INTERVIEW: Lucy O’Brien on Karen Carpenter

Having been big fans of author and journalist Lucy O’Brien for some time now (Dusty: The Classic Biography, Skin: It Takes Blood and Guts), and even getting a mention in the revised edition of her incredible She Bop: A Definitive History Of Women In Music a couple of years back, we were excited to find out about her latest venture: a biography of one of the most iconic women in music of the 20th century – Karen Carpenter, forty years after her passing. An insightful reframing of the often perceived ‘tragic’ figure, Lead Sister offers a fresh perspective on the life of Karen Carpenter; whilst touching on the sadness of her story, placing a focus on her strength and innovative drive. 

After reading the book and attending its London launch at Soho’s Century Club a couple of months back, I was lucky enough to catch up with Lucy to find out more about what inspired her to write the book and what she discovered about Karen along the way… 

Primarily known both for her angelic voice and struggles with Anorexia Nervosa, Karen Carpenter was so much more than merely the delicate front woman we’re so often presented with; as O’Brien points out – “No way she was just submissive – she was the driving force of the band… And it’s interesting to see this picture emerging of this forthright, pioneering woman.” As so often seems to be the case, Carpenter’s history seems to have been buried by the media’s perception of her and how a woman in the industry should be, and so it’s wonderful that O’Brien made it her mission with Lead Sister to reframe this existing narrative: “It was time to revisit her story and look at it through a new lens. Not only the eating disorder that she struggled with, but also how much she achieved despite that. Was she really just a submissive puppet? I doubt it. To achieve that level of success in the US music industry in the ‘70s, which is a hard place to be, I knew there had to be more to the story.” 

This uncovering of a subject’s narrative, finding new material and piecing the story together piece by piece is key in the job of biographer (“almost like a detective”), and something that O’Brien is no stranger to. Being able to cast a new light on stories told, taking into perspective the attitudes of the times and a deeper understanding of certain issues, is something she has done with previous books – revisiting her biography of Dusty Springfield in 2019, for example, she was able to explore the LGBTQ+ issues and Springfield’s sexuality more than she would have thirty years before for the original 1989 edition. Society’s attitudes shift, and so too do the voices we hear. Up until now we had only really heard one voice in the Karen Carpenter story – that of Richard – and O’Brien believed it was now time for that to change: “…. the story that emerges is the story of the people that want to contribute. Previous biographies, ones approved by family, tended to portray Karen as the victim – as someone with not much agency. What was great with this book, I was talking to people who hadn’t done many interviews before – giving a fresh perspective.”

Having briefly touched on Karen Carpenter’s story in She Bop, O’Brien jumped at the chance to focus on her story in more depth when Pete Selby (98 Books – Miki Berenyi, Jenniffer Otto) asked if she wanted to do a full biography: “I’ve always been fascinated by her and her amazing, fluid wonderful emotional voice. That juxtaposition of the perfect lush pop of The Carpenters and then the sadness within a lot of the music, and the lyrics.” One of the things that appealed to her the most was Karen’s strength of character and unrelenting energy for what she loved – like drumming. “When she joined the school marching band, that’s when things turned around for her and she found liberation through drumming. She used to go to a drum shop in LA where mostly male drummers would hang out. She would hang out with them and swap stories. She got her parents to buy her a drum kit. She had pictures of people like Buddy Guy on her bedroom wall at the age of 15. She had a vision. She was such a committed drummer. Realising things like that – I realised she was quite a tough cookie.” 

This passion for what was (and still is in some respects) quite an usual instrument for a woman to play marks Karen Carpenter out as somewhat ahead of her time, as did her fierce drive and determination: “She was very competitive in terms of wanting to succeed. Talking to head of promotion at A&M, he was in awe of her encyclopaedic knowledge of the music industry and radio stations across the country.” So, certainly not just a submissive counter-part to her brother – in fact, from the stirring account of their childhood in Lead Sister, it often seems as though she was the ‘tough’ one in their relationship, frequently sticking up to his bullies at school, or being reprimanded for her cheeky sense of humour. O’Brien reflects on these more ‘masculine’ qualities of Karen when we speak; speculating that perhaps, had she been alive today, she may have identified as more gender-fluid as she did not fit into the conventional ‘feminine stereotype’ that was certainly prevalent at the time. 

