The biggest secret of my success

Charlotte Kelly's first single won her a massive following on the American dance scene. Not bad for a kid from a Coventry council estate who was blind at birth. By Barney Hoskins

Charlotte Kelly was in a New York hotel room recently when the video for the Specials' "Ghost Town" came on the television. She stood rooted to the spot, for there on the screen was the Coventry of her childhood - in all the squalid decay Jerry Dammers described in that song.

"I rang my mum in shock," she says in a broad Midlands accent. "It was the first time I'd seen it."

Kelly, a 24-year-old star of America's dance charts, was just a child when "Ghost Town" reached No1 and put Coventry on the map as an unlikely musical mecca. She was living in a council block with her white mother and black cab-driver dad, singing along to the reggae singles - John Holt, Garnet Silk, the late Dennis Brown - they sold in their import record shop. She was also looking at the world through eyes affected by a cornea- damaging condition known as nystagmus.

"My parents always knew I was partially-sighted," says Kelly, who was blind at birth. "One day we were playing a game like blind man's buff in the living room and I only had one eye covered. And my dad went: `How many fingers am I holding up?' And I said: `I don't know,' because I can't see out of this eye. My dad would always take me to see specialists, but I got bored with going because it was the same every year: `It's still the same, we can't do much for you.' None of the glasses they gave me ever made any difference.''

Kelly has learned to compensate with her other senses.

"I can see a bit of what's around me, but I've got used to relying a lot more on sound and vibe. It's really funny, because when we moved into the house we're in now I said to my mum: `I don't want this bedroom 'cause the vibe in here feels really bad.' She said: `Charlotte, you're just trying to be extra- supernatural, there's nothing wrong with the vibe.'

"But then I met a cab driver who knew the woman that lived in that room, and he said she was really unhappy."

Sound and vibe: black musical history is full of musicians whose blindness, far from being a handicap, seems to have given them more finely attuned hearing. Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder are the towering pop-era examples, but blind singers from Archie Brownlee to Rance Allen have been central to American gospel music.

"Sometimes when I'm in the kitchen at home, I can hear people driving past in their cars with the music on," Kelly says.

"If I can hear the bass line I can tell what song is playing. And I really enjoy being able to spot that."

Kelly's heightened aural sense is already paying dividends. Earlier this year, recording simply as "Charlotte", she topped the Billboard dance chart in America with the anthemic "Skin". She's currently at No4 on the same chart with the old-fashioned disco floor-filler "Someday". Almost overnight this partially-sighted Midlands beauty has become a diva icon for the muscle-bound house-music fanatics who pack Manhattan clubs such as Twilo.

"I've got a lot of gay friends, so I kind of knew what the behaviour would be like," Kelly laughs. "I love it because it's all based on people who live that dance-music life and they're all up for it. I've always thought of divas as people who go out there and act the star and look great. Because I'm a songwriter I expect people to see me more as an artist, but I don't have a problem with being called a diva. The gay crowd think "Skin" is totally their anthem. They say to me [in lisping American accent]: `You know what, Char, I'm just so glad someone wrote about us.' And of course I'm like: `My pleasure!'"

As with Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder and Clarence Carter, Kelly has overcome considerable odds to get where she is. "It's funny, actually," she says. "When I'd get my hair plaited and wear shades on a bright day to school, they'd call me Stevie Wonder's girlfriend. For a little while my name was Charlotte Wonder!"

She says classmates in Coventry called her far nastier things, making her life a misery but helping her to build an inner resilience. "To be honest, I'm not angry about it. I've always promised myself that whatever happens and however unfair things are, I'm going to try not to get bitter. Because I know some great musicians who've become bitter over the years, and it's scary how it's ruined their lives just in terms of how they are as people. I always think that once you're bitter, it's over."

So just how did Charlotte Kelly travel from what she calls "the ghetto environment" of Coventry to the glitzy clubs of the Big Apple?

"It's weird, because Coventry for me wasn't very exciting," she says. "But at the end of the day you can never really mock too much where you came from, because it's a big part of the reason why you are the way you are. And I guess I should be grateful for that really. I do go back there when I'm forced by family and friends I haven't seen for ages. It's the guilt that gets me on the train, but it's kind of good getting off the train and knowing your way around. Coventry isn't the kind of place where people hassle you. There's a certain shyness there because it's seen as countryside compared to London and it's not as full-on as Birmingham."

When the teenage Kelly announced to her parents that she wanted to leave school and become a singer/songwriter, they gave her their tacit encouragement: knowing about the business, they simply told her she'd have to get a job if she was going to pay for her demos.

"It was my mum's way of checking it wasn't just a phase," she laughs. "Once she saw me making an effort, she decided to pay half. And then when my dad came down to the studio, he said: `Is that you singing? Wow, I'll pay for a whole week!'"

In 1990, Kelly's demos found their way into the hands of Mike Ward, a veteran songwriter who'd written hits for the likes of Lulu and Alison Moyet. "I had a meeting in London with Mike and he asked to sing a song to him a cappella to see what my voice was like. I think I sang about two verses and he said: `Let's write some stuff together.' And in a way that was where my influence came from, because I really thought he was a great songwriter. Being older than me, his standards were quite high."

Signed to Jazz Summers' Big Life Records shortly after, Kelly was taken under the wing of Lisa Stansfield, who wrote her 1993 single "Sugar Tree". It also led to her becoming a member of Jazzie B's Camden collective SoulIISoul. "Jazz and Jazzie were both like father figures to me - I've had a few of them! I'd just sit there and listen to them and try and remember it all afterwards." SoulIISoul, Kelly says, "was like having 20 uncles". She sang lead on the group's 1995 Top 20 hit "I Care" and revelled in the touring that exhausted everybody else.

"I think when you're part of a collective it's a lot easier, because you just have to go out there and give it your all for maybe three minutes once or twice a night."

Kelly gave Jazzie B her notice in 1996 and began work on the songs that can now be heard on Charlotte, her debut for Parlophone Rhythm Series. "I didn't want to close the door on SoulIISoul, but it was part of growing up for me to go and explain to Jazzie that I needed to move on," she says. "Obviously he was an intelligent guy and he knew that time was gonna come."

The time also came, last year, for Kelly to give birth to her first child, Iman. Like Lauryn Hill, who sang in the lovely "To Zion" of the choice she'd made to combine her career with motherhood, Kelly is helped by the extended family she has around her.

"My mum's always around, and Iman's father takes care of her and she stays with his family and my family. And I imagine an intelligent person like Lauryn Hill would bring up their child in a certain way where they're prepared for the fact that mum's not always gonna be around but she's always there for you. I think as long as kids know they're loved it's amazing what they can tolerate."

If Charlotte Kelly feels more affinity with Lauryn Hill than with house- music empresses like Ultra Nate, for the moment she's happy to ride the dancefloor express to wherever it takes her.

`Charlotte' will be released on 13 September. Charlotte Kelly plays London's Jazz Cafe on 15 October

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...