Five Favourites: SOFTEE

Having just released her debut album, Brooklyn based artist Nina Grollman – aka Softee – creates sparkling alt-pop soundscapes with a stirring, heartfelt emotion. Oozing a glistening immersive splendour throughout, Natural explores complex themes of identity and transformation with a soulful, uplifting energy.

We think one of the best ways to get to know an artist is by asking what music inspires them. So, to celebrate the release of Natural, we caught up with Softee to ask about the music that has inspired her the most. So, read about her five favourite songs, and make sure you check out the album, and watch the beaut new video for latest single ‘Isn’t Enough‘ below...

Stevie Wonder – ‘Summer Soft’
The first time I heard this track, I was nine years old. My mom played it in the car. I was so into all the key changes and the build of the song. I’m obsessed with Stevie’s voice. As I grew up, my appreciation for the song deepened. For years I thought he was singing about a past relationship. When I finally looked up the lyrics, I realized it’s about the seasons, and aging. It makes me so emotional when I hear it now, because it’s so full of passion and fervour, and it’s about getting older and time slipping by. The dichotomy of these two concepts is so rich. Stevie can truly write about everything and make it timeless.

Charlie XCX – ‘Sucker’
Let me explain. I know this isn’t Charli’s best song, but it’s extremely important to me. The year is 2014, and one of my best friends had an extra ticket to the Bleachers concert in Minneapolis. Charli was co-headlining the show, but I had no idea who she was. I barely even knew Jack Antonoff but I went cause duh, free ticket. Charli comes onstage in Adidas pants (BEFORE they were super trendy) and sports bra, with an inflatable guitar and sunglasses. She has an all girl band. She opens the set with ‘Sucker’. Something in me completely shifted. I was like “oh, THIS is a fucking POP star.” I didn’t know pop could be grunge??? For that album, she was influenced by the Shangri-Las and super cool underground ’90s pop. I was obsessed with her energy and the set brought me an adrenaline high I don’t think I’ve ever topped at a show. To this day I hear this song and I get butterflies.

Robyn – ‘With Every Heartbeat
I think my favourite Robyn song changes daily, but today it’s this one. The strings. The simplicity of the beat. This song completely hypnotises you while ripping your heart out of your chest. It’s hopeful while reckoning with the fact that the relationship is over. Robyn is a genius, and one of my biggest influences. I love how simple and powerful her songwriting is. She is endlessly innovative. Her chords and melodies make me want to cry.

La Roux – ‘Automatic Driver’
When this song came out I listened to it on loop for ages! It’s so danceable and fun. A perfect song to walk to on a sunny day when you’re in a good mood!

Little Dragon – ‘Another Lover’
This is me and my fiancé’s song. It’s so infectious, from the melody to the production, to Yakimi Nagano’s vocals, to the driving bassline. This song has it all. I’m a major Little Dragon fan. Their electronic-pop-rnb fusion is so singular to their sound. I am very inspired by it. 

Massive thanks to Softee for sharing her Five Favourites with us! Watch the video for latest single ‘Isn’t Enough’ here:

Natural, the debut album from Softee, is out now via City Slang.

The Great Escape 2023: Photos & Highlights

We were back at The Great Escape Festival running around Brighton catching some of our favourite female, non-binary and LGBTQ+ artists in new music last weekend! Spread across multiple venues in the city, the festival showcased an eclectic line-up of talent, and our Features Editor Kate Crudgington and official photographer Jon Mo were there to capture some of the highlights of the prolific three day event.

Of course, clashes, queues and timing issues meant we inevitably missed some artists – including Lambrini Girls, Brimheim, Cristale, Grove and Jessica Winter – but we did catch a glimpse of Courtney Love standing outside of Chalk on the first day of the festival, so that kind of made up for it? Read on to find out more about the shows we did manage to catch…


Alt-Pop is thriving via Sans Soucis, ARXX, Seraphina Simone and SPIDER

Alt-pop comes in many genre-blending guises and we saw it flourish in the form of four very different artists at the festival: Sans Soucis, ARXX, Seraphina Simone and SPIDER.

Catching Sans Soucis‘ set upstairs at Patterns on the seafront was a superb way to kick off our Great Escape experience. Having been fans of the Congolese-Italian songwriter and producer since they released their debut album, On Time For Her, back in 2021, it was a joy to watch them thrive on stage in spite of the technical difficulties that delayed the start of their set. Opening with the infectious warmth of ‘I’m On’, Sans Soucis filled the room with their lush vocals and genre-blending, glitchy-yet-melodic sounds.

