The Legacy Of Little Mix: How One Of The Greatest Girl Bands To Ever Do It Is, Well, Still Doing It
As Jade Thirlwall, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, and Perrie Edwards prepare to release their greatest hits album, Between Us, the trio opened up to BuzzFeed News about their decadelong sisterhood, the lessons they've learned along the way, and what we can expect next.
As Friday activities go, dissecting the titanic discography of one of the greatest and most successful girl bands in the world is definitely up there with the best. The only way it could be made any better, in fact, is by discussing said discography with the women who sang those songs in the first place.
This is how I find myself on a Friday afternoon in October, wearing a “Wasabi” hoodie and telling Jade Thirlwall for the umpteenth time that Little Mix have only ever served us bangers in the 10 years they’ve been together. Leigh-Anne Pinnock is off camera tending to her newborn twins when our call starts, while fellow new mom Perrie Edwards is running slightly late, which gives me the perfect opportunity to chew Jade’s ear off about their iconic back catalog before we begin.
“I know, she’s bop after bop,” Jade, 28, says. But with hits spanning a decade, it must have been quite the ride reminiscing to choose which songs would make it onto Between Us, the band's upcoming greatest hits album that also offers five new tracks.
"When you're in this industry, every year you do a cycle, you get through it, blah, blah, blah," Jade says. "But when you actually have to sit down and look at all the tracks and listen to them all for the first time in a while, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, we’ve really done it. We’ve really done the damn thing.’”
And it’s impossible to argue with that. The standard edition of Between Us, due for release on November 12, boasts four No. 1 hits, 10 top 5 singles, and 16 songs that landed in the top 10. Combined, the tracklist has been streamed more than 3.5 billion times on Spotify. The legacy of Little Mix continues to take form, its magic enduring and its longevity undeniable.
One thing that has changed is the make-up of the group itself. Back in 2020, Jesy Nelson announced her departure from Little Mix, citing mental health reasons. However, the focus of this interview is speaking with the remaining members as they celebrate yet another milestone in their career.
But just where do you start when you’re interviewing a band who have been together for a decade and enjoyed success most people can only dream of? Well, from the beginning of course…
After becoming the first band to win The X Factor UK back in 2011, Little Mix were given a debut single that wasn't hugely representative of their style. So they eventually came back in summer 2012 with "Wings" — a song that truly spoke to who they were — and ended the year with the release of their debut album, DNA.
“I don’t think we were really prepared for what we were gonna be catapulted into,” Leigh-Anne, 30, says, looking back at the very start of their career. “We literally learnt along the way. I don’t even think we read our blasted contract when we first got signed. That’s how naive and young we were.”
But if they were feeling the pressure, it didn’t show — “Wings” became the band's second No. 1 single, with DNA charting at No. 3 in the UK and No. 4 in the US — a traditionally hard market to crack.
In those early days, the band was carefree, soaking up this new life as young pop stars. “I kind of miss the innocence in a way,” Perrie, 28, says after a few seconds of not realizing that she’s actually on mute and we can’t hear what she’s saying. A brief interlude to reminisce over the nightmare of virtually communicating during the first lockdown distracts us for a moment, but we’re quickly back on track.
“I think I miss how everything was new and fresh and exciting. I was a bit like, ‘Oh my god, wow! Oh my god, wow!’ at everything, and it just felt so special at the start.”
As women who’ve seen and experienced more of the world now, is there anything they’d want to tell their younger selves as they entered the industry?
“I would say, ‘Hun, don’t spend that advance on a Marbella holiday. You could’ve saved that and put that as a deposit on a flat or something,’” Jade jokes. “I think at the beginning, obviously we were so naive, didn’t know what we signed, got given this advance, thought we were suddenly really rich, and I blew that money within six months, hun. It was gone.”
“Do you remember that plate of prawns I ordered from the hotel?” Leigh-Anne goes on to ask Jade and Perrie as they both fall into giggles at the memory. “They were that expensive that they didn’t have the price next to them. … I basically thought that the label paid for everything, so when we checked out the hotel, my bill was sky high and the girls were like, ‘What the hell have you done?’ I was like, ‘Well, it’s paid for, innit?’ They were like, ‘No, it’s not!’”
“She was ordering the most expensive shit every night thinking it was on the label,” Perrie adds between laughs. “She was like, ‘I’ll have two of those. Ohhh, I’ll have those prawns. Seasonal, is it? Well, I best get them!’ Your bill was wild.”
