She’s a diminutive, soft-spoken acoustic guitarist with a penchant for quirky thrift-shop clothes, and she hails from the seedy crime-ridden Low Hill area of the tiny British burg of Wolverhampton. But the buzz on Carina Round—after two quietly-issued indie albums, The First Blood Mystery and The Disconnection, just re-released Stateside on Interscope—is practically Trump-towering these days. And there are enough high-powered people on her payroll that she could bark “You’re fired!” and a roomful of fearful apprentices would scatter.
And Round, humble to a fault, just doesn’t get it. A few weeks ago, while her top-flight backing band soundchecked at an L.A. nightclub, the low-key lass sat sipping coffee in a café across the street, marveling at the sudden gust of good fortune blowing through her life after nearly a decade of anonymous struggle. After hearing her stunning singing voice—which can quickly ratchet from a whisper (“Lacuna”) to a sonic boom (“Into My Blood”)—Goth icon Marilyn Manson recently phoned Round to request her presence on his next project. Ryan Adams asked her to open his tour of England, and Jesse Malin invited her to play his bar, Niagara. Lou Reed just caught the 23-year-old’s raucous New York concert, and swore to her in a backstage visit that it was one of his favorite shows in years. When Round hits the L.A. stage a couple of hours later, the front row is a virtual Hollywood who’s who, with Dave Stewart, Gina Gershon and No Doubt’s Tony Kanal all rocking out to her steamy, clanging riffs. There’s nobody, it seems, who isn’t firmly in the kid’s corner right now.
“For eight years in the U.K., I’ve worked my ass off,” grouses Round, who started singing along to Led Zeppelin and Aretha Franklin records as a kid, often cutting school to do so. “I had to put my first record out by myself because the industry over there has got its head in the sand—they won’t even look at anything that isn’t New York garage. I started doing gigs when I was 17, and I’ve been working nonstop ever since. Now there’s such a word-of-mouth thing going on about me, it’s just amazing. Especially in America, people like my music, and they’re telling other people about it.”
Blame it all on Low Hill, Round sighs. Growing up, the family car was stolen, then set on fire, and local hoods burglarized the Round flat no less than five times in two months. “It had the highest rate of street crime and child prostitution in the country, but I’d hang out with anyone in the area as a kid. I just wanted to meet people, especially old, weird-looking people, which absolutely freaked my mother out. She wouldn’t even let me cross the road on my own until I was 11.” So Round spent most of her childhood locked safely (or not so safely) indoors, poring over Dorothy Parker stories and, later, Bob Dylan and Roxy Music lyrics.
Round—who’s been favorably compared to fellow bluesy belter P.J. Harvey—was shocked it took so long to get noticed. So when she finally landed a small-label deal, the first thing she swears she demanded was “complete artistic control—I didn’t want anyone to f--- with my music, because I’d already worked hard for five years, gigging all the time, writing songs, recording them at my house and then re-doing them in a little studio in Wolverhampton.
“And don’t even talk to me about NME,” she continues, on a snarling roll. “You get a certain amount of success in Britain, and the NME’s already itching to move on to the next thing. The music industry is so small and incestuous over there, no record company is willing to work any further than one album at the moment, because they’re afraid to spend money on anyone. And that’s what happened to me in the UK—they couldn’t hear the radio singles, so they weren’t interested. I mean, not everyone wants to listen to a f---ing radio single. Some people wanna listen to Patti Smith or the Velvet Underground, and those were
the artists who changed my life, made me want to make music.”
It made perfect aesthetic sense, then, that Velvets vocalist Lou Reed would recognize such a devoted disciple at first glance. “After my show, he asked to speak to me, so I went out to meet him,” recalls Round, her big brown eyes widening even further with awe. “And he had these little spectacles on, and he lifted one side of them up and stared at me, and I was like ‘What … the … f---?!’ Then he lifted the other side up and kept looking at me, straight-faced. And finally he said ‘You... were absolutely… fantastic!’ And it was absolutely the most surreal and high point of my life so far. I’d come offstage thinking ‘Oh my God—what a terrible gig,’ but hey—Lou Reed liked it, at least!”
Humility might end up getting Round—and her spirited Disconnection—just about everywhere.