But lest you still think a pop girl group -- especially one assembled on a reality competition show -- is just a vessel for others' creative visions, the women of Little Mix frequently drop evidence to the contrary. They're the ones setting the agenda, choosing the messages, co-writing the songs (they're credited on half of LM5's tracks) and getting hands-on in the studio (they're listed as executive producers for the first time). And it shows on the new record, which has no shortage of personality between the sassy, minimalist club-bangers, shimmering girl-power ballads and flirtations with dancehall and Latin rhythms.
Little Mix operates at a near-breakneck pace -- LM5 isn't just their fifth album, it's their fifth in six years -- yet its members insist they wouldn't want it any other way. Below, Thirlwall and Pinnock tell Billboard about what drives their work ethic, the new sounds they're exploring on LM5 and what it takes to write a good feminist anthem in 2018.
How did you approach your fifth album? Did you have any particular goals for this one, or did you just get in the studio and see what happened?
Jade Thirlwall: For this record, I guess we were just feeling a bit more ballsy. We’ve gained confidence as writers over the years, and for this album in particular we definitely wanted to have strong messages about female empowerment and being a woman. We keep saying this is the album we’ve always wanted to make.
You can definitely hear that on songs like “Joan of Arc," "Strip" and “Wasabi.” The production and vocal delivery is very in-your-face and a little aggressive, even. What led you to explore that side?
Leigh-Anne Pinnock: I feel like we are more confident than ever. We just have so much more to say in general — we’ve had more life experiences, we’re getting older. We’re just four girls with attitude, aren’t we? It just happened naturally. And with songs like “Joan of Arc,” they needed that rap-y take on it. “Wasabi” has that clap-back-to-the-haters vibe.
Thirlwall: We’ve just stopped caring as much about what people think. We’re not as scared anymore to write about things that pack more of a punch or are a bit more controversial. We’re seven years in now. We’ve grown up in the industry. We’re 25 to 27 years-old, and with that comes a sort of confidence. I feel like we’re a bit more...
Thirlwall: Yeah, liberated in what we write about! It’s such a weight off your shoulders to be able to write something and not be scared anymore. Maybe like four or five years ago, if we’d written a song about sex or feminism or loving yourself and thinking you’re amazing, we’d be like, “Oh no, we can’t do this.” Now it’s like, “You know what? That’s how we feel — let’s write about it!” It’s fine to do that. We’ve earned the right to. And I feel we’re in this era of artists being listened to more about what they have to say about what’s going on in the world.
That makes me think of “Woman’s World,” which you’ve said was inspired by the #MeToo movement and examines issues in the workplace. Is that the kind of song you wouldn’t have written a few years ago?
Thirlwall: Absolutely. I always remember, three or four years ago now, I tweeted something political and was absolutely annihilated and ridiculed, mostly by men going, “Oh my God, why does this pop star have an opinion?” It made me think, “Should I just stay in my lane?” But now I feel like there’s a change happening. People are realizing, especially with social media, that artists like ourselves have a huge platform and a huge influence on our younger fans. We can use that to our advantage and write about important things that mean something.
What makes a good ladies’ anthem in 2018?
Thirlwall: Have you heard the album, darling?
Okay, maybe that was a stupid question.
Thirlwall: We’re just joking! [Laughs.] But it’s what we write about: loving yourself, body image -- I think body image is really important right now, so it’s good to write about that.
Pinnock: And being positive! Being sure of how beautiful you are. Learning to be comfortable within. All females are so powerful and so strong, and they just need to be reminded of that. And also, when we stick together, we’re a force. I think it’s all about women coming together and being unified.
The song “Told You So” feels emblematic of that -- it’s all of you coming together to comfort a heartbroken friend. And it feels very conversational, like you’re actually talking to each other in the studio.
Thirlwall: That is definitely one of our favorite songs. It literally feels like [what happens] when one of us splits up with a boyfriend and we go ‘round to one of our houses and just sit and chat rubbish and have a little cry and drink wine. It is very conversational. Was that the first song we ever heard for this record?
Thirlwall: And we fell in love with it straight away, like, “If the rest of the album sounds like this, we’ll be very happy.” Even the majority of the ballads on the album are empowering. It’s a ballad, but it’s about being there for your friends and getting through something together.