We’re running out of ways to articulate how talented Hanni and Clara aka ARXX are. Playing their biggest hometown show to date at The Beach stage, the Brighton duo blasted their energetic blend of alt-pop and rock right across the pebbles. Their between-song banter is equally as entertaining as the rest of their performance. Whether they’re having their “Dua Lipa moment” on ‘God Knows’, getting the crowd to chant along to the anthemic ‘Ride Or Die’, or explaining that the youthful crowd on their recent tour with Yungblud didn’t know who Cher was – ARXX are masters of their comedic and musical craft. Having been long time supporters of this dynamic duo here at GIHE (they’ve headlined our gigs and been guests on our radio show) our hearts were swelling with pride as we watched them shine under the spotlight.

Providing something totally different, London-based songwriter Seraphina Simone delivered her bittersweet musings on love, obsession and growth to attentive fans in Patterns’ basement. Performing songs from her melancholy-tinged EP, Milk Teeth, Seraphina’s sounds shimmered across the venue, aided by drummer Sophie Galpin’s tentative beats. (Self Esteem fans will recognise both musicians, as they’re part of Rebecca Lucy Taylor’s touring band).

A real highlight of the weekend was watching Irish alt-pop polymath SPIDER openly enjoy storming around the stage at The Green Door Store. Playfully taunting the “industry guys at the back” to move forward and dance along to her high energy alt-pop anthems, the songwriter and producer delivered anti-birthday anthems like ‘I’M FINE! I’M GOOD! I’M PERFECT!’, the brooding ‘GROWING INTO IT’ and the defiant grit of ‘AMERICA’S NEXT TOP MODEL’ with vibrant and infectious attitude. Passionate about instigating change as a young black woman making genre-blending music, SPIDER’s charisma shone through between her tracks as she spoke about not letting the industry or the voices on the internet diminish her successes. She was a joy to interview on our Soho Radio for our Great Escape Special show (listen back here) and we look forward to seeing what she does next.

The Future is here in the form of HotWax

Rumour has it that these three teens from Hastings were one of the reasons that Hole’s Courtney Love was in town. Together, Lola, Tallulah and Alfie aka HotWax are a captivating blur of energy on stage, delivering their heavy grunge riffs with impressive and authentic flair. We caught up with them for a chat before their headline set at The Lexington in London back in April (read here), but their packed set at The Beach stage excelled that performance. Highlights included their visceral new anthem about the contraceptive implant ‘Rip It Out’, the riotous ‘Treasure’, and the title track of their upcoming debut EP, ‘A Thousand Times’.

CLT DRP are a live force to be reckoned with

It was one-in-one-out when we arrived at The Black Lion to catch CLT DRP (pronounced ‘clit drip’) on Thursday night, but we managed to squeeze into the venue just in time to catch their set – and WHAT. A. SET. Blending punk vocals with idiosyncratic guitar FX and truly phenomenal drumming, Annie, Scott and Daphne commanded their enthusiastic crowd from the moment the first bead of sweat hit the floor. The Brighton trio played four sets in one day across town, but there was no hint of fatigue as they tenaciously ripped through tracks from their debut album, Without The Eyes, and finished with a knockout rendition of their latest single ‘Now Boy. It feels cliché to say it, but CLT DRP truly are a band that need to be seen live to be fully appreciated. Totally unique.

The Houndstooth 10 year anniversary showcase at St Mary’s Church was stunning

Arriving just in time to see Penelope Trappes disappear in a puff of smoke behind her keyboard at St Mary’s Church, we stayed in the ornate venue to watch sets from Icelandic songwriter JFDR and electronic artist Hinako Omori. All three musicians have released albums via the Houndstooth label, which boasts an eclectic and impressive roster.

JFDR‘s clear vocals, altruistic lyrics and tender instrumentation effortlessly filled the arches of the church. Sharing stories and musings between her tracks ‘Life Man’ and ‘The Orchid’, both of which are lifted from her recent album Museum, the musician was full of gratitude to be in Brighton playing to such an attentive congregation of listeners.

Hinako Omori‘s set followed and it was truly majestic. Heavily inspired by the physiological effects that sound frequencies have on the body and the Japanese practice of shinrin-yoku (“forest-bathing”), Omori’s music seeks to understand and enhance the human condition in intricate and invigorating ways. Playing continuously for thirty minutes, the London-based musician delivered a combination of sounds from her debut album, a journey…, and her warm, expansive synths and soft, lilting vocals transported listeners into a state of calming bliss.

