Production legend Dallas Austin calls them “my new TLC”. They’re stopped in the street on a daily basis. Labels have been trying to get them for years; Jimmy Iovine heard two songs and signed them on a spot. There’s nothing overnight about the imminent success of 22-year-old identical twins Brit and Alex Smith and the release of their first single ‘Let It Go’ is the culmination of six years’ hard work.
‘Let It Go’ is the perfect first taste of what the singing, songwriting duo have in offer: its bridge tells the story of a girl “on the outside looking in, wondering ‘where do I go from here?’”. “It’s about breaking free,” Alex says. “As a debut single ‘Let It Go’ made so much sense for us. We want everyone to hear what we’ve been doing!” As the song goes, “I wanna show the world my time is now, I won’t hold back - I’m coming out”. There’s no doubting these girls’ ambition and drive, matched only by an extraordinary vision and self-discipline which has seen them decline various quick and easy shots at fame over the last few years.
The sisters were born in Connecticut, 45 minutes apart. “Alex claims she gained all her extra wit and wisdom in those minutes,” Brit laughs, while Alex describes Wilton (the town they grew up in) with an appropriate lack of enthusiasm - “it’s a boring town – grocery story, smalltown, suburbs, lots of trees”. Keith Richards lives nearby and a couple of actors like Christopher Walken have houses there, but it’s mainly where people move when they’re too old for the excitement of the city. At the age of three both sisters won the role of Jessica in the US soap ‘One Life To Live’, before moving away for a couple of years when their parents’ work took the family to London. “Even when we were young it was really obvious to us that the British music scene was so much more open to experimenting with musical styles ” Brit remembers. “There’d be so much variety in the charts, or on what you’d see on television.” It’s this attitude which has given Brit and Alex’s music its own identity – they refer to it as ‘melting pop’.
The girls have different but overlapping tastes; they both love Motown, for example, while Brit loves big ballads with big vocals and Alex mixes it up by being obsessed with artists as diverse as Michael Jackson and Jimi Hendrix. Similarly their voices perfectly complement each other – unusual in twins, and Alex’s raspy, softer tones are perhaps the result of one of her vocal chords being temporarily paralysed during heart surgery at the age of 12. “It’s almost a blessing,” Brit notes, carefully, “because our voices are really different now, which makes for a better performance on record.” At 15, the sisters became the faces of John Frieda’s memorable Sheer Blonde ad campaign after their aunt, a PR for the company, plonked them in front of the camera when they were hanging out at a photo shoot one afternoon. Before long they were splashed across the fashion mags and, notably, in a series of TV commercials, one of which featured the girls singing a song called ‘Are You Ready’.
The ears of the US record industry pricked up, as they often do in these instances, and before long the teenagers – with nothing to show for their musical talents other than a 20-second burst of one song – had several record deals on the table. The problem? Well, they could have had a hit, but that wasn’t in Brit and Alex’s gameplan. They’d already been working on songs together and knew they had something special – why waste their chance based around a one-off single? “I think we were viewed as a quick and easy short term thing,” Brit says. “The offers we had wanted us to go down the Nickelodeon route, release the jingle as the single and see how it went. We thought we’d have no longevity because it wasn’t our style.”
This was about six years ago, when Pink was releasing songs like ‘Just Like A Pill’ and ‘Don’t Let Me Get Me’ from her ‘Misundazstood’ album. “We were, like, ‘THAT’s what we’re trying to do!” Brit remembers. But they’d talk to writers and producers and these two blonde, teenage girls straight out of a TV ad would get the same old offers of shallow bubblegum. So, remembering the diversity of the British music scene, they came to back London. “In the States it’s very much more a question of doing what’s happening already,” Brit says. “People were either afraid or confused. They told us we couldn’t mix styles on one album and we just thought, well, our generation is the iPod shuffle generation, we listen to a bit of everything - pop, rock, rap, r&b - even a little country and our music reflects all those different influences".
They spent over a year in London, recording with songwriters and producers by day (“we basically went on a huge networking spree”) and hitting the town at night, two spectacularly underage sisters managing to blag their way into the capital’s club scene and dance until the early hours. As writing progressed they kept returning to that Pink album and, particularly, the songs produced by Dallas Austin, a man whose work with distinctive female vocalists – from TLC to the Sugababes – speaks for itself. They tracked down his manager who could only offer these two unsigned, unpublished and unmanaged teenagers the following advice: “give me four of your songs, if he likes them he’ll meet with you. If he doesn’t like them, there’s no amount of money you can pay him and that’s it.” Well, Dallas liked what he heard. Three weeks later Brit and Alex were on a plane to Atlanta.
