- 27 Jun 23
One-half of chart-topping pop sensations Bananarama, Keren Woodward, opens up ahead of their second year in a row headlining Forever Young festival, Kildare from July 14-16.
More than 40 years after the energy-filled, hairsprayed Bananarama burst onto the music scene, they remain one of England’s most important bands - having been an ever-present fixture of the ‘80s in particular. When Bristol-born childhood friends Sara Dillon and Keren Woodward met Irish singer-songwriter Siobhan Fahey in London, the star trio were born, and the rest is (fascinating) history. Headlining Forever Young festival for the second year running in Kildare, we grill Keren on her glowing memories and adoration for pop.
“It was lovely last time we did Forever Young. It feels so surreal to be doing it again. The crowd in Kildare was just amazing,” Woodward smiles, a disco ball behind her twinkling through the Zoom screen. “We had the best time, considering we had to get up at 5:30am to get a flight and we didn’t get back from our previous show until 2AM. It was an absolute blast. This year, we didn’t schedule a show for the day before. We’ll be fresh!
“I’ve travelled around Ireland quite a bit, just for pleasure!” Keren tells me, noting that the Wild Atlantic Way has parallels to her Cornwall abode. “North and South - usually Cork, Kerry and Clare. It's the most beautiful, extraordinary place. You’ll be in what you think is the middle of nowhere and then the most surprising thing will arise. I was in some peninsula once with endless sheep, which had the most amazing Japanese restaurant!” she laughs. “The people in Kerry are extraordinary. I’ve been to weddings there that I’ll never forget.”
Are your friends and family tagging along to Palmerstown House?
“Hopefully,” Keren nods, beaming. “The kids - though they’re not actually kids anymore! - they always make an effort to come to one or two. The trouble is when you’re working, it’s not like you can sit around and have a drink with everyone because you have to get on-stage. But it’s always lovely to see friendly faces in the crowd. My friends and family may get a little ribbing on stage as an added bonus. They shouldn’t stand within too clear a sight of us.
To this day, Bananarama hold the Guinness World Record for the all-female group with the most UK chart entries in history. When they first appeared on Top of the Pops in 1982, Shakin’ Stevens, Dexy’s Midnight Runners and Duran Duran were dominating the charts. Performing ‘Shy Boy’ with their trademark bandanas, the then-trio were as fresh as it gets.
“Bananarama wasn’t something that was even planned,” the singer-songwriter continues, reminiscing. “Sara and I did school musicals and I was brought up playing piano and singing in choirs. We loved music, but back in those days we didn’t see it as any sort of reality. It was purely meeting Paul Cook [from The Sex Pistols] who enabled us to do a demo that kicked it all off. And obviously the lovely, and sadly not with us anymore, Terry Hall, saw a picture of us and it snowballed. When we were first signed, we felt it was a bit of a novelty.
The Specials icon Neville Staple almost spoke of the Bananarama women as a father figure for this feature.
“He was!” Woodward insists. “Terry was always incredibly shy but very, very funny. We had no idea what we were doing and the Fun Boy Three had experience. They taught us so much and were very inclusive - to the point where they encouraged us to play stuff like maracas and piano in the studio. We were so nervous. They made it clear that the main reason they wanted us to work with them was because we were so new. They didn’t want someone jaded. Neville was great. He was just really warm and lovely. They all were quite protective of us.
“My first ever flight was on a trip with them to Amsterdam,” she remembers. “You can see from the performances we did with them on TV and Top of the Pops; it’s just humiliating because we had no idea what to do in front of a camera. We were the exact opposite of a lot of young acts now who perfect their craft in their bedroom or in front of a camera. We had none of that. We were just thrown into the limelight. In hindsight, that was part of the appeal.”
Bananarama gigs are always a memorable affair.
“We’ve had a few crazy ones,” Woodward tells me, with a smile. “We always have this fear about nobody turning up. We had thought when we booked a tent at Glastonbury, and there was no one there when we first walked over. Then they had to close the field down because so many people turned up. There are always those pleasant surprises. We had one Pride show in Rome where we did the whole set twice because we were having so much fun, despite rain.
“Once you have hits and then more hits, you start thinking of it as a career, but certainly not a 40-year career,” Keren notes. “That would have been ridiculous. Yet here we are, still making music. For us, it makes it more exciting. It’s just a fabulous position to be in.”
Woodward recalls numerous out-of-body experiences over the last four decades of pop.
“If you’re talking about surreal moments, it’s always the travel,” she beams. “Being on stage in somewhere like New York, where you rather not be told there are famous people who have come to see you. It’s extraordinary. We did a book recently and saw people like Mike Tyson singing ‘Cruel Summer’ at us while you're walking down the street. Someone you would hold up as being stupidly famous knowing one of our songs? Those are pinch me moments.
“A lot of people would think we would be tired of it,” she adds, excitedly. “You have to be determined to carry on. As always, when you have a long career, you have dips and then you have highs and you have to battle on through it. We’ve been on a roll, which has enabled us to make new music and release it ourselves - which would have been unheard of a few years back. We’re breaking new ground, which is why we’re not bored with it yet,” Keren muses. “This job I absolutely love has given me the most amazing experiences and the most joy.”
Forever Young festival takes place from July 14-16 at Palmerstown House, Kildare.
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