Bananarama Puts The 'Drama' Back In Pop

Pop duo Bananarama is back in the spotlight with its ninth studio album, "Drama." Over lunch in New York, Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin spoke to Billboard about their early days, their worldwide brea

Keren Woodward and Sara Dallin have experienced quite a bit in their 25 years together as Bananarama. Originally a trio (Siobhan Fahey married Eurythmics' Dave Stewart in 1987 and left the group the following year), Bananarama has scored numerous international hits, including "Shy Boy," "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin,'" "More Than Physical" and "Robert DeNiro's Waiting." In the United States, "Cruel Summer" and "I Heard a Rumour" cracked the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, while the act's cover of "Venus" reached the chart's top spot.

Last year, the duo's ninth studio album, "Drama," was released in the United Kingdom. Lead single "Move in My Direction," went top 20 and the Solasso remix of "Really Sayin' Somethin'" was a No. 1 dance hit. Steeped in dance pop rhythms, "Drama" was released in the United States last month by Los Angeles-based indie the Lab/Fuel. The collection finds Bananarama working with a handful of producers and songwriters, including Ian Masterson, Mute8 and Sweden's Murlyn production team.

Billboard recently met up with the ultra-photogenic duo in New York. During lunch at Balthazar in downtown Manhattan, it quickly became apparent that Dallin does not like anything banana flavored, while Woodward can't get enough of it. By the end of the meal, Dallin and Woodward had signed on to participate in the 13th annual Billboard Dance Music Summit, to be held Sept. 17-20 at the Palms Casino & Resort in Las Vegas. Indeed, Bananarama will be in the hot seat of The Billboard Q&A, one of the summit's most popular sessions.

You've experienced highs and lows in your 25 years of making music. Do you feel that, as a group, you have to give a lot more to have a hit today?

SD: Absolutely. You have to be at the opening of every bloody thing. It's become so commercialized. It's a nightmare. In Britain, it's completely changed. In the '80s, you had British pop acts that were successful around the world. It's not the same today. There are many pop acts that are successful solely in Britain --and they are seen everywhere, all the time. Now, we are obliged to perform at radio shows if we want radio play. It was never like this.

Since the dawn of Bananarama, and from the perspective of the artist, what has most changed in the music industry?

SD: Anybody can become a star today. On the pop side, it's not really about how much talent you have, but how much money and support you have behind you. Here in England, there are people who are famous for being on reality TV shows like "Big Brother." Even though they're not famous for anything else, they've made millions of pounds.

Do shows like "American Idol" and its British predecessor and counterpart "Pop Idol" help or hurt of what it means to be an artist?

SD: It's funny. The beauty for those who win is that the people behind the show, in a way, then own them. So, the winning talent knows that money, and the promotional push, will be there for them.

KW: Take someone like Will Young, the top winner of the first season of "Pop Idol." He's had a lot of success. He's a real artist. He genuinely writes songs. He's doing it for all the right reasons. There's integrity there. All too often, though, I think many do it to become famous.

In the early days, was there ever a Svengali figure behind Bananarama?

KW: We never had one. Growing up, Sara and I sang in school musicals together. And when we formed Bananarama I never thought we'd make a career out of it. Now, you have the option of getting on a reality TV show and becoming successful. Becoming a success was purely accidental for us.

SD: We simply got lucky. We were in the right place at the right time -- and with the right attitude. We had management from time to time. But we felt like we didn't always need [management]. We had the ideas and knew where we were going. Of course, it's easier to do this when you have success. And we had international success.

What did that kind of success bring the group?

KW: The label let us do what we wanted to do -- probably because they didn't understand us. We were signed as a novelty act with that first single [1981's "Aie A Mwana"]. When it kept on building, the label thought, "Well, they obviously know what they're doing." We didn't want to give up any of our freedom. That freedom remains with us today.

Is it true that Bananarama turned down an endorsement deal with Clairol several years ago?

KW: We turned down lots of stuff like that. We never liked the storyboards. They were so girly girl. We didn't care that it was a million dollar deal. But we did do a couple of deals in Japan. We recorded "He's Got Tact" for a Japanese TV commercial.

SD: We never wanted to sell ourselves short. But the whole branding thing has changed since then.

Does it surprise you how far branded entertainment has come? If a similar deal came along today, would you say yes?

SD and KW: YES!

KW: I don't think it really matters today -- partnering with a brand doesn't change people's perceptions of you. It's an essential part of the job today. Artists can do the tours and make the records, but branding deals are where a lot of the money comes from today.

Bananarama covered a lot of musical ground in its formative years, from punk and reggae to pop and dance. Throughout, there was always a left-field edge. Was that intentional?

KW: Some people might have thought we were a bit floppy when we started. But we still had an edge to us. And there seems to be nothing like that today in pop.

SD: But we weren't really pop when we started. We were more indie. Our music became more polished as we developed as an act. In fact, we were a bit raw when we started.

In the summer of 1984, "Cruel Summer" became your first top-10 pop hit in the United States. It definitely helped break you as a recording act here. How did things change for the group -- if at all?

KW: It's funny, but it really is true: That if you make it in the States, well, then you've really made it. And it was all very exciting. Fortunately, people don't seem to forget about these songs.

SD: There's something about America. "Venus" was such a massive hit for us. Everyone we talk to has a fond memory of those times. We had no idea we were creating this strong foundation in America.

And the music you were creating was not necessarily American in sound ...

KW: Exactly. We started underground and then we became successful. SAW [production outfit Stock Aitken Waterman] made us more pop. But "Shy Boy" was pop, too. It's funny, when we first started working with SAW, they weren't successful. They had Divine and a few others.

SD: It's quite irritating when we're remembered only for our SAW songs, because we've had so much more than that.

KW: At the time, it was a totally new sound that SAW was creating -- that whole hi-nrg sound. It was exciting. We worked with them way before they became cheesy.

How did the new album, "Drama," come together?

SD: We'd been floundering around for years, trying to get a deal. I went to a friend of mine and asked him who was writing all the hits. He said, "Murlyn, the Swedish production outfit." They ended up doing part of the album. And then we worked with some dance producer friends, like Ian Masterson. With this album, because we had taken some time off between albums, we had so many ideas waiting to come out. So, it was an easy record to make. From day one, we knew we wanted to write and record a dance-pop album.

You took several years off between albums. Were you recording throughout?

KW: We were always looking for people to write with. It was quite rough and wasn't always easy. It took a long time to find people who believed in us and what we wanted to do.

The album includes the Solasso remix of your 1982 hit, "He Was Really Sayin' Somethin'." The remix was a No. 1 club hit in Europe. Did this catch you off guard?

KW: Absolutely.

SD: I could never get past the fact that the vocals sounded so great [on the remix]. In those days, when we originally recorded the song, our vocals were a bit rough -- not always in tune. But that was part of the charm.