Jade also remembers a moment where she was accused of stealing a lamb shank from a hotel, a memory that Perrie adds she’ll never forget. “Us northerners rocking up to this posh hotel, and they thought we were riff-raff,” Jade says. “That was a quick lesson learned. It was very Pretty Woman.”
But prawns, lamb shanks, and blowing money aside, is there anything else they’d tell themselves? “Don’t be so trusting of everyone around you,” Jade says. “We were so young, and obviously our family and friends didn’t have a clue how it worked either, so there was literally no one to advise us on how it all runs. That’s one thing I would say.”
The group's members are the first to acknowledge that they faced immense pressure with the release of the second album — they wanted to capitalize on the success of the first while continuing to elevate their sound.
“I think with DNA — it was just a massive debut for us, so there was definitely a lot of pressure then bringing out Salute,” Leigh-Anne says, pointing out that Little Mix had always wanted to lean into R&B and showcase themselves as a vocal harmony group. “With DNA, it was so pop, and we wanted to kind of steer back to what we originally wanted to be. So that’s why Salute was a lot more R&B-driven.”
Although the album didn’t quite match DNA's chart success, peaking at No. 4 in the UK and No. 6 in the US, in the words of Leigh-Anne, it “served its purpose” in continuing to build Little Mix’s reputation, and is a body of work that the group is still “very proud” of.
“I think we were quite ahead of our time when we came out with those songs,” Perrie says in response to my monologue on the timelessness of “Move” and “Salute.” “Yeah, timeless, definitely. What I loved about it is we always tried to make a conscious effort of releasing music that [wasn’t] really happening at the time. When we released ‘Move’ — I mean, yes, that kind of sound was popping off in America, but it wasn’t really popping off at the time in the UK I don’t think.”
And “Salute” speaks for itself. “If you think about it, we’re 10 years in our career, and we still open up our shows a lot of the time, or festivals, with ‘Salute’ because it’s that bitch,” Perrie continues. “It punches you in the face, and that’s what I love about it. So, yeah, you’re right — they’re timeless.”
I ask whether they ever considered rerecording songs for their greatest hits album given how much has changed since their release. However, while the idea appealed, it wasn't realistic timewise given Leigh-Anne and Perrie's maternity leave. And Jade also points out that preserving the songs proves how far they've come.
“I kind of like that we haven’t because it’s nice to hear the growth and evolution,” she says. “It’s nice to hear how our voices have changed, how as a group we’ve changed. But I think when we release [Between Us], there’s a couple of little things we’re gonna do, obviously us three, which’ll be nice.”
Little Mix's first two albums established them as a band. But their third shot them into the stratosphere and gave them a proper taste of global adoration.
At the core of Get Weird — a project born from the ashes of an album the group scrapped after Salute — was of course "Black Magic." The impossibly catchy song may have shot straight to No. 1, but Jade was initially wary when the band was first presented with it.
“Nobody could deny that it was a good song,” she says. “I remember when we first heard it, I wasn’t that sure about ‘Black Magic’ because it was so pop-y.” But Jade was also worried because the band hadn't written on the song during a period where they were desperate to prove themselves as more than just singers.
“It was the first song that we hadn’t actively written on, and I think I felt a bit proud of the idea because it was such a thing for us as well to be seen as credible songwriters,” Jade says. “So to take this song and not have been a part of it all was a bitter pill for me to swallow, I suppose. But then the more we got into it, and once we recorded it and stuff, I was like, yes.”
However, by the band's own admission, "Black Magic" was offered up just as they were looking for a hit — and the then-head of their label, Sonny Takhar, believed in the song so much that he threw a huge budget and campaign behind it.
“The campaign was amazing,” Jade remembers. “We flew to LA, and we shot that video. It was a two-day shoot. For the first time in our career, we really felt something bubbling, like, This is gonna be huge, and it’s gonna be a moment. And it did. It catapulted us more internationally. It was No. 1 for weeks.”
But, although their third era was a success by all accounts, their best was yet to come.
In hindsight, Glory Days is aptly named. It’s Little Mix at the peak of their powers, discovering new levels of fame and success that pulled them all over the world.
