How ‘Song 4 Mutya’ became one of the UK’s most enduring pop-dance anthems
15 years since its release, Megan Townsend talks to Tom Findlay of Groove Armada and Mutya Buena about how they brought '80s-synth-positivity to the nation's dancefloors
If we're talking late-00s floor-fillers, there’s one track that earns a universal reverence. Combining ecstatic new wave synths reminiscent of Depeche Mode and Gary Numan, a feverish 120 BPM tempo, and the chasmic, velvety vocals of a then-recently-departed-Sugababe — it’s easy to understand why Groove Armada’s 2007 hit ‘Song for Mutya (Out of Control)’ never fails to light up the faces of the club-inclined.
Peaking at #8 in the UK Top 40, and topping the UK Dance Top 40, ‘Song For Mutya’ became Groove Armada’s biggest chart success and a defining moment for Mutya Buena as a solo artist — proving she could hold her own against pop's greats, and the trio she’d been part of since her teens. It was a rare example of chart triumph for an electronic track in a late-noughties-era saturated with indie and R&B, a record that we'd still regard as a "Sound Of The Summer" despite being released during the same time as Rihanna's 10-week reign at #1 with 'Umbrella''. And Groove Armada, AKA Tom Findlay and Andy Cato, never had to compromise their dance roots to make it happen. Instead, the track pays homage to a plethora of formative electronic genres like synth-pop, disco, and electropop. Arguably, the track's lasting influence can be seen in the electropop revival throughout the 2010s; it's rarely missed from lists of the best UK pop songs from the noughties and it still absolutely bangs on a club soundsystem. So what is it that has made 'Song For Mutya' such an enduring success? Why does it still give us that warm fuzzy feeling in our chests when we hear it now?
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"It all started with a loop, as did most of our tracks back in the day," says Groove Armada's Tom Findlay. "It's from 'Let's be Adult' by Ambitious Lovers. I'm pretty sure we paid to use it so I can tell you that." The third track from the Brazilian/British 80's musical duo's debut album, 'Let's be Adult''s hypnotizing keyboard stabs serve as the hook for the majority of 'Song For Mutya' — injecting it with that new romantic, slightly high-camp, Frankie Goes To Hollywood-esque synth-pop flair. "I looped that, and alongside our long-time collaborator Tim Hutton we decided to build the verses and a chorus using a lot of old synths — an Oberheim, the Jupiter-8, a Juno 106. All from the '80s, it gave the entire record a really sonic vibe. I still have them all. I have always been into hardware, nothing against soft synths but I just love the depth of sounds you get from them — there's a certain sense of musical history."
It was 2005, and work had begun on Groove Armada's fifth studio album 'Soundboy Rock', their first original record in three years — though they were riding off the success of their 2004 greatest hits album 'The Best of Groove Armada'; a record that had sent their earlier productions, particularly a Fatboy Slim remix of 'I See You Baby', thundering up the charts. Wanting to deviate away from their house music roots, the pair looked to explore electropop and a more rock-adjacent sound for the record. Though it was by accident, according to Findlay, that 'Song For Mutya''s sugary-pop flavour had come about — telling NME in 2016: "It's just one of those things that happen in the studio sometimes, you realise you've written a pop song and you think: 'Well, I might as well embrace it.' So I thought 'Who is the poppiest singer we could think of who's also a bit naughty?'"
Despite the title, 'Song For Mutya' hadn't originally been written with Buena in mind. The first vocalist tied to the track had been London-born rapper and songwriter Estelle — who two years later would rise to the top of the charts herself with 'American Boy'. But although they recorded a demo together, 'Song 4 Estelle' wasn't meant to be. Findlay and Cato then turned to Sony and Colombia Records A&R Jonnie Blackburn to help them find the right fit. "I don't always love A&R input," says Findlay. "But Jonnie was really supportive, full of great ideas and always encouraging us to take some risks. 'Soundboy Rock' had some great features — Stush on 'Get Down', Candi Staton, Jeb Loy Nicholls, Tony Allen! Jonnie deserves a lot of credit for that."
Concurrently, a then-21-year-old Buena had just announced her departure from the Sugababes. Having been in the girl band since she was just 13-years-old, Buena had left at the height of the Babes' fame — with four #1's under their belt and a handful of Top 10 hits. Mutya, with her piercings, tattoos and thick London accent, had been - unfairly - cast as the "bad girl" of the Sugababes; in contrast to her squeaky-clean bandmates Keisha Buchanan and Heidi Range. An alluring prospect to Groove Armada, wanting someone with the vocal chops to carry off their burgeoning pop record, but with some renegade spark to make it carry on smoky dancefloors.
"Mutya has the ability to combine pop with a real edge," says Findlay. "I think she has one of the best UK pop voices of all time, but she's got loads of attitude too. As the name suggests, the record needed her." Indeed, much of Mutya's early UKG-inclined work with the Sugababes was already an inspiration for the record — with producer Richard X's penchant for 80's re-works becoming a benchmark for the pop/club crossover, an era that Findlay says he "loved." The pair had told Herald Sun in 2007, that her pop-dissonance was a draw, "She's one of those pop voices when you mention her, people don't go 'What are you working with her for?' They go 'She's cool'". The duo, excited to be part of Buena's journey as a solo artist, even compared her to pop's original bad boy... Robbie Williams: "The same way that Robbie left Take That at the right time, she left Sugababes at the right time."
"It was a chance to show off my personal style," says Buena. "Groove Armada are really cool guys. We were chatting about different concepts for the project and we just wanted to try something new. It ended up being one of the most upbeat songs on the album."
