James Attlee meets Surrey-based songwriter CAROLINE BONNETT, whose new album is set to make waves
As 1991 continues to unfold, peppered with the kind of global
catastrophes previously confined to Bruce Kent's worst nightmares, any
new flicker of creativity takes on something of the aspect of a candle
in the darkness. It's encouraging therefore to able to report the
arrival of a singer-songwriter whose talent is emerging as the source
of the world's vinyl, even as I write, appears to be going up in
(Please - no more apocalyptic Gulf War references or we pull the article. Ed.)
So who is Caroline Bonnett? Like most overnight sensations, she has a background of years of experience as a live performer and released a self-titled album on What? Records a couple of years back which, though competent in its way, gave few hints as to the potential of the artist yet to emerge. A successful album is an elusive thing, dependent on so many different factors - somehow this time the chemistry between artist, producer, musicians and songs has gelled and we have the first true indication of what this woman can do. The nine tracks on the album are an intensely personal response to life in the 1990s - and we can all breathe a sigh of relief that an artist on a mainstream Christian label is dealing with some of the issues that matter in a way that is both contemporary and non-judgemental.
Subjects tackled include a father-daughter incestuous relationship, the life and death of a rent boy on the streets of London, and the dangers faced by women daring to walk the city at night. We also get love songs, an instrumental and a rework of Psalm 25 to make sure no-one's in doubt as to the source of her inspiration. The overall feel of the album is strongly contemporary, with the songwriter's richly expressive vocals much to the fore.
As I said, who is this woman? Let's do nothing as mundane as starting at the beginning, but let's launch in with the hard questions first and see if we learn a little about the person behind the songs along the way. To kick off, what attracted her to write about an issue like child abuse in the song 'Daddy Says?' It will doubtless raise some eyebrows - I quote: "Daddy says its special/Daddy says don't tell/Daddy says his little girl makes him feel strong/Daddy takes my hand/Daddy dries my eyes/Daddy holds me close when it's all done/Daddy why does it hurt deep inside if its called love?"
"When I write I'm always struggling to express what I see around me," she explains. "I'm interested in all the facets of our society and I'm certainly interested in social injustice and all the things that happen. It's not with a morbid fascination, but I genuinely try and see it from God's perspective - that's how I would love to see it. I didn't set out to write either of these songs, to be honest... 'Daddy Says' was written around the time when there was a lot of publicity about child abuse in the media and I, like a lot of people, was very disturbed by it - but I would never have considered sitting down and writing a song about it. I remember talking with a couple of my friends about it and one of them divulged that she had been abused as a child and I was so shocked when she told me about the fear it provoked in her... that thought must have been with me when I sat down at the piano.
"How does one write a song anyway? Everyone goes through different processes... All of a sudden I just got this line "Daddy says he loves me" and it just wrote itself - in about five minutes I'd written a song that left me weeping. As soon as I'd written it I thought 'I can't sing this in front of people' - I struggled with it for ages, whether I should be performing it at all. I remember that first time I sang it in Birmingham I got such an incredible response to it afterwards. I was quite prepared, if I got a negative response, never ever to sing it again..."
One thing that I particularly like about Caroline's lyrics is that they don't judge. Characters that have walk-on parts include rapists and child abusers as well as the victims of these crimes, yet hysterical finger-pointing is notable by its absence.
"What I'm not trying to do is be judgemental or make anyone on either side feel condemned. There's a song on the album called 'Sons Of Adam' and the whole crux of that song is that no one's too bad for God; we're all the same. From the person who's been abused to the abuser, I'm interested in the restoration of dignity to the person who's.been abused but I'm also interested in how that abuser has got to live with himself or herself. I'm not trying to give any answers either because the answer to me is my whole inspiration." It's a dodgy business, art. Many people might question the right of a songwriter based in the leafy suburbs of Surrey to explore the psyche of an abused child, or chart the destruction of a teenage victim of the prostitution rackets that disfigure our cities. On the other hand, art that takes no risks quickly descends to the level of the mediocre. Many people prefer it that way of course, and there's plenty of music around that caters for their taste, not least from Christian artists.
'Smalltown Boy' is a song based on a true story, one that tragically repeats itself year after year - the story of a young boy drawn to the city like a moth to a flame, only to end up murdered, the victim of the usual vicious circle of lust and need. I asked Caroline what inspired her to write a song about a rentboy.
