The music of the British duo Swing Out Sister has always been the most joyful of pop parades. For over thirty years, Corinne Drewery and Andy Connell have embodied not only style, but substance at every sonic turn. Their tenth and latest studio recording Almost Persuaded—which surfaced late last year via limited release courtesy of the group’s PledgeMusic initiative—is no exception. Possessing panache and cultivation, it's another in a series of pristine song sets from Swing Out Sister.
Amid preparation for Almost Persuaded’s wider general release slated for June 22nd, Ms. Drewery and Mr. Connell made time to chat with me about many things, including the enterprising genesis cycle that made the album a reality. Throughout our conversation, the duo were warm and witty—just like their music.
Quentin Harrison: Congratulations on the release of Almost Persuaded, Swing Out Sister's tenth studio album! Clearly, the project has been a labor of love for the two of you. Could you detail what your intentions were when you began the writing and recording for this record back in 2014?
Corinne Drewery: Well, it's always difficult getting started (on a project) and this is our tenth album. With this many albums, you're always looking for a way in to make it different from the last one. Some people like to make the same thing over again, but we try and go to different places. So we started off making a “big band album,” that was really just because I couldn't think what to get Andy for his birthday! [Laughs]
We did big band arrangements and then we thought, “Well, we started this as a PledgeMusic Campaign, we should really try to write a new album while we have a captive audience.” Now, it was Andy who decided to put it on Pledge while I had gone away to see my family and I was off radar—no internet, no phone signal. When I came back, he said, “Oh, I put the album on Pledge, so we have to have it finished in six months.” So, I go, “Great, thanks for telling me.” [Laughs]
We kind of abandoned the big band recordings and started writing some new songs in a hip-hop style. The way that hip-hop is put together, to me, it's kind of like the jazz music of today. It's a little snatch of this, a little snatch of that, like samples, so we thought to put it together that way, which meant that the Pledge campaign took a lot longer than we thought, four years instead of six months. But we had so much fun with the making of it and also making little films along the way.
Andy Connell: Our original plan was to write a large number of very short pieces, none more than a minute, which we did for the first year. Then we decided we’d rather make a big band album with long complex arrangements, which we did for pretty much the whole second year. The third year, we decided to stop having intentions and just let whatever wanted to come out come out, which we did, and this is it.
QH: Swing Out Sister are industry veterans that have chartered the terrain of major and independent labels. What inspired the move to use PledgeMusic as a medium to get your music to the buying public?
CD: They both have their good points, both major and minor labels. The big record companies have the big distribution and publicity machines behind them. But, in this day and age, really, if you are internet savvy—Andy is more tech savvy than I am—you can get through to people online. Through social media, we have quite a good relationship with the people who like our music and so Pledge seemed like an obvious step really. It has been great to have a rapport with our fans who have guided us along the way.
AC: Well, we don’t work too well without someone breathing down our necks, and in the absence of a label to do so we decided that our audience could be the ones to crack the whip this time. It didn’t really work out that way, as it turns out our fans are far too understanding and supportive to give us the necessary “hard time.”
We’ve really enjoyed the process though. I’ve likened it more than once to the box set versus the movie. In days gone by, we disappeared into the studio and reappeared a year or two later with a finished piece of work ready for consumption. This time we’ve had the opportunity, as have the people who subscribed, to see the things develop in perhaps unforeseen ways. Some characters die in episode one, others flower into glorious life, some wander off halfway through never to be heard from again. And I must admit, we've been as intrigued as anybody to see how it finally all turns out.
QH: Almost Persuaded began with A Movable Feast operating as its working title, what necessitated the change in the title?
CD: I hated that title. [Laughs] Andy just put that (title) on referencing the fact that we might have a deadline when we said we were going to finish it, but we did not make that deadline. It was almost like the title was movable. But I just didn't like having food in the title of our music, I don't know why, it didn't inspire me.
AC: “A movable feast” is a Catholic term I recalled from my childhood, meaning the various holy days that can occur on different dates depending on the year—Easter weekend, for example. I just liked the notion and given the nebulous nature of the project, I thought it conveyed the right message, i.e., that things would be constantly in flux, but there would hopefully be enough to nourish and entertain everyone along the way. A Movable Feast was the name of the project, never intended as an album title, so the title wasn’t actually changed as such.
QH: When did you both feel that you were ready to wrap up Almost Persuaded and present it to your fans?
CD: Oh, that's a difficult question to answer, because once you finish an album, it's never really finished, it's always an ongoing thing. We already have some pieces that we didn't get finished for Almost Persuaded, they're slightly more jazzy, slightly more abstract. You're always thinking of the next thing even when you're working on the current thing. The hard part is sticking with it and finishing it, because it's exciting to leap one step ahead, but then you'll never get anything finished and then no one will ever know what you're working on. You have to be able to stick with it.
I think we had jumped ahead enough times with this one to find a point where we had to stop and that was the day I broke my leg (last October), broke my femur and ended up in the hospital. That was also the last day we were in the studio, Andy thought maybe we could mix a bit more. But after that event we decided, “Okay, this one's finished, anything that's ongoing will have to go on to the next one!”
QH: How does Almost Persuaded connect to what came before it and what is sure to come after it?
