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Actor Karen Black Shines As A Singer/Songwriter On 'Dreaming of You'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The actress Karen Black starred in several culturally influential movies of the '70s, like "Five Easy Pieces," "Easy Rider" and Robert Altman's "Nashville." Less well-known is that Black wrote and sang many of her own compositions, which have now been collected on the album titled "Dreaming Of You (1971-76)." Black died in 2013 at the age of 74. Rock critic Ken Tucker says Black's music was very much in keeping with the singer/songwriters of the '70s and offers a new perspective on Black's artistic life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABE OH BABE")

KAREN BLACK: (Singing) Babe, oh, babe, they're telling me now you've got another. Babe, oh, babe, I couldn't believe that if I tried. I don't have to tell you what you mean to me. I don't have to tell you what you mean to me. Oh, babe. Oh, babe...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Karen Black's movie career in the '70s was characterized by audiences' constant surprise that a woman as bright-eyed and sexy could also be so subtle in the expression of vulnerable emotions. In three of her best films - "Five Easy Pieces" in 1970, 1971's "Born To Win" and '72's "Cisco Pike" - there are scenes in which she surprises the male leads - Jack Nicholson, George Segal and Kris Kristofferson, respectively - by spontaneously bursting into song, beautifully. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Black was also interested in expressing her thoughts and ideas in songs. She wrote and sang in a strong, sure voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEADACHE")

BLACK: (Singing) Went to bed with a headache. I got up and took a pill. I woke up this morning with a headache and a great big urge to kill. For your love, I would do anything. It's not safe and lazy like it's always been. All those silly love songs that were so remote are now coming true note by note. I walked into my bathroom.

TUCKER: At the height of her movie stardom, it was easy for Black to attract the attention of the music industry. Producer Elliot Mazer, who did a lot of work with Neil Young, cut some tracks with Black in 1971. And five years after that, Bones Howe, who'd produced acts ranging from Tom Waits to the Turtles, oversaw enough material for an album that never saw the light of day. Now the singer/songwriter Cass McCombs has compiled what he's chosen as Black's strongest work on this album "Dreaming Of You." Later in her life, she recorded a few songs with McCombs such as this one about a mentor who becomes an abuser called "I Wish I Knew The Man I Thought You Were."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WISH I KNEW THE MAN I THOUGHT YOU WERE")

BLACK: (Singing) We drank tea in your office against the rules. You were the finest teacher of mine in the school. Your use of metaphor, perceptions profound. You answered my uncertainties. I finally found my mentor, my anchor, the man I could turn to. But I need you now, and it's you that I run to. I wish I knew the man I thought you were. I would tell him when you touched me. It astonished and betrayed me. I know you're making much of me. It's not my kind of accolade. I wish I knew the man...

TUCKER: Because these recordings were mostly unfinished demos meant to explore what Black could do vocally and as a songwriter, there's no consistent style or sound. The very minimal accompaniment and her conversational tone serve her well on this song called "Well I Know You're Lonely Now."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELL I KNOW YOU'RE LONELY NOW")

BLACK: (Singing) Well, I know you're lonely now. I am staying where you left me like a bird returns in spring to find his nest empty, no more flight. You were wrong. But then again, I wasn't right. You can hear my footsteps clear. In the darkness, they approach you. But of course, there's no one near. You are hidden...

TUCKER: Black was cast in 1975's "Nashville" after she performed a couple of her own songs for the director Robert Altman. She played Connie White, a country superstar modeled on Tammy Wynette. And Black sang her own material in the film. Altman's condescension toward country music has always curdled the movie for me. But Black's performance, steely and controlled, is a small triumph. You can hear some of Black's folk music side in this song that carries a Bob Dylan-esque edge called "You're Not In My Plans."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU'RE NOT IN MY PLANS")

BLACK: (Singing) You're not in my plans, babe. You're not down here on my list. I'm getting out of your house, babe, for you're gonna be missed. I had my own house. I had my lover. I never thought I'd look at another. Then you walked in with that face. Now there's something I can't erase. You're not...

TUCKER: As Black's acting career preceded, she fell victim to Hollywood's prejudice against older women, passed over for lead roles in quality projects. You can hear echoes of Black's voice in the artier singer/songwriters of the '70s such as Judee Sill and Dory Previn. It's tempting to speculate what might have happened to her if she'd spent more of the '70s making music. Movies are a collaborative form, but the solitary nature of songwriting gave her a different kind of artistic expression, control and power.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed a collection of Karen Black's music called "Dreaming Of You (1971-76)."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about what happens when animals become criminals, at least in the eyes of humans. Somebody has to deal with bears who menace campsites, Indian elephants that trample crops and kill farmers and birds that flock in flight paths near airports. Our guest will be science writer Mary Roach. Her new book is called "Fuzz: When Nature Breaks The Law." I hope you'll join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK'S "BRAZIL")

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK COREA AND BELA FLECK'S "BRAZIL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.