Posted on June 06 2018
Carleen Anderson is one of our all-time favourite singers so we are immensely proud to share her story today.
We first discovered Carleen back in the 90s when she was lead singer with Young Disciples - who can possibly forget Apparently Nothin'? Followed by a successful solo career which saw her release incredible albums such as Blessed Burden, Carleen's work has continued to evolve with her recently writing and composing the music and stage production of Cage Street Memorial at the Barbican in London.
Carleen has become a passionate fan of open water swimming and is currently working on new projects - as a singer/songwriter, and a new Afro-futuristic fantasy.
Newnham: Can you tell us about your upbringing? What were you like growing up? How would friends and family have described you?
Anderson: Born in the late 1950s, I was raised from infancy by my paternal grandparents in a strictly Pentecostal religious environment as my grandfather was the Pastor of our local church. Growing up as the only child in my grandparent's household, I was encapsulated in a sheltered environment. Much of the outside world was unknown to me until my grandfather died when I was nine years old. Whilst family and friends will have their own versions of describing me as a child, the way I looked to them in my eyes was that they saw me as an abandoned child rescued by my grandparents who showered me with their love as compensation for my situation. Also, it felt as though I was seen as the 'heir apparent', to follow in the footsteps of my auntie Betty Faye, the classically trained music school teacher and older sister of my birth father. Most are still surprised at the path my life has taken.
Newnham: How has music shaped you?
Anderson: Music has always been a part of my upbringing on both sides of my family. Secular on my birth mother's side, Gospel and Classical on my birth father's side. It was never my intention to sing for my supper. With a scholarship to study music performance and education, my plan was to be a music teacher. However, after Ronald Reagan took office as the US President in 1981, he removed all the Arts programs for the government school programs. As my training was specific to government schools, I was left without the career I had studied for.
In the years that followed I worked as an office clerk until I was offered to be the opening act for my stepfather's band, Bobby Byrd and the James Brown All Stars. Pops, (my stepfather's nickname), had been the bandleader for James Brown and had left to form his own band. For a time, that group featured headliners and former members of the James Brown band; Maceo Parker, Fred Wesley, Lyn Collins, Marva Whitney, Pee Wee Ellis and my birth mother, Vicki Anderson. This experience changed the course of my musical career from my music school teaching goals to Live and Recording performance, out of necessity.
Newnham: Can you tell me some anecdotes about your early experience with music from watching your mother sing to meeting James Brown?
Anderson: Although I rarely saw my birth mother growing up, even before she started singing for James Brown, one memory stands out as funny from those days. Because my grandfather disapproved of secular music, I wasn't allowed to be in the environment of what he considered, 'the devil's music'. However, my grandmother, in the spirit of motherhood would sneak me out during my grandfather's long sermons to see my birth mother sing with James Brown at his Houston, Texas concerts. As Grandfather's sermons lasted hours, there was time frame for my grandmother to put me in a taxi to take me to the Houston Coliseum where I was allowed in through the side entrance of the venue and into a completely different world of 1960s Hipster lifestyles. It was like going to the circus. A real thrill but one that I was happy to return home from. Upon arriving back at church, my grandmother met me outside 'God's House' with a bucket of soapy water to 'wash the sin off me before entering the temple'. Even at six years old this was hilarious to me. Equally it was a deep insight into how differently people seek uplifts in their lives and that in an ideal world, it should be, to each their own.
Meeting James Brown, who, when he first saw me, he picked me up and said, "You're so pretty", I nearly fainted! So it was well worth the 'Holy Wash' afterwards!
Newnham: Who were your influences and inspirations growing up?
Anderson: The strongest and continuously the primary musical inspiration would be my paternal auntie, Betty Faye Anderson. She was my first vocal coach from when I was three years old and still is the sound I hear in my head when I'm singing. Other major influences was Sarah Vaughan, Marvin Gaye, Donny Hathaway, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Minnie Riperton, Chaka Khan, Mahalia Jackson, Staple Singers.... the list of influences and inspirations is long...
Newnham: Can you recall the moment when you knew that this path wasn’t just about your passion but would be lifelong and your career? What was the tipping point?
Anderson: Only in the last two or three years did singing for my supper become more than just a job I did to keep a roof over my head. Music has always been a personal healer for me, one that was diluted in order to make my living by performing it in public. However, when I received a grant from the Arts Council England in 2015 to develop my music and stage production CAGE STREET MEMORIAL, and a further grant from Performers Rights Society Women Make Music later that same year to record an album of the music for the CAGE STREET MEMORIAL project, that was the first time that I saw music as a career, something that I would do for as long as I was physically able to do so. Before then, I felt like I was selling my soul, just to eat. As grateful as I am for all the years of acceptance I've had through the nearly three decades of making music, and there were moments that felt true during that time span, but now I'm finally feeling like I can be completely honest in my work.
Newnham: Can you tell us about your career to date including some highs and lows?
Anderson: The roads in my career are varied and winding. The high point would be an impromptu performance in 2003 at the Royal Albert Hall in London with my Godfather, James Brown. There's footage of this on my Grace & Favours DVD. The lowest point was when my Godfather and Stepfather died within 9 months of each other, (JB- Christmas Day 2006 || BB-12th September 2007). Everything else in my career that happened before or after, musically, as far as lows go, can hardly compare. However, what gave and still gives me the most uplift is when someone says to me that my music brings them joy. That is the best feeling.
Additional exhilarating experiences was to meet some of my heroes, Dr. John, Paul McCartney, Gil Scot-Heron, Chaka Khan, George Benson, meeting and singing for the Queen of England, and using my industry influence to raise money for Cancer Research and Macmillan Cancer Care by swimming in open water in mass participation swims.
Newnham: What prompted your move to the UK and how have you found it vs US? Especially today?
Anderson: After the disappointment of being without the option to teach music in government schools, it was the incessant violent climate in the US that made me consider relocating to an different country. Although I was considering Germany and Italy, it was England that made an offer that was best for my son. Every day I am so pleased I made that decision.
Newnham: Tell us about swimming and what it means to you?
Anderson: Open water swimming began because I had injured myself riding my horse and my doctor recommended I stop riding and start swimming to repair the damage to my body from riding horses. To get myself into swimming I started swimming for charity in mass participation swims. The first one was in June 2012 at Lake Windermere. Since then I've swum in various lakes in the UK, in the River Thames and last year I swam London's Serpentine, all to raise money for various cancer support charities. In the past year I've started to swim in open water just for fun and find it the most exhilarating, spiritually enhancing activity that requires you to challenge your endurance, at the same time that it demands your tranquility because even though you're in the cold, deep waters of the unknown, being calm is key to enjoyment and safety.
Newnham: Can you tell us about Cage Street Memorial - what’s the story behind it?
Anderson: The story behind CAGE STREET MEMORIAL (CSM) is one of a little girl as the narrator tracing the heritage of her grandfather who was born in the late 19th century, in Mississippi, USA to her son's current life in 21st century Bristol, UK. The narrative is translated as a Tribal Opera fusing music and theatre within a visually enhanced concert.
Newnham: What’s next for you?
Anderson: Alongside various human rights concerts and performance collaborations, I'm also working on my next project which is an Afro-Futuristic fantasy blended with realism.
Newnham: If you could go back in time, what advice – if any – would you give a younger Carleen just starting out?
Anderson: Stay true to yourself. Follow your gut, it's the most reliable source of direction. Beware of the warning signals from those who try to take advantage. Everything costs you something. Prepare to pay the piper. Deliver music because it brings uplift. All else is shifting sand.