Mixing it up
Their outfits can suggest a bargain-rail binge, but they're not for changing – their clothes or their music, writes Ed Power
Just so you know, they write their own songs. "People call us puppets," sighs Little Mix's Jade Thirlwall. "You come off a show such as X Factor, and the assumption is that you are given your music – that it is all handed to you."
It's not like that at all, she insists. Sure, the girl group's label, SyCo (that would be the one overseen by a certain Mr S Cowell) takes an active interest in what they are up to in the studio, offering tips and pointers as required. But, though the foursome may occasionally dress like Barbie figurines, they are nobody's baby dolls.
"From the outset we have always done our own arrangements," says 21-year-old Thirlwall, her Newcastle accent so thick you could stand a spoon in it. "Even on X Factor you could see that. We had a very firm idea what we were about. After we won the competition, they let us get on with it. We do it all ourselves."
Released to generally approving reviews, Little Mix's second album, Salute, is on course to be a top ten hit, a not unimpressive achievement given the shelf life of the average X Factor graduate nowadays (Little Mix's triumph was all of two years ago, ancient, ancient history by reality TV standards).
"We were the first group to win – the first girl group at that. It made us stand out," says Thirlwall, contemplating their (relative) longevity. "After so many solo artists, we were fresh and new. That was to our benefit."
It hasn't been an entirely smooth passage. Little Mix's fans – youngish teenagers in the main – adore them dearly. To many others, their microwaved Girl Power-isms and endless chirpiness can be headache inducing, especially when paired with their screamingly mismatched wardrobes (at their worst they dress like a colourblind Lady Gaga set loose in Claire's Accessories). Not helping was the fact that their first post X Factor release was an emotionally tone-deaf tilt at Damien Rice's Cannonball. To purists, this was the equivalent of installing a hot-tub in a mosque.
"It wasn't actually our choice to do that song," explains Thirlwall. "Back then, every artist in the competition had to cover the same song for the final. After we found out what it was we thought 'oh dear, they mustn't like us – why did they ask us do that?' We all expected Janet Devlin would win."
Little Mix were well aware of the backlash (which reached such heights that Rice himself took to Twitter to explain he had no say in whether or not Little Mix got to cover his tune). Jade shrugs. Hardcore fans always take exception to someone tweaking with their favourite song.
Little Mix covering Damien Rice was inevitably going to divide opinions.Why take it personally?
"We were expecting that," she says. "Diehards are never going to like what you do with 'their' song. You can't let that worry you. As the first single by the X Factor winners it was perfect. I enjoyed doing it because I was a fan too."
Shrugging off the opprobrium of Damien Rice devotees was one thing, but the attentions of the tabloid press have proved rather harder to side-step. Since the start of their X Factor adventure, Little Mix's personal lives have been the subject of relentless scrutiny, the near-hysteric tone of their press ratcheted further when singer Perrie Edwards began stepping out with One Direction's Zayn Malik (they were engaged in August).
"We're normal people at the end of the day," says Jade. "We are in relationships [she is seeing Sam Craske of novelty dancers Diversity and was previously papped on the arm of 1D's Niall Horan].
"Everyone wants to know about the relationships. It does get frustrating if you are in an interview and all they want to ask is about your boyfriend instead of your music. You get used to it I guess."
What's trickier to wrap your head around, she says, are the utter fabrications you read about yourself in gossip magazines.
"You can't defend yourself because you don't want to bring attention to the story by tweeting or what have you. I'll get calls from my family – 'oi what's all this about?'. And you have to explain, actually it was all made up."
As already alluded to, Little Mix receive a fair amount of flack for their dress sense. Four ordinary girls from the British provinces, their outfits can often suggest a bargain-rail binge, dickie bows matched with checkered trousers, lurid green track-pants offset by spandex halter-tops. "We're young women having fun," Thirlwall says. "We wear what we like. We are criticised and we are praised. That is what happens if you experiment. I'll buy a magazine and we may be in the 'good outfit' section or the 'what not to wear' section. It doesn't bother me. We did get stuck with the 'new Spice Girls' label early on, because we all dress so distinctively. That's fine. We stand for the same beliefs as the Spice Girls. We all believe in Girl Power."
What about the other parallels you wonder. From Spice Girls to All Saints to Sugababes many a girl band has been scuttled by internal bickering. Can we assume Little Mix are as human as the rest of us and aren't above the occasional tour-bus row?
"We might row about the usual girly stuff," says Jade. "Never anything serious. Of course, everybody is frustrated from time to time. We didn't know one another before X Factor. We were put together as an act on the show. I think it was meant to be – we gelled from the get go." With so many preteen fans, it is no surprise that Little Mix have opted for an unthreatening image. They do not dress skimpily; their lyrics tend to be about as sizzlingly provocative as a Peppa Pig triple bill.
"Nobody would dare tell us how to present ourselves," says Thirlwall.
"All of us are straight-talking girls and they are aware we wouldn't stand for it. We're very nice and polite. But we're a right gang and won't be pushed around. Because there are four of us, it makes us harder to manipulate I think. They need all of us to say 'yes'."
As a woman in pop, what's her opinion of Miley Cyrus's ongoing provocations? Is Cyrus helping the cause of other females in the industry – or is she making an exhibition of herself?
"She is her own artist," says Thirlwall. "She doesn't have to do anything she doesn't want to. At the end of the day, regardless of whether it's the label or her [behind the shenanigans] they have done their job. She is literally everywhere. That's the goal at the end of the day, isn't it? Who are we to judge?"
The album Salute is out now.