MUSIC / The making of a UK soul diva: Dina Carroll is British, but that hasn't stopped her from becoming a double-platinum soul sensation. Interview by Sabine Durrant
Wednesday 10 November 1993
'I've had some horrific cars,' she says, screwing up her face. 'It used to be like dodgy old mini-cabs, chain-smoking Irishmen who were maniacs on the road. And the seats were filthy, like you'd expect rats to leap out at you . . .' Then she pauses, flicking her hands as if to shake off the dirt, and regains her habitual ironic distance. 'The record company does worry about my safety now,' she says with a lift of her elegantly curved eyebrows. 'I guess they've got too much money invested in me not to.'
For Dina Carroll (who, incidentally, was born in a Newmarket taxi on the way to the hospital), the switch has happened fast. This time last year, she was just another hopeful newcomer at A&M. She'd been in the music business since she was 16 - first working for StreetSounds studio; later as the singer for the dance act Quartz (with whom she had a fleeting Top 10 success). Her status then was, as Nigel Lowis, her current producer and co-writer, says: 'Call her up, come in, do this, thank you, goodbye.'
Not any more. This is Week 2 of Dina Carroll's sell-out 21-date British tour. She's been compared to Whitney Houston, to Mariah Carey, even to Aretha Franklin. Her first album has 'gone double platinum', selling more than 350,000 copies, up there with the Stings and the Bowies. She's floating on her sixth successive Top 20 hit. She's been on the Arsenio Hall Show. She was on the shortlist for the Mercury Prize and was nominated for a Brit Award. And (take this how you will), Andrew Lloyd Webber has asked her to release one of his songs - 'My Perfect Year', which she sang live for the first time last week and on which the bookies will offer you odds of 12-1 for the No 1 Christmas slot.
All of which pales before the real confirmation of stardom: Dina Carroll, 24-year-old 'party-loving Dina', 'all-night Dina' has won the attention of the tabloids. 'They got into my house,' she says, 'they read cards, they looked at photographs . . . I was just completely . . . I've never been so angry; I was shaking with anger. I was like 'Do I need this?' . . . But then, as I told my sister later, you can't blame people for being curious.'
Some people may well be curious about how it happened in the first place. Carroll has a lovely voice - sweet with tough edges - and extraordinary looks - almond-shaped hazel eyes that look back at you inquiringly, a large mouth that curls up slightly at the corners for most of the time, then bursts open at the seams into a big, wide grin. Her manager, Oliver Smallman, had trouble placing her demo tape ('It would be unfair to reveal all the labels that turned her down'), but Steve Wolf, the A and R man at A & M, and Howard Berman, the company's managing director, were won over the instant they heard her. 'I picked up the demo on the Friday,' recalls Wolf, 'and the deal was safely being worked on on the Monday. We were that impressed.'
Nowadays, though, it takes more than talent and enthusiasm. Carroll also owes her title of 'Britain's soul diva' to carefully tuned production and canny marketing. Nigel Lowis, her co-writer, neatly judged the sound of her album, So Close, so that it would corner two markets. 'With the uptempo numbers, we wanted to be like the trendy dance producers C J Mackintosh; a sound that has an instant club appeal. But we also wanted the quality of the melodies of, say, Barry White - classy, with the strings and everything. And in the middle of it all, we placed her lovely voice.'
The record company, meanwhile, released three singles before letting go of the album: 'putting an artist's wares in the shop window' to quote Berman. Most cleverly, though, with a poster campaign that zoomed in on Carroll's face, her head swathed in an exotic headscarf, they presented her as an enigmatic creature, someone about whom you might want to find out more. 'They didn't want it to be the normal dance pose in street clothes,' says Carroll. 'We wanted to cause a bit of a stir and get people questioning: what is this shot? What's the song like? Who is she?'
'We're not sure what we're wearing yet,' says the record company dresser, waving around a plaid shirt on a metal hanger. 'We think the black jacket's good, but Dina's quite keen on the lovely cream jumper she bought in Dublin.'
