In 2006, amid the mainstream explosions of Nelly Furtado’s Loose, Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds and Beyonce’s B’Day, a different kind of pop group made their debut, and quickly found a fiercely dedicated following.
The Pipettes, a U.K. girl group that wore polka-dot dresses, featured throwback choreography and focused on the AM radio sounds of yesteryear, released the debut album We Are The Pipettes that year, and earned acclaim for sounding unlike anything else in popular music at the time. Released in the U.K. in July 2006 through Memphis Industries before coming to the U.S. the following year through Cherrytree Records, the album was hailed by Pitchfork, Rolling Stone and The Guardian for its slick hooks and warm post-retro sound.
“It was the most extreme version of pop that I could have ever encountered,” Gwenno Saunders, who formed the classic lineup of the Pipettes with Rose Elinor Dougall and Rebecca Stephens, tells Fuse. “The lyrics, the way we sang, everything was so in-your-face. … It was just a varied bunch of people who happened to be in the same place at the same time. It was an informative experience.”
Saunders was the last Pipette to join the group, after singer Julia Clarke-Lowes left Dougall and Stephens to focus on a solo project. Before Saunders, the Pipettes had already been fully formed as a throwback to the “manufactured” pop groups of the 1960s, and toured with artists like the Go! Team before releasing its debut album.
“I saw the band play in Cardiff, and for me, in my early 20’s, it was exactly what I was looking for,” Saunders recalls. “It was a celebrated frivolity, and fun in a way that I hadn’t encountered.”
The critical adoration received by We Are The Pipettes upon its release led to a handful of charting singles in the U.K., a U.S. label deal and a performance at South By Southwest in 2007. However, the group was also struggling with an image of the group—the uniform, the dances, the tongue-in-cheek musical presentation—that was “difficult to maneuver within,” Saunders recalls.
“Rose, Becki and I constantly had discussions on whether it was empowering or not,” she says. “We were deadly serious about being flippant, and I found that to be empowering, but it also became very restricting in the end, because you were always playing a role. For all three of us as the front women, it was very difficult to subvert such a traditional gendered role, for as much as we tried. You couldn’t really be yourself when you were wearing the polka-dot dress.
“And we weren’t necessarily ‘retro’ people at all,” she continues. “Other bands probably did it better, because they were so committed to the ‘60s. It was a lesson learned in gender roles in music. It’s very complicated.”
Dougall and Stephens left the Pipettes in 2008, and in 2010, the group released a sophomore album, Earth vs. The Pipettes, with Saunders and her sister, Ani Saunders, as the two singers. The follow-up fizzled, the Pipettes officially disbanded, and in 2014, Saunders released a solo concept album, Y Dydd Olaf off Heavenly Recordings, that won the 2015 Welsh Music Prize; the singer-songwriter is touring the U.K. next month behind the record, and will play SXSW and Moogfest in the U.S. this year.
“It was nice to take a step back and work out why I wanted to make music, and what the point of music was to me,” Saunders explains. “[The Pipettes] was a fantastic experience where you learn what you want to do and don’t want to do. That led to me going back to Wales and trying to make an album that wasn’t anything but trying to be valuable.”
Saunders says that she still has a special place in her heart for some Pipettes songs, especially the fizzy single “Your Kisses Are Wasted On Me” (“As soon as I sang it, it made me cry happy,” she says with a laugh). However, Saunders doesn’t foresee any official Pipettes reunion coming to fruition.
“Rose and I were talking a couple of nights ago how great it would be to do something together — we always got on musically,” she explains. “But I just think the Pipettes are 2006. I think some things are of their time and best left there.”