"It’s really just a gift to be able to play an instrument, or write a poem, or anything creative that gives you pleasure...” - hmv.com talks to Richard Carpenter
As one half of legendary brother-sister duo The Carpenters, songwriter, arranger and musician Richard Carpenter needs little in the way of introduction. Recording and releasing 10 albums together before Karen Carpenter's life was cut tragically short, their time as a duo nevertheless produced a string of all-time pop classics and have proven to be one of the most influential double acts of their generation, inspiring a huge- and sometimes surprisingly broad - array of artists in their wake, from Michael Jackson to Sonic Youth.
Richard has released only two solo albums so far over his long career, his most recent arriving amidst a wave of renewed interest in The Carpenters' music in 1998. This week however he returns with his first new release in more than two decades.
Titled simply Richard Carpenter's Piano Songbook, his new album arrives in stores this Friday (January 14) and features nine instrumental versions of some of their biggest hits arranged for solo piano.
Ahead of its relase we spoke to Richard to find to talk about why he's returned after such a long time, his plans to release more music, and his recent 400-page book that sent him digging through crates of slides and photographs...
It’s been quite a while since you last released a solo album – more than 20 years, in fact. Why did you decide that now was the time?
“I got a call from Rachel Holmberg, who is a senior A&R at Decca in the UK. I’d been in Japan doing a promotional spot for a Carpenter’s album and while I was there I was on Good Morning Japan, so they asked me to play one or two of my songs on the piano, which I did. Then when I got back I heard from Rachel, who’d seen a copy of the broadcast and wanted to know if I would be interested in making an album, purely a solo album, piano only, of different Carpenters songs. And that’s how this came to be.”
How did you go about selecting which songs from your vast back catalogue to work on?
“Well, they’re all Carpenters songs, some better known than others, but the most difficult part was arranging them for just piano. All these years I’ve been an orchestral and vocal arranger for all of our records. So just to reduce it to piano was a little bit of a challenge, but I’m happy I agreed to do it and hopefully we’re going to make a couple more of them.”
How was it deconstructing those songs after such a long time? Were there any difficulties in doing that?
“Only that were I putting together arrangements years ago for any one of them, I’d write out for the rhythm, where the vocals would go, if there are going to be any string arrangements and so on, whereas the piano is obviously just one instrument, so the challenge was really just to make sure that each track was interesting enough. But the piano is the instrument of all instruments, it has a remarkable range and a pianist can do any number of things to get some different colours into each arrangement. But that was the most difficult part of it, trying to make sure they didn’t lose the interest of the listener.”
Have you worked that way much in the past?
“No! This is the first time. But I wanted to keep the songs the same and keep the structure, but without it sounding like you just walked into a piano bar.”
Do you think people think of you as more of a songwriter or an arranger than a pianist, in a way?
“I don’t know. I think most people don’t really know what a musical arranger is, they tend to think of things in terms of the songwriting, the singing and instrumentation, and that’s it. Because I’ve been asked through the years; ‘Well, what is is that you do other than sing?’ And I say I’m an arranger, and if you’re talking to someone who’s not in the business it can sometimes be very difficult to explain.”
Didn’t you once own a piano signed by Liberace?
“Yes, it’s a Baldwin. I still have it. I was playing with one of the Los Angeles symphony orchestras many years ago, we did Rhapsody in Blue and another big piano / orchestra thing, and back then whether you were a Baldwin artist or a Steinway artist you would sign the piano, on the inside. So there are all sorts of signatures on it, in fact, and Liberace’s was one of them. I added mine too, I think this must have been back in around ’84 or something like that.
“But I liked the piano itself, and since I was a Baldwin artist then, although I’m a Steinway artist now, and this was a concert / artist piano which meant that it wasn’t new, I bought it. I got it for around $14,000 I think, for a concert grand. So yeah, I still have it.”
The album arrives on the back of a 400-page book that arrived late last year, which is very extensive in detail – how was that process? We understand there were something like 100 hours of interviews?
“Oh, easily. And then the editing from there, and going through countless photographs trying to find some that hadn’t been used, but were still good photographs. Because through all of these years and all of the many compilations released around the world, especially for the Japanese market, just about every acceptable photo of us – in my book, so to speak – has already been used.
"We’d had slides and photos taken of us when we played the Royal Albert Hall back in ’71, and years ago I put all of that stuff into chronological order, marked it, and put it away thinking I’d never have to deal with slides again. But I had to! I had to go through all of it to see if there was anything in there that hadn’t been used before. And it just by happenstance turned out that the album and the book are being released pretty much at the same time.”
So will your next album be something similar? Do you want to more of the solo piano stuff?
“Yeah. I’ve enjoyed doing it, it’s what the record company seems to want and there are all kinds of other songs that would work very well, I think, for solo piano.”
It’s a testament to the strength of those melodies that they can be performed and arranged in so many ways and still stand up, don’t you think?
“Exactly. That’s it right there, the melody.”
Do you have any other ideas about what you might do with the next album?
“Well, I didn’t do 'Only Yesterday' for this album. I was thinking of themes, and then some songs that were hits years ago, featuring the piano. So whether it be the theme from Love Story, or The Godfather, or Autumn Leaves, things with great melodies, and where the hit record versions of them featured piano. That’s one idea.
The other was to do one called something like ‘The Flip Side of the 50s’. If you’re listening to radio and they’re playing stuff form that era, it’s like the first half of the decade never existed. And there are a lot of really great songs from 1950 to 1955 that were hits at the time, and that you just don’t hear much any more."
Do you think when people think of the 1950s these days they think of Elvis, Rock ‘n’ Roll and all that stuff? That it overshadows some of the earlier music from that period?
“Not for a certain demographic, no. And of course not everything that started in the mid-50s, when rock came to the fore, was a rock song. But I suppose for people who weren’t there, they tend to think it was all rock ‘n’ roll. But I was there. If you look back at the charts in, say, 1956 and just keep going, a lot of the big hits were not rock records, there was pop and all sorts of melodic stuff too, that was big at the time and isn’t all that well-known any more.”
Do you still write new material?
“Not in a while, I just like to sit down and play. But it’s not usually with the idea of coming up with a new song. It’s really just a gift to be able to play an instrument, or write a poem, or anything creative that gives you pleasure.”
Richard Carpenter's Piano Songbook is available in hmv stores now - you can also find it here in our online store.