Pinnock: It’s an indication of who Little Mix are, that song -- friendship!
What about the days when you don’t feel so fierce? How do you psych yourself up and get into that “Strip” or “Wasabi” mindset?
Thirlwall: We are human, so we definitely have days where we wake up feeling like utter shit. Writing songs helps us. Being around positive people helps -- we are so lucky that we are in a girl band and are surrounded by strong women if one of us is feeling a bit crap about ourselves.
Pinnock: A compliment goes a long way. We always compliment each other. “Joan of Arc” is about not feeling scared to call yourself beautiful. Why shouldn’t you!?
There’s a moment in “Joan of Arc” of where a pitched-down voice goes, “Oh, you on that feminist tip?” and all of you shout back “Hell yeah, I am!” It struck me that while there a lot of women’s empowerment anthems in pop, not many of them explicitly mention feminism by name. How did that come about?
Thirlwall: We wrote that in a session with a girl called Shun [Alexandra Shungudzo Govere] -- she wrote “Touch” for us and is a feminist too. I think we did actually talk about how there’s a weird stigma attached to admitting you’re a feminist and saying you’re a feminist. We never understood why, so we just put it in the song: “Are you a feminist? Hell yeah!” There’s nothing wrong with that.
There are several nods to stan culture on this record. On “Joan of Arc,” you literally sing about “stanning” yourself. And you called the album LM5, which is what the die-hard fans used as a placeholder title when discussing the record as it was being made. Why was it important to acknowledge that part of your fanbase?
Thirlwall: I think we’re very current, darling! We’re definitely moving with the times. We’re very much aware that we are where we are today because of our fans and that we have a massive social media following. We wanted to reflect that with the title. The fans have been calling it LM5 for over a year now. We just thought it was cool to do something different and follow what they’ve already been saying. It’s very 2018.
Did all of you call the record LM5 in your casual conversations?
Thirlwall: Yeah, all the time! And when we finally discussed album titles, we were like, “Shall we discuss LM5?” And then we were like “Oh! LM5! LM5!”
Pinnock: It has a good ring to it. And it works with the whole campaign, with the pictures that we’d already done. It just felt right.
Thirlwall: We’re a lot more confident now, so LM5 is very much like, “This is us, we don’t need another title, we’re LM, this is our fifth album -- boom.”
In addition to showing off new sides of your vocals, there are some really cool sounds on this record from a production standpoint: The unexpected rock breakdown on “Wasabi,” those really bright keyboards on “Forget You Not,” the merengue-like drum pattern on “Motivate.”
Pinnock: We love “Motivate.” It’s got those Latin vibes and it’s just so... cool.
Is there a sound or musical moment you’re most proud of getting on the record?
Thirlwall: “Wasabi” is a good one. We definitely experimented more on this album, and we probably made a lot of producers heads’ spin. We executive produced the album, so we’d be in sessions like mad scientists: “Can you do this? Can you do this?”
Leigh-Anne: “Love a Girl Right” we love as well, because we sample [Sisqó's] “Thong Song” in it, and we were quite, um, what’s the word…
Leigh-Anne: Well, we were drunk. [Laughs.] But we were really pumped, because we always wanted to write a song that’s a message to our boyfriends: Treat my girl right otherwise I’m coming for you! We twisted the [original] song from being about women in thongs to a positive girl-power anthem, so we’re proud of that.
Thirlwall: And production-wise, we’ve been more in control than ever, which is why there’s so many weird and wonderful sounds.
Pinnock: It’s stuff that hasn’t been done before by Little Mix -- we wanted to shock people.
You’ve been together for seven years, and you’ve put out five albums in six years -- that’s an incredible pace to operate at. What’s it like living it? Do you feel pressured to keep it up?
Thirlwall: It definitely shows -- this sort of sounds big-headed, but -- how intelligent we are. We’re business women. We know what pace we should be working at, what we should be putting out there for people, what we should be doing when fans feel like they need something or are getting impatient. We’re very much in touch with our fans about what they need, and also what we want to do.
The fact that we’ve lasted for seven years and are still going just as strong as we ever have been -- if not stronger -- is a testament to the recipe of how it works. We’re very much in control of everything we do, and had we let the people around us dictate what we did, we probably wouldn’t still be here now.