“Speaking Freely” show recorded April 2, 2003, in Nashville, Tenn.
Ken Paulson: Welcome to “Speaking Freely.” I’m Ken Paulson. We’re delighted today to welcome the Grammy award-winning artist Kim Carnes.
Kim Carnes: Hey. [Applause] Thank you for having me. Hi, guys.
Paulson: You know, Kim, this show is about free expression in America and how important it is to honor the First Amendment. And, I’ve got a bone to pick with you.
Carnes: Oh, no.
Paulson: Going back to the earliest days of your career, you, you appeared in a film, “C’mon, Let’s Live a Little.”
Carnes: I’m gonna kill you right now at the start of the show.
Paulson: First threat today. That’s, ah — but that’s freedom of speech as well, so, that’s OK.
Carnes: You just had to get that in, didn’t you?
Paulson: I want to share this synopsis with the audience. This is a movie starring Bobby Vee, who some of you will remember. [Reads] “The school rebel uses the folk singer to entice students into attending his rally on free speech, but then the folk singer rallies back and punches the radical who supported free speech in the nose. He then allows the dean to tell the student body the reasons why they don’t need radical ideas like freedom of speech.”
Carnes: Things have changed.
Paulson: What a subversive movie that was. And it didn’t take. In 1967, nobody watched the movie, and no one took that message, and that’s probably a good thing.
Paulson: Fortunately, a good thing.
Carnes: Yeah, yeah for a lot of reasons.
Paulson: Well, you were very young at the time and just beginning your career.
Carnes: I was very young. First acting job, last acting job. I definitely realized it was not for me.
Paulson: Well, things got a whole lot better for you.
Carnes: Yeah, they did.
Paulson: You got into music in a very big way. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about your first efforts to get into the music business.
Carnes: I sang. I had a duo — oh, gosh, going back to the seventh grade — with a friend of mine, Jane, and we were Kim and Jane. I played the piano, she played the bongos, and, and we sang. And really before we had our driver’s licenses, we would have a friend in high school drive us — I grew up in Pasadena, California — drive us over to Hollywood, to Hollywood Boulevard, and we’d knock on the doors of record companies and really believed all we have to do is just find the right one, and we’ll be off and running. And we did. We found a, a record company, and the gentleman said, “If you come back tomorrow night, bring us $250 —” I think that was the sum — “you could make a record.” So, we were on our way to stardom. It was happenin’. And we went home and borrowed money from our parents, promising to wash cars forever, whatever, and we went back to the studio the next night. I played the piano, and we sang, I think, four songs. And afterwards, he gave us a green vinyl acetate record that we were thrilled with until we took it home and played it probably four or five times, and then the quality went quickly downhill. It turned to very scratchy and was unplayable. But he also told us he was going to Australia for six months, and he’d be home and was gonna make us huge, big stars. Well, of course, we, after about three or four months, got antsy, went back to the studio to see, just in case, did he come home early, and, ah, it had turned into a travel agency, so — lesson number one. Also a lesson that you’re not supposed to pay them. They’re supposed to pay you to make the record.
Paulson: That’s the theory, anyway.
Carnes: That was our first, first recording shot.
Paulson: Well, he didn’t do it, but you went on to become a major star, and what was the first step? Who had the faith in you to go ahead and, and let you do your first album as a solo artist?
Carnes: Jimmy Bowen did. Jimmy signed me to my first publishing deal, and, we started making demos for publishing. And, really, the demos kind of gradually turned into, “Well, let’s make an album.” So, my very first album was produced by, by Bowen in Hollywood called Rest on Me.
Paulson: And, so, you really began as a songwriter.
Carnes: I did. I started getting cuts on other people’s albums, before I started recording my own songs. And it was great, because as I was making records and waiting for them to happen, waiting to get a hit, songs were being recorded by other artists, so, that was really neat.
Paulson: It’s interesting. Your career has been about writing songs for yourself, writing songs for others, and also picking out songs from other people that spoke to you. And, of course, one of your early hits was “More Love,” written by one of the best, Smokey Robinson.
Carnes: Absolutely, yeah.
