When it comes to women who have trail-blazed in the music industry, it’s often the critical darlings that take the limelight. People like Patti Smith, Aretha Franklin, Debbie Harry and Bjork are regularly cited – quite rightly – as paving the way for many that followed. But the first solo female artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, the first woman to win the Grammy Award for Song of the Year, the first woman to be awarded the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, the creator of – until the late 90s – the best-selling female solo artist album of all time (and still in the top 50, with 25 million sales) – the recipient of all of these operated as an initially backroom creator of 60s pop songs, and found fame with the down-home warmth of melodic, piano-based soft rock. Carole King was never gunning for critical credibility.
Starting out as a songwriter at the legendary Brill building in the late-1950s, Carole King was the most successful female songwriter of the latter half of the 20th century in the US, having written or co-written 118 pop hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and wrote 61 UK chart hits, making her the most successful female songwriter on the UK singles charts in the 20th century. Writing with then-husband Gerry Goffin, the Goffin-King partnership was responsible for a slew of classic songs that are considered standards to this day – The Loco-motion, It Might As Well Rain Until September, Up On The Roof, I’m Into Something Good, Pleasant Valley Sunday, (You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman, Goin’ Back, amongst many others.
But in 1968 King and Goffin divorced, and she headed to Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, at the time an artistic hub that was home to musicians such as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison, The Byrds, James Taylor and many others. King decided to re-invigorate what had been a stalled recording career, releasing her first solo album, Writer, in 1970. But it was Writer’s follow-up that was to be the making of the her.
On Tapestry King wrote or co-wrote all of the songs, including a number that were resurrected and reinterpreted from her earlier songwriter career. Recorded simultaneously with James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon album, and using the same bunch of musicians, Tapestry inadvertently set a template – alongside Joni Mitchell’s Blue – for the confessional female singer-songwriter album. With it’s pastoral and homely vibe echoed in the iconic album cover and packaging, this was an album that eschewed the heaviness of the late ’60s rock generation, and instead took an deliberately more open, organic, and softer approach. But when allied to genuinely great songs (Tapestry is a fine example of an all-killer/no-filler album, where every song is a classic in its own right), it couldn’t fail. It’s not all domestic bliss – some of these songs have real pain at their heart – but there is a reassurance and comfort that comes from these songs that sucks you in and wraps you up. They are old friends that you always feel comfortable in the presence of. They are those ever-present reminders of an old home, memories filling every crevice. This is an album to treasure, forever.
So one of the challenges with this songbook is that King writes, and performs, with piano. Consequently there are more chords and changes than you might necessarily want. And sometimes the timing can get a little tricky, particularly as the singing gets somewhat loose over the backing. But if you know the record, many of these songs will be embedded in your brain, and that will carry you through. Throughout I’ve tried to strike a balance between something that is playable, and something that retains the nuances of the original.