“We stayed in Atlanta with Dallas for eight days,” Brit remembers. “We just hung out. We were thinking, ‘should we be recording something?’ But he was just getting to know us. He wanted us to find our sound.” It’s a sound which now bursts out of the duo’s debut album, largely recorded in a subsequent visit to Atlanta. “After our first visit, we went back a month later for two weeks,” Alex says. “Except it ended up being two months. He showed up every single day. It was crazy. We’d just hang out. During those sessions he said, ‘I want you to be my new TLC’, which is immensely flattering for many reasons.’” The girls were a hit in Atlanta, too. “There’d be rappers hanging out, grabbing us to sing a hook on their track or whatever, sitting down and writing with us in downtime,” Alex says. The sisters even came away from Atlanta with nicknames from Dallas: Brit is Britpop, Alex is Icecold. Perceptive choices: while Brit is fizzy, outgoing and prone to outrageous flirting (“she can talk to ten different people at the same time,” Alex laughs), Alex can seem quieter, sometimes more thoughtful, and seems as happy in her own company as with friends. “It can take a while for people to get to know her,” Brit says, “but when you do get to know her you’ll know there’s nothing that quiet about her!”
By the summer of 2007, everything was in place. The girls had recorded five tracks with Dallas, and more with Tricky Stewart, who’d just worked on Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ and Mary J Blige’s new album. The sisters, again mindful of the UK’s receptiveness to slightly different spins on the pop blueprint, had their plan set out: they’d release their music independently, in the UK at first. As things were progressing nicely, they decided they wanted a guest spot from Missy Elliot on one of their tracks. “Someone we knew put us in touch with her manager, so she took a meeting with us and she was like, ‘I think Missy will do it – but I also think you should take one last meeting before you put the music out yourselves in London’.” That meeting was with Jimmy Iovine, the chairman of Interscope Records.
Somewhat endearingly, in an era when pop hopefuls will do almost anything to get signed to a major label and release independently only as a last resort, Brit and Alex took some persuading. “We’d met with a few of the labels, we’d had interest, but we’d always been hesitant to sign,” Brit says. “Everyone was switching labels, being fired, we didn’t want to waste our work.” When the meeting came the girls weren’t even nervous, Alex remembers, because “we knew we had Plan B – well, it was Plan A really. But we sang him two songs and he clapped his hands and went ‘I’ve got it - let’s do this right now. Don’t leave.” What appealed, this time, to the girls was Iovine’s instinctive grasp of what they were doing. “He got us in a way that nobody else had understood us. He described our style to us like we described it to other pople. It just clicked.” As an extra twist, Missy Elliot’s manager, who also looks after Busta Rhymes and 50 Cent, was so impressed with the girls that she took them on herself. “Finally!” Brit laughs, “some street cred!”
They needn’t worry about the street cred – there’s enough credibility in their tunes. Killer ballad ‘Beautiful’ is a heart stopping pop moment while ‘It Don’t Change’ is an electro-R&B stomper. Then there’s ‘I Like Boys’, a tongue in cheek anthem with a nod and a wink to Madonna’s ‘Material Girl’ and a cheeky, boys ‘r’ us mentality, with a great chorus hook of “some call me a flirt, but I say ‘Why not?’”. “That was actually inspired by me,” Brit half-laughs, half-cringes. “It’s the first song we wrote with Dallas! It’s like an exaggerated caricature of my personality. Dallas was going ‘put it out! Put it out!’ but we didn’t want people to get the wrong idea – we were only 18 at the time! We wanted people to know it was a bit tongue in cheek.” She pauses. “Having said that, I do like boys…”
‘I Like Boys’ is not the only song to benefit from Brit and Alex’s slowly-slowly-catchy-monkey approach. As Alex admits, these last few years have been essential in developing not just the duo’s musical style but their lyrics content, too. “When we were originally working in London we were 16, 17,” she recalls, “and I didn’t have anything to write about! I’d know that love songs were all about emotion and experience, then I’d sit down to write one and realise I didn’t have anything to write about! Nothing had happened to me!” Though she won’t divulge the details, it seems Alex now has one or two things to put into her songs. “Let’s just say I’m glad I waited a little longer,” she smiles. “It feels like we were stuck in studios for a lifetime and there was a feeling of really wanting to just get somewhere – I feel we might not have been ready before and now this is our time.”
Most of all, Brit and Alex are realistic. “We’re two tall blonde girls from Connecticut. We’ve been in a TV ad. We’ve done modelling. We all make judgements about people – it’s human nature – and we know what some people might automatically assume about us. The only reason we’re so confident is that we know we’ve made an album to be proud of. Music’s our whole world, and that’s all we care about.”