"No question about the voice: it's worn, aged, soulful, defiant, utterly lacking smooth edges - an enormously compelling instrument to anyone enamored of blue-eyed soul"
– David McGee, Rolling Stone
Since her songwriting and recording debut, superstar writer-performer Kim Carnes has been an extraordinarily distinctive and in-demand voice in popular music, both figuratively and literally. Take 2014 alone, during which she participated in a BBC songwriter special hosted by esteemed British broadcaster Bob Harris, contributed duet vocals to an album of songs written by acclaimed tunesmith Frankie Miller, co-wrote songs for a pair of albums by Americana singer-songwriter Dana Cooper and covered the Rolling Stones' "Under My Thumb" for a Brazilian recording project.
While she first came to the attention of many through her 1981 history-making rendition of the Jackie DeShannon-Donna Weiss-penned "Bette Davis Eyes" – Billboard's No. 1 hit of that year and still one of the Hot 100's biggest chart hits of all time – the Grammy-winning tune is just another remarkable facet of a global recording, performing and songwriting career that has now spanned five decades. There's also the plethora of songs she has written for herself and others. Marked by Carnes' innate ability to fuse heart-piercing lyrics to indelible melodies, her songs have distinguished the artist's own platinum-selling albums as well as those of her many peers. And then there is that unmistakable voice. Like a mysterious beehive, it buzzes and rasps, crackling with kinetic energy, the treasure of sweet, natural honey stored within, just waiting to be savored. As respected Nashville music journalist Peter Cooper has noted, "Carnes' voice is a delight: Sorghum and whiskey and a howl of the heart, with phrasing that recalls Blonde on Blonde-era Dylan."
Born in Los Angeles, Carnes penned her first song at the tender age of four and hasn't stopped since. Her first publishing deal, which teamed her with famed producer Jimmy Bowen, had her sharing demo-recording time with Bowen's other writers, which included future Eagles Don Henley and Glenn Frey, as well as J.D. Souther. In 1971, Carnes sang "Nobody Knows," written by Mike Settle, over the end credits of the road film, Vanishing Point. Carnes also scored her first cut as a songwriter with "Sing Out for Jesus," recorded by Big Mama Thornton for that same film.
"There's this whole part of what I do and what I started out doing, being a songwriter, that few people know," says Carnes today. "I've always written songs, every day. That's how I started out and that's still so important to me. I'll be doing it forever."
Carnes signed with A&M Records and released a pair of albums. The second, Sailin', produced by the legendary Jerry Wexler, featured the American Song Festival grand prize-winning "Love Comes From Unexpected Places," which also won Best Composition at the Tokyo Song Festival and was the first of three songs she would eventually have cut by Barbra Streisand – one of which, "Make No Mistake (He's Mine)" – Carnes wrote and co-produced. In 1978, Carnes became the first artist signed to the newly established EMI-America label and, with Gene Cotton, earned her first Top 40 hit, "You're a Part of Me."
In 1980, Gideon, a landmark concept album recorded by Kenny Rogers, was penned entirely by Carnes and Ellingson. A No. 1 country and Top 20 pop entry, it was buoyed by the crossover success of "Don't Fall in Love With a Dreamer," the Rogers-Carnes duet which was a No. 4 pop hit, No. 3 on the country chart and No. 2 on the Adult Contemporary survey. Gideon would go on to sell more than three million copies. Carnes' first solo Top 10 hit followed – a sultry, soulful reworking of the Smokey Robinson classic, "More Love." The following year, Carnes would release Mistaken Identity, a multi-textured collection that ranks among the most thrilling and ahead-of-its-time recordings the fertile 1980s pop-music field would deliver for harvest. Propelled by the success of "Bette Davis Eyes," a No. 1 song for nine weeks, the album spent four weeks at No. 1 in the U.S. and charted throughout the world, earning a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year. Meanwhile, "Bette Davis Eyes" would win a pair of those golden gramophones, for Record and Song of the Year.
While her place in music history was already secure, Carnes followed Mistaken Identity with Voyeur, another Grammy-nominated collection that showcased her gift for both hard-charging rockers and passionate ballads. Her hitting streak, spread across the pop and adult contemporary charts would continue with such tunes as "Crazy in Love," "I Pretend," "What About Me," "Crazy in the Night" and more. She also won her second Grammy award for "I'll Be Here Where the Heart Is" from the blockbuster, Flashdance soundtrack. In 2000, she performed "Ring of Fire," a duet with Jeff Bridges, for his film, The Contender and has contributed to the soundtracks of a wide variety of films, from Spaceballs to Valentino: The Last Emperor. In 1985, Carnes was among the cadre of singers who contributed vocals (as U.S.A. for Africa) to the all-star single and music video, "We Are the World," which sold 20 million copies worldwide. In 1988, Carnes reunited with producer Jimmy Bowen and recorded View From the House, which featured her Top 10 AC hit, "Crazy in Love." Continuing to perform and write songs, Carnes and family relocated to Nashville full-time in 1994.
"I was making so many trips from Los Angeles to write songs with different people that it just got to the point where I needed to be there," she says. "Nashville has a great creative atmosphere. It's a small, close-knit music community that you can't find anywhere else."
It's that same sense of community that helped Carnes craft what has been one of the highlights of her professional career, the critically lauded 2004 album, Chasin' Wild Trains. Cited by Country Music Today magazine as one of the best non-country albums of that year, the disc was praised across the globe. The collection featured guest appearances from such notables as Kings of Leon producer Angelo, Al Anderson, Matraca Berg, Chuck Prophet, Anders Osborne, Kim Richey, among others. "It's the only album I did exactly the way I wanted," says the singer-songwriter. "Nobody told me 'no.' I did it with the help of these incredible songwriters. It was a collaborative 'love' project."
The writer of three No. 1 one country songs, including "The Heart Won't Lie," a smash duet for Reba McEntire and Vince Gill and "Make No Mistake (She's Mine)," recorded by Ronnie Milsap and Kenny Rogers, Carnes' Music City experience has paired her with other top tunesmiths including (to name a few) Kim Richey, Matraca Berg, Greg Barnhill, Al Anderson, Jeffrey Steele, Tim Nichols and Connie Harrington. To date, her songs have been covered by country superstar Tim McGraw (to whose songs she has also added background vocals), as well as Deana Carter, Sawyer Brown, Tanya Tucker, Suzy Bogguss, Pam Tillis and more.
In 2011, a pair of songs she wrote for (and with) the husband-and-wife duo O'Shea topped the charts in Australia. On any given night in Nashville, it's no stretch to find her sharing an "in-the-round" stage with the likes of John Hiatt, Michael McDonald, Lori McKenna, Barry Dean or any of her frequent collaborators. She continues to take her full band out for shows, special events and TV in the U.S., Paris, Rome, Berlin, Chile and Argentina, and other destinations worldwide.
And although Carnes has always taken songwriting seriously, she proved she doesn't always take herself too seriously, having years ago written a tune (later covered by country comedy duo Pinkard & Bowden) about a woman whose domestic duties give way to a strange fantasy after her husband and kids leave for the day. "She Dances With Meat" introduced the world (albeit briefly) to the songwriter's alter ego of "Connie con Carne." The singer now looks back on that obscure one-off recording fondly, and to this day, approaches all aspects of her career with that same philosophy, and is always happy to bust any and all preconceived notions about herself.
"I write what I love and have always done that," she says today. "I'm so lucky to be writing and performing with some of the best writers in the world. I'm having a blast."
with Greg Barnhill (L)
and Suzy Bogguss (R)
Kim's new album
Chasin' Wild Trains