I recently spoke with Randy L. Schmidt, author, and editor of various books on popular 20th-century American singers. Little Girl Blue, his widely acclaimed biography of Karen Carpenter, was published in 2010. His new book, Carpenters: An Illustrated Discography Discography (192 pp., Mascot Books), features a team of authors, musicians, journalists, and others discussing the Carpenters’ music and legacy, and includes over 200 images (many never before seen) of the 1970s brother-sister duo.
JM: Randy, I love the new book. As a huge Carpenters fan, I kept wanting to jump in on the discussion, and the pictures are absolutely gorgeous. How did you get the idea, and how did you pick the contributors?
RS: Ever since Little Girl Blue came out in 2010, there has been a new wave of interest, partly spurred by that book. I had come across so many photographs in image archives that I wasn’t able to use for it, so I held onto them, hoping I could someday use them in another way. This new book is a celebration of both the music and those images.
To select the commentators, I contacted people who have spoken about the Carpenters in the past, or musicians who have credited the Carpenters or Karen Carpenter as an inspiration. A lot of them are professional musicians and journalists. We’ve got Tom Nolan, who wrote for Rolling Stone back in the 70s, and wrote liner notes for some Carpenters albums. And Daniel Levitin, who’s written numerous best-selling books, like This is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs. We have Cynthia Gibb, who played Karen in the TV movie. And also the producers of the 1994 tribute album, If I Were a Carpenter. Among many others.
JM: Karen’s voice was very sincere, unaffected, and devoid of irony. We’re in an age where enjoying certain kinds of music without irony is seen as uncool, and I reject that. But I’m also interested in the way that certain cultural “outsiders,” including LGBT people, feel an affinity with Karen, and with the way that she sang. In the chapter about The Singles 1969-1973, Vivian Bond says: “For the geeks, misfits, and outsiders, we felt a recognition, and intellectually grasped something that a lot of people listening to her songs probably didn’t even think about.” There’s something of a paradox about the Carpenters: at the time of their greatest popularity, they were seen as American as apple pie, but also bland and “goody four-shoes.” But really, they have always been embraced by outsiders.
RS: That’s one of my favorite responses in the book. I didn’t come out until I was around 30 years old, having grown up in western Oklahoma, and not really having many examples of what being gay meant. I knew I wasn’t “bad,” but I knew also that I was different. Even before you’re aware of your own identity, you can know you’re different in some ways, that you’re maybe somewhat of an outsider or misfit, and different from the other kids. There was something about Karen’s voice that connected me with her in that way, a sense of understanding and sameness that’s hard to put into words.
It’s been debated whether Karen struggled with her sexuality, but one thing for sure that she struggled with was femininity and the expectation to be feminine. That was not necessarily her wiring. She was the girl who played drums, and hung around with the guys, and talked like a jazzer. Before that, she was playing baseball in the streets with the neighborhood kids, and just not doing the traditional girl things, especially for little girls in the 1950s and 1960s. And then to become a star as a female drummer, but very quickly have that taken away from her because she was presenting something that people weren’t quite ready for. They wanted her to be singing and standing out front in pretty dresses. But here was this girl from Downey who walked across the stage like a Mack truck, according to her friends. It was just not Karen’s natural tendency or inclination to be delicate, or to meet the expectations that they had for her. For me, as a kid, there were so many expectations to have interests that the other boys had, whether they were mine or not. So I think than many of us who might be considered different or outsiders feel a connection with her.
JM: I’ve been reading one of your contributor’s books, Why Karen Carpenter Matters, by Karen Tongson. When discussing the Carpenter family dynamics – specifically the way their parents viewed Richard as the child with the real talent. She writes: “Karen understood that privately, in the familial real of love and safety, Richard remained the priority. Richard knew Karen was of the world, and for the world: the figure of sacrifice to stardom. Each protected the very structures most wounding to themselves. For Richard that was the Carpenters, the band, the brand, and its superstar named Karen. For Karen, it was the family’s ambitions, which were Richard’s ambitions.”
RS: Karen Tongson definitely does a fantastic job of describing these things. I do really feel that the Carpenter family, with maybe the exception of her father, never really got on board with supporting and encouraging Karen as an individual. There were many times that they showed that Richard was the priority. Karen kind of bought into that as well, and almost overcompensated by stressing how much he did for their sound [producing, arranging, playing piano, etc.]. She would put herself down to elevate him. From the time she was a little girl, Richard was already showing promise in music, and everything was swirling around him and what they all believed he would become. So it was hard for them to imagine what would happen if she went solo, and what that might mean for Richard and his career.
JM: And being denied the chance to release her solo album was certainly a blow for her. [It was eventually released in 1996, 13 years after her death.] She’s been quoted by the producer, Phil Ramone, as saying: “That album’s fucking great.” I love this quote by Paul Steinberg from your new book: “There’s a very cool award-winning gay/queer DJ collective in London called Horse Meat Disco. These guys know and love Karen’s album, particularly ‘My Body Keeps Changing My Mind.’ Most of the clubgoers were born between 1980 and 1995, but when this song comes on, the crowd on the dancefloor goes wild. It shows that this song is fun, it’s camp, it’s disco. She was having fun, and we have fun. And that’s in a gay club in 2018.”
