PEARL CHARLES: I WENT TIME-TRAVELLING
photography by alex the brown
Pearl Charles got her start at age 18 in country duo the Driftwood Singers, singing sad songs steeped in dust and old time-y folklore. Then she joined the Blank Tapes as drummer, immersing herself in 60s-inspired garage rock and traveling from coast to coast in a stoner haze of fun in the sun. She’s cruising through her favorite decades of music, and she’s picked up what she loves about each era while coming into her own as a musician, singer, and songwriter. Now at age 24, she’s the frontwoman of her own band. The cover of her debut EP on Burger Records depicts Charles with a cloud of smoke rising from her lips. While it indicates one of her favorite pastimes, it’s also symbolic as a sort of waiting to exhale moment: standing on her own, doing her thing and feeling good about it. She performs tonight, Sept. 30, at the Bootleg. This interview by Daiana Feuer.
You’re coming out of a series of bands that had someone else as lead songwriter—how have you found a groove for your own original music?
Pearl Charles: My music came to be what it is now because of the experience of being in Blank Tapes with Matt Adams. He produced the EP so it’s really rooted in that sound. And I was writing a certain kind of song because when I started this project I was still in Blank Tapes. At first I was scared to break ties with that sound. I really relied on him. But having not been in that band for a while and finding other people that I feel as comfortable with musically … that’s when my music started having a life of its own. I’m interested in co-writing. That’s where I came from. It was Driftwood Singers from when I was 18-20. Then Blank Tapes from when I was 20-22. And now I’m 24. That was also my boyfriend cycle … and now it’s me and I’m independent!
What were you scared of?
Pearl Charles: In high school I was writing my songs. Then I got to CalArts and everyone was like, ‘First day of school! Look at my song! Look at me.’ Songwriters are the most self-centered people in the world in my opinion, which isn’t bad because you have to be that way in order to care enough to share your music, but … I’m trying to think of a less vulgar way to say it’s a constant dick measuring contest. I was excited when I got to CalArts but also scared. Then I met Chris Hutson and he was an amazing songwriter and really able to help execute a vision I had, which it just so happens he also had. We hit it off. He encouraged me to write but he was so good I just didn’t see the point. I should have realized that the way you become better is by actually doing it. I just wasn’t brave enough. At the end, the last thing we did together was write a song about us breaking up and it was amazing, but it never saw the light of day. He wrote a bunch of awesome ones, though.
Yes, he did write a bunch of awesome songs about you breaking up.
Pearl Charles: Ha! Then I started playing with Blank Tapes, even though I was more invested in Driftwood Singers. But Driftwood fell apart. And Matt was such a strong committed songwriter, and though he definitely encouraged me, it was really his band and his songs. I got so much experience. With Driftwood we started from nowhere but with Blank Tapes I jumped into something that had momentum and it helped me level up. It feels like climbing a ladder.
It’s interesting that the first project was old-timey country, and the next project was 1960s rock-influenced—you’re passing through decades. You took in elements of each one that made sense to you.
Pearl Charles: That is my story. I feel like I went time-traveling. With Driftwood it was emulating super old music, and with Blank Tapes we were emulating something too. Both of those projects were like character-museum pieces. I was playing a character and it was fun. We had the outfits and it was very much trying to evoke a certain era, but at the same time both guys are individuals and very modern in their own ways. But now it’s me and I’m coming into what I’m about. I live in the present of 2015. As much as I love to talk about the ‘60s and ‘70s and San Francisco and Laurel Canyon, I don’t want people to think that’s all I’m about—that I’m trying to recreate something that already happened. I’m about infusing something distinctly now into my inspirations. ‘Be here now’ is a huge part of my philosophy. You know about Ram Dass? The book Be Here Now? There’s also a book called The Power Of Now by Eckhart Tolle and then there’s Alan Watts’ and Timothy Leary’s writings. They’re all about this idea—that you may realize when you’re on psychedelics—that there’s not anxiety or fear when you’re in the moment. It just is what it is and you deal with the present. But when you’re worrying about the past or the future then you’re no longer being present. That’s a philosophy that I love and something I hope to carry into my music. I’m trying to be of the moment. I make music for myself, but I want to share it with others. That goes back to what I was saying about being a songwriter—slightly narcissistic. But every creative person is like that, and every person. That’s just natural. We’re just trying to validate ourselves. But writing a new song and sharing it is the most rewarding thing in life for me. I think the reason the music we look back to was so powerful is because it was really connecting to the people of that time. If you want to emulate the 60s and 70s, the best way is to be in the now and connect to what’s around you.
And part of you is the girl smoking a joint.
Pearl Charles: It’s funny. On my album cover I’m smoking a joint. In the video I’m smoking a joint. Smoking weed is part of my personality and I’m just being honest. Someone asked if I think that would alienate people. What people truly connect with is being authentic. I wasn’t trying to be defiant but I realize that it does say something. But in this day and age, weed has changed. It’s practically legal here. The cops aren’t going to come after me for smoking in that picture.
You dabble in several ‘arts.’
