For the past three decades, Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward have been one of pop’s most influential and revered groups. Formed in London in the early 80s, Banarama quickly became one of the most iconic bands of the era. As the driving force behind the band, Dallin and Woodward’s achievements speak for themselves. With two Band Aid appearances, an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most successful female band worldwide with the most charting singles, many of which were international hits, with four hitting the US Billboard Top 10 including a No.1 with “Venus,” and 32 Top 40 UK hits to date, it’s clear that they are one of the most dynamic of duos. Together, they have released 10 albums and sold 30 million records.
The band’s hit-packed career was only possible because they were the mould-breakers. Having outlasted the majority of their peers in the ever-turbulent waters of the music industry, they find themselves with nothing left to prove and with no one to answer to but themselves. ‘In Stereo,’ Bananarama’s first studio album in a decade, serves as the next exciting chapter in their storied career. The electro pulses throbbing through newly revealed track “Dance Music”; the moody echo vocal effect on the bridge of “I’m On Fire”; the boisterous Saturday night pure disco “Stuff Like That”; the Blondie-ish buzz to “Looking for Someone”; the spare, house music bassline to “Tonight.” Finishing on a ballad, as all the best Bananarama albums do, on the sad and gorgeous “On Your Own.” ‘In Stereo’ is proof-positive that good things come to those who wait as Bananarama has returned to their pinnacle best with their irresistible pop storytelling capacity. Already captivating the hearts and minds of music fans in the UK, this fierce new album finally touches down in North America on July 26th via Bob Frank Distribution (BFD) via The Orchard.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Sara Dallin to discuss the epic journey of Bananarama, her evolution as an artist and the challenges of breathing life into ‘In Stereo.’
You’ve been an inspiration to so many people through the years. Who inspired you early on?
In terms of music, the first thing I knew of was Roxy Music and glam rock. I loved Stevie Wonder and I loved glam rock. I loved Roxy Music because I loved their lyrics and it felt very sophisticated. It felt as if it was a world I could never reach at the age of 10 or 11. I absolutely loved their stuff. I think when I was a little bit older, maybe 12 or 13, I fell in love with Debbie Harry (Blondie) and Patti Smith. They were great as female role models for my age group, who were born in the 60s and grew up in the 70s. Debbie Harry was the first person I looked to and thought, “She looks great. Her music is great, and I love her attitude.” She was a big influence on how I felt about myself, how I felt about music and the fact that little girls could also be singers and songwriters. It allowed me to realize it wasn’t all for men with guitars!
When did you decide to pursue your passion for music professionally?
I was studying journalism at the London College of Fashion, which I did for a year. Keren [Woodward] and I used to go to clubs in London. We were living in the YWCA and that was closing down. We had met Paul Cook of The Sex Pistols, this was in the early 80s, so he wasn’t in the band anymore. So, we didn’t have anywhere to live, and I was on a student grant. He said, “Well, we have a rehearsal room on Denmark Street…” Denmark Street is off Charing Cross Road and is quite famous here for where people have recorded and where the guitar shops are. He said, “…Above it is the office where Malcolm McLaren used to have his office.” We just grabbed and tossed down a couple of mattresses in this office. It literally was horrible! I could never do that now, but I was 18 at the time, so it seemed great. It had Johnny Rotten’s drawings of Sid and Nancy around the wall. It had Sid Vicious’ old bondage trousers and all this stuff from “The [Great] Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle”. We had been little punks at school, so it was amazing for us to be in the heart of London and to be living where The Sex Pistols rehearsed! I think we got the idea from that, and Paul became a really good friend. Keren and I used to do backing vocals when he and Steve Jones had a new band called The Professionals. We went to The Manor, which is Richard Branson’s recording studio, when Steve and Paul were recording a new album, so we got the flavor for it. Paul said, “Why don’t you make some demos?” That’s kind of what we did! He helped us get a demo together and we knew a couple of people in the industry. We took that demo around to clubs and used to get up at The Rock Garden, The Embassy and all of these famous clubs in London and do a couple of songs. Somebody got to hear about it, and it was released. I guess we were signed as kind of a novelty act — young girls who might or might not do anything. Then from that demo, Terry Hall from The Specials who had the formed Fun Boy Three, bought the record and contacted us to sing on his album. The next thing you know, we are on Top of The Pops!
How clear for the vision for the music Bananarama would ultimately make at that point?
