With a name like hers, she always remembers her roots.
Beneath the tough, seemingly impenetrable surface is a down-to-earth 20-something lady wiser than her years. “I sometimes feel much older than I really am. I personally think I’m 30-something and my mom is just lying about my age,” she quips.
Suga and spice and all things nice
An early start in the industry might explain her maturity. At the precocious age of 14, the half-Filipino, half-English singer was plucked out of obscurity from the streets of northwest London to become a part of the chart-topping girl trio, the Sugababes. Songs like “Freak Like Me,” “Push The Button” and “Hole in the Head” became the anthems of millions of girls and even boys in the UK who grew to love the band and made sure they reigned the charts. However, all was not sugar and spice. In December 2005, after a bout of post-natal depression, Mutya left the group at the height of their popularity to recover and spend more time with her baby, Tahlia-Maya (whose father is her boyfriend she identifies only as Jay). “Tahlia was barely one then. I thought it was important to make a bond with her before anyone else did,” she explains.
Her departure from the Sugababes, at least in Mutya’s mind, meant the end of her pop career. “When I left the band, my plan was to do more behind-the-scenes stuff like writing and producing.” She adds, “I just wanted to spend time with my daughter and not feel pressured and rushed.” But Island Records deemed it a waste to lose such a fine singer and announced her return to the label as a solo artist. In February 2006, she struck out on her own and produced a debut album entitled Real Girl featuring bold collaborations with the likes of pop and rock stars George Michael and Amy Winehouse. The album’s eponymous single entered the UK charts at No. 2. More opportunities headed her way, such as a concert tour in London with Prince in August of 2007. She says of the artist formerly and once again known as Prince: “I love Prince and I’m really happy that he asked me to do the tour with him. He’s said to be a real big fan of mine,” she says with disbelief in her eyes.
Pinay through and through
Family is what’s prevented success and fame from getting to Mutya’s head. “We’re eight in the family: me, my two younger sisters, Dalisay and Ligaya and my brothers, Charlie, Danny, Chris, Roberto, and Bayani. We all have Filipino or Spanish-sounding names. They keep me grounded. When I was younger, my older brothers were overly protective. When I would come out of my room in a slightly provocative outfit, they would be like, ‘Change! What are you wearing? You aren’t walking out of the house looking like that?’ I like having older brothers. From them, I learned not to take rubbish from people and I don’t let people take the mickey out of me.
Though Mutya grew up in London, she was immersed in Filipino culture early on. “I used to attend a Saturday Filipino school in Hounslow (a borough of London) when I was younger. We used to do the Tinikling, Itik-Itik, and other proper traditional stuff and we used to have Tagalog lessons too. Even if I can’t speak Tagalog, I can understand it.”
Barrio Fiestas served as her musical training ground. “I used to always perform at the Barrio Fiestas in Hounslow... It’s made me who I am and it’s helped me a lot with my singing. This year, my sisters took over for me and performed at the festival.”
It’s been several years since Mutya’s last been to the Philippines but she’s planning a trip this November with her entire family. “I’m going to Boracay; my brother loves it there! I’m also going to Tagbilaran in Bohol where my lola is from and I’m also visiting some relatives in Cebu. I’m really looking forward to going there again. I’m bringing my daughter along. We haven’t gone on a holiday as a family for so long. To be in one country all at the same time, is something that’s surely going to be special.”
When asked about how she juggles her duties as a singer and a hands-on mom, she replies: “Tahlia is very much ‘Miss Independent.’ She’s like, ‘Mommy, don’t touch me.’ She knows what she wants. I spent the past year looking after her full time, which is why I quit Sugababes. But now, she’s a bit bigger. When I go to work, she would say, ‘I want to stay with lolo and lola.’ I think you will find the time to blend everything in together. I always find time in the weirdest ways. I will make time for my daughter, time for my family, time to go out, time for work. I will make time for all of that all at once and so far, it has worked fine.”
The birth of Tahlia has changed Mutya in many ways, and for the better. ”I didn’t go out for so long. People think I’m a bit of a wild child but during my pregnancy and after, I just stayed at home and became a couch potato. My friends kept telling me, ‘Oh wow, this is a new Mutya.’ Tahlia’s also probably the one who’s made me realize a lot of things and is the reason why I am able to communicate better with people. Before I was a bit more standoffish and kept to myself,” she discloses.
“To tell you the truth, I’ve lost most of my weight after having my daughter. I’ve lost most of it from breastfeeding. When you breastfeed, you give protein to your child and on top of that, you lose weight as well. But I’m really not up for showing my stomach. If nobody likes me for my vocal cords, then they can stuff it. Instead of concentrating on what everybody wants me to be, I might as well concentrate on what I want to be and how I want to be perceived. And as far as I’m concerned, I want to be known as a singer and not as a belly dancer.”
Help from famous friends
“Before I released my new single and album, George Michael was out promoting me already. He’s such a lovely man and so down-to-earth. He’s just like you and me and on top of that, he has a lot of problems. He was telling me that at any one time, there are 18 paparazzi outside his house. He said for eight months, he would slink over them at 7 in the morning while they were asleep in his garden waiting for him to come out. I couldn’t live like that,” she opines.
“Amy Winehouse was a big push too. Just these really amazing artists and friends believing in me, it’s helped a lot.”
With famous friends intent on seeing her soar, a sound that is distinctly hers, and talent to back it up, there are no reasons why Mutya’s success shouldn’t reach great heights.
(First published in Marie Claire, October 2007; photo used with permission from Mutya Buena, courtesy of Universal Music)