Nite Life Exchange - interview by Rob Lester, April 27, 2017
“We’ve only just begun” to learn about Karen Carpenter and Carpenters’ music. At The Triad Theatre, Sally Olson’s April 29 show brings more info. We had some questions!
1. Of the many songs Karen and Richard Carpenter recorded, which is the first one you heard that piqued your interest in their music?
It was actually the first Carpenters song that I ever heard! –“(They Long to Be) Close to You.” I first heard it when I was a high school freshman in chorus back in 1995. It was part of a Carpenters medley that we performed for a spring concert. That was my first impression of the Carpenters and it made an indelible mark on my psyche. While it’s true that the song had been recorded by others – including Richard Chamberlain, Dionne Warwick, and even Herb Alpert — who signed Karen and Richard to his label, A&M Records, in 1969 and shortly thereafter suggested to Richard that they cover the song. It was the Carpenters’ rendition that really took off, with their unique shuffle tempo. Richard said of recording it,”Herb Alpert just gave me a lead sheet, and he said, ‘I have a recording of this, but I don’t want you to hear it. I don’t want anything to influence what you may come up with. Just keep, at the end of the first bridge, two piano quintuplets.’ ” Those elements — the shuffle tempo, two piano quintuplets and, of course, Karen’s pure and soulful voice that got me hooked, with this classic Burt Bacharach/Hal David song.
2. Costuming authenticity is a major part of the production. How did you go about putting together the wardrobe you use for your portrayal?
Yes, costuming authenticity is a huge part of the production! When I was in high school, I became addicted to vintage clothes shopping. While I don’t wear vintage clothes on a daily basis, like I did in high school, it’s something that has served my show very well. Burlington, Vermont has a wonderful collection of vintage stores and I’ve also found online vintage stores to supplement my costume search. When I started out costuming my show, I was finding dresses that were “of the era” and looked liked something that Karen might have worn or they were close approximations. But as I further developed my show, I realized that I both needed and wanted to recreate costumes that Karen wore on-stage. So, that is when online vintage stores started to become very useful, because I can type in keywords and find exactly what I am looking for. To date, I have four costumes that are exact replicas of outfits that Karen performed in: 1. The yellow “Rainy Days And Mondays” dress; 2. The “Close to You” peach chiffon blouse/black corset vest/red skirt outfit; 3. The strapless “There’s A Kind of Hush (All Over The World)” aqua dress with sequined rainbow scarf; and 4. The 1972 Grammy Awards black dress with white ruffled collar and cuffs. These are the four costumes that I am currently using in my show, but I’m always working on the next costume idea!
3. You’ve done several performances of this show out of town. Up to this point, what would you say the audiences for this show have been, age-wise?
So far, the audiences have been mainly from the Baby Boomer generation, which makes sense. These are the people who grew up listening to the Carpenters. However, I am always surprised by the younger crowd that tends to come out and is discovering the Carpenters’ music for the first time, or they are vaguely familiar with it because it’s something they heard their parents listening to in their childhood. Since I debuted my show in 2015, I’ve been aware of a resurgence of popularity in the Carpenters’ music. For me, this is really great timing. I’m not totally sure why this is happening, but perhaps is it a return to interest to songs with real musical integrity. Also, it will be 50 years in 2019 since the Carpenters came onto the music scene, so perhaps that has something to do with it. Music, and art for that matter, that is timeless never dies. Dan Levine, Broadway composer, arranger and owner of Such-A-Voice, a voice-over training company, deftly explains the timelessness and musical integrity of the Carpenters’ work as conveyed in my show: “Sally takes us on a carefully crafted journey back to a time when melody, harmony, and well-conceived composition ruled the music scene. Sally has captured the essence and beauty of that era in her show in a way that one rarely sees today. A thoroughly enjoyable evening of song.”
4. You’ve become so immersed in the part and have obviously spent a lot of time researching and studying Karen Carpenter. Is there anything that you have you learned about her that you feel you’ve incorporated into your own life?