“I look back at that, and I think it was one of the happiest, most amazing times in my life,” Perrie says with a smile, after being told off by her mom for not charging her phone before the interview. “It just makes me happy, and I think that’s why I’m so attached to the album and the singles because I just remember us having fun. That’s all I remember about that campaign. We’d be traveling Europe and we’d be doing roly-polies in the corridors of the hotels, and we’d be ordering room service and having sleepovers. It was just nice times.”
Even though it seems impossible, I ask if the whirlwind surrounding Little Mix at this time brought the band closer together. “I think so,” Perrie says. “We’ve always been close and we’ve always had each other’s backs, but I think for some reason in that era, I remember thinking, Oh my god, I can’t survive without these girls. Even though I thought that before, it really cemented it then.”
But Perrie also points out that they were there for each other through the hard times too. “Yeah, we have fun and we laugh together, but we also cry together, and we all support each other when we’re going through shit and personal things,” she says. “I just think we really did cement our sisterhood then. Everything just meant so much to us.”
“Shout Out to My Ex” kicked off the era with a statement, and one that was hard to get twisted. It was obvious that previous breakups had been an inspiration for the record. But does that make it difficult to put out a song that’s so personal to you, especially when you know that the public will want to scrutinize every single lyric for hidden meanings?
“Songs can be interpreted however that person wants to, which sometimes is a good thing, but then also it can start rumors and cause all sorts of mess,” Jade says. “But, you know, if you’re proud of your music and you stand by what that message is of that song. You’ve gotta own it, haven’t you?”
“Especially if it’s relatable,” Perrie agrees. “If you release a song and hundreds of thousands — millions, even — of people can listen, relate to it, and feel empowered by it, then it’s worth us feeling a little bit uncomfortable, because it’s so much bigger than us. It’s so much bigger than that.”
As if the lead single of Glory Days wasn’t big enough, Little Mix then followed it up with another bop in the form of “Touch,” a song I point out has so much versatility when you compare the original version to the acoustic.
“I thought we smashed it with that. I actually don’t think we do it enough,” Leigh says of the acoustic. “I think with ‘Touch,’ it’s probably one of the most beautiful acoustics we’ve done.” Jade lets slip that they have another coming out soon, although for which song, the band remains tight-lipped on.
But when it comes to the first acoustic performance of “Touch” in 2016, I, and pretty much every other fan, noticed that while the group shone as usual, it was Leigh-Anne who truly sparkled, owning the stage and hitting that impressive high note that she’s continued to do ever since. I ask if this song and performance in particular helped to boost her confidence, or if that was just an outsider’s interpretation that might be way off the mark.
“No, you’re completely right. It was definitely a confidence booster, and I’ll never forget the day we performed it live for the first time,” Leigh-Anne says. “Something kind of came over me. I just thought, Sod it, I’m just gonna go for it. And knowing me, I was probably in the dressing room freaking out about it, like, ‘Am I gonna hit it? Am I gonna hit it?’ I just went for it, so I’m very proud of myself for doing that.”
The performance gave Leigh-Anne a fresh perspective, one she’s carried forward ever since. “From that moment, I’m like, ‘Oh god, stop being so hard on yourself. Just fucking go for it.’”
The Glory Days era also allowed Little Mix to elevate their fashion as they started working with stylists Zack Tate and Jamie McFarland, who BuzzFeed News profiled back in 2020. Up until that point, the band had been happy to just dress for comfort, something which actually got them in trouble with their record label.
“Remember when we got told off by the label?” Perrie says, sending all three of them into another round of laughs. “We were going to work or to label meetings in onesies. We got told that basically we looked a little bit on the scruffy side so we had to make more of an effort.”
And that’s where Zack and Jamie stepped in. All three women note that their stylists have an incredibly hard job, not least because they somehow have to cater to each of their individual tastes while also making sure that they look cohesive as a band. But, regardless, they seem to pull it off every time.
“I think that was the first time when they stepped in where it became individual but cohesive together,” Jade says while the others agree. “Zack and Jamie are a big part of making us look like a slick, sick girl band.”
While Glory Days was young, carefree pop perfection, LM5 was sleek and cool, with its lead single, "Woman Like Me," establishing the band as grown, independent women. However, while Little Mix were ready to enjoy another big-budget promotional campaign, things soon changed when they left their label days before LM5's release.
“[“Woman Like Me”] was really giving everything. The concept was amazing. So it felt really big and really special,” Jade says now. “And then obviously the label switch happened in the midst of that and sort of threw a spanner in the works, which was such a shame because we went to America to try and create an American album and then didn’t go there once to promote it.”