It's 'back stage' at Elstree Studios, as Carroll prepares for her ninth Top of the Pops appearance. This time her usual lush look - velvet swathes, etc - is to be replaced by something more relaxed. 'We think it's about time,' says someone else from the record company.' And doesn't she look nice?'
Carroll rehearses in the black but, for the interview, she's slipped on the cream. Sitting in the dressing-room, knees touching her chin, her thick dark hair swept back, she looks well wrapped up and cosy. Usually, she smokes, but for this tour she's wearing nicotine patches ('I think the dosage is really extreme - the first night I wore one I was buzzing round my bedroom, I was all over the place. I took it off and I was out like a light'). They seem, at least, to have banished her habitual pre- show nerves. 'God, I can be nervous,' she says, 'horrifically. The more famous I get, the more pressure there is on me and the worse the nerves have become . . .' The soul diva leans forward, confidentially. 'I go through phases when I'll have this horrific coughing fit before I go on. My throat tightens and I sing higher than I should. And I get, you know, nauseous. Once, I came very close to being sick. I was, like gagging. They said, 'And DINA CARROLL]' and I thought, 'Oh, God, I've got to get it together,' so I ran up the steps, but I could have just burst into tears.'
It doesn't take long to realise that there's one thing standing between Dina Carroll and the trappings of superstardom: Dina Carroll. 'No way,' she says about the prospect of leaving Cambridge, where she lives with her mother. 'Not if they paid me.' She lives in the same street as always, hangs out with the same friends, goes to the same pubs and clubs, and finds the constant recognition (the bulk of her fans are gay men and teenage girls) less of an ego-thrill than a social embarrassment: 'I get caught up in hour-long conversations and I'm saying, 'I've gotta go, I've gotta go.' They're so hyped, I can't be rude. I mean it's my own fault, I got into the job. So there I am grinning.'
She also hates the USA - though she's half American herself and speaks with sharpened vowels - and she loathes LA. 'I can't stand it,' she says. 'I know if my next project takes off, I'm going to be under pressure to move there, but no way. No wa-ay.' The door opens then and 'a member of the record company' walks in. 'Uh- oh,' she says, 'Hope they didn't hear me.'
It tends to be in LA that Carroll's worst happens: meeting other stars. 'More and more I'm getting the opportunity now,' she says. 'People whose music I enjoy, say, and I hate it because a lot of the time I'm really disappointed. They can be so rude. I did meet - oh God, what's his name? Melvin Franklin, the bass singer in The Temptations, who are my all-time favourites. It was a really embarrassing situation. We were in LA and the people I was with were, like, 'He's in the lobby, he's in the parking lot. Dina's a great fan, get him over.' And they dragged him over and he did the star bit - the smile, the handshake, the carefully chosen, beautifully executed words - 'Hi, nice to meet you,' not listening to a word I said. One of those. And I knew, because I've done it myself when I'm tired, and I hate doing that. And I thought to myself, 'I didn't want to meet you anyway.' '
Dina Carroll does not do the star bit. Not now anyway. But things change. And a soul diva with no money in her pocket (the royalties have yet to flood in) who is picked up at the airport in the record company limo is very different to a soul diva who has a limo of her own. (So far, Carroll's only concession to her new status is to update her 'beaten-up banger' with a Suzuki Vitara Jeep.) Soon, perhaps, she'll find dancing in public makes her feel less 'self-conscious', she'll stop living off packets of crisps and she'll start believing people when they tell her they like her voice: 'I usually think it's crap.'
But one thing's for sure: she'll never be attending a musical tribute. 'That tribute to Aretha Franklin in the States] It was so American. I mean, Robert De Niro - I was devastated] I was so disappointed by him. 'Oh, I love Aretha and it's great to be here and I've listened to her since I was a child . . .' It was like, you're making me sick, they were all so sycophantic. It was revolting. I thought to myself I am never doing anything like that. I'll say I'm sorry. I'm ill.'
Dina Carroll appears tonight at the Hammersmith Apollo, London W14 (081-741 4868). The tour then continues nationwide
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