However, despite her strength, she faced opposition to her love of drumming as The Carpenters started to achieve success, with huge pressure put on her from both Richard and other men on the team, to stop ‘hiding’ behind the kit – “this is such a contradiction in terms”, O’Brien responds, “how can you ‘hide’ behind drums – drums are the most expressive instrument. She was really expressing herself.” Sadly, though she resisted it for a long time, it seems that she lost the battle to be able to stay doing what she loved, and was almost ‘de-skilled’ by having to simply stand up front and sell the songs, “be a decorative front woman”. Understandably, this must have dented her confidence and been very frustrating for someone with such massive skill and passion – “… even though she had amazing voice, that wasn’t all there was to her…”, O’Brien explains, “… Every moment she could, she would find time to play the drums – like on their 1976 tour, she’d play an amazing drum solo right in the middle of concert.” (This tour is actually where the name of the book comes from, as – when the Carpenters toured Japan – a magazine mistakenly referred to her as the ‘lead sister’ of the band. She loved this title so much that she had it made into a t-shirt which she wore whilst thrashing out some beats at every opportunity on tour.) 

It was particularly heartwarming, then, for O’Brien this year, on the 40th anniversary of Karen’s passing, that a new emphasis seemed to be on her skill as a drummer: “That was what people were emphasising, much more than in the past when focus was always on her ‘silken’ voice – it’s really interesting how what we see and what we appreciate has shifted in terms of her expertise and what she symbolised.” 

The way in which Karen Carpenter struggled to fit into traditional ‘feminine’ roles is not a new perception. When speaking to some of her closest friends, O’Brien discovered how she had often found it difficult to fit in. Petula Clark, for example, reflected on Karen adjusting to the Beverly Hills culture, trying to turn herself into an “uptown Beverly Hills Queen” when that really wasn’t her; she was essentially just a musician’s musician, a “tom boy”. Remembering one particular instance, she told O’Brien of when she felt extremely uncomfortable seeing Karen feeling pressured to present herself in a certain way that wasn’t her true self, at a bridal shower she held at a country club with Beverly Hills socialites (before briefly marrying a real estate developer). Reflecting on how it seems that Karen wasn’t allowed to fully express herself and pursue what she was really passionate about, both in her professional and personal life, may go some way to explaining the root of her mental health struggles – “striving to become someone she wasn’t; someone that really wasn’t her.” 

However, looking back at Karen’s life, it’s clear that other factors could have played a part. When she was twelve, for example, the family moved from Connecticut to LA, primarily to help Richard with his career (“he was seen as the gifted musician”). Being uprooted at this age is bound to be difficult for anyone; especially as someone who been a straight A student, with lots of friends, keen on sports and very active, suddenly being moved to somewhere completely new where she did not know anyone. After they moved, Karen stopped playing sports and withdrew into herself, often binge eating and not feeling motivated to achieve (until she found marching band, and drumming later on). “All those facts were there”, O’Brien points out when reflecting on Karen’s struggles, “but no one thought to look at them and realise that it would been very traumatic…” 

O’Brien admits that it was difficult at times to delve into what Karen went through; from her somewhat dysfunctional upbringing and family relationships, to the later stages of her eating disorder – “it did become quite dark”, she reflects, “… it’s heart rending how much you realise she was struggling with it on her own. There wasn’t even a language for it – it was seen as slimming gone too far, and there nothing around to help… When it’s chronic, it is very hard. She did get to the chronic stage and she found it impossible even just looking in the mirror, the body dysmorphia was so strong.” 

Just listening to the Carpenters now, and what still seems to resonate so much, is how “you can hear the pain in her voice and the way she sings”; it’s deeply stirring, and O’Brien’s beautifully sensitive reflection immerses you in Karen’s story with a moving grace. Just reading the book, let alone having to research it, I have been deeply affected at times, and felt a strange, poignant connection to Karen Carpenter and what she went through; as O’Brien recalls George McKay (Skinny blues: Karen Carpenter, Anorexia Nervosa and Popular Music) telling her in one conversation – Karen really gets into your head. 

However, O’Brien tells me that speaking to those that knew Karen best, the light shone through; the strength of the person behind the public figure – “the more I could see the survivor in there, the pioneer.” One such person was Cherry Boone O’Neill, of the famous ‘70s sister pop group, The Boones. A close friend of Karen’s towards the end – and someone who had undergone similar experiences with a showbiz family, and also struggled with Anorexia herself -, she was able to offer a lot of insight and deeper understanding into the ‘real’ Karen. Having found a way through her illness, she was able to offer Karen a lot of advice; one of the key things she said to her when she was particularly struggling during the late ‘70s was that she should move away from LA, and from the industry – “Eating disorders are classed as addiction – so, you need to be away from the stress and circumstances that are creating this”, O’Brien explains, “… and, for Cherry, she had to move to Oregon, do intensive psychotherapy and take medication. It took a long time to recover, and she had to stop singing for a while.” However, for Karen, this was not option – she couldn’t stop singing, it was so important to her. In a way, it seems that her determination and unrelenting drive to get things done were ironically what prevented her from getting well herself – the feeling that there were a lot of people in the industry and family that were relying on her to keep everything going (especially whilst her brother Richard was in rehab).