Buena, Tim Hutton and Findlay came together at the latter's Stoke Newington studio, alongside writer Karen Poole to piece the track together — with Buena "thrashing out the vocal in an afternoon" according to Findlay. Buena's deep, melancholic vocals meant it quickly transformed into a track about heartbreak — setting off the sugary euphoria of the synth-pop backing track. "I ultimately wanted to sing about a topic I hadn't covered before, and bring a different vibe to the project," says Buena, who inserted an ad-lib, spoken introduction to the track in the recording. "I actually laughed out loud having to sing my own name in a song," she admits. "It felt really natural and fun co-creating with [Groove Armada]."
Cato, who was also working on the album remotely from Barcelona, wasn't present for the recording — but returned to London to help build 'Song For Mutya' later: "[Andy] came over to the UK and we mixed the track together, it's when we both mutually dig something it becomes a Groove Armada Record."
And a Groove Armada Record was born. Released alongside a glitzy festival-themed music video filmed at London's Finsbury Park, 'Song For Mutya (Out of Control)' came out on July 23, 2007 — primed and ready for the dance tent. Critics loved it, declared the "sure-fire sound of the summer 2007" by Yahoo Music, and "the best pop song since 'Umbrella'" by The Guardian, while Pitchfork called it "an eighties pop fantasia where New Order collaborate with Prince." The public seemed to love it too: debuting at number #94, it quickly shot up the singles chart through the summer, eventually peaking at #8. Groove Armada had broken the cycle of R&B/indie dominance over the mid-to-late-noughties singles chart, a feat that only their contemporaries The Chemical Brothers had seemed able to accomplish. The turn of the millennium had seen house music reign supreme, with Groove Armada riding the wave alongside the likes of Fatboy Slim and Basement Jaxx. But by 2005 it had been left in the dust by hip hop and R&B. Even the dance chart was in a sorry state of affairs; although Calvin Harris had already begun his steady rise to become one of the UK's biggest solo artists, the rest of the chart was saturated with older music and major label R&B/indie tracks masquerading as dance music. 'Song 4 Mutya' upon entering the chart, was competing with the 2003-released 'Destination Unknown', Pilooski's 'Begging' edit (admittedly a banger) and everyone's favourite Ibiza floorfiller 'Oh My God' by Mark Ronson and Lily Allen.
Buena also faced her fair share of adversity on the release on the record. Tabloids quickly deduced the 'Song 4 Mutya''s lyrics must be in reference to "beef" with her Sugababes bandmates. Particularly, the chorus line: "Sat there with some new girl, what is this? / That's who has replaced me, what a diss" — believed to be a nod to Amelle Berrabah, reportedly taking her place in the trio just 48 hours after she had announced her departure. Buena denied the claims. However, 'Song 4 Mutya' would go on to be a success for Buena — her first solo hit outside of the Sugababes and a boost to her upcoming solo record 'Real Girl'. Soon after Groove Armada would head on a UK tour, taking Buena with them to perform 'Song 4 Mutya' at a number of stops — a cherished memory for both GA and Buena: "She was a handful, but she liked us and we liked her," Findlay told NME. "I proper enjoyed performing with [Groove Armada]," says Buena. "I think they are one of the best electronic duos out there. It was really fun, I'd love to work with them again."
Though 'Song 4 Mutya' was Groove Armada's biggest-selling single, the pair turned away from pop stardom after its release — leaving the crossover pop behind, and heading back to the dancefloor. "We actually wrote a track for Will Young not long after coming up with 'Song 4 Mutya'," Findlay says. "I thought it was going to be an even bigger hit than that, but they didn't go for it. I've given up on my pop career now," he laughs. Findlay admitted in an interview with NME, that it was "the one song of Groove Armada's that his kids liked."
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So what is it about 'Song 4 Mutya' that made it so perennial? Is it the '80s references? Is it the delicious combination of optimism and despondence? Is it the fact Millenials are slaves to nostalgia? "I think it's pretty timeless," says Findlay. "You know the Richard X influence, new wave, Gary Numan — that whole 'Cars' era. There's a lot of New York City punk and funk in there too, even some disco. It's stuff people really like, it's a pop record no question. I think despite everything, all our ups and downs it’s what our music is. Boundlessly up-beat. I’m proud of that, it feels so good when we play that music live." Buena on the other hand believes it's the lyrics that have given the track its longevity: "It's a really relatable record for people when they hear it, it's about bouncing back after a relationship and feeling resilient and confident after a break-up. It's still one of my favourite tracks to perform, I even played it at Manchester Pride in August. The fans still love it!"
As Groove Armada celebrate their 25th anniversary this year, the pair continue to be followed by 'Song 4 Mutya' — it's held a firm place in their festival sets, it is featured on their new 'GA25' compilation album, the pair had even attempted to get Buena back in the studio again for their 2020 release 'Edge of the Horizon' for a new track, but didn't quite manage to nail her down — perhaps something to do with the Sugababes original line-up reuniting a year later. The pair still regularly drop it in DJ sets and live shows to the ecstatic crowds of The Warehouse Project, Junction 1 and Ministry of Sound. The track has earned a steady helping of remixes; there's one from the Sunset Strippers, an eerie house rework from German composer Boris Dlugosh — Cato and Findlay have even created a "huge acid house monster" version of the track, that they performed live at Last Night in Brixton. Returning to the festival circuit and getting to play 'Song 4 Mutya' again has been an emotional experience for Findlay, "We played it while headlining at Bluedot and Latitude. It feels like we're bringing ['Song 4 Mutya'] to a brand new audience. It's been a pure joy."
You can check out Groove Armada's new track ‘Edge of The Horizon (live edit)’ here — taken from the forthcoming ‘GA25’ 25th anniversary box set out the 11th of November.
Megan Townsend is Mixmag's Deputy Editor, follow her on Twitter