Born Feb. 9, 1942, in Brooklyn, N.Y., Carole King (née Klein) started playing piano when she was four years old. By high school, she was writing her first songs and leading a vocal quartet called the Co-Sines. At 17, she was singing demos for publishers along with her childhood friend Paul Simon. This led to her introduction into the new guard of Brill Building songwriters. Along with another fledgling writer, Gerry Goffin, who would become her first husband and most successful collaborator, King helped pen the chapter in the Great American Songbook that comes between rock ’n’ roll and the Beatles.
From 1970 to the present, King has released 25 solo albums, including the all-time classic Tapestry which has sold more than 25 million copies worldwide. She’s won four Grammy Awards and had over 400 songs recorded by more than 1,000 artists. In 1987, she was given a lifetime achievement award by the National Academy of Songwriters, and in 1990, she and Gerry Goffin were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2010 she and James Taylor released Live at the Troubadour CD/DVD, in 2011 she was featured in the acclaimed documentary Troubadours: The Rise of the Singer-Songwriter and this April will see the release of her memoir, A Natural Woman.
To celebrate Carole’s birthday, here are bits of a discussion Performing Songwriter had with her on the role of songwriters and her process of writing. Thanks for a lifetime of songs, Carole, and happy birthday!
What do you think is the role of a songwriter?
I’ll tell you what makes songwriters unique. It’s something that I find I share with other songwriters, and I also find I share it with other writers—writers of words and prose and poetry and screenplays. And with visual artists. I think I share it with creative people in general. There’s something that happens from time to time, I guess you’d call it inspiration. It’s a connection with the source of all ideas. Some people call it God. Whatever you call it, it’s the source. And when that happens, you’re sitting at the piano or your keyboard or your computer or your canvas or your camera or whatever, and things just click. They’re coming through you. They’re not necessarily coming from you. And you feel it when that happens. You’re connected to the source of all ideas. You have to be open to experience that, and creative people, certainly songwriters, open themselves in that way. I don’t know if that makes us different from other people in a way where you say, “Oh, I’m better or I’m worse or I feel more pain.” I think everybody feels these things in some way at some time in their life. I think when you’re grieving, when you’re crying, you’re open in the same way. Someone who’s lost a loved one and is feeling the pain of grief—they’re in touch with the source of all ideas in the same way. So it’s an openness.
As creative people, the thing that we have to break through—and in music, we do—is people who are closed, people who are fearful of opening up. Because if you’re open, you might feel pain. I don’t look for pain, but I don’t think pain is something to fear; although we do. It’s built into our human nature to fear pain. But if you can overcome the fear and say, “It is what it is. There’s joy and there’s pain, and I want to feel all of it.” That’s kind of what my choice in life has been. I’d rather be a person who’s open, and if I get hurt, I get hurt. So be it. I’ll pick myself up and I’ll move on, and be open again. So I can feel joy, too.
It reminds me of something you said in the A&E special on the Brill Building: “You have to be naked and vulnerable or it isn’t art.”
That’s true. There’s commerce. There’s music that lots of people like and enjoy, and if it’s put together with some joy in the process of creating commerce, some of it can be art. You know what I mean? (laughs). I think naked and vulnerable is part of it, and also the joy of creation, but that’s not fair because a lot of great art has been created out of agony. I think there just has to be an emotional connection. And making it vulnerable is part of that connection on the part of the artist. I think if there’s not an emotional connection—if it’s just business—fine; you can sell lots of records by making something that’s commercial. If there’s no emotional connection in it, I don’t think it’s art.
Long ago I wrote songs, and still do, with commerce in mind. I’m not always in an ivory tower saying that I have to drag agony out of my gut (laughs). But once I start to make a song, to create a song, even if commerce is the motivation, I’m still going to put my whole heart and soul in it and try to write the best song and move people in a way that touches them and that fits the need of the commercial project, whatever it is. People know when you do that. They know that there’s an emotional connection, even if it’s commercial.
It’s interesting to read interviews with great American songwriters like Irving Berlin and Oscar Hammerstein, because they discuss songwriting as being very much like a job. Words like “naked” and “vulnerable” never really enter into it. You and Gerry and the generation of songwriters from the Brill Building might be the first who talk about it in those terms.
Right. But our primary mission then was—and I’ll quote Gerry—“We’ve got to get the next hit for … fill in the blank! We’ve got to pay the bills!” (laughs) The primary purpose for us writing was to make money. That’s exactly what I was talking about a moment ago. The primary purpose back then was to make money, but in the process, we had so much joy in it. We went into the areas of “What do we want to say? Let’s do this! Let’s do that!” But it was out of the joy of making a great song. And by the way, the song should also fit the needs of The Shirelles or The Drifters or whoever we were writing for. That was the commercial part of it, to make sure it sounded like something that Bobby Vee could do (laughs).
Can you tell me what inspired “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman?”
That was an example of an external request. I think it was in ’66 or ’67, I don’t remember. Gerry and I were working with Jerry Wexler. Jerry asked us to write a song for Aretha Franklin, who was already quite well-known and is an amazing talent. He gave us the title “Natural Woman.” That’s why his name is on the song, deservedly. Gerry and I went home, and I don’t remember if I wrote the music first or if Gerry wrote the lyric first. I think I wrote the music first, and I knew it had to be gospel. I knew it had to have that feel. So I sat down and started playing these opening chords, and it all sort of came together.
I always admire that Gerry could really get inside the head of a woman and write a lyric like “You make me feel like a natural woman” or “Will you love me tomorrow,” which is such a teenage girl’s lyric. That was really fun.
So we wrote the song, and I made the demo. Then Aretha made the single, which was quite different than my demo, and happily so. When I heard it, I was like, “OK, I don’t ever have to hear anybody else sing any other song I wrote.” (laughs) The arrangement that Arif Mardin did was tremendous. Then the opportunity to record it again myself on Tapestry came up, and it was closer to the way I had originally had done it. But I incorporated some of the chord changes that Aretha’s version changed, like in the bridge. There were three different versions then.
You’ve said you strive to be unpredictable in your work. After writing songs for so many years, what kinds of things do you do to keep the process fresh?
Taking enough time to immerse myself in life as opposed to the active creative process. In other words, I’ll take long periods of time off from songwriting so I can actually be living my life. I think that’s part of what keeps you fresh and creative. So that when I’m ready to write a song, I’m really ready.
On the other hand, if an opportunity comes up where someone says, “I’d really like to have a song”—an externally generated request for a song—then I can immediately go back in and say, “OK, I’m ready.” That’s part of it. Another part of it is collaboration. I’ve written a lot of my songs alone. I’ve never weighed or measured which is more or less, but I think they’re an equal measure of collaboration and solo writing, and I love both. What joy there is to be in a room with somebody and say, “What if we did this? What if we did that?” There’s a sense of creating something and rolling toward an inevitable destination that you both know what it is, but you don’t know it until you get to it. To create a something where nothing existed before. No song existed before. Suddenly it exists. It’s an amazing process.
—By Bill DeMain
For the full interview in a hi-res PDF format: Carole King Interview
For the issue where Carole King was the cover feature: July/Augsut 2004, Issue 79
Category: In Case You Haven't Heard