Incidentally, Horse Meat Disco is going to be in New Orleans for Decadence [August 31, at the Ace Hotel]. I’ve gotta go to that show and see if they’ll play something from the solo album. Speaking of which, are there any heterosexuals who actually own that?
RS: Ha! Same with Ethel Merman’s disco album. Ironically, that album was actually released by A&M Records [the Carpenters’ label]. So Karen’s disco album was deemed unworthy of release, but Merman’s was considered worthy. When I saw that it was an A&M Records release, I thought, how is this even possible, that Karen’s album would be unworthy of release in the eyes of some people at that studio, but they put Ethel Merman’s disco album out there.
JM: Do you have a personal favorite Carpenters album?
RS: From those released during Karen’s lifetime, I think probably A Song for You is the one that I gravitate to the most. A lot of the songs on there have been remixed and tweaked and updated by Richard [for hits compilations], but it’s a really beautiful concept album, with the “bookends” of the title track, which I think could have been a hit single for them. But nearly every song on that record could have be a hit at the time, and it’s such a strong album in that way.
But also, on the other end of things, I really love one that was not even intended to be an album: Lovelines. I love everything about it. And maybe it’s just because it’s the first Carpenters album I bought right after the release day. It’s a beautiful design, the layout and the cover and everything is just gorgeous. And the songs of course. Even though it’s a mix of stuff from Karen’s solo album and outtakes from Carpenters albums, I think it flows really well.
JM: For me, the first “new” stuff that I got to hear was on Interpretations. At the time, it was really hard to find their albums on CD, and I got to hear some of their greatest songs for the first time. And we all got to hear her version of “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again,” which had never been released before that.
RS: Hearing “Tryin’ to Get the Feeling Again” in headphones for the first time is still a powerful memory for me. Because by that point I’d thought I had heard just about everything I was going to hear from the Carpenters, and then this new song was on there. It was so raw, and so personal. It was unlike anything I had heard, but I just remember sitting there almost tearing up. It was like she was singing only to me. And there aren’t many singers that can have that effect.
JM: Most people know the big hits, but are there some album tracks that you’d recommend for people looking to discover some deeper cuts? Which are your favorites?
RS: My favorite of the non-singles is “Road Ode,” from A Song for You. I think it has the power and intensity of “Rainy Days and Mondays” or “Superstar.” Each of the albums has a track or two that I think is underrated, going back to their first album, Offering. “Eve” is a standout from that. Even though it was never a single, it’s one of the better-known of the deep cuts. And I think “Someday” had such intensity. I understand why she wanted to re-record it in later years. From the Close to You album, having hits with the title track and “We’ve Only Just Begun,” they were in a rush to make the next album, but I think “Baby It’s You” could have easily been the third single. I also love “Crescent Noon.” There’s something about it that I’ve always been drawn to.
JM: There was a certain wild power in her vocals on those first few albums, and I personally prefer that early, unfettered sound.
RS: A Song for You was really the last album when she used that big voice, and really tore through stuff with an intensity and power of emotion that she didn’t often use in later years. I can’t think of anything quite that powerful on Now and Then or Horizon. And then she definitely went through a softer period with A Kind of Hush and Passage.
JM: But she always had a sincerity in her voice, something you don’t hear much from singers these days. Just singing a song without affectation; the power of a simple melody.
RS: I wonder how much of Karen’s vocal change had to do with those expectations to be more feminine. In later years, she said that she used to “oversing,” and now she likes to “feel the song.” I think she always felt the song, but I don’t think, in those later years, that she really let herself go in the same way as in the earlier songs. It was such an impactful sound on those earlier albums, and that was during the time when she was still the drummer, still the Karen that she was before people said, no, you’re not gonna be the drummer anymore, and you need to dress this way, and act this way. I think her voice changed with that too. It got softer, and maybe a little less her as the years went on. She held back. But in the early days, there were no inhibitions whatsoever.
JM: It’s almost impossible to not mention anorexia here. In the years following her death, Karen became almost more famous for her illness than for her talent. Do you think that we’d be reading so much into her music if she had lived?
RS: I think we do read into it because of what we now know to be true of her life. Cynthia Gibb said: “She wasn’t a victim. She didn’t think of herself as ‘poor me.’ To know what ultimately happened to her and to hear her sing is very powerful, for sure, but it might have meant something very different to her when she recorded it.” I think we would still look at her as a brilliant interpreter of songs, but I don’t think we’d say, gosh, what must she have been going through!
JM: Do you think that there are any singers today whose voice is similar enough to Karen’s to appeal to Carpenters fans?
RS: The closest I’ve heard anyone come to Karen’s sound is Harriet [a singer from the UK who also contributed to the new book]. She’s only 29, but her musical DNA is Carole King, Bread, James Taylor, and the Carpenters. Her parents raised her on 1970s soft rock, and it comes out in a very organic way with her. Her voice is so unaffected, with a delivery that’s very much like Karen’s, both in her phrasing and tone. But she also has her own unique style and delivery, and she’s a great songwriter. I confirmed with her that her song, “What’s Mine is Yours,” does refer to her sounding like Karen.
JM: Great recommendation. I love Harriet’s voice as well. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Randy, and congrats on the new book!
RS: Thank you.