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

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