I think when you’re young it’s experimental. We just wrote about things that were happening in our lives – going to the laundry, getting on the bus, going to the clubs and breakups of relationships. Whenever we wrote, there were quite innocent and naive lyrics. From going to clubs and being involved in the music scene, if we heard something in a club that we liked where it was produced, we would then find out who the producer was and contact them to see if they would work with us. That’s what we did for all of our career in the 80s, so that we worked with people who we liked the sound of what they were making. I don’t think there was the thought of “Let’s make this type of music or that.” It was totally what came naturally and what was affecting our lives. It’s quite hard to learn in the public eye. We weren’t sent away to stage school to train and then think, “This is the goal. This is the vision.” This is very different let’s say than if you compared us to The Spice Girls, whose blueprint was very much Bananarama. They took it a step further, but it was more manufactured early on. It may not have gone on to be that because they are all different in their own ways and all very talented in their own ways. I think Bananarama was very much any male band that may have picked up a guitar but it’s just that 3 of us wanted to sing, so we then had to find the musicians. It’s quite hard to be taken seriously when you are that young and you are 3 girls. For a while, we didn’t know if it would go on forever and we didn’t really care because we were very young. It was just good fun. I think the good fortune of MTV managed to take us around the world without necessarily having to tour or anything. That is something we had wanted to do. It was very difficult for females to be taken seriously in any way at that time. Now, with 36 years of a career behind us, I think people are finally taking us seriously. We played Glastonbury last week, so that was kind of like a little bit of recognition there that we’ve done alright.
As you said, it’s not easy to learn in the public eye. At what point did you get comfortable in your own skin?
I liked the naivety of “Cruel Summer,” going to New York, not knowing what’s coming next and going on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand.” I think it was around the time of “Venus.” We sort of took control of everything. We controlled how we wanted the videos to be and we always managed to find people who got us and understood us. So many people would just take a look at three girls and say, “Oh, we can make them do this. We can dress them like this.” That’s so not the way we would ever be treated. We always took control of our own destiny. That may have held us back in some ways but, most importantly, I think it’s why we’ve survived for such a long time. Keren and I absolutely know what we want to make and what we want to sing. I think by that time Keren and I did a world tour in 1989 with Jackie [O’Sullivan], who replaced Siobhan. After that, even though we had moved into another decade and it wasn’t necessarily successful instantly because it was all Blur and Oasis and Britpop, I still think we made the music we wanted to make with the people we wanted to make it with. I think everything goes around in circles. For the last 10 or 15 years, Keren and I have been touring and that’s what we absolutely love to do because we didn’t get to do a great deal of it in the 80s. It’s our favorite thing to do, to be on stage and sing our back catalog!
Keren and yourself have been friends for ages. What do you bring out in each other creatively and has that dynamic changed over the years?
Yeah, I think it has. I’ve always liked writing poetry and I trained as a journalist because I wanted to be a writer, so I’ve always been into that wordsmith kind of thing. Keren is a classically trained pianist. She was always so shy and would never put her ideas forward. In the last 10 years, her and I have worked so well together. Musically, she has a brilliant ear for harmonies. We love putting all of the music together and working out the arrangements. It’s not like, “Okay, just sing that.” and off we go! We want to be all over the record! I love doing all of that, all the arrangements. I love taking something you’ve written in your kitchen, bedroom or whatever and bringing it to a final product. That’s why I think we are so proud of this album because it’s everything we wanted it to be. It took a long time to come out but here it is!
What made now the time for this new album? Did you face any challenges this time around?
I don’t know. I think we just grew in confidence and we realized that you don’t have to put something out that everyone is going to be falling over themselves to get to you and sign you. We self-funded this album, so we chose what we did, the people we would work with, the team around us and put it all together. I think we have enough experience now and the music business has changed so much since our early years. It’s so much easier to get your own project out there or, like the old cliché, make music in your bedroom. There are so many outlets and ways of funding things, even for young people. Obviously, with social media, you get to reach so many people, especially if you are a young artist. I personally wouldn’t know where to post things and what to do. I don’t know all of the platforms, but I know people who do. When you’re self-funded and when you’ve been in the business for as long as we have, you kind of know how it works and when you have the right team. You become friends with them, and they have your back and want it to be successful. I don’t know what it is, but everything came together perfectly for this album and it was A-listed immediately. It was the most played record on BBC Radio 2. It just couldn’t have gone any better for us. I have no idea why the stars collided, but it just came around! [laughs] Certain things go in circles and it was just our time to have another little bite of the cherry!
What can you tell us about the typical songwriting process for ‘In Stereo”?
We mainly worked with Ian Masterson as a producer and we had one track with Richard X, who I am sure you have heard of from working with The Sugarbabes and things. It’s really easy working with Ian because he’s a friend and we’ve done the last three albums with him. He has stuck by us through thick and thin. It’s a really easy and comfortable way of writing. We sit around in his studio, listen to music and stuff that’s going on, while seeing the way things are produced. There is never the thought of “Let’s copy that…” or “Let’s do something like that.” It’s more like, “We like this kind of sound.” I don’t know, even this one, to me sounds like school disco or like the 70s when we went to school discos with that sort of Blondie-type influence. One that is determined, he will then put together some backing tracks and we will take them away and write the top line and lyrics to them. Again, it’s just about being inspired by what’s going on in your life or whatever. To me, I love the melody and I love arranging the songs.
