Swing Out Sister ready for Essex

Swing Out Sister, the band that added a sophisticated sheen to 1980s pop, is in Essex today.

Steven Russell

Swing Out Sister, the band that added a sophisticated sheen to 1980s pop, is in Essex today. Singer Corinne Drewery brings Steven Russell up to date - and explains why she rarely goes anywhere without her cossie, and the truth about Mike Tyson

CAN it really be more than 20 years since Swing Out Sister banished the early-winter gloom one November day with their bouncy offering Breakout? The optimistic call-to-action still sounds as fresh as a daisy. Chart success - it reached number four - inevitably pushed the group into a whirwind of touring, personal appearances, videos and more recording. Fun, of course, but sometimes bizarre. “I'd had a former life as a fashion designer, so I think I wasn't too young to appreciate it or too young not to put my foot down if I thought things were going a bit too fast,” says Corinne Drewery, who with her 1920s bob and sultry voice predictably became the face of Swing Out Sister. “And the same with Andy (Connell). He'd been in bands before. We were both experienced enough to appreciate the success and to get the most out of it.

“It did get a bit crazy for a while and I got a bit surprised by some of the things the media wrote about us, but some of it was quite funny: aliens landing in our back garden. Or, and even my mum believed this one, that I was going out with Mike Tyson! She read it in the papers and said 'I heard you were going out with that big boxer chap in America . . .'

“And I was raised as a kind of wolfgirl - that was another one. Someone from the News of the World came to interview my mum. She had a poodle parlour in the '60 and I spent a lot of time there - she was a working mum - and she kind of used to leave me tied up with the dogs so I didn't run around in the hair. It was a busy clipping parlour.

“It somehow got interpreted that I was brought up by dogs like those wolf-children that are left out in the forest. It was quite complimentary about me! 'I'd done all right for myself, nevertheless . . . .' And I was apparently named after her favourite poodle. It could have been worse,” she laughs. “I could have been Trixie . . .”

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Mother Elaine, who for a long time has run a hedgehog hospital in Lincolnshire, probably set her daughter on the road to fame. A jazz singer in her spare time, she was fond of listening to bluesy singers such as Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Mahalia Jackson.

“I grew up on that music,” explains Corinne, who (whisper it) will turn 50 in the autumn. “I think it was that music that taught me the facts of life! I can remember asking about the lyrics - 'I want a little sugar in my bowl' . . . 'let your linen hang low' . . . - they're all quite raunchy, really!”

Raised in Nottingham and Lincolnshire, she moved to London in the parched year of 1976 to study fashion at St Martin's School of Art, and later became a designer.

“I had a label with a couple of friends. We did all right,” she says. “We did handprinted fabrics and it was very kind of homemade, our stuff, but we sold to Bloomingdale's and Harvey Nicks (the upmarket department stores). There was a bit of a Brit explosion at the time, thanks to Vivienne Westwood. She opened up a lot of doors for people at the time with some very unconventional fashion that was associated with England.”

Her dad had been part of a band that, in the sixties, supported stars such as Tom Jones, Lulu and Sandie Shaw, and little Corinne had sung from a young age, as kids do, at his cabaret group's Sunday afternoon rehearsals. In London, the music that had seeped into her soul needed an outlet and she sang with bands herself.

On a summer's day in 1984, in her mid 20s, she met musicians Andy Connell and Martin Jackson by chance. Later that year, when the guys were looking for a singer, Corinne was asked to audition. Swing Out Sister was born.

The trio caught the ear of the Mercury UK record company. Debut single Blue Mood came out in late 1985, and disappeared quickly, but Breakout hit the heights nearly a year later and virtually cast the band's image in stone for ever more. The following May, debut album It's Better to Travel - an electropop-and-jazz meld - flew to the top of the album charts without pausing for breath.

During the making of the second album, 1989's Kaleidoscope World, Martin Jackson left and the band became a twosome. There have been many more releases between then and now - and even the disappearance (and return!) of Corinne's trademark bob.

Ninth album Beautiful Mess was released in Japan early in 2008, in the UK last summer, and in America just a few weeks ago. In fact, Corinne explains: “We just got back from America yesterday and I am a bit squiffy with the jet-lag. If I start talking gibberish, just stop me!”

They were Stateside for about a fortnight - a bit exhausting, what with playing five dates and having quite a lot of travelling between venues, and staying on for a week in New York to promote the new collection.