Pearl Charles: I did musical theatre growing up, and I realized rock ‘n’ roll was more fun. So I decided that was the direction I wanted and never looked back. I wanted to be an actress when I was young and go to New York and be on Broadway. But after a funny experience in high school of sneaking out and getting pot, I didn’t end up getting a part in a play. The school found out on the same day as auditions so they made an example of me. It was vindictive so I was like ‘fuck this.’ I was always better at singing anyway. I remember seeing myself on screen and I was like, ‘Wow, not an actress.’ I’ve gotten into modeling lately because I love fashion and vintage clothes so much. I fell into it accidentally. I was with a friend and we did a shoot in Austin and it came out well. Then suddenly I got more into it, and started to learn more and I really enjoy it.
How do you look natural in front of a camera? I don’t know how to smize.
Pearl Charles: You just have to be naturally comfortable in front of the camera. Then again, as a musician, you will get your picture taken. I’m not saying you have to be conventionally pretty but you got to get used to people taking your photo. You have to get your picture taken, you have to perform in the studio, you have to perform live, you have to do interviews. It’s a little bit of everything. Even some acting is involved. Making music is kind of a catch-all for those things, and it’s fun. But it’s important for me first and foremost to be a musician. I’ve been playing music since I was five years old. Everything comes from music first. It’s fun to play dress-up, though. Modeling is just grown-up dress-up.
You mentioned that co-writing is part of your background—is it still part of your method?
Pearl Charles: On the EP, I wrote most of the songs but had help tweaking them. Lately I’ve been writing a lot with other people—going in with an idea but writing lyrics and other instrument parts with someone else. I love that experience. You come up with ideas that you’d never come up with when you put two heads together, especially with people who have more experience than me. I’m surrounded by so many talented musicians, so it’s cool to see it as a resource. There’s only one song on the EP that I have 100% writing credit for officially: ‘You Can Change.’ That one is special—somewhat of an experiment to me. The project has sort of laid itself out for me. I haven’t had to put so much work into making it happen. Like squeezing a puppy too hard. That’s how it felt before. I’m letting it happen organically. People approach me and we work on something together. Joel Jerome was playing drums for me for a while and has an awesome studio. One day Joel called me in and he had this song his friend Miguel wrote and they wanted to see what it was like with a female singer. I’d never heard the song. We did three takes and it was just great. I was hesitant to put a song I didn’t write on the EP but then I thought of Linda Ronstadt and how in those days everyone would cover other people’s songs—that happened much more in the 60s and 70s. I’m a songwriter, but I’m also a singer. I’m not just one thing or the other. If you let things breathe, then you can let things happen. I wanted to do this project differently. I’m happy with the way everything is going. I was scared before, hiding behind other people’s songs so if something fails, it’s not on me. But taking the risk—these are my songs—so if people don’t like it, then it’s me they’re not liking. Fortunately, people like it!
Why did you do an EP and not an album?
Pearl Charles: It seemed like these songs vibed together, and though I have more songs, I didn’t want to cram it all in. Better to have more to choose from in the future. My influences have shifted even in the time since these songs were completed. I became super-obsessed with Fleetwood Mac and Gene Clark and J.J. Cale. Less of the surf-psych-garage, which is what I was going for on the EP, though I think the songs took on more than that. I didn’t want to just put out another garage album.
You don’t really have a ‘garage rock’ voice so it’s not really something you can label like that. Your voice also has an intrinsic country vibe.
Pearl Charles: I like that. And you know I love country rock. It’s like what you were saying before: first I was in the country band, then I was in the rock band, and now I’m in the country rock band. When my parents got a house in Joshua Tree, that’s when I started getting into classic country music. It feels appropriate there—Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. I love cosmic mystic shit, don’t get me wrong, and this might sound hippie-dippie but I felt like there was something pushing me towards that music when I went to the desert. The spirit of Gram Parsons is heavy out there. And that’s my zone. I’m happy to carry that torch. Desert people are a breed of their own. I love it out there. And the house is such a piece of art by my mom: the desert nature and the house décor, her painting everywhere in the house, from the kitchen cabinets to the walls, the way it all looks. And the parties I’ve been able to have there where a cross section of people come together and just meet and bond.
That’s a cool thing to have in your life. You’re a California girl, I’d say.
Pearl Charles: Totally, and proud of it. California has such an amazing music history. It has the country roots and the rock roots and the psychedelic roots and it all comes together. I love it here. I get jaded once in a while, but that’s part of it. And this ties into my trajectory. I was saying before that Driftwood was one character for me and Blank Tapes another—and this now is me.
PEARL CHARLES WITH JOHNATHAN RICE AND PHOEBE BRIDGERS ON WED., SEPT. 30, AT THE BOOTLEG THEATER, 2220 BEVERLY BLVD., LOS ANGELES. 8:30 PM / $12-$14 / 21+. BOOTLEGTHEATER.ORG. PEARL CHARLES’ SELF-TITLED EP IS OUT NOW ON BURGER. VISIT PEARL CHARLES AT INSTAGRAM.COM/PEARLCHARLES.