Paulson: And over time, you recorded a lot of terrific songwriters, in some cases giving lesser-known people exposure; in other cases, people like John Prine — introducing him to a different audience.
Carnes: When I pick an outside song, something I haven’t written, I need to wish I’d written it. If I hear the lyric and go, “Oh, wish I’d thought of that” — and when I sing it, need to feel like I feel when I sing a song that I’ve written.
Paulson: And, and when you hear other people do your songs, is the experience sometimes transformative and sometimes disappointing?
Carnes: Mm-hmm, both, definitely.
Paulson: And do you ever convey that message, or do you simply smile and cash the check?
Carnes: What do you think?
Paulson: You are a writer of songs with emotional impact, songs about people, interaction. Wouldn’t describe you as a political songwriter per se, although you obviously reflect the human condition. Are there times, though, when you’ve thought about writing songs and then said, “You know, I don’t want to go there”?
Carnes: Sometimes, yes.
Paulson: There are topics — Do you self-censor at all?
Carnes: Do I censor?
Carnes: Not particularly. There’s a song — again, on the album I did in Nashville in ’87 — called “Blood from the Bandit,” that was pretty political, and I loved that being on the record, and I did it in live shows. I haven’t for some years just because I’ve forgotten. But, I’ve got a couple that I’m hiding in the drawer for myself now that might show up on the next record.
Paulson: Well, as you know, from time to time, musicians, actors have spoken out and gotten themselves in a whole lot of trouble with the public — for saying something that might have offended — questioned American foreign policy, for example. Although you are not overtly political, how do you feel about musicians who are?
Carnes: I respect their right to be able to do it. I really do. I think it’s very important that their voice be heard, you know. It’s really important.
Paulson: In your own career, have there been any occasions where things you’ve written have run smack-dab into a wall or where people have said, “You shouldn’t do that,” or, “The video shouldn’t portray something”?
Carnes: Yeah, definitely. I’ve had some songs I’ve written that record company — people at my record company didn’t want to be on the album. I had a video off my Voyeur album — was the title cut, “Voyeur.” And MTV I think had been in existence maybe a year, year-and-a-half, and it was very different then as far as what they show now. And “Voyeur,” they would only show at night, like, after a certain time. There was a little bit of a violent scene in the video, and by today’s standards, it would be nothing, but back then — imagine MTV censoring something. It’s — but they did. Now, Europe didn’t. It was played, played all over Europe, but here, it was censored.
Paulson: Of course, this came at a time when you had a lot of artistic clout coming off one of the biggest records in rock ‘n’ roll history. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about the evolution of “Bette Davis Eyes.” I happened to hear that song on a Jackie DeShannon album —
Paulson: — probably ’75 or ’76. Jackie was actually a guest on this show not long ago and talked about the first time she heard your recording of it. And speaking of transformative — I mean, it was dramatically different, powerful and —
Carnes: It was really different.
Paulson: A huge record. How do you take a song that is certainly pleasant but not the record you put out and make it something that becomes one of the biggest-selling records in history?