Choosing not to take her friend’s advice, Karen went on to create her first solo album in 1979. Although, physically, she was deteriorating by this point, “I think she was just enjoying herself”, O’Brien reflects, “… she was nearly 30 and growing into an adult woman and wanted to explore the music of liberation at the time…” The recording of the album saw her delve into disco and soul with an array of incredible musicians (including Billy Joel’s backing band) – “Karen loved it. She was able to ditch that goody two shoes image that in America had seemed to hamper her reputation.” As a former boyfriend, Tom Bahler, joyfully reminisced with O’Brien, “she could certainly kick booty”. It seems poignantly bittersweet that Karen was able to finally express herself and find this cathartic joy through what she was creating so near the end, particularly thinking about what else she could have gone on to do; producer/arranger Bob James sharing with O’Brien that he really felt that she was on a journey and could have gone to have a great solo career. O’Brien is keen to highlight the enterprising and adventurous sense of spirit that shone through Karen even so near the end. With this album, for example, she travelled to New York and got herself a producer and some musicians, all in a very short space of time and independently: “That’s what I really enjoyed about her as I explored what she did and the people that she interacted with”, O’Brien reflects, “… the humour and strength that she approached things with.” Sadly, however, “it was the case with Karen that her spirit was willing, but the body was weak. By then, she just didn’t have the physical strength to push it through.” 

Although it is impossible to ignore the ‘darkness’ – the struggles she endured and the tragedy of Karen’s untimely passing – throughout Lead Sister what strikes you is this innovative artist’s effervescent, tenacious spirit, and it seems this spirit was present throughout the whole of O’Brien’s experience of researching and writing the book: “I did feel Karen was there, nudging me – almost assuring me, ‘that’s how I want people to remember me.’” A time when her presence seemed strongest was when O’Brien visited the studios where the Carpenters recorded their music (now Henson Studios) – “… there was this element of psycho geography that was quite transcendent.” The engineers, even now, still wish Karen goodnight at the end of every day. 

And it’s not just in those studios that Karen’s presence seems resonant today; people continue to be intrigued and inspired by her, whilst also – 40 years on – continuing to feel a striking sadness about her story. O’Brien speculates: “With Karen’s death, a bit like with Amy Winehouse, there was sense of collective failure, particularly within the music industry. With lots of people I interviewed, there seemed to be this feeling of collective failure and trauma – even after all these years, people are still asking why, wanting to ensure that something like that doesn’t happen again.” Thankfully, things have progressed somewhat in society’s understanding of eating disorders and the industry’s awareness of artists’ wellbeing today, and we can hope that this ensures its female subjects in particular are healthier and happier – “There’s a lot more awareness now within the industry, and within record companies in particular, about artists’ mental health and wellbeing, and making provision for that. It is now usually a part of management practice, and there is a whole discourse about how to look after artists, particularly female artists, and singers who may be vulnerable to eating disorders, given the relentless pressure to look ‘sexy’ or ‘glamorous’ to sell the music.”

However, had Karen still been physically with us today, O’Brien feels that she would have been a strong advocate for young women and non binary folk in the industry, helping to push things forwards for their wellbeing: “I think she would have been such a key figure. I can imagine her leading drumming workshops and being a mentor for young musicians. I can also imagine her being on panels – she was so engaged with so many things, and I think she had great business sense as well.” 

Finally, I ask O’Brien what she feels artists today could learn from Karen: “That passionate pursuit of what drives you”, she replies, “…to allow yourself to be completely immersed – utterly single minded in what you want to do. That joy in which Karen approached music. Even though it’s such a sad story, I just knew that when she was in studio, creating music, singing her heart out, she was happy. She was completely in herself.” Even in her short time with us, Karen Carpenter was able to create so much and become such an inspiration to others – she was determined, innovative, tenacious and courageous. And witty. All qualities which are highlighted beautifully throughout Lead Sister – a truly refreshing perspective on this well-known story, amplifying the voice of the person who matters the most, Karen. It truly allows her strengths to shine; to embolden others, and to leave a lasting imprint of her sparkling spirit: “… it’s like she’s here now”, O’Brien ponders, “… it’s as though she’s saying ‘Don’t remember me with sadness, just remember me with joy.’”

Lead Sister: The Story Of Karen Carpenter is out now via 98 Books. I strongly recommend getting yourself a copy of it here. Be prepared to feel the true presence of Karen with you throughout, thanks to O’Brien’s thorough research, compelling storytelling and empathetic reflection.

Mari Lane

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