging, he was my cheerleader, and so I automatically went to him to do it because we created so much together,” she explains. “But I think it was meant to be that he wasn't supposed to do any of this record with me. I think it was about me being ballsy and brave enough and understanding that it was time to do something on my own and to come out of that safety net of everything that's to do with what I've done with Karl and the girls. This wasn't about that.”

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Instead, Lewis began to cast her net wider, reaching out to friends in the industry for recommendations. One such suggestion connected her with husband and wife writing/production duo Ant Whiting and Emily Philips, who make music from their home in Shepherd’s Bush. “What an introduction!” she laughs. “They were great to work with and definitely what I needed. Emily’s so eccentric and she's just so interesting. We're so different, but I really enjoyed writing with her because they're old school. We were definitely pushing for better, even if it was one word, we were pushing to find that one word.”

Alongside Whiting and Philips, Lewis worked with the likes of Jez Ashurst, Michael Angelo and Ali Tennant, her lack of outside constraints allowing the sessions to take a cathartic, exploratory approach. “I think you've got writers that are definitely made for writing hits and they are just weekly or daily churning out those songs with that formula that are played on the radio,” she says. “Then you get other people that are just creative in a different way, that just want to sit, just want to take it in, just want to take their time and it be more of an emotional journey as opposed to a mechanical one.”

As well as following her own path with the album’s creation, Lewis has built a team that allows her to retain independence. Making the record without any label or management input, she set up her own imprint, the nostalgically named Recordings and struck a deal with distributor Absolute, headed up by senior label manager Fraser Ealey. “When Melanie and I were signed as All Saints we were signed to ZTT and it was Fraser that was at ZTT!” Lewis laughs. “So from being eighteen to all these years later, going back to the beginning, everything just feels like there's a purpose and there's a meaning behind it all.”

Working with the right people brought creative pleasure back into the process for Lewis. “We just wanted what we were doing to be the best that it could possibly be and I loved that,” she grins. “I'd go into those sessions super excited, like a first time artist. That's the energy that I feel was missing for a very long time. I did not know what was going to happen with this. I had no management. I had no label. I decided to do this journey on my own - none of the usual people that I would work with. I felt like I was completely out on a limb, just sort of throwing caution to the wind and not even hoping for the best, just being excited about whatever it was that I was doing.”

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One of the final producers she brought in to work on Pages was The Very Best’s Johan Hugo. The two had previously worked on a reimagining of “Pure Shores” and continued their partnership writing the foreboding and impactful “Awake (Motu)”. Brooding with a strict backbone of deep drums, it allows Lewis’ message the space for direct narration. “‘Awake’ is about what's going on now. It's how conscious we've all become and just about talking to people like my children. How are we going to move in this world? Are we going to be inspired to try and make change in the little way that we can, or are we just going to sit back and accept what's going on?” Lewis says.

The pair also worked together on album highlight “Pick You Up,” an optimistic cut of subtle RnB-pop with a chorus that hooks from the heart. The track’s opening features a short monologue by Rebecca Lucy Taylor who worked with Hugo on her last two Self Esteem records. An intimate and emotional voice message, it sits in line with Taylor’s own assured ideals whilst also acting as a thematic introduction to the core of Pages. “I said to him [Hugo], ‘I feel like I want somebody to do a short talking part, do you know anybody?’ He said, ‘Rebecca will be perfect on this,’” she explains. “We had no time. The album had already started to get mixed. Obviously she's super busy, she's in the middle of doing her thing. At the eleventh hour she sent it over and thank god it was so perfect we didn't need to ask her to do it again. We didn't need to change anything or edit. It was just perfect as it was.”

One of the record’s more surprising highlights is the DnB-driven crossover-banger “Good Morning,” which brings together Shola Ama and General Levy alongside Lewis. An adrenaline rush of dance production with a lightning verse from Levy, it captures the spirit of freedom and joy that underlined the album’s creation. “I reached out to them and they were like, of course,” smiles Lewis. “Sometimes collabs can be so hard but the people that I approached to be on this record were up for it straight away, which was cool.”


The centre-piece of the record, “Miracle” is a soaring anthem of indulgent, soul-inspired pop. Carried by subtle but inventive production, Lewis’ vocals are rich in sentiment and style, her storytelling capturing a love song in untraditional form. Writing with Philips, Lewis went back over the lyrics again and again until the song’s meaning finally came into focus. “I don't think either of us knew really what it was about,” she says. “I got it at the end. I remember when they sent it to me, I listened to it on my headphones and it did make me really emotional because I suddenly understood what it was about. It was about this whole journey. It felt like a force. It explains to me this shift that I was in, this movement and this direction I was going in.”

Lewis also worked with Philips on “Peaches”. A sonically uplifting moment in the record, its lyrics mark a dark juxtaposition telling the story of post-civil war Natchez, Mississippi. Hostile to the freed slaves, the town built a camp in the Devil's Punchbowl to keep them in one place. Thousands starved and died. The valley is now full of peach trees, but no one will touch the fruit from the knowledge of its roots. “I like to know the meaning behind stories in songs,” Lewis says. “Emily had introduced me to that story. I didn't know anything about it and when we spoke about it, it felt right to create a song around that subject.”

Out this week, Pages has the energy and innovation of a debut, performed by a seasoned pro. It’s confident, elegant and strikes a delicate balance between moments of quiet introspection and playful bombast. For Lewis, it also brings with it another milestone, as she headlined Camden’s iconic Jazz Cafe last night. “I've never done my own show, ever. It really does feel like there are a lot of firsts with this album,” she smiles. “I'm in a good place for it. There's no confusion. There's no doubt. There's no fear. I'm just able to do this journey in a nice way.”

Pages is released on 17 May via Recordings

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