TO start at the end, Karen Carpenter was only 32 when she died on February 4, 1983. Heart failure due to complications from anorexia.

Hers is a story of fame, addiction, control and the lack of it. This story is old, but it goes on. What follows is Karen Carpenter’s story. But not only hers.

Some 13 years before her death, in 1970, Karen and her brother Richard had recorded the single (They Long to Be) Close to You. It went to number one in the United States that summer. For the rest of her far too short life Karen Carpenter was a star.

Some four decades later she still is. The afterlife of The Carpenters is as curious as the music they created, shadowed by the tragedy of Karen’s death and yet buoyed up by it too.

Then again, their story was always slightly off-kilter. “They looked like the history of apple pie,” Bob Stanley wrote in Yeah Yeah Yeah, his epic 2013 history of pop music. But the sound didn’t quite match up to that look. For a group who were marketed as syrupy, even schmaltzy, the music wsa somewhat different.

Much of that was down to Karen’s vocals, her biographer Lucy O’Brien suggests. “If her voice had just been sugary sweet then the whole thing would have been too saccharine, just too bland. But because she was channelling a lot of her own pain into the singing, then it was almost a counterpoint to the sweet arrangements. So you’ve got this kind of multidimensional sound.”

Lead Sister, O’Brien’s biography of Karen Carpenter, now coming out in paperback, is both an act of reclamation and a complication of the received story. It takes back Karen’s story from those who would write her off as a middle-of-the-road singer (and wannabe drummer), but also adds nuance to the notion - prevalent in recent years - that Carpenter’s tragedy can be laid largely at the door of her family. Like the music, Karen Carpenter's story is more complicated than it appears on the surface. And it is one that has echoes in the music culture of today.

For O’Brien, Carpenter’s story has long been part of hers too. At primary school back in the 1970s, the author sang songs by The Carpenters in the school choir.

“Their records were so huge. I remember when Goodbye to Love was on Top of the Pops and it was the song that everybody was talking about the next day. Because it was so amazing in terms of its construction. This beautiful romantic ballad, finishing with this absolute insane guitar solo at the end. That was groundbreaking.

“And there was something about their sound. Even though they were dubbed easy listening there was an underlying tension and soulfulness that people were really responding to. It wasn’t easy listening at all.”

That tension between voice and music, lyrics and looks is at the heart of the unheimlich quality of The Carpenters.

“I think a lot of people took them at face value, particularly in America,” O’Brien suggests.“That’s how they were marketed.” Their label A&M pushed them towards the mainstream pop market, she says. They were seen as square, even cheesy.

“People didn't really know what to make of them,” O’Brien argues. And then Karen’s death coloured how we listened to the music she made.

“Ever since then we hear a Carpenters record in a different way because we know what she was going through. And indeed what they were both going through, because Richard also suffered from addiction himself to sleeping pills and he had to go into rehab and get treatment,” O’Brien points out.

O’Brien, who has also written books about Dusty Springfield and Madonna, admits writing Lead Sister was “one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done. Because number one, the subject matter was so challenging - someone who was suffering so intensely with an eating disorder. Just talking to people about that side of her life is quite harrowing. And very, very sad.”

But that was counterbalanced by speaking to people who knew Karen - including boyfriends Tom Bahler and Nicky Chinn (of Chinnichap fame) and Rebecca Segal, one of the very few female tour managers around in the 1970s, who was the band’s tour manager at their peak.

As a result, O’Brien uncovered a different picture of her subject. “Yes, she was someone who had struggled with anorexia. But she was more than just the tragic victim that the media had painted her.

“She was very driven. She was very wilful and a tough cookie, very pioneering, very creative; a trailblazer in all sorts of ways. And I thought I want to reframe the story so we are not just looking at her as this victim.

“In a way it was like she was saying to me, ‘Look, I want to be remembered for what I achieved and the music I made and the drumming. Not just the sad stuff. Don’t just write the sad stuff.’”

In short, O’Brien wanted to flag up the agency Carpenter had in making music. “She was contributing a lot to the ideas and certainly the vocal arrangements side by side with Richard,” O’Brien adds.

That agency, though, had its limits. Her record company, her brother and her management convinced her to stop playing drums - which she loved - in order to be the front woman of the band.

There has been a tendency over the years to seek to blame her family - in particular her brother and her mother who saw her son as the genius in the family and was controlling towards her daughter - for what happened to Karen. But the reality may be a little more complex.

“There’s been some fantastic research in the last few years into eating disorders and anorexia particularly as an addiction,” O’Brien explains. “There’s quite a high preponderance of musicians and female singers who have eating disorders and it is addictive behaviour. So, it was interesting to apply that and look at how that played out in Karen’s life. Because it was like compulsive behaviour and also linked with a very intense perfectionism. And that perfectionism was there from when she was really young.”

Karen Carpenter was also a young woman in an industry that pressurises women to look and behave in certain ways. And that is a story that didn’t end with her death.

“A lot of contemporary female artists - Taylor Swift, Halsey, Kesha - have spoken out about that pressure to be stick thin,” O’Brien reminds me.

“I think it’s actually quite lethal. Maybe within five, 10 years’ time that sort of language and ways of talking to female and male artists will be forbidden really, because it’s so risky.

“Going back to Karen’s story she became very self-conscious when she saw herself on TV, when she saw pictures of herself, and that’s when she started becoming very obsessed with constantly exercising, constantly ‘slimming’.”

Perhaps her weight offered her a sense of control that she didn’t have elsewhere in her life. Certainly when A&M decided to shelve the solo record Karen had been working on with producer Phil Ramone in the early 1980s it had a huge impact on her.

“The record company didn't want to take a risk, which is a real shame because Karen was devastated, and went on a downward spiral after that with her anorexia,” O’Brien Those same pressures on artists are still in operation now.

“The music industry thrives on success,” O’Brien adds. “It thrives on product, so the pressure is there to keep having hit singles, to keep touring, to keep going out there and having your photograph taken. It’s a high-stress environment and I think even people who are really healthy find it difficult.

“So, if you are a musician or an artist with any kind of vulnerability in terms of mental health or struggles with addiction then that will just increase tenfold.

“Those are the debates that are going on in the music industry at the moment. How can we protect artists better from that relentless insatiable need for product? You’ve got that on one side and then you’ve got vulnerable artists on the other. It's an accident waiting to happen, isn’t it?

“Think of people like Keith Moon or Janis Joplin. People would laugh at Keith and his prodigious drug use. ‘What a rascal.’ But, actually, he was struggling hugely with addiction and mental health.

“I think there’s less valorisation of that rock and roll excess. There’s more understanding about why artists are coming apart.”

It should also be said that endings are never the whole story. When it comes to Karen Carpenter, she shouldn’t be seen solely through the tragic circumstances of her death. For O’Brien the reason for telling Carpenter’s story is to reclaim her from anorexia. To remind us she was an artist, first and foremost.

Maybe things are changing. The most powerful artists in pop these days are nearly all female. Whether it be Beyonce or Taylor Swift. And they have an agency that Karen Carpenter did not.

“God only knows if she had been around in the 1970s, she wouldn’t have half the recognition she has now,” O’Brien says of Swift. “And it’s just lovely to see her becoming a force in all kinds of ways. Not just as a songwriter and performer, but also someone who’s kind of steering where we are going in terms of the pop industry and in terms of the debate. She’s almost like the conscience of the music industry.”

The distance between Karen Carpenter and Taylor Swift is more than just a matter of years. Hopefully it’s a matter of understanding too.

Lead Sister by Lucy O’Brien and published by Nine Eight Books is out in paperback on Thursday, priced £10.99