It's a something of a landmark.

“This is the first album we've produced ourselves and the title is a reflection of the loose ends you have to sort out when you're doing things yourselves. Nine albums down the line, I think we had to prove that to ourselves - and you realise how much weight a producer takes off you as the artist.

“A producer is a referee, a housekeeper, a technician - an overall presence to keep things together; because it can all easily fall apart. If you've got ideas running riot, it's difficult to keep a lid on them sometimes and keep focus, and keep progressing towards the finished item.

“The title came about in the midst of it. We had so many ideas and little bits of songs started, and nothing quite finished. How were we going to put it all together? There were some great, fantastic ideas, but at some point you have to haul them all in and get it finished.”

And it has given the album an individual sound and feel, Corinne judges. Instead of she and Andy feeling they were performing for a third party - a producer - the process was more like a conversation between the two of them. “We just put things down as we thought them, rather than doing a demo and then recording it in the studio.”

Folk over the years have struggled to label Swing Out Sister. Some fans use the label “sophisti-pop”, and that seems as good a fit as any. Or “pop and soul with jazz fusion”.

There's been only one real departure from the norm: sixth album Filth and Dreams a decade ago. There was a stronger vein of jazz, a few hip-hop moments, and some grittier subject matter (drugs and prostitution, no less.)

It was released only in Japan, though you'd have thought it would have gone down reasonably well in England.

“We went for a more sort of lowfied, dirty sound which some people wouldn't associate with Swing Out Sister,” explains Corinne.

“I think in England it's quite hard to shake off associations that people might have. Maybe it's easier to be perceived in different ways in other countries. Our music is perceived as more jazz and R&B crossover in other countries; I think here we've always been firmly rooted in a sort of pop category. But we're doing the same thing worldwide! It's funny how different people perceive you.

“I think people, when we started out, were a little confused about what we were. We were associated with jazz more than pop. We kind of crossed over. I don't think we've ever lost that; we had influences from all kinds of areas, and jazz was one. It's always been a strong influence and has come to the fore a little bit more now.”

Was the huge success of the quite-poppy Breakout - the second single and thus early in the band's career - something of a double-edged sword? It was, obviously, great because it attracted lots of fans and exposure, but in terms of musical style perhaps it cast Swing Out Sister's identity for all time.

“Yeah; and I don't really mind. I think there are a lot of people here, now with the internet, who find us and like us. We probably have a lot of followers who understand that side of our music.

“When you've got a big record company behind you and you're in the charts, they're going to push you in an area they feel is right. It didn't really do us any harm; it contributed to major success and made it possible for people to hear about us in other parts of the world.

“Now we're in perhaps a more vintage kind of category, you can kind of revise things a bit more easily. It's great we're at a jazz festival - we've done a few around the world - and on the same bill as Georgie Fame, who's a great jazz musician.”

I have to ask about the bob. It came back, didn't it? Yes, she says - though she didn't have that style for about 10 years or so.

“I go swimming quite a lot - it keeps the lung power strong, and that's good for a singer - and it's not easy to have long hair when you're doing that.

“I always have my hair cut by somebody who has trained at Vidal Sassoon. They are the experts of the bob. The girl who's recently cut my hair used to cut Mary Quant's hair, who was the face of Vidal Sassoon, and it was probably Mary Quant who inspired me to be a fashion designer in the first place. So I'm very privileged,” she smiles.

The London-based singer was toying with the idea of making a weekend of it when the band plays in Essex and indulging her love of lidos. She's knowledgeable about their history.

“There's a great one at Cambridge: Jesus Green pool. I love swimming in the open air, though you have to have a good constitution. That one in Cambridge isn't heated. But it really makes you feel exhilarated when you get out and you're surrounded by trees.

“I'm trying to tour the lidos of England! I make it my mission every summer to do a few new ones.”

SWING Out Sister play the Midsummer Music @ Spencers 2009 on Saturday, June 27 - the Essex swing and jazz festival staged in the gardens of a Georgian estate. The event is headlined by Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames.

Spencers is about seven miles west of Sudbury, near Great Yeldham.

Ticket prices: all-day �48; 12noon-6pm �15; 6pm-midnight �38. Children aged 15 and under (accompanied by an adult) admitted free.

Mercury Theatre booking line: 01206 573948 or www.mercurytheatre.co.uk

Web link: www.spencersgarden.net