Words Jason Holmes
Portraits Etienne Gilfillan
“…if I live a little bit longer, I’ll need something to do with my time.”
Coming from musical royalty can make some singers comfortable and complacent, unwilling to stray into artistic realms that might stretch their abilities and tax them unduly. But this isn’t the case with Carleen Anderson. For her, it’s been a long journey from Texas to London, and it’s a story she now wants to tell.
Born and raised in Houston, Carleen received a music scholarship to go to school, but back then had no intention of entering the music industry. But fate had other ideas. Carleen had been surrounded by musicians from the get-go: her godfather was the late, great James Brown, whose band numbered her mother Vicki Anderson and her late stepfather Bobby Byrd among its members. So when ‘Pops’ (Byrd) asked her to go on the road with him to Europe, it was an offer she couldn’t refuse.
When she subsequently crossed the pond to London, moving here in 1990 with her young son, she found a city that was busily conducting a love affair with the rarest of grooves. It was the time of warehouse parties, acid jazz and a freer fusion of musical styles, as soul, jazz and funk were resurrected by a new generation. In Soho, in clubland, and on radio stations like Jazz FM and Kiss FM, things were looking up as a rebooted music scene recovered from the dissipation of the 1980s. And for Carleen, it was the breath of fresh air she needed: she formed The Young Disciples, with Marco Nelson and Femi Williams, and then went on to work with the Brand New Heavies, Paul Weller, Nigel Kennedy, Bryan Ferry, Paul McCartney and many more.
The fact that it was England, and not the US, that provided the fertile ground for this extended period of creativity is not lost on her: “I couldn’t have done this anywhere but in England,” she tells me over a coffee on Frith Street. “And make no mistake, I am very blessed. But today, I’ve had enough of that, of the three-minute song. What I’m doing now is very different from anything I’ve done before as far as a project is concerned.”
She helped write the modern Soho soundtrack – the clubs, bars and restaurants of the area still pulse to songs like Apparently Nothin’, Mama Said and Woman In Me. But today she’s looking to the future with a new project – Cage Street Memorial – that represents her first foray into theatre. After a successful reception at the Albany Theatre in March 2015, which was funded by an Arts Council England grant, she is looking to take the piece into full production for a 2017 tour.
Having experienced the confines of industry-friendly musical formats and found them too restrictive, she says, “It was never my thing, but something that was offered to me at a time when I had a young child that needed taking care of. But writing for The Young Disciples was a great job.” It was a job that gave birth to the seminal Road To Freedom LP (Talkin’ Loud, 1991), but having been an independent artist since 2001 and a recurring resident at Soho’s legendary Ronnie Scott’s since 2006, now’s the time for a gear change as this project moves her into new territory.
“Cage Street Memorial is completed. The book has been written, the album has been recorded and the script has been developed to take it to the next stage of the workshop. The book has to find a publisher and the album has been courted by a couple of record companies, so now it’s decision time.
“I call Cage Street Memorial a theatre production because it’s hybrid in nature. Digital media arts will play a significant role to accompany the story telling. Opera has embraced digital art, but plays and musicals are less inviting for this new kind of media. So that’s what I’m leaning towards… an opera setting, of sorts.” She tells me it’s a unique project that will mix music, opera and spoken word.
Cage Street Memorial’s story begins in 1960, when a young girl called Cassie, being raised by her grandparents, begins her journey through the American scene just as the Civil Rights movement erupts around her. Based on Carleen’s own life, the tale resonates today as America continues to experience political convulsions. It’s an artistically courageous move to make, and Carleen agrees: “I can’t look at this as my last piece of work. This is not a summation of my life. I look at Cage Street Memorial as the template of how my work will be from now on.
“I want to engage the audience in a way that makes them feel it was worth it to leave home and come to the theatre; it’s different from anything I’ve done before, mainly because I’m telling stories in the way I like to tell them. The work I’ve done, from my Young Disciples days up until now, was all in the ‘music industry market platform’. That’s the template of writing songs with the intention of them being played on radio.”
This change of direction springs from her desire to re-engage with her profession after having achieved so much in the traditional music industry. Today, she has the benefit of all that experience, and her emotional connection to music is steadfast. But are there sacrifices to be made in pursuing something new?
“Sleep. You can’t sleep because there’s always something to fix, be it words or musical arrangements. You sacrifice having a social life, but it’s something I’m willing to do. You have to deal with non-stop politics in the theatre world because the work is living, it’s continuous, and one which affects your spirit. But these sacrifices are worth it because I’m able to express the art of life in a way that I’ve never been able to do before.”
As Soho experiences a rebirth, so too does an artist who knows these streets only too well. In seeking a new way to tell stories, Carleen Anderson’s horizons have broadened. “Cage Street Memorial is not a story that could be told in America because people would be uncomfortable hearing what it has to convey – because of the truth it reveals. But I’m hoping this is a new way of building a platform where I can continue to tell my stories. And from these stories I hope will come a new way of composing music. And also,” she laughs, “if I live a little bit longer, I’ll need something to do with my time.”
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