Yes, I have spent the past three and a half years totally immersing myself in all things Carpenters. It’s really a labor of love and so, it’s not really work to me. I look forward to my evenings because that is when I delve into archival Carpenters videos on YouTube and other online research. In doing so, I’ve made connections with key people in the Carpenters’ world, including Randy Schmidt, the author of Little Girl Blue: The Life of Karen Carpenter. I had the pleasure of meeting with Randy in November of 2015 in Dallas, TX to “talk Carpenters.” Additionally, I’ve become a member of 15 or so Facebook Carpenters fan groups and have connected with hundreds of Carpenters fans who are very interested in what I’m doing with my show and how I am preserving Karen’s memory and the legacy of the Carpenters music. In regard to what I have learned about Karen that I have incorporated into my own life— Well, first of all, Karen died at the age of 32 from heart failure due to compilations related to anorexia nervosa. I developed anorexia starting in 1998 as a senior in high school, and continued to struggle with the disorder throughout my twenties. Having that common ground with Karen made me feel all the more connected to her and the music. It’s kind of eerie actually. I can really get into her mindset more than the average person, knowing what she went through physically, mentally, and emotionally. Also, I’ve taken up the drums since I launched my show. Because I am so keen on being authentic, it only made sense that I would learn to play the drums. Karen was a drummer first, and always considered herself “a drummer who could sing”….as crazy as that sounds, because she is, without a doubt, one of the best and most recognizable female voices of the 1970s and probably of all time. However, she was also a formidable and very accomplished drummer! In addition, I totally relate to Karen’s dry sense of humor. And, I’ve also noticed that I’ve inadvertently acquired some of her speech patterns. She was born and raised in New Haven, Connecticut, before the family moved to Downey, California; but, there is something about her speech that suggests a certain dialect and is also a bit tomboyish. As a born-and-raised Vermonter, I’ve always been a tomboy and spent my childhood playing outdoors, much like Karen. And my upbringing and surroundings have deeply influenced my speech patterns and regional dialect. It is something that I’ve had to be aware of and “correct” as a singer. But, when it comes to sounding like Karen, it has actually served me quite well.
5. You’ve put together a solid production group from the Burlington, Vermont region. What is the cabaret/theatre scene like up there now?
It is quite eclectic. It really runs the gamut from national tours and large names being presented at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts to community theatre groups— ie. Lyric Theatre Company and Stowe Theatre Guild— to Equity groups– ie. The Commons Group at The Skinner Barn and Vermont Stage Company— to burlesque, ie. Spielpalast Cabaret and Green Mountain Cabaret. However, tribute acts are quite rare in the area. To my knowledge, there is a Prince tribute with DJ Craig Mitchell and an Elvis tribute with Mark Shelton, but that’s pretty much it. I actually stumbled into the tribute genre by accident. Bill Reed, renowned singing teacher and founder of the musical theatre program at NYC’s acclaimed Circle in the Square Theatre School, my vocal coach and boss — I am the managing director at Bill Reed Voice Studio in South Burlington— suggested in 2013 that I consider putting together a one-woman show. I had been studying voice with Bill since 2009. We started reading through music and at some point came across the Carpenters songbook. It was immediately very clear that this was a perfect fit for me, both vocally and emotionally. I’m a contra-alto, like Karen, and I relate to her life story and struggles on a very personal level. I am thrilled to have found my niche as a tribute artist, as I feel that it speaks to my personal affinities for nostalgia, music of the ’70s and vintage clothes, and it allows me to fully express myself artistically. Burlington is a great place for artists. No matter what you are interested in — or obsessed with!— there is a place for you.
6. Of The Carpenters songbook, which is your favorite song and why does it hold that position for you?
It’s really hard for me to pick just one Carpenters song from their very prolific songbook. I love so many of them. Richard Carpenter co-wrote many of the songs with John Bettis, in addition to covering many songs and imbuing them with that signature overdubbed “Carpenters sound” with stacked harmonies. However, if I had to choose just one song as my favorite it would be “I Need to Be in Love,” written by Richard Carpenter, Albert Hammond, and John Bettis. This song was Karen’s favorite Carpenters’ original, as she felt that it was written for her and she would actually tear up while singing it. It is my favorite Carpenters song because I relate to it profoundly. It echoes my own romantic ideals and the desire to “keep believing there’s someone in this crazy world for me.” This song hits very close to home for me and it’s really not that hard for me to “become Karen” when I’m singing this song and feel those same emotions of insecurity and longing that are so integral to the human experience. In essence, I think that is what makes the Carpenters’ music so accessible. Their songs give a voice to those raw emotions that are at the core of what it means to be human.