Corinne Brewery's black bob was the Swing Out Sister vocalist's signature look in the 1980s. As the band release their seventh studio album, she's returned to her trademark style, but their music's moved on, discovers Claire Black
THERE are some examples of bobbed hair that are landmarks in history: 1920s movie star Louise Brooks, Mary Quant and, I'd venture to add, Corinne Drewery. Even if you don't recognise the name, readers of a certain age will surely know her from the photograph, because despite the fact that Swing Out Sister first hit the charts more than 20 years ago and are about to release their ninth studio album, she's hardly changed a bit. Including that trademark raven-dark, blunt-cut hair.
"People say, 'Oh, you've had your hair like that for such a long time' but actually, I had long hair for about 15 years and it was just last year that I had it cut in a bob again."
The singer, 48, once said that she'd only ever trust someone who'd trained with Vidal Sassoon to cut it, but why did she choose that style in the first place?
"It's a universal, pain-free style if you've got dead straight hair, which I have. Everyone from Mowgli to Louise Brooks to Japanese schoolgirls and Parisian brothel keepers had a bob. It's the racy 1930s, it's the institutional uniform look, it's Chairman Mao, it's the 1960s and Mary Quant – an era I was so influenced by musically and fashion-wise. And it looks great on everyone from little children to old ladies."
Breakout, released in 1986, was the band's first hit single (it got to No 4) and it's one of those songs with a chorus that sticks in the brain: "Don't stop to ask/Now you've found a break to make at last/You've got to find a way/Say what you want to say/Breakout".
A No 1 album followed and Swing Out Sister became properly famous ("it was like one long party for a good few years"). But whereas some pop stars turn to drink, drugs or lobbing TVs out of windows, the only casualty for Drewery was the haircut.
"I kind of ran away from it because it became so recognisable. The point was that I could have it for ever, but I couldn't go to the shops at the end of the road without it being, 'Oh look – it's that girl from Swing Out Sister.'
"But eventually I thought I should reclaim it because the whole point in having it is that it's a haircut for life." And is she happy to have it back again? "I've felt so much better, it feels more like me now."
Drewery stuck out among the crop of mid-80s pop starlets because she looked (then and now) like a fashion model. Bad highlights and asymmetric haircuts were legion in the early 1980s – just think of Bananarama and A Flock of Seagulls – but Drewery looked cool and sophisticated in a way that suggested a fashion pedigree beyond the in-your-face trends of big hair and bigger shoulder pads. She was in her mid-twenties by the time Swing Out Sister became well known, she'd already done a fashion design degree at Central St Martins college in London and started up a clothing business with two friends.
"We were called La Palette," she says. "We only did a small collection and we made most of the clothes ourselves. It was a kind of British fashion explosion in the early 80s. It was like Britpop, but the fashion version – London was swinging.
"We sold stuff to Macy's and Bloomingdale's in New York. I think we also sold to a shop called Cruise in Edinburgh. We were lucky. When I think about some of the pieces now, they were a bit handmade, but perhaps that was part of the charm. It was spontaneous British fashion."
But when she met partner Andy Connell at the legendary Haienda club in Manchester, Drewery got her chance to sing – something she'd always wanted to do – and Swing Out Sister's easy-listening influenced pop was born.
"Our first album was prophetically named It's Better to Travel because that's all we did," she says. "It was like being in a whirlwind. I can't remember a lot of the things that we did – and we did some amazing things. We travelled the world and met all kinds of interesting people. Everything was happening with such intensity you'd have needed a few weeks to recover from each event and we were doing them all in one week.
"If I could spread it out like a carpet and have a peep at what we did it would be great because at the time you couldn't take it all in."
In 1988 the band were nominated for two Grammy awards and the following year they released their second album, Kaleidoscope World. It was the album that marked out the direction that the following seven albums were to take – influenced by retro easy-listening and allowing Drewery's vocals to slip into a jazzier sound. By the late 1990s Swing Out Sister were a staple on jazz radio and their dedicated fans were still buying whatever releases came their way. In Japan, Swing Out Sister are huge. The band's sixth album was only released for fans in that country.
As pop careers go, it's been a fine one and it seems it didn't quite put an end to Drewery's fashioning designing days.
"All the people in the band say, 'We're just like your dollies' because I always take a big bag of clothes on tour and I tend to do the styling myself, giving everyone things to wear for shows. I just take a huge piece of silk, lay a load of clothes in it, roll it up and it goes off on tour with us. It's like a jumble sale at every gig."
Does she still make clothes, too?
"Not really. I occasionally make something if I can't find the right frock to wear on tour, if I know what I want but I just can find it to buy, or I collaborate with somebody. If you don't do it every day you lose the flair, so it's good to get someone who actually spends their time doing it.
"I know what suits me and I certainly know what doesn't. I've made all the fashion faux pas there are to make, although I suppose it's never too late. I see stuff now and I think, 'This is what everyone's wearing this season' but I just know it won't suit me. I have the confidence to do that."
As for her other interests, it turns out the main one is lidos. Drewery has always loved to swim (she tells me she almost missed several gigs because she was doing lengths in nearby swimming pools) but she's smitten with those outdoor pools. "I think you have a fair few up in Scotland," she says. "There's one in Stonehaven I'd like to go to. I think they have midnight swimming to music on a Wednesday. It sounds lovely – the North Sea under the stars."
It sounds freezing to me, I tell her.
"I don't mind. It's very good exercise if you're a singer. It keeps me calm but it also exercises my lungs and breathing."
As well as swimming and swooning over lidos, Drewery and long-time partner Andy Connell are keeping pretty busy as far as their music's concerned. The album Beautiful Mess comes out on Monday and they've just been on tour in Japan and the Philippines, which Drewery really enjoyed. "We played there ten years ago. People came up to us and told us that they'd had their first date at our concert so they came back to see us and now they had three kids. It was quite an event for some people.
"The group of people we go on tour with are good friends; we've known each other for a long time. It's like a friends' reunion."
Swing Out Sister's sound is jazzier and more intimate than before. Drewery's vocals are a little deeper, a little more rounded. "Someone said a really nice thing about this album. They said they could really feel the love in it.
"I thought that was a really nice remark and maybe it shows that there is a bit more intimacy, a bit more closeness.
"By the ninth album you wonder if people are still listening – but I think they are."
• Beautiful Mess is out today on Miso Records