The Joanna Newsom of the 1970s
The Seattle Roots of Carol Kleyn's Darkly Angelic Folk Pop
Carol Kleyn: Now there's a name that doesn't turn up in most Seattle music histories. 'Tis a pity, because her 1976 debut album, Love Has Made Me Stronger (recorded locally with engineer Tim Rock at Captain Audio's Music Farm and just reissued on Chicago-based indie Drag City), is a quietly brilliant paragon of hippie-chick, folk-pop magic. With her harp, piano, and dulcet voice, Kleyn beat Joanna Newsom—who helped to seal Kleyn's Drag City deal—to the arty/folky harpist punch by more than three decades.
Kleyn is yet another case of a talented artist who failed to make a name for herself in the music industry despite moving in lofty circles. When you discover whom she cohorted with in the late '60s and '70s (the Eagles, Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Billy Preston, Phil Spector, etc.), it's mind-boggling to realize that Kleyn couldn't even score a deal for Love Has Made Me Stronger.
"Believe me, I tried to secure a record deal and had phone bills to prove it!" Kleyn says in an e-mail interview. "I'm not sure that I really knew how to approach the record industry. I played at showcases like the Troubadour, McCabe's Guitar Shop, Capitol Records, and the Palomino Club, always hoping someone would discover me there. I also played at lots of local fairs and the Pasadena Swap Meet. I never gave up that dream and believed there would always be at least one good lead from every fair."
Kleyn ultimately self-released Love by procuring funds from friends and family—sort of like a proto-Kickstarter campaign. "People would donate and ask me to let them know when it was done," she recounts. "They believed in me and inspired me, and I kept lists of their names and addresses and then sent out cards to everyone when I released it. And, to my surprise, I did exceptionally well. I knew then that my live performances had that magic that I knew I needed as an artist."
Love Has Made Me Stronger is aflutter with enchanting, stripped-down folk devotionals, adorned only by Kleyn's supple harp strumming, tender piano, and her silky, gently melismatic voice. The album peaks with the first song, "Love's Goin Round," a haunting ode that equates forces of nature with love and evokes the phenomenal soundtrack to the 1973 cult film The Wicker Man—which Kleyn claims not to know. The rest of the LP rhapsodizes about natural splendors and emotional raptures in fairly typical troubadour-like tropes (titles include "Mountain Child," "Blackbird," and "Higher Than High"), but Kleyn's sublime delivery and refined musical treatments lift Love out of the bargain bin and closer to private-press holy-grail status.
Growing up in Seattle, Kleyn played classical music from third grade through her senior year in high school. "Two of my instructors were in the Seattle Symphony, and when I saw them perform at the Seattle Opera House, I dreamed of being on that stage someday," she recalls. "That someday came, a few years later, when I played there in the All-City Band. I would call that the start of my musical career—though I dreamed of being a classical musician and never imagined myself becoming a singer-songwriter."
Kleyn's musical journey ascended in 1969 when she met Bobby Brown during her freshman year at University of California, Santa Barbara. Brown, creator of the sui generis folkadelic classic The Enlightening Beam of Axonda, became Kleyn's mentor and bestowed a harp on her on her 21st birthday. She later watched him record Axonda. Both things changed her life. "It's that total immersion that goes into Bob's performance that I observed in him again and again that inspired me," she says.
Another life-changer was meeting Gregg Allman, whom Kleyn met through the blues rocker's first manager, Tony Roberts. One evening she found herself in a Mercedes limo with Allman headed to the Forum to see a George Harrison/Ravi Shankar concert. Kleyn and Allman hit it off, and at a post-gig party she played her harp for Allman, winning an opening slot on his next tour. Despite all of these connections, widespread recognition eluded Kleyn and she ended up releasing all three of her full-lengths (the others are Return of the Silkie and Takin' the Time) on her own.
Reenergized by the reissue of Love Has Made Me Stronger, Kleyn has been writing songs for another album. Her three children are grown up now, and she's in the process of moving to Vashon Island. But before that happens, she's driving up the coast from Laguna Beach to Seattle, "stopping off to play at favorite fairs and street corners along the way, twittering to Drag City to try and let them know where the next stop will be." Long may Kleyn's hippie dream—and her enchanting songs—live.