Carole King and Tapestry through the eyes of Debra Byrne
I first fell in love with Carole King’s music as a young girl, in the phase of my life where the Dirty Dancing soundtrack turned my musical taste upside down. I started to seek out songs from different artists that reminded me of the music in the film, and before I knew it, I had compiled the soundtrack of my childhood. It wasn’t until many years later, that Beautiful: the Carole King musical allowed me the opportunity to realise that the songs I had loved for many years were predominantly written by the same incredible woman. Sitting down to chat with Debra Byrne about her current Tapestry tour of Carole’s music with Vika Bull, I was delighted to receive a crash course in Carole King appreciation from one of Australia’s greatest leading ladies.
Carole composed a wealth of music for other artists, so most people know and love Carole’s music without realising that she wrote or performed it. Why do you believe her sound is so universally loved?
This is a question that a lot of people want to know the answer to, and I only know my answer, because of what I know of Carole and her music, and how it affects me. To me, it’s the simplicity of her music, and that’s not underrating her as a musician – I’m not saying it’s simple to play, cause it’s not – but it’s the simplicity of it, the purity of the music and how it is so direct. The lyric just speaks so clearly… The words, apart from songs like ‘Tapestry’, where it is slightly cryptic, but certainly songs such as ‘Natural Woman’, ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’, ‘You’ve Got a Friend’, they’re just so perfectly said when you need that confirmation, when you need to hear those words, there they are, right there. They’re magnificent songs. I think she just speaks directly to people’s hearts, I really do.
What is the Carole King song that you have performed the most throughout your career?
‘Up on the Roof’. To me it’s a song that really touches people, it’s a song of hope, a song of peace, a song of letting everything in the world that we shouldn’t be living with go, just shoot it all away and just go somewhere, whether that’s a place, an actual place or if that’s a place in your mind, where you can find that peace… That song I’ve sung for over twenty years, and I sing it in the show because I can’t imagine doing a Carole King show without performing that song.
What was your introduction to Carole’s music?
Like everyone, on the radio. I think it was ‘It’s Too Late’ was how I knew who Carole King was, though I already knew her songs, I just didn’t realise that she’d written so much of it. ‘You’ve Got a Friend’ with James Taylor to me was just James Taylor, but there are so many songs over the years (and prior to Tapestry) that were written by Carole that you didn’t know at all, you didn’t know they were her songs (well I certainly didn’t, I was too young to know), but she’s such a prolific writer, one of my favourite songs is a Dusty Springfield song, ‘Going Back’, that Carole wrote, an absolutely stunning song…
Why was the decision made to tour this show to regional centres as well as cities?
That’s interesting, that’s the second time I’ve been asked that and it kind of always shocks me a little bit because regional centres are very important to performers, because there’s a lot of work out there for performers in regional areas, of all parts of Australia. Where there’s an audience, that’s where you want to be. Of course you’re not going to get Justin Bieber to tour the regional areas, but it’s certainly a place that I want to be and I want to work, and I’ve done that all my life, all my career, I’ve always done regional work. I actually really enjoy that whole thing of moving from one town to another and seeing Australia in a way that a lot of people don’t get to see Australia. It’s fun. The day time that you spend with your band, with your fellow workers in the show, your roadies, your sound engineer, is what you carry on to the stage as well. When you’re doing shows in capital cities and doing shows in one place, you’re not necessarily spending as much time with each other. When you’re travelling around, you tend to spend a little more time with each other, you have to eat somewhere, drive somewhere, stop somewhere and you have experiences with each other, and those experiences are what you bring to the stage. Not necessarily taking about them, but the bonding that occurs and the relationships that grow and develop within people, that’s what comes together on stage, and I think that the really good part of doing regional touring is that you get to know the people more intimately that you’re with.
What does Tapestry and Carole’s music in general mean to you?
So many things, because it’s been a whole life of her music for me. It puts me in places, certain events in my life… It’s taught me to always sing the lyric, don’t mess with a good song, don’t try and make it better, it’s already great. I think that’s the thing about singing any of that type of music, is that you don’t mess with it, you just sing it and it’s all there to do. I think the most important thing a singer can do is remember that the lyrics are the thing you’re telling the story with, that’s your job, to make sure you’re interpreting the song.
Carole’s voice has a very unique sound, how do you look after your voice while performing her music?
Well I don’t smoke, and I don’t drink while I’m performing, I drink a lot of water… I don’t find her songs difficult to sing, I don’t find that they are a strain on my voice at all. They are so beautiful to sing… The difficulty in some of her songs is that they sound really easy until you start singing them, then you find they are quite tricky to sing. The intonation in the songs is very close at times, so you have to watch your pitch a lot. I find that they’re not as easy to sing as they sound. I think the thing is that you just have to relax with her songs. You just have to sit back and relax and let the song do it…
Fans of Carole’s music will have another opportunity to see it on stage soon, in Beautiful: the Carole King musical. Why do you think her music is so accessible to musical theatre fans and performers?
I don’t really know! For no other reason than if you are a performer and a singer, then you should be able to recognise a beautifully written song. Musical theatre is often so much about the lyric because it’s part of the narrative and the storytelling. You have, of course, the spoken word in musical theatre, but so often the song is the narrative as well. Every song that you sing in musical theatre is telling a part of the story, we are storytellers… Carole’s songs are beautiful stories, she’s a great storyteller.
If you could recommend just one Carole King song for friends and family to listen to, which one would it be?
There’s a song on Rhymes and Reasons called ‘Stand Behind Me’, it’s quite obvious that Carole’s speaking to God, and this song, like many songs that are spiritual, you can apply them to many relationships. This song is about people taking care of each other. Just very simple, beautiful… It’s gorgeous.
Is there a particular lyric or melodic phrase in Carole’s music that you love?
‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’… It’s that vulnerability of giving yourself to someone and hoping that they will treasure what you have to give. As people, we do that, we give ourselves to others and we hope that what we give (which is our heart), will be taken care of. It’s in the line, “Is this a lasting treasure, or just a moment’s pleasure?” In saying that, it’s obviously a treasure to the person asking the question. So it’s that beautiful vulnerability of opening up your heart to somebody and hoping that they take good care of it. It’s a devastating line. Most people in their life will experience that feeling, and then she puts it so perfectly. “Can I believe the magic of your sighs?” It’s excruciating.
Why do you want audiences to attend your show?
I think authenticity is really important. It’s kind of a cold word, but I want them to know that what I feel when I sing is real, and I hope that they feel that, and that it’s a good thing for them.
What do you personally hope to take away from your performance?
Joy. Just joy. I’m a reasonably happy person, but I’m an extraordinarily content person when I’m performing, certainly this music. It has a great effect on the mind and body when you’re singing music you love.
A full list of details for touring locations can be found on the Tapestry Facebook page, with Moonee Ponds, Horsham, Frankston and Bendigo still to be visited.