Carleen Anderson: The disciple of soul

Carleen Anderson was raised in the Church and on the music of her godfather James Brown. Rahul Verma meets her
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The Independent Culture

"Gigs were never something I was going to do for real and had my grandparents still been alive I'm sure I wouldn't be doing this," says Carleen Anderson, fondly remembering the people who raised her. "It was supposed to be high school, college, teach music and then the accountant husband, white-picket fence, the Volvo and 2.4 children - that was the whole plan." Yet it's largely thanks to her strong Christian upbringing, centred on a gospel church in Louisiana, Texas, that Anderson has had a 15-year career as a singer/songwriter. "You were very encouraged - as soon as you could sit up, you would be sat at a piano."

Despite Anderson's strict but happy childhood, her calling as a singer/songwriter seems pre-ordained. Her mother, the singer Vicki Anderson, and stepfather, the pianist Bobby Byrd, were key members of James Brown's backing group and band (The JB Allstars) in his 1960s/1970s heyday. Brown might be the "Godfather of Soul", but he's Anderson's godfather first.

"My grandfather considered James Brown's music to be the devil's music and didn't want me to have anything to do with that, even when they came to town," recalls Anderson. "My grandmother thought, well, she needs to see her mom, so while my grandfather was at the pulpit preaching, she would sneak me off to where they were and then my mother would send me back and call my grandmother who would be standing outside the church with soap and a bucket of water to wash the sin off of me."

The chance to tour with her mother and stepfather, as a backing singer when she was 17, proved irresistible. She fell in love, got married, had a baby and then divorced; Anderson headed to university in California to fulfil her aim of becoming, a music teacher. However, circumstances - Reagan withdrawing funding for the arts a semester before Anderson's degree course finished coinciding with the JB's first tour to London - proved to be the catalyst which would result in Anderson relocating to the UK in the late 1980s.

The JB Allstars were brought over by Femi Williams and Marco Nelson, the duo who would ask Anderson to come back and work with them, convinced that she could contribute to a scene that was breaking into the mainstream. A year later, with her 11-year-old son in tow, Anderson returned to London, forming the Young Disciples with Williams and Nelson. The trio were responsible for the era-defining "Apparently Nothin'"(1991), a record that is as instantly recognisable as "Keep on Movin'" and "Back to Life" by their peers Soul II Soul. Anderson became one of the most recognisable voices of the soul, jazz-funk movement of the late 1980s/early 1990s. The emergence of Soul II Soul, Omar, Young Disciples, Incognito, D'Influence and Galliano was as groundbreaking an era as black British music has ever known.

Despite the impact of "Apparently Nothin'", the Young Disciples never quite scaled the heights they should have. What happened? "It was a fluke - Marco is an excellent bass player, songwriter and musician but he never felt comfortable or wanted the role of being an artist. The fact that the album Road to Freedom got picked up was a fluke, none of it was planned.

"I never thought I was going to get any music done, I was 33 or 34 when the Young Disciples happened. It wasn't something I aspired to."

Anderson is happy to have been part of a scene that heavily influenced black and soul music in America. "The whole new soul urban movement started here. I can remember being in the States, when I heard the Caron Wheeler lyric 'Yellow is the colour of sunrays' [from "'Keep On Movin"] and I stopped and thought, 'This is wicked.' You had D'Influence, Young Disciples, Omar, Incognito, Galliano, Jamiroquai - it was a very new sound," says Anderson. "There was nothing like that in the States. It got picked up a couple of years later but that whole rawness didn't exist any more."

Anderson's first solo LP, True Spirit (1994), left her feeling compromised: "The record company wanted to mirror the Young Disciples' album - that's not my favourite way of doing things. The whole art and commerce thing had really started to define itself and I had a hard struggle with that because my angle was purely from an artist's point of view." Anderson felt her second LP, Blessed Burden (1998), co-written and produced by long-time associate and friend Paul Weller, was closer to her heart and unfettered by any commercial constraints.

In recent years, Anderson has had a renaissance, her third solo album, Alberta's Grand Daughter (2002) - a labour of love dedicated to her grandmother stimulated last year's Grace and Favours DVD/CD. The momentum of the last two years has resulted in the retrospective, Up to Now: The Best of Carleen Anderson. It's much needed too, as it pulls together Anderson's career from her Young Disciples' days to her time as a solo singer via fronting the Brand New Heavies, and collaborating with the rapper Guru and more recent guest spots. Most importantly, though, Up to Now finally gives Anderson's gloriously life-affirming and spirited voice the platform it deserves.

Nowadays, Anderson's happy dipping in and out of the music business, guesting for Paul Weller and James Brown and appearing in one-off shows. However, the accidental soul star is especially pleased that she's fulfilling her original dream of teaching music. "I'm so happy it's happened now rather than 20 years ago, because all I could offer then was books whereas now I have actual experience.

'Up to Now: The Best of Carleen Anderson' is out now on Virgin