New band of the week: Baby Queens (No 118) – trip-hop tinged R&B melodies

Take one nightclub bouncer, a tattooed CND activist, a DJ and two carers, throw in a Super Furry Animal, some retro-modern soul and 90s production, and you’ve got Wales’ great new alt girl group

Hometown: Cardiff.

The lineup: Monique B (vocals), Cara Elise (vocals, guitar), Estelle Ios (vocals, bass), Vanity Jay (vocals, guitar), Ruth Vibes (vocals, guitar).

The background: Baby Queens have been likened to TLC produced by Portishead, and for once the impossibly alluring one-line pitch isn’t too wide of the mark. They’re an all-girl outfit (token male drummer, Leroy, not pictured) allying flawless R&B harmonies to gritty, sometimes retro, sometimes reggae, soul, hip-hop, rocky or even trip-hop tinged production and arrangements. To put it another way, they’re En Vogue mixed by Massive Attack. Or Destiny’s Child at their most polished given some studio murk by Tricky. They’ve been called a girl group with a difference, which might be fanciful, or might rather suit this bunch of DJs, tattooed bouncers and anti-nuclear activists (about which, more later).

Clashes of opposites, meetings of minds from different aesthetic universes, often sound better on paper than in reality but with Baby Queens it works. Actually, although some of the production techniques are indeed trip-hoppy and 90s-inflected, it’s not one of the crucial Bristol three at the controls, it’s someone from over the (Bristol) channel: synth wizard Cian Ciarán of Super Furry Animals. He has put Baby Queens’ soulful singing and their 60s Motown and modern R&B beats and melodies through the console at Strangetown Studios in Cardiff and they’ve come out the other side sounding like, well, SWV produced by SFA.

The results can be heard on their imminent self-titled debut album, and they’re uniformly excellent. The single, Tired of Love, opens with soulful melismas, just to prove they can do all that X Factor exhibitionism lark, but this is more than just a showcase for technically fancy warbling. There is a gospel sadness to it, even as the song becomes increasingly exultant, with handclaps and a rousing melody. “Ruth grew up going to church, so we wanted to bring some of that to the song,” explains Estelle. Melodi opens with Beach Boys harmonies and has the graceful glide of Marvin’s What’s Going On, with production that splits the difference between coolly classic and edgy-modern. You and I is one of many songs that, if you were told it was a cover version by an obscure soul artist, you wouldn’t blink. The lyrics (“About love and life,” says Estelle, not very helpfully) are a weak point on this entirely self-penned album, with too many banal rhymes of the “high”/“die” or “pain”/“insane” variety, but really, if Noel Gallagher can get away with it, why can’t they? Besides, as Estelle says, “The lyrics are the least important part for me – it’s about the feeling, the whole song in general.”

The music more than makes up for any lyrical shortcomings. It Feels Like - with its ghostly, spacious production – will be loved by those for whom Unfinished Sympathy is a Year Zero artefact. Forever is King Tubby-dubby, not so much lovers rock as lovers trip-hop. Samsara, a solo writing effort from Estelle, appears to have come from a different group, and there’s a good reason for that: she initially intended it for Zefur Wolves, the “shoegazey-grunge” band she’s in with her partner, Ciarán. She’s often in the studio with him, offering advice on production. “We try and stay away from cliched beats,” she says – her favourite SFA track is Some Things Come from Nothing, and you can tell why from its scuffed, acoustic-electronic ambience.

Baby Queens cover the waterfront in terms of vocal styles and positions on the singing scale: Estelle and Ruth sing low, Monique takes the mid-range, and Cara (the one with the neon pink hair in the photo) and Vanity handle the high notes. There’s a reason they’re simpatico: Estelle and Cara are sisters, while Ruth and Monique are cousins, with Vanity their adopted sister. Cara’s breathy-cute sigh takes the lead on Had My Heart, with shades of the Mya/Aaliyah/Ciara school of R&B . Does Estelle think people will be able to tell where Baby Queens are from, from listening to them? Could they be a NYC girl group, or does essence-of-Cardiff spill out of their music? “I don’t think it’s a Cardiff thing,” she says. “New York to me is a band like Interpol. There are cities with their own individual flavour - Detroit techno, say, or Iceland’s electro dream-pop - but I think we could be from anywhere.”

There are no simpering stage school sirens here. Estelle used to be in a punk band with her sister called IDFT which stood for If Destroys Feel True, but they weren’t angry – she’s more into “the melodic side of punk, like Ramones”. She identifies her and Cara’s style as “surf and skate” while Monique and Ruth are urban and Vanity with the purple hair is “more feminine and R&B”. She goes further: Vanity is the “happy” Baby Queen, with a day job as a carer in an old people’s home. Monique – the “cool” BQ – is a DJ. Cara is the “spaced-out” one who looks after children with disabilities. Ruth is “serious on the surface but knows how to have a laugh” – she works as a nightclub bouncer. As for Estelle herself, she’s “chilled” (she’s a massage therapist), with a side order of righteous indignation: she’s an anti-Trident campaigner who regularly goes on marches with CND. “I’m the politically charged one,” she laughs. Still, you won’t hear any protests from us about Baby Queens and their marvellous, moody girl group soul-pop.

The buzz: “Imagine Portishead producing TLC” – BBC Wales.

The truth: They’re the new (Baby) queens of Wales.

Most likely to: Get tired of love.

Least likely to: Get tired of Baby Queens.

What to buy: Tired of Love is released by Strangetown on 9 September. The debut album, Baby Queens, is out on 28 October.

File next to: Stooshe, TLC, SWV, SFA.


Ones to watch: Milo, Daya, Hush Moss, Sophie Beem, The Answer.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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