Guitar music is alive and well in the form of Whitelands, Coach Party, Human Interest & ĠENN

Whenever we read an article that claims “guitar music is dead” or that “guitar bands are a dying breed”, we roll our eyes and move on. Trust us when we say that it is alive and well, because we saw proof of it across The Great Escape lineup (including HotWax who we mentioned earlier)

We caught a glimpse of London-based shoegazers Whitelands at the packed Paganini Ballroom. Their hazy, melancholic guitar tones shimmered across the room, with latest single ‘Setting Sun’ proving to be a set highlight.

Isle Of Wight four-piece Coach Party played three sets across the weekend, bringing their grunge-infused cacophonies to a full crowd in the Komedia basement. The band ripped through their set, which included tracks ‘Micro Aggression’ and latest single ‘All I Wanna Do Is Hate’.

London post punks Human Interest poured their sweat and blood (literally) into a knockout set at Revenge. The four-piece delivered swaggering anthems like ‘Cool Cats’ and ‘Mixing Paint’ with impressive confidence, relishing the applause that the crowd granted them after each track.

We enjoyed the instinctive, brooding sounds of Brighton-based, Maltese band ĠENN so much, that we went to see them perform twice! The chemistry between band members Janelle, Sofia, Leanne and Leona was magnetic, as were Leona’s distinctive and powerful vocals. The band were also joined on stage by John Newton (vocalist and drummer of knockout duo JOHN) for a visceral duet during each of their shows at The Old Ship Courtyard and Zahara.

Problem Patterns are everything

Whether it’s Bev storming out into the crowd to shout in your face, Alanah staring you down with her intense glare from the stage, Ciara’s incredible bass face, or drummer Beth politely telling you to “fuck off” if you’re “homophobic, sexist, transphobic or racist” from behind her kit, there’s so much to love about Problem Patterns‘ live show.

Performing upstairs at the Prince Albert pub, the chemistry between the Belfast Riot Grrrls was a total joy to behold. Smashing through politically driven anthems like ‘TERFs Out’, ‘Who Do We Not Save?’ and ‘Y.A.W (Yes All Women)’, the four-piece switched between instruments and shared vocal duties throughout the set, not once losing the incredible momentum they’d built. Members of Fraulein, ARXX and The Oozes were all in the crowd beaming up at the grrrls as they thrashed their way through a knockout show.

We cannot wait for Problem Patterns to return to London to headline for us at the Sebright Arms on 17th November. Grab your tickets here.

We recommend you get tickets to see FLOSSING live ASAP

New York-based musicians Heather Elle and James Maclay aka FLOSSING were the final band we caught at the festival, and we were deeply impressed by their smouldering, angst-ridden sounds. Through their blend of pulverizing bass lines, experimental electronics and eclectic, heavy beats, the duo explore themes of self-acceptance, sexuality and the duplicitous nature of love and attraction. Heather – who has previously played in Bodega and The Wants – is truly mesmeric on stage. A disciplined yet expressive performer, their vocals buzzed around and resonated within the walls of the dark venue Chalk, especially during tracks like ‘Switch’. We didn’t get any pics unfortunately, so you definitely need to catch the band live next time they’re in the UK to witness it yourself!


Words: Kate Crudgington / @KCBobCut
Photos: Jon Mo / @jonmophotography


When I caught up with HotWax before their headline gig at The Lexington in April, bassist Lola Sam and vocalist & guitarist Tallulah Sim-Savage both revealed that ‘Rip It Out’ was their favourite track from their upcoming debut EP, A Thousand Times. Today (17th May), the Hastings band have shared their visceral new anthem about contraception, accompanied by a riotous video shot at The Green Door Store in Brighton.

Having just returned from the seaside city after performing multiple shows at The Great Escape Festival, the trio – completed by knockout drummer Alfie Sayers – have been garnering a loyal following on their local live scenes of Hastings and Brighton over the past few years. They have a busy festival season ahead of them, which includes slots at Mad Cool in Madrid and Visions Festival in Hackney, as well as sharing a bill with The Strokes and Yeah Yeah Yeahs at All Points East Festival in August. This might seem like an intimidating schedule, but the three teenagers are taking things in their stride.

“We did our first ever mini tour recently, just to get a taste of it,” Tallulah tells me. “We’ve been gigging for years, but we’ve never gone away and played more than three gigs in a row. It was really nice spending time travelling together and bonding. Playing live is our favourite thing ever. I never feel happier than when I’m playing live. We’re just really enjoying everything, it’s so much fun.”

