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King still the queen
King still the queen

They say that if you can remember the 60s, then you really weren't there - unless you're Carole King. The iconic American singer-songwriter displayed total recall in her memoir A Natural Woman, which hit the New York Times best-sellers list when it was published last year.

Despite her first husband and songwriting partner Gerry Goffin prodigiously ingesting LSD and third husband, musician Rick Evers dying of a heroin overdose, King seemed to steer clear of drugs and thus has a lucid memory of her early years in the music business.

"I'm sure I have lived more cleanly than others in my field," the 70-year-old says from her home in Idaho. "Many of my friends who were involved in drugs have become sober and are doing great work and thriving, and I'm glad. I'm happy for them."

King, who shifted from the Big Apple to the mountain vistas and clean air of Idaho in the late 70s, will never be remembered for a bohemian lifestyle. Rather she will be celebrated for an almost peerless songbook, which includes You've Got a Friend, It's Too Late, I Feel the Earth Move, The Locomotion and (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman - to name but the tip of her musical iceberg.

Scoring her first No. 1 in 1960 as an 18-year-old with the Shirelles' Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow - one of many classics written with Goffin - the prolific King has had about 400 songs covered by more than 1000 artists, ranging from Aretha Franklin to Amy Winehouse, the Beatles to Kylie Minogue.

Her 1971 studio album Tapestry has sold 25 million copies and held the record for most weeks on top of the US charts until last year, when Adele's 21 broke the 40-year record.

So many hits, so many awards - King's head should spin when confronted with her storied past, but the remarkably down-to-earth artist has clear opinions on her own incredible catalogue.

"Probably Aretha Franklin's Natural Woman would be the all-time favourite," she says when asked to name the favourite version of one of her songs. "The first time I heard that I was like 'Oh. My. God.'

"And James (Taylor's) version of You've Got a Friend, which was a surprise," King continues. "I didn't know he was recording that and then he and (producer) Peter Asher played it for me at the end of the session and I was similarly blown away. James says 'I didn't know then that I would have to sing it every night for the rest of my life'.

"I think the song I am most remembered for is You've Got a Friend, which is not a bad song to be remembered for."

Can King put her finger on why these songs have stood the test of time? "I think they speak to universal emotions and problems and feelings," she replies. "What woman hasn't felt, you know, 'You make me feel like a natural woman'?

"What's been interesting, in the old days I'd say 'sing along' and the men would never sing. Then I went and did a show for the troops on the USS Enterprise, an aircraft carrier, and there were 5000 troops - most of them men - and they all sang (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman. Now I tell that to my audience so the men don't feel so intimidated."

And King says, when she's not playing on aircraft carriers, the audiences at her shows are not just full of baby boomers reliving their glory days.

"I expect sexagenarians," she says, "but their children and their grandchildren are there and they know all the words - it's crazy."

King has been writing songs for pretty much her entire life. As a 14-year-old, she would take the subway from Brooklyn to show her songs to record companies.

At Queens College, she met Goffin, whose lyrics gelled with her pop melodies. The pair married when King got pregnant in 1959 when she was 17.

While the Goffin and King songs are considered part of the Brill Building era that spawned other songwriting partnerships, including Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil and Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, the couple wrote for Aldon Music at 1650 Broadway in New York. (The Brill Building was at 1619 Broadway.)

"I didn't work in the Brill Building. It's more a state of mind, you know," says King, who adds that the tight-knit bunch of songwriters had no idea how special their songs would become.

"I'm very proud of what we've contributed, but there are a lot of artists today who are making a really wonderful contribution," she adds, listing Ray LaMontagne, Jason Mraz, Lady Antebellum, John Legend and her friend Alicia Keys as members of a younger generation making their mark.

Keys enlisted King to perform at her fundraising Black Ball, which was due to happen in New York last November but was postponed because of Hurricane Sandy. The rescheduled event is one of King's few musical commitments for 2013 apart from her Australian tour, which includes seven dates plus the two Leeuwin concerts, as well as appearances to collect awards.

This year's honours include the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the US Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, for which she'll be only the fifth recipient, joining Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Bacharach/David and her fellow Queens College alumnus Paul Simon. "They don't give that (award) lightly," King says.

While the second half of 2013 looks pretty quiet, the singer-songwriter says that, despite recent reports, she is not calling time on her career.

"Let me give you the exact quote," King says. "The exact quote was 'It would be lovely to retire', so you see how that goes. It would be lovely to retire, but evidently I'm not yet retired or retiring."

King is working on another book, one focused on her environmental and political work. She says writing A Natural Woman, which took more than a decade, was very different to penning a song. "You've got to get more organised to do it, you have to have your facts in order and I was really daunted by the amount of research," she says.

"I interviewed lots of people, some of them who are gone now, among them my mother, but she was incredibly helpful . . . I'm having fun working on my current book and I hope it doesn't take me 12 years to write this one."

Before the interview ends and King flies to Los Angeles to rehearse for the Australian tour, the question must be asked - what's a nice girl from Brooklyn doing in rural Idaho? Why live there?

"The absolutely spectacular beauty of the landscape," she says. "And also the people. Many of them differ from me in their political beliefs and their party identification, but they're great people and they have good, strong values."

While she's never one to back away from an argument, King says the conversation usually steers clear of politics. "Sometimes somebody will say 'She's a pretty good girl, despite being a Democrat'."