Are there any memories that spring to mind from your recording sessions?
The songs were written over a couple of years. It’s always really exciting in the studio because it’s also at Ian Masterson’s house. He’s got two dogs there and it’s really funny because they are always there for the recording. The minute one of you gets up to sing at the microphone, the little dog, Marilyn, jumps into the seat to sit behind you and listen! [laughs] She usually shakes her bell, so she has to be tolled off and have her collar taken off! It’s really funny because the dogs have been there for our last 3 or 4 albums. It would be so weird to make an album without Martha and Marilyn being there! [laughs] It’s a really nice environment. We write a few songs, go to a nice Italian restaurant, have some red wine and cheese before coming back to do some more songs and celebrate with the dogs! [laughs]
That certainly songs like an amazing workplace and that Bananarama is in a great space creatively. Are you already looking toward the future?
Yes! Do you know what? When we’ve made albums that haven’t necessarily been as successful, we always think that we won’t make anymore. Now, we just can’t wait to make the next one! Hopefully, we will make some more stuff next year, as well as do some more touring. It feels comfortable! It feels like no pressure and we don’t have to compete with anyone. It’s like, “This is what I love doing and I don’t have to prove myself to anyone. If you like the music, great! Buy the album! If you don’t, it really doesn’t matter to me.” I have to say, our fans are really great! It’s really interesting because I can see what people say now through social media. Before, we just thought, “Well, there’ll be fans out there, but they may not know if I have a record out without the right publicity. I may never know what they think or feel.” Now, I get to see everything! While I’m not massively active on social media, I do read what people say and the support has been incredible! It’s a long career, so some fans have been with us since the 80s. I couldn’t be more grateful for that. I really couldn’t and I think it’s amazing! I love to see what they say, and I wouldn’t be here without them, so it’s great to be in touch.
Bananarama has an impressive back catalog at this point and you’re always picking up new fans. You have no shortage of pop hits. What might fans find if they dig a little deeper into your work?
I think you’ll always find album tracks. I think that because we were seen as a pop band, people didn’t always necessarily delve any deeper and think, “There isn’t anything going on there. It’s just a bright poppy tune.” I think there are quite a few, like “Rough Justice,” that have a bit of a deeper meaning. Some of our early stuff we sort of wanted to get more like U2 and be a little more political, but it was quite hard to get those things through when you dress it up in a pop melody. You can still be political and active in whatever it is you want. You don’t have to necessarily put them into songs, you know. We’re not Bob Dylan by any stretch! If people have those early albums, they will definitely find a few gems on there!
How do you feel you have most evolved as an artist?
Well, for me, I think I’m still doing what I wanted to do. As a child, I wanted to write. I really loved words and books, so I started with journalism and went into songwriting. In that respect, I’ve just gotten more and more confident in writing songs. That’s what I love to do! It’s been a slow build of confidence. You still have your wilderness years where second guess yourself and think, “Is that any good?” Now, I’m in a place where I am comfortable with what I write and I’m happy with what I’m doing. Like I said, I don’t feel any pressure to prove myself. Maybe because we felt less pressure, maybe that’s why it’s kind of worked this time. I can’t really say why it’s happened but I’m in a good place now! I have a daughter who’s really into music and a great singer. It’s kind of nice to see her starting out. I go to see some of her little gigs, and it takes me right back to when we started out. We used to take a little demo around to clubs, get up on stage, do two songs and get coins thrown at us or something! [laughs] It’s really takes me back when I sit there and watch her singing when there are only a handful of people there. It’s just really sweet. I love seeing her passion for it! It was the same with us. It’s a different type of music, she’s more R&B, but it’s great watching her!
What’s the best lesson a young artist can take from Bananarama’s story?
I would say, hold on hard to what you believe in and what you want to do. It was really difficult for us. I was 18 or 19 in those early years and it was very hard for teenage girls in that sort of business to make their mark without someone saying, “Oh, they’re so difficult. They’re so this or that…” We knew what we wanted to write and how we wanted to look. Nobody ever styled us to make us look a certain way, maybe in photoshoots might be pushed in a certain direction, but we absolutely clung to what we believed in. I would always say, don’t take the fast route or the easy route. Make music that you want to make. Don’t be pushed or told what to do by anybody. Take advice by all means, but not when it comes to the creative side!
I love it! I want to thank you so much for your time today. I’m excited to spread the word on this album. You continue to be an inspiration and I can’t want to see what yourself and Bananarama has in store for us in the years to come!
Ah, thank you! That’s really kind. I look forward to speaking to you again soon!
For the latest info and dates for Bananarama, visit their official website at www.bananarama.co.uk. Connect with the band on social media via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. ‘In Stereo’ will be released on July 26th and is currently available for pre-order.