Natalie Appleton is cradling her baby son Ace in her arms and gazing at him with sheer adoration as she feathers his face with kisses. "He is the most beautiful little boy in the world. I'm in love. I still can't believe he is mine. He looks just like his daddy," she says fondly, in reference to her husband of nearly two years, Prodigy star Liam Howlett. "They bonded straight away because he had such a rough start."
Immediately after Ace's delivery by Caesarean section at London's St John and St Elizabeth Hospital on March 2 the baby contracted a chest infection, causing one of his lungs to collapse.
"Because he was trying so hard to breathe, he popped a hole in his lung," explains the former All Saints singer, still shaken by the experience. "It was hell. I couldn't speak to anybody because all I wanted to know was if my son was okay. I was getting text messages from friends, saying, 'I hope you enjoy your first night', and he wasn't even with me."
After being examined by a paediatrician, the baby was transferred to the exclusive Portland Hospital's intensive care unit, accompanied by his worried father.
"I couldn’t move as I'd just had a Caesarean [do to a low-lying placenta]. I was ringing every three hours," recalls Natalie of the sudden traumatic separation from her son. "I checked into the Portland the next day.
"Liam and I would be sitting there just looking at him attached to all these tubes, and all I wanted to do was hold him in my arms. It was dreadful, but you cope; you know you have to be strong. All I wanted in the world was for the doctor to come in and say everything would be okay."
A drain was inserted into Ace's tiny lung so the oxygen that had accumulated around his chest could be cleared. After five nerve-racking days, he was declared well enough to be taken home.
"We couldn’t take any chances- we wanted to make sure he was completely okay. He is in perfectly good shape now," says his relieved mother, stroking her son's full head of brown hair. "The doctors explained that babies sometimes get infections in hospitals and we were one of the statistics. Looking back now, it is all a blur. I'm in baby zone. I forget things very easily, but I'm enjoying it. I'm dedicating my time to him."
Liam, 33, has proved equally hands-on - changing nappies, helping with feeds and getting up in the early hours to allow his wife some extra sleep. "He was nervous before Ace was born, but he is like a pro - the perfect father," she says proudly.
Natalie, who turns 31 on May 14, appears totally at ease with motherhood second time around (she has an 11-year-old daughter, Rachel, by a previous relationship), marriage and her own company. Her fine-boned face is free of make-up and she is dressed down in tracksuit bottoms, T-shirt and pink slippers, with her blonde hair pulled back into a ponytail beneath an orange baseball cap. She looks slender and toned despite revealing she has done no exercise for more than two years and insisting that she still has one-and-a-half stones to lose after putting on three stones during the pregnancy.
"I’ve been power walking around the garden," she laughs, waving an arm at the exquisitely tended garden of the imposing weekend retreat, set in 150 acres of Essex countryside, that she and Liam share. On her walks she is usually accompanied by Godzilla, Chiquita and Mike, the three Chihuahuas she jokingly calls guard dogs "with attitude".
The previous weekend, she and Liam held a family barbecue to celebrate the completion of his new album - his first for the Prodigy in six years. Her younger sister Nicole, 29, came with her fiancé Liam Gallagher and their two-year-old son Gene, while older sister Lori brought her three-year-old son Frankie.
"It was chaos," grins the singer, who remains incredibly close to her family, including her parents, Mary and Ken, who remarried in the mid-1990s after divorcing some years earlier. Three of the four Appleton sisters live within minutes of their parents in Hampstead, north London, while Lori is based in a cottage on the Howlett property. Nicole and her Liam have their own holiday place in Essex.
After some early sparring, Natalie and the Oasis singer are now firm friends. "We used to have lots of rows because we're pretty similar. We both speak our minds, but we care about each other and he is a great dad," says Natalie, known for her candour.
Her life of low-profile, albeit lively, domesticity seems a world away from the frenetic partying, infighting and high voltage fame that characterised her time with edgy girl band All Saints, when she and Nicole played the rockchick role to the hilt.
After a string of hits, including Never Ever, I Know Where It's At and Pure Shores, the group split in 2001 with Natalie and Nicole forming their own pop duo Appleton and writing the cathartic autobiography Together. The book widened the rift between the sisters and their former bandmates, Shaznay Lewis and Melanie Blatt, and rocked the music industry with Nicole's revelation that in 1998 she had aborted the child she was carrying by her then fiancé Robbie Williams for the sake of the group.
Last year, Everything Eventually, Nicole and Natalie's first album as Appleton, was released to critical acclaim and their debut single, Fantasy, reached No2 in the charts. However, the relationship with their record company Polydor ended, according to Natalie, "due to lack of finances to fund another album". Shortly afterwards, she cut herself on a champagne flute and underwent an operation to remove glass from her hands and wrist. She has yet to regain the full use of her right hand, although it has improved with physiotherapy.
"I certainly had bad luck last year, but nothing fazes me now," confirms Natalie in her soft transatlantic drawl, a legacy of a childhood spent bouncing between Canada, New York and London with one parent or another.
