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Album of the Month: Carole King - Tapestry

“We were making a good record - that’s all we knew then. And it was a simple record.” So said Hank Cicalo, recording engineer on Carole King’s Tapestry, on the making of one of the landmark albums of the 1970s.

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“We were making a good record - that’s all we knew then. And it was a simple record.” So said Hank Cicalo, recording engineer on Carole King’s Tapestry, on the making of one of the landmark albums of the 1970s.

As its name suggests, Tapestry is a collection of songs reflecting King’s thoughts and feelings leading up to the time of its recording. That it achieved huge commercial success isn’t surprising, considering the prodigious talent of both King and her main musical collaborator James Taylor. Yet the album was a brave career move, as it defied the trends of the time in more ways than one.

“James already had Sweet Baby James, I had played on that. He just made it look so easy, so I did Tapestry in the same spirit”, King later recalled. This concept seems simple enough now, but when Tapestry was recorded back in January 1971, it pushed back against a move towards complex, elaborate progressive rock.

Since The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club back in 1967, both the British and US rock scenes had become increasingly conceptual. Take Supertramp’s Crime of the Century or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, which were soon to come. These were long, themed, pseudo-intellectual essays on social issues that steered well clear of the realm of human emotions. Tapestry, however, was the opposite. “They turned all the lights down in the studio, and after a while got so comfortable that it was like they were playing in their living room”, Cicalo said.

The album’s recording process stood in stark contrast to how many rock artists were making albums at the time. Laid down at A&M’s Recording Studios in Los Angeles in the space of under a month, producer Lou Adler later said: “It was fun. You know, Carole would come in and she knew what she wanted… I envisioned her as a solo artist sitting at the piano, singing to you. It only took us three weeks to make, and $22,000.”

A&M’s studios were famous for their crisp and smooth sound – one that by today’s standards seems wonderfully warm and sweet. Artists such The Commodores, Minnie Ripperton, Earl Klugh and Barry Manilow used them on a regular basis, thanks to the (then) state-of-the-art analogue recording facilities, congenial atmosphere and convenient central LA location. Although multitrack recording techniques were in their infancy back then, the pressure was still on to push the studio to its limits technologically, bouncing sounds around, adding multiple overdubs and miscellaneous effects. Yet this album’s production was deliberately minimalist, with a spontaneous live feel.

“It was a simple record”, said Cicalo. “Things like Tapestry could be over-produced in a minute. ‘Let’s add more guitars, let’s add more this!’ Lou and Carole wanted that simplicity – they wanted it to be nice and warm, and a very comfortable record for people to enjoy.”

The result was an organic sound with a tremendous sense of synergy between the musicians. The happy, convivial experience of recording it adds something to the end product that makes it all the more special. “It was great,” said James Taylor, “we played on each other’s records, we just had a common mind.” According to Cicalo, the team were laying down two or three tracks a day.

Tapestry went on to shift over 25 million copies, making it one of the bestselling albums of all time. Alongside two stellar lead singles, It's Too Late and I Feel the Earth Move, it also features songs that King wrote for other artists, such as Aretha Franklin's (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman (1967), and The Shirelles' Will You Love Me Tomorrow (1960).

As well as being a songwriting tour de force, Tapestry was to be an important transitional moment for its creator. Together with her former husband Gerry Goffin, King had previously written over two dozen chart topping pop singles. But in the period running up to the recording of Tapestry, she’d been trying to find a new style. It was her move to LA’s Laurel Canyon that saw her meeting James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and Toni Stern, and collaborating closely with all three. Finally, her sound came together, and the rest – as they say – was history.For just her third album release, Tapestry was a breathtaking achievement. King put this down in part to her technical virtuosity on the piano. “I could play at the age of 4 – it was a gift, definitely”, she once told DJ Johnnie Walker. “It's not about me, I'm the vehicle, carrying these songs to people… The melodies come, often. Sometimes I have to work. It's a combination. I'm a channel. You have to train, so that when everything is right in the cosmos, you're there to receive it. That's how it works for me.”Producer Lou Adler’s genius was his ability to capture her musical spontaneity, and bottle it. By the standards of today’s hi-res digital recordings, Tapestry’s technical quality is nothing to write home about, but raw emotion emanates from King’s lips and finger tips on the piano. The latter is infectiously rhythmic and along with the soaring melodies, is hard for any listener to resist. The cadences that run through I Feel The Earth Move, for example, steam-roller the song along. Each instrument – guitar, bass guitar, piano, drums and vocals – is tightly located in the stereo soundstage, further adding to the sensation of great musicians jamming along with one another. It’s quite an experience via a serious hi-fi system, and all the more so if the vibrant texture of the instruments is correctly conveyed.Upon its release, Rolling Stone’s Jon Landau lauded Tapestry as an album of “personal intimacy and musical accomplishment”. Yet it was more than this, because it also laid the groundwork for the female singer-songwriter genre that went on to become so important in the 1980s, 90s and beyond. A 13 times Platinum selling release, it is a genre-defining work that made many other women’s musical careers possible. As James Taylor once commented: “It came out of her so strong, so fierce and fresh. So clearly in her own voice. And yet, so immediately accessible, so familiar: you knew these songs already.”

Featured quotes sourced from radio interviews and documentaries, including PBS’s ‘Natural Woman’.

Carole King - Tapestry

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