Interview: Carleen Anderson - The soul diva of Surrey

In the States, she shared a stage with the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. But it is since settling in England that Carleen Anderson has found solo success, a passionate following - and a place to call home

THE LOVE of Carleen Anderson's life is on the other side of the world. "He'll be gone for three months," she says. "It's the first time we've been apart this long." Hands covering her face, the woman who is perhaps the greatest soul singer living and working in Britain today lets out a stage moan.

The object of her devotion is not some fickle lover but Bobby, her 19- year-old son, currently taking time out after his A-level exams to travel the world. To describe them as close would be like saying his mother knows how to carry a tune - a gross understatement. "He warned me of this when he turned 16. He basically said, 'Mom, you gotta sort yourself out. I'm growing up and I'm gonna be leaving soon, so you need something else to do besides tend to me'."

Bobby's warning worked. The thing she found to do was record a new album, Blessed Burden, to be released by Virgin in April. The first single from the album, her soulful rendition of Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed", reached number 24 in the charts earlier this year, and the second, "Woman in Me" is due for release on 30 March.

When we meet in the bar of a hotel in Kilburn she is dressed for business in a black pinstriped trouser suit. Framed by the wings of her armchair, Anderson looks tiny and lean, and older than her publicity photographs suggest. Last May, she turned 40, an age that becomes her. Polite and friendly, she pauses before offering a full answer to each question. This is her job, and she clearly takes it seriously.

The new album was produced in part by Paul Weller, and in part by PUSH, the acid jazz veterans now augmented by Weller's Style Council sidekick Mick Talbot and the rhythm section from Galliano. Between them, they provide her expressive voice with a warmer, more rootsy setting than it had on True Spirit, the solo debut that went silver three years ago. Before that, Anderson was the voice of the Young Disciples, whose first single, "Apparently Nothing", was famously described by Boy George (wearing his broad-brimmed dance DJ hat) as the best he had heard in a decade.

And before the Young Disciples? Oh, nothing much - just a lifetime of guesting with the James Brown Revue, sharing a stage with her mother Vicki Anderson and her stepfather Bobby Byrd, as well as the Godfather of Soul himself. Given such impeccable credentials, it is extraordinary that Carleen Anderson never really wanted to sing for anything but fun. She was raised in Texas by god-fearing grandparents, and sang with them in the Anderson Memorial Church of God and Christ. "They were very turn-of-the-century people," she remembers. "Very religious. Zealously so."

She has nothing but respect for the couple, who cared for her from the age of two months. "They practised what they preached. You could say grandfather worked hard all his life and all he got was a small church in a poor black neighbourhood, but it was what he wanted. It was a far cry from what he was born to - his mother was a child brought up in slavery."

Anderson's mother went on to sing with James Brown, while her father became - and remains - a preacher in Compton. She did not see him until she was nine, but when her mother was singing within travelling distance, grandma would secretly send her off to watch the show. "My grandfather didn't approve - they smoked and drank, you see. It was the devil's business."

Cabs were hired to take Carleen and friends to each venue. "You had these little seven-year-old girls in their Sunday dresses and bonnets, going up to the stage door, saying, 'My mummy's in the band'. I couldn't stay backstage on my own, so I would have to sit on the side of the stage, by the amplifier."

This was the mid-Sixties, and James Brown was a superstar. "I was eight the first time I met him. I literally fell over. He was huge to us. You know how your parents always want you to perform for people? I was singing for the band when he came in to the dressing room. I noticed how their faces changed, so I turned around to look and there he was. He laughed, and he picked me up. He said, 'You're so pretty'. I said, 'So are you'. He had that big bouffant and all the clothes."

Carleen went on the road with the revue in her teenage years, but left again when she married the keyboard player's brother. They had a son, Bobby, but the relationship did not last. Choosing stability for the sake of her child, she ended up working in a bank. "I was so lost after my grandmother died. I felt I could do anything when she was here. When she left, I didn't have a clue. She was the only person I trusted on this earth to tell me if my direction was true. My son has helped me to get that balance right again."

In 1988 she took a holiday and came to London with the band. It changed her life: DJs Marco and Femi saw her take the lead on one song and decided this must be the voice of their new project, the Young Disciples. Seven years ago she moved to England permanently with Bobby. "I just felt like I had a home here. So I packed up my son on one arm and came over."

She found England welcoming. For a start, she senses far less racial tension ("I haven't seen anybody looking at me like they wish I was dead") and feels able to be private. After various homes in London, she went to live in a small village in Surrey, to be near the school where Bobby was a boarder. "It has become a home. It's really quiet."

Not very rock and roll, though, is it? "Actually, Mr Eric Clapton comes to my local video store now and then. He don't live down the road from me or nuthin' like that [she laughs at that thought]. My boy saw him in there."

She has always dealt with the pressures of life on the road by maintaining strict boundaries between work and her personal life. In a hotel or at home, she closes the door and shuts out the world. "There's one other person that has rented more videos than me in the village Blockbuster. When I'm home, that's what I do - just rent some videos and sit up in bed. You're so glad to have nothing to do."

Another thing she loves about England is that record companies are prepared to invest some of the money they earn from big sellers like the Spice Girls in slow-burning, longer-lasting acts like herself. "I feel like a runaway slave in ways. The freedom I have to be, and to pursue a career in the manner I do, this can't happen in the States."

So she feels no pressure for the next album to be a big seller? "I ain't saying that. I'm saying that's the reason I have a job today. If it don't sell this time, we may have to have a talk." She chuckles, shakes my hand and leaves, heading upstairs to close that hotel room door and watch a little television.

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