Some bands that have been there for forty years and have sold over 30 million albums might at some point lose the drive and spark that sustained their careers. How then to account for Bananarama? The legendary band keep rolling with their signature mix of dance-pop on their new album Masqueradewhich is packed with songs that sound as vital and enchanting as any of the huge hits they released in their debut.
For thirty years, Bananarama has been made up of the founding duo Sara Dallin and Keren Woodward. Just a few years after writing their autobiography, the new album, which has just been released, proves that their story is in progress. American songwriter had the chance to speak to Dallin recently about creating the new album, writing for his fans, and keeping it relevant for four decades.
American songwriter: From what I understand, you originally planned Masquerade to be EP. What made you change your mind?
Sara Dallin: We hadn’t had an album for ten years until we did the last one In Stereo (released in 2019.) And then we went into lockdown, so live work was canceled. So we wrote a book during the first lockdown in the UK, our autobiography (Really Saying Something: Sara and Keren – Our Bananarama Story.) And then in the second confinement, we were just going to do an EP to release at Christmas. But we just kept writing and that’s how it turned into an album. I would make an album a year if I could. I love to write songs. It worked well for me.
AS: What is the writing process with you, Keren and producer Ian Masterson all contributing?
SOUTH DAKOTA: We talk to Ian and maybe discuss a rough idea of where we want to go. We love electro-pop. We write pop songs. You can mix them as you see fit. But it is the agreements that are important. Once Ian gets the chords figured out, we get the most basic bits. In fact, I really like to work alone on them to have my ideas and Keren will also work alone. I really like to write lyrics, so a lot of the lyrics are mine.
Once I have the backing track, I have to imagine the melody because it’s a pretty basic track. Then we take it to the studio and we’ll work on it together. It is generally the same format. I wrote alone at home and then we shared ideas.
AS: What was it like working with your daughter (singer-songwriter Alice D) on some songs on the album?
SOUTH DAKOTA: I wrote three songs with my daughter. And we covered two of her songs that she had on previous EPs. “Favourite” was a particular favorite of Keren and mine about four or five years ago. We loved it so much we just thought, ‘Why not just cover it up?’ And it’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
It wasn’t even planned. I never even thought of writing with her, because her music is really R&B/pop, and she has a really raspy voice, it’s more like Sade. But I always liked her lyrics, just the way she scans things is very different from us. And the way she writes songs that I really like. We happened to be in lockdown. She was in my bubble and we had these backing tracks and we just tried a couple of things. And we just bounced off each other and it was really easy to write with her. I really enjoyed that.
AS: The songs on Masquerade function as simply being fun and danceable, but they also reward deeper listening. How do you find this balance?
SD: I don’t think I analyzed it in any way. I just write the song and you can mix it however you want. For me, lyrics are really important. I love telling a story, and I think it’s quite an art form to tell it in x lines. Like, ‘Okay, what do we do in the first verse?’ And then the chorus is either full of hope or it’s a disaster. You have to tell a story in a limited space of time. We love stuff you can dance to, and obviously the remixes make it even more club friendly. I think there is also a ballad in there.
AS: It sounds like some of these songs could be read as direct messages to your fans. Was it intentional?
SOUTH DAKOTA: I think a lot of that came out of COVID. You were surrounded by television and the media. You couldn’t really get out. And there were a lot of conversations about the difficulties that everyone was facing. “Waiting For The Sun To Shine” was just trying to be positive that we’re going through tough times, but eventually the sun will shine. As cliché as it sounds, that’s how I felt when I wrote this. “Masquerade” was a lot about inclusivity, diversity, the transgender thing where you can’t be whoever you want to be and you have to hide it in masks. I just thought why can’t people accept people as they are?
There was also a lot of nostalgia there because I guess COVID gave us time to reflect. “Forever Young” was about my friendship with Keren since childhood and school and all of our adventures together. It was the kind of thing where you look back and think about all those adventures you have and still have. It was quite introspective in a way. Songs are born out of isolation.
AS: Milestones keep coming for you and Keren. It’s been about 40 years since the band started and 30 since you and Keren started doing the band as a duo. What do these milestones mean to you?
SOUTH DAKOTA: 40 years is enough… my God (laughs). We wrote the book the year before and we dug into our past and put it all together. We talked a bit about childhood, but then it was all about milestones. And you realize how far you’ve come. Especially as a female actor, it’s much more difficult to navigate, to still be there at 40. We just played Kew Gardens, which is a huge venue in London, and it was absolutely packed, all hands up, and you think it’s absolutely brilliant. We have stood the test of time and we have a great job. We’ve had our ups and downs, but we still love doing it. It’s something to celebrate for us.
I think the good thing is that women are luckier. There are more opportunities for us. What we might have struggled with in the past may be easier for women now, with more live opportunities as well. Obviously, we’re really grateful and happy that we’ve been able to make music for 40 years and still have some relevance. We love making music and we’re grateful that we’re still here to do it. Because it’s the only job I’ve ever had since I left school. I would probably do some gardening or something because I don’t really know what else I could do (laughs.)
AS: Sometimes groups break up because people lose interest, but sometimes they can’t get along. What do you attribute to you and Keren this endurance?
SOUTH DAKOTA: I think it’s inevitable that when you put different people in a group, some will go one way and some will go the other way. But for Keren and I, we’ve been best friends since we were kids. We went to school together, we left home together, we formed the band together, and we traveled the world together. We are best friends. We have this sense of humor, this dynamism. We know our respective families. It’s just that bond that we don’t break.