She adds: “It was a huge learning curve for us. I don’t ever remember feeling too much pressure in terms of making the album, because I think LM5 is a phenomenal record. … It’s up there with our best, so it deserved the Glory Days campaign and worldwide campaign, but you know, it was kind of out of our control how that worked out.”
But one thing that stands out most about LM5 is the way its sound diverged so dramatically from its predecessor, Glory Days. It's proof once again that Little Mix are always attempting to move the dial rather than playing it safe.
“I love the fact we didn’t just do another album of songs similar to Glory Days,” Leigh-Anne says. “We have to continually progress, we have to keep moving, and I think that’s what’s good about it as well.”
Unfortunately for Little Mix, the campaign for their next album would also be out of their hands, with their sixth offering, Confetti, caught in the pandemic crossfire. Like other artists releasing music at the time, the band had to pivot to promoting the album from home and scrapping ideas for a music video to accompany the lead single, “Break Up Song.”
“It was hard, wasn’t it?” Jade says of the time. “It was really hard, because we’re used to literally doing the most, throwing the kitchen sink in. Little Mix are so extra. We don’t do anything half-arsed.”
However, they didn’t let the lockdown dampen their spirits. “You have to keep it moving,” Jade says. “I think for us, we just wanted to make sure that our fans also had something to look forward to. It was such a shitty time — we didn’t wanna deprive our fans of new music, and so we just made it happen.”
Now, the band is happy that things played out the way they did, not least because it ended up gifting them their next No. 1 single in the form of “Sweet Melody,” which they were able to go all out for upon its release. But there’s an alternate universe where “Sweet Melody” might’ve fallen victim to “Break Up Song’s” fate as Perrie pushed for it to be the lead single, even threatening to leave the group if it wasn’t, in one Zoom call. This may have been a joke, but it's clear she loved the track from the beginning — even if others didn't.
The story goes that Jade and Leigh-Anne were in LA collaborating with Tayla Parx, who previously worked with friend Ariana Grande on the smash hit “7 Rings,” when Tayla played them the track. However, while the band and their team are usually somewhat “cohesive” on their feelings for a song, "Sweet Melody" initially prompted a mixed reaction. Jade maintains, however, that she had the "same feeling" as she did with "Wings" and "Shout Out," where she instantly knew the song was a hit. "I feel like ‘Sweet Melody’ ticks every single box of what a pop song should be.”
So that brings us to the current day, as Little Mix prepare to release their greatest hits album, Between Us, marking their first era as a trio.
Recording the five new songs was a “natural” and “easy” process according to Leigh-Anne, not least because there wasn’t any pressure. “We just wanted to go in there and find out what we were all inspired by at the time or speak about things that we were going through,” she says. “It just kind of came very natural.”
She adds that “Between Us,” which was released as a song last week, is the band’s favorite as it’s all about their sisterhood after 10 years together. “It’s a song that we’re not gonna be able to get through on tour. We’re all gonna be sobbing. The fans are gonna be sobbing. Yeah, get the tissues out for that one.”
The tour is something they’re all excited about, especially since it’ll mark their first time performing in front of fans since the pandemic began.
“Gagging. Desperate. Can’t. Wait. Like, as much as I’ve loved being on maternity leave and stuff, I’m gonna be like, ‘Mam, hold my baby,’” Perrie says while Leigh-Anne laughs in agreement. “It’s what we live for. Performing’s what we do. It’s what we do all of this for — seeing the fans and getting that feeling in our tummies of the anxiety before you go on stage. Just all of it, I just miss it so much. So just expect big things from that tour, because I think we’re that desperate to get on the stage again. We just want it to be the best show ever.”
So, after 47 minutes of chatting, and my pitch to become the fourth member of Little Mix almost over, I just have one final question: When they think of their career, with all the accolades and success it’s brought them, what do they want their legacy to be?
“I want to be like the band that in 40 years’ time, we’re still talked about as the blueprint of how to be a girl band,” Jade says. They all agree. “And paving the way for other girl bands in the future, ‘cause it’s really hard for girl bands to thrive and flourish, so I hope we’ve paved the way a bit for that to happen.”
“I just want us to stand the test of time, and I think we will do, actually,” she finishes. “I think we’ve achieved so much, and I think we will still be going in 10 years, 20 years. We’ll be wheeling it out every so often, another tour, I’m sure — no matter what.”