"The song was written around a story I read in the paper. I was so shocked by what had happened to this 14 year old - it was such a tragic waste of life that everything within me ached for the poor child. I went to bed that night and I couldn't sleep and woke up around two a.m. and wrote the whole lyric - and that hardly ever happens. There again I thought that maybe it might offend people, maybe they wouldn't choose to listen to something like this, but that's not to say that in this market-place of ideas we should be afraid to draw attention to certain things."
Caroline sees no reason why her faith should limit the subject matter she tackles as a song-writer - quite the reverse.
"I don't want to be seen as someone who only draws on their experience as a Christian and doesn't actually touch upon the real issues that are going on in the world around us. We all have to live in this world, we all have to be able to relate to it and understand that we need to go and take back ground that has been taken over. As creative people, if we can't communicate something other than religious devotion in our music and in our art we're not actually being effective, I don't think. I've often thought that the Christian music scene expresses very easily the nice things and there's not a lot - of room for, not the negative things, but the uglier side of things. I'm not jumping on a bandwagon and writing a social conscience song just so it gets aired. Ever since the Green thing took off, ever since Band Aid really, every major artist seems to have got interested in a cause. I'm not knocking it, but I felt strongly all the way along that if anyone should be writing this stuff it should be Christians."
Her desire to reach a wider audience may be hampered by being signed to a Christian label and by the fact that all her live experience so far has been on the Christian circuit. That said, her record company are currently devoting a lot of energy to getting their product into secular retail outlets and for her part Caroline seems to be champing at the bit to get out there and play live in a less "safe" environment.
"I love performing, I really do. Its the thing I love the most out of all of it - I like recording and I like writing, but even though I'm quite a shy person it feels totally natural to get in front of people in a concert environment and be allowed the privilege of singing about things that matter to me, it's wonderful... it's a privilege, you can't deny it."
To record her album Caroline chose to sidestep the usual Christian sessioneers and studios, assembling a band mostly drawn from Julia Fordham's backing group under the direction of producer Steve Gretham, himself a bass player of some repute (Chris de Burgh and Joan Armatrading.)
"Before I started to record I had a few apprehensions... all the guys who worked on the album were non-Christians and I wondered how some of the more overt lyrics would be received. I felt almost apologetic - I felt that I needed to apologise that this or that was a religious song, but in many ways I needn't have worried. Not one person made any comment in a negative way about the lyrical content. I think maybe we've convinced ourselves that Christian music doesn't get airplay because it's Christian music when maybe it's just not up to the right standard. Maybe if we produce something of real quality in the integrity of its performance, in its technical excellence - I'm not meaning that it's got to be mega-expensive, but so that it's arranged and produced in the best possible way... I mean Sting said on his latest song 'Father if Jesus exists why doesn't he live here?' I think people are less discriminatory about spiritual lyrics - they're discriminatory if they think its a crappy record and you've tacked on a bit of praise and worship and it's a dreadful song, let's be honest... I'm sure there is some stigma attached still but I think the whole thing is in a state of flux and that's what is so exciting."
I'd agree with Caroline's desire to produce something that is excellent by any standard; however there's more to getting on the radio than making a good record - record pluggers, programme producers and sales in chart return shops all have their part to play. Also it has to be said that Sting has earned the right by dint of selling several million records to say what he likes (although it doesn't stop him getting slagged in the music press for doing so.) Caroline hopes to overcome the limited mainstream punch of her Christian label via the contacts of her publishing company, which as she puts it gives her 'another string to my bow.' In any case, she is determined not to be restricted to any artistic ghetto because of her faith.
"I'm not really 'a Christian artist' - I'm certainly not 'a gospel artist' though I'd never deny my roots. I have to be honest and say that I don't really listen to a lot of Christian music. I did when I was younger - Partly because it was the thing to do but also because it was very necessary for us as young Christians to get hold of it and realise that there was music that we could relate to on a spiritual level. But God's moved on - I really feel that, the world's moved on and we need to move on, we need to reflect that. So many things have changed - for instance there's no Christian music scene to speak of, certainly in England, and there are no major Christian personalities to follow and to learn from. What I long for, my vision if you like is to see Christians being able to do something to a really good standard that supersedes the boundaries of Christian music. It's either a good piece of work that does the job of communicating or its not."
There we have it - her manifesto, for all to see. It's a dangerous one, because it leaves nothing to hide behind - either her work stands up to the test or it doesn't and the verdict lies with you. Enjoy.The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.