Carnes: Well, when I heard her version, which was presented to me as a demo, I just fell in love with the lyrics. I loved the whole idea of the song but knew I had to come up with a different musical treatment, a different arrangement. And at that time, I had a very incredibly tight, wonderful band together, and we recorded every album live. We would go rehearse, like for a show, until we got the arrangement just right and then go in, cut in the studio, and no overdubs. So, we worked on “Bette Davis Eyes” about three days, and it went through every tempo, every feel imaginable until Bill Cuomo, my keyboard player at that time, came up with the magic sound on the keyboard. It was — the keyboard was called a prophet, and we knew immediately that was the lick, that was the sound. And every — everybody just fell into place after that, knew exactly what should be played. And we went in, recorded it the next day. Second take was the record. And what ended up being the actual record and on the radio was even a rough mix. Before going on a Christmas holiday, I said, “Well, I can’t go home without having a copy of this to listen to,” so, they just quickly put it up on the board and said, “Here’s a rough,” and we never, we never could beat it. [Keyboard intro] [Applause] [Sings] “Her hair is Harlow gold, / her lips a sweet surprise. / Her hands are never cold. / She got Bette Davis eyes. / She’ll turn her music on you. / You won’t have to think twice. / She’s pure as New York snow. / She got Bette Davis eyes. / And she’ll tease you. / She’ll unease you. / All the better just to please you. / She’s precocious, / and she knows just what it takes / to make a pro blush. / She got Greta Garbo standoff sighs. / She’s got Bette Davis eyes. / She’ll let you take her home. / It whets her appetite.” Come on. Help us. [Claps hands rhythmically] “She’ll lay you on her throne. / She got Bette Davis eyes. / She’ll take a tumble on you, / roll you like you were dice / until you come up blue. / She got Bette Davis eyes. / She’ll expose you when she snows you / off your feet with the crumbs she throws you. / She’s precocious, / and she knows just what it takes / to make a pro blush. / And all the boys think she’s a spy. / She’s got Bette Davis eyes. / She’ll tease you. / She’ll unease you. / All the better just to please you. / She’s precocious, / and she knows just what it takes / to make a pro blush. / And all the boys, they think she’s a spy. / She’s got Bette Davis eyes. / ‘Cause she’ll tease you. / She’ll unease you / just to please you. / She got Bette Davis eyes. / She’ll expose you / when she snows you, / ’cause she knows ya. / She got Bette Davis eyes. /” [Cheers and applause]
Paulson: We had Art Garfunkel on the show not long ago, and I asked him, “Did you think you’d be singing ‘Bridge over Troubled Waters’ for the rest of your career?” And he said, “No, not really.” He was proud of the song, but I don’t think he saw it as the anthem it was about to be. Same question for you and “Bette Davis Eyes.” Did you know it was going to be a song that would be with you forever?
Carnes: We did. Right after we recorded it, we just knew — the whole band, we all had this great feeling, how special it was. And it was just unique-sounding; the lyrics were unique. And different musicians and acts over the next months that would come and work in the adjacent studio would hear “Bette Davis Eyes,” and they’d always come in every night before leaving and say, “We got to have our fix. Please, just play it for us.” And it is one of those times — I fought very hard for it to be released as a first single ’cause I believed so much in it. We all did. I mean, we were — we were united, definitely.
Paulson: Well, it turned out very well and opened other doors for you. You ended up winning your second Grammy writing music for “Flashdance.”
Carnes: Yeah, that was great.
Paulson: Was it different to write for a film?
Carnes: I love writing for projects. Dave Ellingson, my husband, and I had written — I guess right before “Bette Davis Eyes” — a concept album for Kenny Rogers called Gideon, and that was basically coming up with a story of a modern-day cowboy, writing a story, and then backtracking and writing all the songs. So, much the same going and viewing a film. In “Flashdance,” I was told where they needed a song. They needed one ballad, and, I wrote “I’ll be Here Where the Heart Is,” and they liked it.
Paulson: Beyond that period in your life, you got involved — beyond your own personal career, you got involved in one of the biggest projects ever, the recording of the number-one charity single of the ’80s and a groundbreaking song called “We are the World.”
Paulson: And you are invited to a recording studio. And who all was there? It was Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen.
Carnes: Quincy Jones, Cyndi Lauper.
Paulson: Michael Jackson.
Carnes: Michael Jackson, Paul Simon.
Paulson: Huey Lewis.
Carnes: Mm-hmm. Lionel Richie.
Paulson: Willie Nelson.
Carnes: Ah, let’s see. Bette Midler. Oh, there’s so many people.
Paulson: Basically everyone who was popular in popular music.
Carnes: Hall and Oates.
Paulson: Absolutely. And, how did you get wind of that? How did you get in that mix?
Carnes: Ken Kragen, who put the project together with Quincy Jones called one day and explained this whole project, explained that Lionel and Michael Jackson had written this song, and, did I want to be a part of it? So, “Yeah, of course,” and it was awesome. We got a call to show up at 7:30, 8 o’clock at night, and as everyone filed into the studio, there was a big sign over the door that Quincy Jones had put up: “Leave your egos at the door.” And from that time on, the night was just magical. I think maybe the neatest time was, in between singing, we took a little break, and everyone had sheet music, and everybody started taking their sheet music around to other musicians, getting autographs, and it was, it was great. That was really a memorable, wonderful, wonderful night.
