I fell off my horse and fractured my skull. I was unable to move – I couldn’t move – so, with nothing to do but recover, I started scribbling piles of notes. I had strange, dark, and creative thoughts. I didn’t think I was writing lyrics, but they ended up being the basis for Swing Out Sister’s debut album, It’s Better to Travel.
Even though I was miserable, the lyrics of Breakout are positive and provocative. I was trying to write myself out of the situation, to create the world I wanted to be in. The song is very autobiographical. I had been a fashion designer but got into debt running my own business and ended up working for a fashion company. I had fallen into the trap of doing work that I had no intention of doing.
Once you’ve had a near-death experience, you think about what you want out of life. I always wanted to be a singer. Breakout is all about following your instincts, even if it’s a pie in the sky. After recovering I started auditioning for bands and formed Swing Out Sister with Andy [Connell] and Martin [Jackson] after encountering them sleeping on the floor of a North London squat.
Breakout was a hybrid of our tastes rolled into one: tracks from Isaac Hayes, Weather Report, Earth Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, Diana Ross. We wanted the effect of Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, that top of the world feeling.
Andy and Martin had given me the backing track on tape. But then our label suddenly announced that they were sending a bike to pick up the finished demo the next morning – and we’d be dropped if they didn’t get it. I freaked out and tried to sing the voice that night. But my roommate told me to shut up because she had work the next day, so I whispered it to myself all night. I sang it at eight o’clock in the morning, still half asleep.
For the studio version, we recruited Paul O’Duffy to produce, and arranger Richard Niles. So we had sophisticated arrangements with brass and strings. But I was intimidated and I thought it was dishonest, because it didn’t feel like us anymore. I started crying and didn’t want to sing it.
We were in Trevor Horn’s Sarm studio, which was very expensive per day. Everyone was trying to keep it laid back but got me to sing. Andy said, “Name me your favorite records.” When I reeled off all those divas, he asked me if I thought Shirley Bassey and Dusty Springfield would have complained about the arrangements of their backing tracks. Point taken. I sang the song.
The label hated Breakout. Acid house was coming, everything had a lot of attitude, it wasn’t cool to be optimistic. But people could tell the song was heartfelt. A lot of people told us it was their coming out anthem.
It was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico and the theme music for the TV coverage was appalling. I knew it was going to piss me off for the next three weeks, so I thought I’d put together my own theme and play it instead whenever the cover came. I must have osmosis World Cup fever in Breakout, which was a very unusual song for us, as we tended to be more on the maudlin side. I still think it could be a World Cup song.
We had a few arguments in the studio with Paul while recording Breakout, but they were always creative. I was playing jazz chords and he was looking at my hand on the keyboard and pulling out some fingers. There’s still a jazz chord in the chorus that I wouldn’t let him change. It’s a B flat 13 sus 5.
The horns at the start of Breakout are what everyone remembers, but for me, it’s the aching cellos in the chorus that give the song its weight and bittersweet quality. After mastering, I said, “If it’s not a hit, we’ll never have one. But I was the only one who thought so. The A&R department told us, “Don’t expect anything. But Breakout came in at No. 6 in America and the best thing was when the fanfares at NFL games played it – but with 50 more horns than we had.
Corinne was very recognizable, so she had disguises on tour. Once I had arranged to meet her in New York and while I was waiting there was a crazy girl on the street who was laughing at a dumpster – who turned out to be Corinne in disguise. He was told that if you’re in New York and expecting trouble, just be crazier than everyone else.
The escape changed everything. I have a lot of talented musician friends where a song like that didn’t come, and the moment that changed everything didn’t happen. For something like that to make such a difference in how your life turned out is scary, really.
Swing Out Sister’s Blue atmosphere, escape and beyond: early childhood, part 1 is released on August 19 on Cherry Pop Records.