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Tim Chipping

Ranting & Reeling

Tim Chipping’s monthly column

I discovered Adele. And by discovered I mean I heard her music before she was signed to a record label and thought, “She’s good at singing and songwriting, I hope someone signs her to a record label.” Which they did. My contribution to her career hasn’t yet made it into the biographies. But it’s true. And the reason I know it’s true is that several people have since told me that the first time they heard about Adele was when I told them about Adele. And they’re not the sort of people to lie. They’re the sort of people to tell me to stop saying I was the first person to tell them about Adele, if that weren’t the case.

Significantly what I told them was that I’d discovered a young British songwriter whose vocal style was clearly influenced by Karen Dalton. Because that was quite surprising, and not what you’d expect to hear in 2006 on MySpace.

I didn’t discover Karen Dalton. Unless you count hearing her version of Katie Cruel on a 1998 Australian compilation album of songs that had influenced the music of Nick Cave. Which you shouldn’t; it doesn’t count. I don’t know how Adele first heard the music of this mercurial Greenwich Village banjo player whose singing takes essays to describe. I probably should’ve asked her. But our first interview simply ended with me saying, “You’re a big fan of Karen Dalton, aren’t you?” “Oh I flippin’ love Karen Dalton,” said Adele. It didn’t even make the final edit.

A few weeks ago, Lankum’s Radie Peat sang Katie Cruel at a gig in Dublin with her other band Rue. It was one of the greatest live performances I’ve ever witnessed. Afterwards Lankum’s Cormac (also in Rue) remarked to me that Karen’s music was surprisingly well known for someone who never sought fame, recorded just two albums somewhat reluctantly some years after she’d bewitched the likes of Fred Neil, Tim Hardin and a pre-fame Bob Dylan and who died far too young in obscurity. Actually Cormac didn’t say any of that but I could tell from his eyes it’s what he meant.

Now Adele has sold more records than you could shake a forest at, and Time magazine named her one of the most influential people in the world, but I don’t think she’s done much to spread the name of Karen Dalton. She never even mentions her in interviews any more, so she can’t take credit for that. Karen’s music endures because it’s so gosh darn beautiful. To hear it once is enough to know you’ll be listening for a lifetime. However, if you’ve caught a snatch of TV’s The X Factor in recent years you can’t have failed to notice that almost everyone sings like Adele now. They’re all doing their version of Adele. And Adele was doing her version of Karen Dalton.

In his sleevenotes to the 2006 reissue of her second album In My Own Time, Nick Cave describes Karen as possessing the ability to take a song from whoever wrote it and make it her own. How strange it is then that Karen Dalton has posthumously shaped the sound of modern pop music thanks to people doing the absolute opposite of what made her so very special. But that’s not Adele’s fault. Not everything is Adele’s fault.

Tim Chipping


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