Celebrity Sit-Down Bonus: A Conversation with Carole King

In this Web-exclusive bonus, Carole King discusses what makes her new holiday album a family affair.

by Holly George-Warren
Photograph: Photo by Chris Hatcher

More: It’s about time you did a holiday album!
Carole King: I know. The way this started is I've been working on my book, A Natural Woman, and it will be out in April. Lorna, my former manager, kept saying, "Let's do a Christmas album," and I said, "I don't have the brain space for it," and she very wisely suggested [Carole’s daughter] Louise Goffin, who had taken time off to raise her children and who was ready to go back to work. When she said, "Why don't you have Louise produce this?" I thought, "That's great, she'll take it over and I won't have to put a lot of brain space into it,” but as it turned out, Louise drew me in.

More: How did she do that?
CK: Just by being so good at what she does, and by planning the first few sessions. She said to me, "What songs would you like to do?" and we came up with a list together.  I had a few and then she brought in a list.  And we picked four initially, including "My Favorite Things” and "Carol of the Bells." She got the musicians in, put together a whole feeling, and worked with me.  There were some things I needed to contribute – a key and a general idea for what kind of feel I wanted – but she ran with it. I couldn't help but be swept in by her enthusiasm, and it became a true collaboration, but she's the one who really started it.

More: Over the past year or so, you've suffered some losses: your mother, your long-time friend and associate Don Kirshner, your guitar player ... Did coming together in the studio and doing these uplifting songs help you through that?
CK: Oh absolutely.  It is a lot of loss, but going into the studio was helpful.  It brought things together.

More: Was [longtime drummer] Russ Kunkel's son one of the engineers on your record?
CK: Yes, Nathaniel Kunkel was one of two engineers.  We did a recording one day and his dad was there, but Nathaniel did all the mixing with Louise.  I take such pleasure in seeing these youngsters who are so good at what they do.

More: Louise was one year old when your song "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?" became a number one hit for the Shirelles [in 1961]…
CK: Yeah. She always knew she wanted to be in music – she wanted to write songs, sing them, produce them, arrange them, work with musicians. I've actually watched her in the studio since she was eight. She has such command of the studio. Niko Bolas, the other engineer, kept saying, "I love how she produces because she doesn't dominate; she puts people together." This is the gift that all great producers really have – putting the right people together, putting them in the studio and letting the magic happen. If the magic is a little slow, she makes an adjustment. But she comes in there with full confidence and knowledge of how to produce in every cell of her body, and it just radiates when she's in the studio. I love watching her because it's so great to see that in her.

Another gift that she brought to me was to get me to an enthusiasm level for a performance: She knew what to say, what to suggest, and it was the most delicious collaboration between us.  We know each other so well, and there were no negatives in this, it was only, "How do we make this really great?" We could finish each other's sentences and things like that.  That's where the close family and knowing each other so well for so long came to bear.  She would set me on a path and I would already be where she wanted me to go, so she wouldn't have to go into great detail about it.

More: Mother-daughter relationships can have their problems, but it sounds like you didn't encounter that much.
CK: Never once on this whole project was there ever anything but absolute unity of vision, clarity. This album is everything we hoped for and more. I want to say a word about “Chanukah Prayer.”

More: It has your grandson [Hayden Wells] on it, right?
CK: Yes, and how that came to be is that I had always said that if I do a Christmas album, my people will be represented, so when I was first talking to Louise about this, one of her earliest suggestions was, "Mom, you know that Chanukah Prayer that you do when you come over and we light the candles …”

I had carried it from my parents, and also in Ireland in 1996, I played Kate in the Neil Simon play, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and it ends with her saying the prayer. I performed it for two or three months in a row. So Louise said, "Why don't you record that prayer, and I’ll put it into my computer and see if I can play with it and make it into a song of some kind?" And that's what she did.

More: It's such a bluesy sounding song, too, and your grandson’s vocals sound so good ...
CK: He's only eight years old.  His 11-year-old brother Elijah [Wells] plays drums, and is on "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Hayden does drums as well, but his little voice is so perfect, and he sang it just so pure and beautifully. That was Louise's idea to have him do it, and we were very respectful to him, asking, "Do you want to do this?" He was not sure at first, but then he said, "Yeah, I would like to do it."

More: Is this the first time he's ever done a performance in a professional studio?
CK: He's been in and out, but I don't know that his voice has been on record. This is his first professional recording where he was hired to do that.

More: I read that Louise was around eight when she started playing piano ...
CK: Oh, she started playing piano much younger than that.  She was in the studio then, and we have some recordings of her just being completely in control, confident, doing exactly what she wants.  Her dad [Gerry Goffin] had a studio at the time.

More: I enjoyed the Goffin-King home movies used in the documentary Troubadours. Were you working on your book at the same time that you were thinking about this record and being interviewed for Troubadours?
CK: Yes, all at one time. I'm coming to a reflective period. I have been putting all that energy into writing the book. I had no energy to write a new song.  I wasn't feeling the songwriting at all. That’s why on this Christmas album, there are no songs by me.

More: Writing songs and writing a memoir is like wearing two different kinds of hats.
CK: Yeah, you're plucking from the same place and it was all going toward the book. What Louise did was she said, "Okay, I'm going to go find collaborators and I'm going to write some songs," and I said, "Please." So there's one song by her and Jodi Marr, "Christmas in the Air," and Louise is actually singing on it. I had to learn her phrasing. That song is more like her, but it was absolutely fun.  There are some other songs that Louise wrote, including "New Year's Day."

