As we began the conversation, it became clear that a confluence of factors led to the release of this retrospective: a remarkable 35th anniversary of their smash album, interests from Cherry Red Records, and an uptick in radio play for Swing Out Sister. Additionally, the collective packaging of these materials allows fans to enjoy the whole of the duo’s catalog. That allows fans who are not the most avid collectors to experience B-sides and releases exclusive to Japan until now. This product is a trove for Swing Out Sister; its history, its status in music, and its supporters.
Given the magnitude of the moment, I wanted to know how this particular moment in their career felt to them. Drewery responded, “Well, I think personally every step of the way has been an achievement, even writing a song.”
She continued, “Every song we wrote was an achievement, and then we wrote an album. That was an achievement. It went to number one. It was an achievement. To still be doing this 35 years later… It’s just great to know we can still make music that we love all this time later. People are still listening to it.”
Connell’s perspective is of awe. “The first word that came to mind… It’s kinda bizarre… The idea that we’ve had [a career]. As daft as this sounds, when we started we didn’t think this was gonna work out. We thought we’d be underground and have a few little things and go on to something else. The whole thing has basically been 35 years of being surprised, if I’m being honest. We had very low horizons.” He concluded, “I’m very proud to think that we had a career and body of work we never anticipated.”
Swing Out Sister’s penchant for cutting against the grain proved a noteworthy topic as well. On this point, Connell remarked, “I think cutting against the grain is pretty much our modus operandi to be honest. Not to the exclusion of all else, but I think it always feels if you’re not doing that, it feels you’re not doing that you’re not doing something right.” As he went on, it seemed that doing so was the group’s organic disposition rather than an overt rebellion against the status quo. “If the grain felt natural, we would do that. But it always seems like we’ve been a little out-of-step. It becomes harder when you try to make that the way you operate.”
Drewery added, “But I think maybe part of that is not just being contrary, although we are a little, but you kinda think ‘If somebody’s already done that, why would you wanna do that and go with it?’ It’s like, maybe we dig our heels in and we’re a bit stubborn and think, ‘Well, if somebody’s already done it that way, why don’t we try it this way?’ It’s being a bit contrary, but it’s also wanting to go a step further, I suppose.”
The highlight of this compilation is undoubtedly Live at the Jazz Cafe. The liner notes reveal the continued conflict between art and business. Artists across time and space have given new life to music via live performances, such as James Brown, Adele, Bruce Springsteen, Sade. The members of Swing Out Sister can count themselves among their ranks. Despite label issues, they persisted. I asked why this particular album seems to have been received so well.
Connell answered, “Critically acclaimed? I don’t know about that, but certainly from the people who followed us there was a very good reaction to it, much more so than we anticipated… When you look at that album ‘Twilight World’ is basically a different song. They’re completely different arrangements. We thought, ‘If we just do this tour, this will be lost forever if we don’t have a record of the tour.’” Drewery continued, “We funded it ourselves and it sat there for a while and, sure enough, at some point, they needed an extra album or some extra tracks, and it was released in Japan as a special limited edition.”
Still, what’s next? Though this package is definitely a capstone, it doesn’t seem quite like a goodbye either. Drewery quipped, “We got a big band album in the can, but the can’s not open yet. [Musicians] have lots of decisions to make when honing down. The bigger the input of ideas, the more honing down of decisions. You have multiple tracks and multiple players, and it could go many different ways. We’ve had this on the go for a while, but this is the year for decisions. It’s exciting!” Clearly the project has been in the works for a while, but Connell’s comment revealed how long. “I think it’s going to be great, honestly. And it sounded great–we only did it over two days, but it probably sounded great the day after that 10 years ago.”
Blue Mood, Breakout And Beyond…The Early Years Part 1 continues Swing Out Sister’s legacy of defiant difference. The music will be available via streaming, but the materiality of the work sets it apart. The liner notes detail the nuances of their life’s work in new ways. It also shines a light on the first leg of their career, though there is more to come! As Connell concluded, “I think the straightforward thing is that–career or not–this is just what we do.”
Alex Horton, SoulMusic.com Correspondent