Paulson: Do you recall your one line?
Carnes: Wait. “When we stand together as one.” Yeah, at the very end of the bridge.
Paulson: It’s funny, because you have all this star power, and everyone gets one line, and then it got to you.
Carnes: That’s right. It was awesome, though. I mean, everyone was so gracious and just did a great job, you know. By the time we left, the sun was up, and no one was tired. I mean, there was so much energy in that room.
Paulson: There — there’ve been quite a few records that have followed in the footsteps of that. Did you know, going in that day, that this is something that would resonate around the world?
Carnes: Pretty much, yes. I — yeah, I think everyone felt that.
Paulson: So, what’s been your greatest satisfaction as a songwriter?
Carnes: The songwriter shows that I do with this group that’s up here and, when we add — do songwriting in the round — add two or three other writers, and sing for two, sometimes three hours — just take turns; everyone does their own song. Those nights are so gratifying. I just love them. I’m in awe of everybody up here, and by far, those are the best times.
Paulson: Let’s give the audience a taste of what you’re talking about.
Carnes: Oh, yeah. [Guitar music] [Sings] “Out of her head and out of her dreams. / There he was, just the way she’d seen him / lookin’ at her a thousand times before. / She said, ‘I can’t believe it’s been five long years, / ‘cause tonight, they just seem to disappear. / You still look the same. / You haven’t changed at all.’ / She said, ‘Take me away with you, / ’cause we can ride on the wind. / I feel a gypsy honeymoon comin’ around again. / Throw the car in gear. / Put the zoom on the lens, / ’cause we’re hot as a gypsy honeymoon / comin’ around again.’ / He said, ‘I still remember your sweet perfume,’ / when it filled his head and it rocked the room. / They walked the wire of passion so alive. / ‘It’s hard to hold on in these times. / Did one of us change? Was it yours or mine? / You just can’t imagine how lonely I’ve been. / Oh, take me away with you, / ’cause we can ride on the wind. / I feel a gypsy honeymoon comin’ around again. / Throw the car in gear. / Put the zoom on the lens, / ’cause we’re hot as a gypsy honeymoon / comin’ around again.’” Billy Panda. “We chase our hearts like open fires, / and we give ourselves to old desires, / surrender sweet, / and here we go again. / ‘Oh, take me away with you, / ’cause we can ride on the wind. / I feel a gypsy honeymoon comin’ around again. / Throw the car in gear. / Put the zoom on the lens, / ’cause we’re hot as a gypsy honeymoon / comin’ around again.’ / ‘So, take me away with you, / ’cause we can ride on the wind. / I feel a gypsy honeymoon comin’ around again.’ / Yeah, hey, yeah. / ‘Throw the car in gear. / Put the zoom on the lens, / ’cause the wild, wild horses are running again. / Take me away with you.’” [Applause] Thanks, guys. Thank you. I’m gonna do a song … that actually, I’ve recorded for the next album. It’s a fairly new song called “One Beat at a Time.” [Guitar music] [Sings] “No sad songs, / no tears for you. / Don’t even have to sleep with the light on, / ’cause I can see all right. / No Coltrane, / no midnight blue, / no glitters of regret, no poems, no wine, no cigarettes / to remind me of you. / I’ll take these shoes outside the door / and take this heartache right up on the floor. / Mm. / I’m dancin’, twirlin’ all by myself. / Every heartache unwinds / one beat at a time. / I’m risin’ / high as the sky. / I want to trust someone, / let my hair fall down in the fadin’ sun. / Won’t let tonight pass me by. / I’ll take this pain behind the door, / take this heartache right out on the floor. / I’m dancin’, twirlin’ all by myself. / Every heartache unwinds / one beat at a time. / I’m dancin’, twirlin’ all by myself. / Every heartache unwinds / one beat at a time. / Every heartache, baby, / every heartache. / Every heartache, baby, / every heartache. / Every heartache unwinds / one beat at a time.” [Applause] Thank you.
Tags: Speaking Freely