One of the joys of 21st century life is opening a digital music library and discovering an artist’s full body of work. Anyone who has stumbled upon Swing Out Sister on Spotify understands this pleasure. The British duo is best known for its string of late 1980s and early 1990s synth hits, including the MTV smash “Breakout,” but the pair has produced a rich catalog of soulful piano pop while remaining largely under mainstream radio’s radar. Across the decades, songwriters Andy Connell (a keyboard player from the same Manchester, England music scene that gave us New Order) and Corinne Drewery (a singer and design alum of St. Martin’s College in London) have also earned cred in the jazz world for their intricate arrangements and vibe-y live performances, including sold-out U.S. tours, stints at Billboard Live in Tokyo, and playing on a bill with Stevie Wonder at the 2012 Indonesian Java Jazz Festival. Now, the group’s tenth studio album, the nuanced Almost Persuaded, lands on digital platforms June 22nd with a dozen dreamy tracks that make the best of its modern gadgetry and refined composition. Keyboard caught up with partners Andy and Corinne to talk about their writing process, favorite gear, social media, and making music in a tumultuous world.
The structure of your new songs such as “Happier Than Sunshine” and “Everybody’s Here” is a refreshing contrast to the segmented choruses and repetition found on the pop charts today. How do you bring a melody to life?
Andy Connell: It’s often the case that we don’t have a lot of melody until late in the process. What we have is an atmosphere [created on a keyboard]. I can’t remember a song where with we started with a melody and elaborated on it. It’s always been the other way around. You know a song is finished when the melody shows up.
Corinne Drewery: Andy creates such strong landscapes and melodies to sing over them. But because I’m so contrary (laughs), I’ll sing around the melody, and that becomes the arrangement. If you’ve got a great landscape to wander through, then the vocal is more like your journey [as a vocalist]. If it’s an interesting landscape, then you never go for a boring walk.
“Breakout” is quintessential 1980s pop, but most of your catalog is referential of other styles, including Northern Soul, Burt Bacharach, modern jazz, and Brazilian rhythms. In addition to the new songs from Almost Persuaded, which tunes would you recommend for listeners who want to dig deeper?
CD: I love “Love Won’t Let You Down” (from 2004’s Where Our Love Grows). I hear it as a kind of anthem and would like to hear it at festivals and football matches! Also, “Here and Now” (from 1997’s Shapes and Patterns) was one that got away. It was inspired by all those Brill Building classics and some of my favorite singers like Dusty, Shirley, Petula, and Dionne.
Andy, what's your favorite piece of musical equipment? Is it your red Nord Stage 2 SW73 or another instrument?
AC: I do love the Nord, and I still use it as my controller. But I’ve moved, like the rest of the world has had to, from the real to the virtual. Most of my keyboards of choice now reside in my MacBook or hard drive. We live currently in a golden age—every week a new synth or sound library and endless possibilities. I read Keyboard’s interview with Tony Banks (a hero of mine) in which he recalled that his techs would bring him new gear every week and ‘every new piece of gear seemed to have at least a couple of songs in it.’ I feel the same way about the new software instruments. We play the field now, us keyboard players. The new world is ours, so we’re promiscuous. It wasn’t always that way. I came from a fairly old-school soul-funk background with Fender Rhodes, clavinet on top, and a Moog to the side, eternally going out of tune under the stage lights. As things developed, and digital came along, I loved all things Roland … D50, D70, the new digital Rhodes, and JV-1080 (which is still my favorite synth string sound).
Which keyboard in your current rig was indispensable while making Almost Persuaded?
AC: The Nord. The main virtue of it for me is the waterfall keyboard action, which is halfway between a full piano and a kind of organ feel. I found a couple of software instruments that were the brainchildren of the quiet legend Eric Persing; he’s the guy who originally programmed so much of that seminal Roland stuff I loved back in the 1980s and 1990s. Omnisphere and Keyscape are remarkable bits of kit and are all over our new album: The Omnisphere string patches are godlike—like my old JV-1080 patches, but rendered in an impossibly hi-res version. Keyscape is the same; I only use the piano and Rhodes, but the Cinematic Piano patch is the most inspiring piano I’ve ever come across. Honestly, I could fall backwards onto that thing and it would still sound like Lyle Mays exploring a few new motifs.
The Almost Persuaded album began as a Pledge Music campaign in which you shared videos of rehearsals and “making-of” clips, which have kept your audience connected to the three-year process. It all looks so glamorous, but everyone knows social media doesn’t tell the whole story. How does it help?
AC: It’s like the old saying, “The two things you don’t want to see being made are law and sausages.” It’s the same with the making of a record, because parts of the process can be very dull. What we’ve tried to do with Facebook, for example, is suggest a world that you’re familiar with, but you don’t know every detail of it. The distance between the two [reality and social media] is what’s interesting. It allows you to use your imagination.
Almost Persuaded contains upbeat numbers (including the joyous “All in a Heartbeat”), but there’s a complex melancholy to its sound. Was the album affected by world politics? For example, the opening lyric from the title track that begins, “The world outside my mind is sometimes cruel...” The album seems to be a product of its time.
CD: You’d be surprised how much the songs were affected by world events. Suddenly all of these things unfolded—the 2016 American election campaign and the whole Brexit thing going on in England. We don’t talk about politics much, but the last time we toured in the States [in 2013], there was a great sense of optimism. When the world is being turned upside-down, it affects you. You’re like a litmus paper, a pH test strip, and you absorb the emotions and the general feeling around you, including politics but also personal events like losing friends. We’d never want to wallow in [that mood], but when it sets you off course a little bit, you weave it into the fabric of what you’re doing.
How do you know if the music is good?
CD: The best place to listen is in your car and you’ve got no distractions but the open road ahead and your destination. Our first album went to number one in England [in 1987] while we were driving around in America listening to it in a little red Mustang and making a video for [our second single], “Twilight World.”
AC: The one thing we do when we finish a record is listen to it in the car at night as we drive across the bridges over the Thames in London, and if it sounds right then, you know it’s right. We’ve done this for the last three or four albums including Almost Persuaded. There’s a location where the music needs to make sense. That’s our acid test. If it doesn’t pass, we go back to the studio.
For more information visit www.swingoutsister.com
Andy Connell on keyboards and Corinne Drewery on vocals are joined in the studio by percussionist Jody Linscott, guitarist Tim Cansfield, drummer Myke Wilson, bassist Juneroi Johnson, and Mim Grey on backing vocals.