CD: I think it's a little more sparse than (2008’s) Beautiful Mess, more laid back and relaxed. But, you know, we're the same two individuals making the record. We've also got a lot of people who help as well, the musicians who tour with us, people like Tim Cansfield on guitar, Jody Linscott on percussion and Gina Foster on vocals. And Gina has co-written some of the songs on this album as she did on Beautiful Mess.
Now, I feel with the next album we probably could go a little jazzier and I don't mean doing traditional jazz standards, just more abstract, but I don't know yet. I think we wanted songs, traditionally structured songs, but we're both big fans of jazz as well and we've managed to combine that in our music. Who knows which way we'll go, though we do have a big band album to finish! [Laughs]
AC: I always liked that Jorge Luis Borges line about an artist creating his own precursors. For example, for me, listening to Keith Jarrett explore the piano tonalities of his idol Bill Evans gives me a new vocabulary when I go back to listen to Evans' own work decades before. Now, I hear clearly some ‘Jarrett-esque’ touches in there that seem not to have been there before. Having said that, I don’t honestly know how this album connects in our timeline. I think that will become apparent later. We’re far too close right now to see the shape of it yet.
I will say, however, that while running through some of the songs with the band, it’s become clear that I do have my own chordal palette that it seems I return to again and again. I’ve decided to like that. As Hitchcock said, “self-plagiarism is style.”
QH: Swing Out Sister's output has been tagged with many different labels through the decades—sophisti-pop, jazz, blue-eyed soul, adult contemporary—are any of these accurate and if not, how would each of you label Swing Out Sister's sound?
CD: Well, I think that jazz and sophisti-pop...they kind of work. But, I always feel that there has to be more than one description because there are so many different ideas in different places in our music. I think that cinematic jazz probably describes best, but I don't think you could ever say it's one thing because our inspiration doesn't come from just one thing.
AC: Yes, we’ve had many labels thrown at us over the years. My personal favorite was a two-word review in Melody Maker that just said “lavish crap.” I clipped that and carried it around with me for a while. Again, we’d be the last to know the appropriate description for what we do. I did have to fill in category information when we put the album online and without giving it much thought, I came up with “cinematic soul jazz,” which those who’ve listened to it tell me is fairly on the money.
QH: You're coming up on the 20th anniversary of your sixth album Filth and Dreams (1999), a record that has attracted a devoted following with your fans due to its darker aesthetic. Can you talk about where Swing Out Sister was creatively with this project?
CD: I don't think I was in a great place, to be honest, and it was a bit hit or miss who would put the record out as we no longer had a major deal in America or England. We were just working it out for ourselves where we would go next. It was Japan that picked up on the album and supported it. But I think it was probably a bit more honest and it was a smaller sound. We were also listening to the things that were going on around us.
AC: We’d been doing a little side project the year before, up in Manchester, just exploring some of the things that we never usually got a chance to do musically. Darker stuff, a little trip-hop and drum & bass. We did put some of it out on our own label, Vivo, but it was a very under-the-radar affair. I think, listening back, it’s clear that perhaps, unbeknownst to us, some of that vibe came through on Filth and Dreams.
QH: Many cite Swing Out Sister as one of the first acts to kick off the vintage revivalist movement in popular music. Would you say that's a correct assumption?
CD: Maybe in a certain style we did. We were doing what a lot of people were doing then, but we were just doing it our way. When we started out, I think it was when a lot people had gotten rid of a certain kind of vinyl, maybe people who had passed away, I don't know. But, you could get all of this stuff in junk shops, vinyl with great covers—Blue Note, Verve, Sarah Vaughan, some great Latin stuff, not just in the typical bossa nova. So there was this underground thing where everyone was having this love affair with a bygone era of jazz. A lot of us were inspired by that, like Sade, The Style Council, ABC, but we added the cinematic element.
QH: Describe the Swing Out Sister working relationship dynamic.
CD: We're just kind of sincere, but we're our own worst critics and that goes for music, photographs and videos. We're quite contradictory, but we support each other. When one is overly critical of something, the other one may rescue it.
QH: Are there any plans to take Almost Persuaded out on the road?
CD: We're doing some things toward the end of the year in Japan, with those shows planned some time ago before I had this accident. But we can't do anything too strenuous until I know much I can handle. I can walk around and stuff, but I can't run yet. I'm not quite as fit as I should be, but hopefully I will be by October, as that will be a year since I had the accident. It's a bit frustrating having had something like this happen to me as it has stopped me in my tracks. I'm normally such an active person, I love cycling, swimming and, you know, moving around and now I have to ration my energy. But it is getting better every day.
QH: What's next for Swing Out Sister?
AC: An opera. But first a large, cold beer.
QH: In the spirit of Albumism, what are your five favorite albums of all time?
CD: Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Minnie Riperton’s Come to My Garden, Curtis Mayfield’s Curtis, The 5th Dimension’s The Magic Garden, and Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye’s Diana & Marvin.
AC: Genesis’ Trick of the Trai, Ennio Morricone’s A Fistful of Dynamite, Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Porgy & Bess, Azymuth’s Telecommunication, and Weather Report’s Heavy Weather.