Tallulah and Lola have known each other for years and have the unshakable bond that comes from surviving school together. Tallulah explains that the pair played in a band called The Kids when they were fifteen years old. “I played guitar, Lola played bass and we had a singer and another drummer. When that band ended, we formed HotWax and I decided to sing. I would never sing usually, but I thought ‘I’m just gonna do it’, because we got on really well and we didn’t really have another friend at school to invite into the band.” She laughs at that last part, and I do to. It’s hard to believe that the pair struggled to find friends to play along with them, as they both seem modest, but truly passionate about being in a band making music together.

Drummer Alfie can’t remember a time when he wasn’t playing drums. It seems like an act of serendipity that he met Lola and Tallulah, completing the HotWax line-up. Together, they create the type of guitar music that other bands take years to master. Their sound is raw, but self assured, visceral yet melodic. Each time I’ve seen them play, I’ve felt an overwhelming rush of joy, because I know I’m witnessing something truly special. But maybe I’m just projecting and being sentimental? I wish I’d been in a band like theirs when I was eighteen.

So what influenced HotWax’s sound? Lola says she remembers listening to CDs in the car with her Mum – “stuff like The Beatles, Amy Winehouse and Destiny’s Child” – before she discovered rock music in her early teens. For Tallulah, it began with a love of Lady Gaga, before her Mum played Blondie’s Parallel Lines album at a family party, and she became totally obsessed with it. “I was listening to that album for a whole month,” she smiles. “I remember feeling kind of guilty about it in a way, that rock music was ‘bad’ – I don’t know why? I was quite an anxious child. I was like, ‘Oh, this feels really bad, but it’s really good!’. That’s probably when I got into heavier music and was inspired to play electric guitar, rather than acoustic.”

Through these eclectic influences and an endearing rebellious streak, Lola and Tallulah wrote the eponymous track from their upcoming debut EP, A Thousand Times. “The reason why we called the song and the EP ‘A Thousand Times’ is because Lola and I have gone through complicated relationships together, but it’s also about being just everything to each other,” Tallulah explains. “It’s sort of like we’ve had this argument a thousand times. It’s all about growing up and the things that come with that. Dramas, arguments, heartbreaks, everything. It’s celebrating us growing older and still being friends.”

The track is now a staple in the band’s live shows, but it took a while for it to sound the way that it does now. “It took us ages to record it,” Lola explains. “We didn’t record it until Alfie was in the band. The music video for it is made up of clips from then until now. So it’s like this photography project. With the song and this EP, it has been a collective effort from us and our producer as well. I’m really happy with it. I think that we went into it with the view of ‘this is what it sounds like now, live’, then we when you go into studio, you have more options of where the song can go and it can end up sounding different, but in a good way.” The band worked alongside Kid Kapichi’s Ben Beetham to bring their record to life. “He’s a great producer, he was so enthusiastic,” Alfie adds.

With their debut EP released in just a few days (May 19th), some stellar live shows lined up, and their recent signing to Transgressive Records, I ask how the band are feeling about these impressive feats. Tallulah is quick to respond: “It’s weird. It’s all I’ve ever wanted and I’m so happy, but everything’s happened so quickly. It’s kind of hard to process it and not to feel the pressure a bit. We’re writing our second EP and it’s like ‘Oh, people are actually going to hear these songs now,’ it’s a weird shift from just being a small town band. Yeah, it’s quite overwhelming sometimes.”

“It’s not just us that we have to impress anymore,” Lola adds. I caveat that with the fact that people seem to already be deeply impressed by what they do, which they smile at. We close our conversation with some recommendations on what to listen to. They all chime in enthusiastically, especially Alfie: “There’s a band called Lime Garden who we really like, they’re from Brighton. Kid Kapichi are really great. We’re good friends with a band called Mindframe, they’re really cool. Our local music scenes are great. We also love a band called Congratulations and Honey Badger too!”

Watch the video for ‘Rip It Out’ below.

HotWax Live Dates 2023
17th May – Brighton, The Prince Albert (Pearl Harts tour)
18th May – Portsmouth, The Edge of the Wedge (Pearl Harts tour)
19th May – Bristol, The Lanes (Pearl Harts tour)
20th May – Hastings, Printworks (support from Snayx and Borough Council DJ set)
1st June – Manchester, 33 Oldham St (Alien Chicks support)
2nd July – Newport, Rebel Fest
7th July – Madrid, Mad Cool Festival
22nd July – Hackney, Visions Festival
25th August – London, All Points East Festival
9th September – Torquay, Burn It Down Festival

Follow HotWax on bandcamp, Spotify, Instagram, Twitter & Facebook

Photo Credit: Holly Whitaker

Kate Crudgington


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