Photo | facebook.com/CarlaWilliamsMusic
For over a decade, local singer Carla Williams has dedicated her life to country music. However, Williams’s next release shows her taking a side road into the easy-listening ’70s for an epic tribute.
“A Tribute to the Carpenters” is Williams’s musical love letter to one of the most beloved duos of the 20th century. With measures layered with beautiful arrangements, Williams makes these memorable songs more timeless than they already were.
With a summer release date scheduled, Williams is excited not only for the public to sample her renditions of these classic songs but also to experience the recording process in a companion documentary. Lagniappe Music Editor Steve Centanni got a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of an album that took Williams across the globe.
Steve Centanni: What would you say is your first memory of listening to the Carpenters?
Carla Williams: I would say my very first memory would be the very first single I released of theirs, “Merry Christmas Darling.” Christmas has been such a vital part of my family’s life for so long. It’s just a very special time of year. As a little girl, I remember listening to that song and not having any idea who sang it until many years later. I feel like that Christmas song really brought us all together.
Centanni: As life went on, what was it about the Carpenters that always stuck with you?
Williams: Well, I really didn’t think much of it. I knew so many of their songs. In the documentary, I talk about how many of their songs that I knew or that other people have known, and you don’t realize it until you start singing it. Then, you’re like, “Oh, my God! I didn’t know the Carpenters sang that song.” That’s how it’s been for years.
When I first started my career 13 years ago, my first producer asked, “Has anybody ever told you that you sound like Karen Carpenter?” He had worked with her in the past and she recorded one of his songs. I told him, “No, but I’ve always like hearing her sing her Christmas songs.” Fast forward to about two years ago and another producer — Michael Omartian — who had been working with me on this project, he worked with Karen and Richard in the past. He said, “Has anyone ever told you that you sound like Karen Carpenter?” I about fell out. I told him he wasn’t the first person to say that. So, at that point, he said, “You’re crazy if you don’t do a tribute album to her because it’s never been done.” He was not a producer on my album, but he orchestrated all the strings and played piano on a lot of it. He’s been an amazing mentor along the way.
Centanni: You mentioned the strings. When I was listening to this album, aspects like the string arrangements made it so classic and timeless. The old Carpenters’ songs are just typical ’70s easy listening stuff. The versions on this album really gave those songs new depth.
Williams: We wanted so much to remain very true and honest to the original music. Everybody has said to me — and I can’t count how many times that I’ve been asked — if I’m trying to be Karen Carpenter or just be Carla and pay tribute to her. Karen Carpenter is so legendary and nobody out there is comparable to her. I just wanted to stay true as an artist and pay honor to her and the beautiful voice she had and the life she lived and really bring out the tragic death she experienced. Our goal was to stay true to the genuine sound of the Carpenters and not be modern with it. That’s why we feel like it turned out like it did.
Centanni: As far as song selection, how did you sift through their catalog?
Williams: The crazy thing is I could make four albums because all their songs are so good. I remember sitting down with Tom Hemby, who produced the album, and going through the list of the Carpenters’ number-one hits. People know the songs like “Rainy Days and Mondays” and “Close to You.” Everybody is so familiar with those. I picked out a couple of songs I’ve never heard. I wanted it to be a bit of a challenge. I didn’t want it to be an easy album and sing songs I’ve heard all my life. I wanted to challenge myself to learn other hits that she had.
Both of my producers, Tom Hemby and Mark Hornsby, laughed because I would call every day when we thought we were finished and want to add just one more song. It was supposed to be a 10 to 12 song album that turned into 15 because I just couldn’t stop. We finally got to the point that if we kept going, then it wouldn’t fit on vinyl. Just going back and listening to the genuine music and just how brilliant it was and everything about it. Richard Carpenter was so meticulous with every note and everything they played.
Centanni: You mentioned the documentary. Could you tell me a little about that?
Williams: I never knew what I was really embarking on when I started this project. I figured we would do a record in Nashville like I’ve always done. That quickly changed, and the dynamic of this album became something I never thought possible. When I was being interviewed for the documentary, the thing that meant the most to me about this album is it was literally a dream I never had. I didn’t realize that until the album was complete.
In paying honor to Karen and still paying honor to Richard, we decided to document the process along the way. When I say that, it has been the most unbelievable journey in my 13-year professional career. Those beautiful strings you hear on four of the songs were done in London. We went to Abbey Road and recorded those strings in the same studio in which The Beatles recorded. It was surreal watching that process. We filmed in Miami, London and Nashville. We’ve been all over the world. We tracked at Sweetwater Sound in Indiana, which was amazing.
I have some major guest artists. Out of the goodness of their heart, they decided to support me as a singer. Not only were they fans of the project, they were fans of the Carpenters. I’ve got Steve Lukather from Toto playing a guitar solo on one of the songs. Sir Cliff Richard, who is the most successful British solo artist of all time, is a part of it. He and I did a duet on one of the songs. I have two former lead singers of Chicago as well. The documentary is a neat way to watch how the process unfolded and all the stops along the way to the finish line and everyone involved in the process. I can’t wait to see the finished project.
Centanni: The full album will be released this summer. What’s the plan between now and then?
Williams: The plan between now and then is figuring out what will take place in this crazy COVID world we’re in. Thank goodness, we see music coming back to life. When I sang with Sir Cliff, we recorded at Criteria Studios in Miami Beach. We hit it off so well. He asked me to come on tour with him last September and October for his 80th birthday celebration tour. Of course, it got canceled like everything else. We’re in the process of getting that back. He plans on touring again, which I will be a part of.
I’ll be doing a music video for four or five songs I’ll be performing, and we’ll start booking my U.S. tour. We’ll be hitting places like our Saenger Theatre and beautiful music halls and smaller venues for that more intimate crowd. That’s really what we’d love this project to be. Right now, it’s a planning process. Album is done. CDs are in and the vinyl is coming.
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