"There is a blanket of happiness around everything I do. I feel dreamy and blessed with my family. There is no pressure on me at the moment. It's nice to do things I want in my own time. I feel like I have taken a step out of the rat race - I had to because of the stress, both during and All Saints and afterwards. I was suffering anxiety and panic attacks, worrying about this and that. It was eating me up inside and I would drink to help me, but that would make it worse. I didn't think I was an alcoholic because I didn't get up it the morning and drink, but I found I had to drink to cope with things. It brought out a different person in me and made me irritable. When I was pregnant my friends noticed a big change in me because I didn't touch anything. I felt calmer and more laidback - like I'd taken a chill pill."
Her experience of having Ace could not have been more different to her first pregnancy. At just 19, virtually penniless and in an abusive relationship, she was persuaded to have a baby by her then husband, former model Carl Robinson.
"I was too young when I had Rachel, but I don't regret anything because I have got her now. She is the most beautiful girl in the world," declares Natalie, who is now both emotionally and financially secure. "When I was working [in a hotel] in New York when she was a baby, people would look down at me because I was so young - they thought I was her sister. I couldn’t wait to get back to London, where it seemed okay to be a young mother."
She also suffered postnatal depression, although it wasn't diagnosed at the time. "I lost my appetite and got very thin. I dealt with it because I was so young and had to - there wasn't the knowledge there is now about it," she explains.
Of the frightened shell she became during her time with the controlling Carl she says: "I don't know that person any more. Looking back, I can't believe I got like that. I would definitely look into helping other women in the same situation."
She and Carl broke up after three years, and neither she nor Rachel has any contact with him now - any chance of building a relationship with his daughter was lost when he sold his sensationalised account of their marriage to a Sunday newspaper four years ago.
"Rachel has no contact with her father - that was his choice," says Natalie, her green eyes flashing angrily at the memory of his betrayal. How would she react if Rachel were to get in tough with her father when she was older? "What can I do? She has got to do what she has got to do," she sighs resignedly. "She has got Liam now. Her [biological] father is just a donor, basically."
By all accounts, Liam is a devoted stepfather to dark-haired Rachel, who turns 12 five days after her mother's birthday and who seems remarkably well adjusted and unaffected. "She calls Liam 'Dad' - she is his kid and she loves him," says Natalie, who still feels guilt at missing some of her daughter's childhood when she was touring with All Saints. "It wasn't immediate - I had to make sure he was the right person. I'd made mistakes in the past by getting involved with someone and then she'd be upset when they weren't there any more."
Rachel, who made her film debut playing the young Lara Croft in the first Tomb Raider film, attends her mother's old stage school, Sylvia Young's in central London. After getting over the initial disappointment that Ace - whose middle name is Billy after Liam's father - wasn't a girl, she has embraced having a baby brother. "She absolutely adores him, and her cousins Gene and Frankie. She is like Angelica and they are the Rug Rats," jokes Natalie.
After highly publicised relationships with TV presenter Jamie Theakston and actor Jonny Lee Miller, Natalie fell in love with the tattooed, then Mohican-haired musician Liam after he hooked her with a smile - "like Gizmo from The Gremlins" - at the V2000 concert in Chelmsford. They got engaged in April 2001, after she proposed.
"We were sitting in the foyer of a theatre, where my sister Lee was appearing in Popcorn, and I said, 'Babes, do you want to get married?' He said 'Yeah,' and we kissed. It just seemed like the right time," explains Natalie, whose left hand is weighed down by her chunky, skull-shaped diamond and emerald engagement ring. "Never in a million years did he think that he was going to get married and have kids. It was just meeting me - we clicked. His music was always No1 in his past relationships. It's still extremely important to him - he is incredibly talented."
They were married in June 2002 in a register office of Les Adrets in the South of France, near the home of close friends Dave and Anoushka Stewart, and spent their honeymoon in the Seychelles.
"It's like I'm still on my honeymoon," marvels Natalie. "I want to do it [get married] again every year and say my vows over and over. I fancy him like crazy. He is amazing, the best husband and father; I love him with all my heart."
Natalie remains close to Nicole, whom she affectionately calls "my bookend", but admits they needed a break from working together after All Saints and then Appleton. "We lost the sense of being sisters; we missed each other," she says of the strain placed on their relationship by the business. It was only while writing their book that she realised the full extent of Nicole's pain and anger over her abortion and how much pressure she’d been under. "It was something we never talked about until then - it was a revelation to me and we had a bit of a rough time, but it was like therapy. People say the book was our side, but heck, it was about us and this was how we perceived it. It came from our hearts and it was honest."
Despite five No1 singles and world wide album sales of more than ten million, All Saints is divided into two rival camps, with Melanie and Shaznay on one side and the Appletons on the other. After the book was published in 2002, Melanie announced that there was no hope for their friendship, and there has been no contact with either her or Shaznay since.
"I don't have any hard feelings towards them any more. I don't think about them," says Natalie. "I look back at the good times and the laughs. What should have been the happiest time of our lives wasn't, because of the stress. It was a shame - we self-destructed and we were dummies."
While Natalie is enjoying spending time with her young family and even trying her hand at gardening - she wants to plant a tree for each of her children - she is still creatively driven, writing music and working on TV projects.
"I am blissfully happy," she says as she prepares to feed her newly awakened, blue-eyed son and welcome her daughter home from school.