More: That’s such a moving song, and one I’d listen to not just during the holidays.
CK: I think so, too. It's a holiday album, but we feel it's a holiday album that can be listened to at any time of the year.  How many times have you gone on vacation to a warm place at Christmas? Louise and George Noriega and Jodi Marr wrote “Christmas Paradise” about that very topic.

More: Was making the album a joyful experience?
CK: Yes. The most important thing to me about this album is how much fun it was to make.  Some albums just take forever and people beat each other up and the work comes out great, but the experience wasn't good.  But this was like butter.  

More: It sounds like some of it was done live in the studio with just a few over-dubs ... is that right?
CK: Some of the tracks were done that way. Others were just put together like bricks in the foundation of a house.  "Carol of the Bells" was basically Robbie Kondor playing piano. Robbie is also a family member –  he was married to Sherry [Kondor], my manager and daughter.  And his son is Dylan Kondor, who plays guitar on one of the tracks.  And Robbie was also on tour with me and James [Taylor] playing keyboards, mandolin, and violin. On “Carol of the Bells,” Robbie did this “ding ding a ding ding” and I sing the part "sweet silver bells," and then Louise had the idea to work with an arranger and come up with parts for a choir: She got a [six-member] African-American choir.  So that was a complete surprise to me when I heard it; I think my e-mail back to Louise was, "genius."  

More: I noticed that “Carol of the Bells” was written the same year that your mother was born, 1916, which I learned from her obituary in the Miami Herald.
CK: Isn't that a beautiful piece? I would like to talk about my mom, particularly since this is a family thing and since Louise is my oldest daughter and knew my mom better than the other kids, although they all really knew her well. Louise was very close to my mom, and we felt my mom's energy as we were making this album, and my mom has been inspiring. She always liked the theater. Some of this I deal with in my book: She learned music because her mother wanted her to be a concert pianist, and my mother's love and passion was theater, but she learned enough music to teach me.  My grandmother wound up getting to see me play in Carnegie Hall – it was once-removed, but meantime my mother followed her passion.  As an adult, she owned a theater in the East Village [of Manhattan].  She wrote a wonderful play that at some point, when I get a chance, I want to see if I can get somebody to actually improve it and mount it. Toward the very end of her life, she also wrote a children's story that I want to get out.  My mother had this passion for writing and theater that she's passed down to me and to Louise.  We are the most visible manifestations of that gift, and she was so inspiring, and we felt her energy so much as part of this project.

More: You were a groundbreaker with Tapestry, and there aren't that many women producers out there, and Louise is now producing… It’s interesting that behind the scenes your mother supported your endeavors, and you've done the same thing with your daughter.
CK: Yes, and the connection, the chain goes on.  I'm going to try not to get weepy when I talk about this, but back to the “Chanukah Prayer”: it starts with me and then Hayden has the 2nd verse, and then Louise takes the middle 8, and then there's this instrumental passage, and the last phrases you hear at the end of the prayer, when I say, [sings line] and Louise does the next line, and echoes that, then Hayden takes it on into the future generations. I was so moved by the concept of seeing the march of the generations going on into the future as that song ends. It's just so about family. My mother was about family, too, and it manifested in the fact that we are a good, close family. I have two other children who have a different father – Charlie Larkey is their father – but we're like one family.  We don't say, "my half-sister, my half-brother" –we're just one big family.

More: You’ll be 70 years old next year; how do you stay so young looking – is it from living in rural Idaho?
CK: Probably Idaho air and clean water and all that, but I think I have good genes.  My mom lived to 94 and always looked really young.  When you look at Louise, you think she's in her 30's, and so I think we have the genes where we look younger than our age.

More: There’s a famous picture of you in the studio with Gerry [Goffin] in the early ‘60s and you look so young!
CK: We were children with a child.

More: Over your very long career, you've been able to keep it together.  Is there a way that you were able to protect yourself from fame just chewing you up and spitting you out?
CK: There was, and it's an active quest for being grounded, for having a normal life.  I've been on that quest my whole life, and actively doing that, and resisting when they tell you, "You need to do this to make that happen." I got to have my life the way I wanted it, and that was my priority – not having more fame or making more money or whatever. I love that people love my music and I love getting it out to people, but I also feel that once I write the song, it goes out there and people should enjoy it.  The songs have lives of their own, so I wanted to have a life of my own, and balance that with occasional going out and performing.

I read that Amy Winehouse's funeral service ended with a rendition of my song "So Far Away." [Her father] Mitch Winehouse said it was one of his daughter's favorite songs, and I was getting all weepy about that. I want to share with you that I'm so grateful that my music was meaningful to Amy Winehouse. That was what I wanted, that my songs would go out there and touch people. It’s touched people as far away as Cambodia and Afghanistan, if you can imagine that. That's what's meaningful to me is the fact that if my music has touched even one person, there's already a really good reason for me to have been on the planet, and if it's touched as many people as I know it has, that's really great. I'm particularly touched by Amy Winehouse, and I wish that she had been able to hear the deeper meaning: don't throw away your life; you don't need to go live in that other place; you can make it.  But I had no way of saying that to her, and had I said it, she wouldn't have listened.

More: She introduced your music to a new generation with her version of "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?”
CK: My heart really goes out to her family, and how they must have struggled, and will always struggle now without her. I'm glad my music was meaningful to her and I wish that I could have had more of a positive influence on her to hang onto life.

Want MORE? Check out our Celebrity Sit-Down with Carole King.

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First Published Tue, 2011-11-15 11:58

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