Keren Woodward of Bananarama talks about “In Stereo” and the history of the band

Since emerging in the early 80s, Bananarama has had a string of hugely successful pop hits, including “Venus,” “Cruel Summer,” and “I Heard a Rumour.” They’ve continued to tour and release music over the years and recently put out “In Stereo,” their first album in a decade. “In Stereo” has a modern edge, but the pure, energetic pop songs are unmistakably Bananarama. It’s become their most commercially successful album in years, hitting the top 40 in England and several other countries.

Bananarama is currently composed of original members Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward. The third founding member, Siobhan Fahey, went on to form Shakespears Sister in 1988 but did recently rejoin Bananarama for special tours in 2017 and 2018.

In a phone interview, Woodward discussed the new album and history of Bananarama.

How does making an album now compare to previously in your career?

Keren Woodward: Well, this one is hugely different. We haven’t had an album out for ten years. We had an EP that we put out online. Sara and I love writing songs, and we have a very good friend with whom we did 9/10 of the album, Ian Masterson. In between all our festivals and shows we do, we go in and we write and record with him, for fun as much as anything. We felt like a lot of the songs we’d written were really good, and we just put it out ourselves on our own label. The thought of doing that back in the day was ridiculous, but it’s so different now. It’s hugely different. We did it just for us. The beauty of this is, you haven’t got anyone breathing down your neck, and you’re not working to any kind of formula. We just made a bunch of songs that we really wanted to do. It’s gone well beyond our wildest dreams, really.

What was the overall timeframe of writing and recording it?

Keren Woodward: Possibly the last four or five years. I only know that because I know lyrically where songs were written. Some of them were just things you write down and don’t get to record and then when you get a track and you think “Oh, that can work with that one,” and you do the melody and lyrics and new stuff. It’s stuff that’s happened over a period of time. But having had no record deal and having been so busy doing other things, it wasn’t something that we planned to do necessarily. It just felt like the time was right. We’ve never been very good at making master plans, to be honest! It’s not really how we work.

What’s the collaborative process with Ian like?

Keren Woodward: With Ian, we sort of chat about stuff we love, and he does the backing tracks. Sara and I are not really people who just go in and jam in the studio. We’ll go and say we love that and we like this. It’s all about finding something that lends itself to a melody. We’ll go and talk about it, he’ll send us a bunch of stuff and we’ll write to whichever ones come naturally. But usually, Sara and I sit down and do lyrics and melodies over the top of a basic track or a track we like the chorus of or the feel of. It can vary. It’s just something that lends itself to what we do, I suppose.

We’re not trend-led, but we love certain music. “Stuff Like That,” which was our first single on here, was a song that came out of stuff that Sara and I used to dance to in our school discos. We were at school together. We wanted to do something sort of funky disco. But I think what we really do is write pop songs. We love the vocal arrangements, and then we work on it in the studio, and it changes. Once the basic song is written, we go into the studio and we work at it. Quite often we think, “loved that bit, but not happy with that bit,” and we change it as we go along. It develops in the studio after that, but we don’t tend to write the whole song in the studio.

In 2017-2018, Siobhan returned to tour with the original line-up. What was that experience like? Did you consider making new music together?

Keren Woodward: We had the most fantastic time. We had the ’80s in common when we were really good friends, and we loved all the same stuff. I think Siobhan left in a way because of musical differences. Sara and I were so happy doing pop music, and maybe Siobhan wasn’t overly happy with that pop thing. We did talk about doing a single and we tried to do a single. For me, it wasn’t the music I wanted to make. I absolutely love Siobhan; I adore Siobhan. I think having spent so long living in different worlds, musically we’re quite far apart maybe. I think Siobhan left because she didn’t particularly love pop music and I absolutely love pop music. I love other music as well, but you know that’s what I’m comfortable doing, and I don’t think we come from the same point of view artistically any more like we did in the ’80s.

The original line-up had never toured back when you were originally together. Was it something you’d wanted to do?

Keren Woodward: Yes. We tried to tour loads in the ’80s and the ridiculous thing was that Sara and I finally managed to tour the year after Siobhan left. I think we’d rehearsed even for a couple of tours in the ’80s. We always thought of ourselves not as a girl group really but as a rock band. Just because we were three vocalists, we came from the punk era and had that sort of attitude and wanted to get up on stage, and we wanted to sing. But because it was the era of MTV and all that stuff, we did pretty well without touring. We didn’t get huge amounts of backing, or indeed any backing from the record company, to be honest. We’d rehearsed a few times. I know the first time we were rehearsing, I became pregnant, and I think we tried again and then Siobhan got pregnant. Those tours didn’t happen, or they were very much in the rough stages.

But it was always something we wanted to do. We started the group because we loved music, we loved performing, even though we weren’t very good when we started, I have to say, because we didn’t come from that sort of rock school/stage school background. We learned everything as we went along. The nearest I’d come to performing was singing in a choir and performing in school musicals with Sara. I wasn’t necessarily one of those confident performers but I watch now and I think, “How can you be so young and so confident?” It’s extraordinary because I only really learned to do that as I went along.

Bananarama emerged during an interesting time in music. Could you talk about what it was like starting a band in the post-punk era?

Keren Woodward: Sara and I were punks at school, and we left home together. We were living in the YWCA and we’d met Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols. We had to leave the YWCA; it was closing down and there were other issues. He suggested a place that was a squat, basically, above their rehearsal room. That’s when we actually started messing around on the instruments, singing the backing vocals for Paul and Steve [Jones] and their new band [The Professionals]. Then Sara met Siobhan at the London College of Fashion, because they were on the same course, and she also had friends who had groups. We did backing vocals with anyone who’d have us. I don’t think we thought that it would be a career, but then Paul suggested we make a demo of some of the songs we did when we were just messing around in the studio with him. The songs included “Venus” and “Really Saying Something,” songs we ended up recording later in the day and having success with, the cover versions we used to mess around.

The Fun Boy Three was the big turning point because Terry [Hall] had heard the demo and seen pictures of us. It was brilliant because they were very “do it yourself,” we were very “do it yourself,” and we all played. I sat at the piano and played stuff with Terry and then we all played a bit of maraca or a drum. He was very inclusive, he was absolutely brilliant and sort of started us off in the studio, I suppose.

Other than that, we went with [Steve] Jolley and [Tony] Swain who did, “Cruel Summer” and “Robert De Niro” and stuff because we loved a track they did, and we went with Stock Aitken Waterman because we liked Dead or Alive “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record).” We heard stuff and we thought, “Oh, that sounds great. Can we work with them, please?” But mostly, we were left to get on with it because I don’t think the record company really knew why it worked, but it did, so they let us get on with it. Which, I’m not sure you could do now. It was probably because we came shortly after the whole punk thing. It was letting people do stuff on their own terms and it was much less controlling I think than it is now.

But maybe it’s because people sold a lot more records. I think now because of streaming and everything, when you see what someone has to sell to get to number 1, it’s a fraction of what you would have to sell in the ’80s to just get Top 10. I guess the record companies now have to re-think how they work.

You mentioned how music videos allowed you to reach audiences without touring. What are your thoughts about videos?

Keren Woodward: It was very exciting when it all started. I think you’d have ideas and you’d discuss them, and then see and think, “Oh god, that didn’t quite work.” But there were other ones that really worked. For instance, when we did “Cruel Summer,” we’d never been to New York and all we wanted to do was go to New York. So, we hired a video director who would take us to New York for the budget. That was as much as we thought, to be honest. I think later, ones like “Venus” were the first to be exactly how we wanted. Looking back, we didn’t plan it as a sort of camp extravaganza; we were just having a laugh, dressing up, playing roles and just being ourselves. That was the first video of that type that I remember thinking “Yeah, that’s exactly what I thought it would be.” You know, everything was done on a budget. We weren’t making videos on the scale of Michael Jackson. It was always on a budget. But, most of them came from our ideas, I have to say. Some of them translated onto a screen and some didn’t.

What was your approach to videos for the new album?

Keren Woodward: We did a video for the first single, and it was beautiful because it was with Andy Morahan who did “I Heard a Rumor” and some great stuff back in the day, and we just happened to bump into him. He said, “Let’s do a video,” and then we planned the video, and then we changed the single two days before. So, it didn’t really necessarily fit, but hey, it was fun. I’ve never laughed so much in a video.

Doing that sort of thing is normally my least favorite. Being photographed or filmed, for me, has always been my least favorite part of the job. I loved making music and being on stage. Anything else is almost stuff that you have to do to go along with it. I don’t think we’ve ever really been comfortable with the fame side of things necessarily or being celebrities. That for me was always almost the downside in some ways.

Is there anything that you’d like to add?

Keren Woodward: No, just that I’m absolutely thrilled with how it’s gone, and maybe we’ll get out and do some more shows in the States very soon because our band is amazing, and it would be just great to get back and do some songs. We’re looking into that.

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