In part one of the interview with Southern California singer and songwriter Pearl Charles, we traversed the city of Los Angeles and the desert of Joshua Tree to explore the intersection of drugs, music and self-awareness.
It turns out some of those west coast themes, and some of that west coast music, have survived decades and are thriving again, and Charles is ready to reclaim the middle of the road.
As even a cursory listen to her second album, would tell you, the trail of influences leading to Pearl Charles’ Magic Mirror https://www.bernardzuel.net/post/pearl-charles-magic-mirror-review winds its way through more than 50 years – for a writer not yet 30 – and several genres, from coast to coast in her native America and both sides of the Atlantic to some brief landings in Australia.
We’re talking someone who starts that album with a song that is pure Abba and then finds Bacharach-ish pop, country rock and, as she confessed in part one of this interview, a lifelong love of musical theatre.
“We used a lot of those references but ultimately, we are a modern band,” explains Charles. “We could have gone harder into making something that sounded more retro or throwback, but I just wanted to make something that feels kind of timeless.”
There are some key touchstones though, and after we bond over a fondness for the songs of Christine McVie, Charles – also a passionate fan of Stevie Nicks and no small lover of the work of Lindsey Buckingham - calls her one of her biggest influences as a songwriter.
“I think that [McVie] is very straightforward and very classic. You know exactly what she is saying and somehow she makes a poetic, despite the fact that it is very clear and not cloaked in too much mystery. I connect with it so deeply, and I wanted to make something like that,” says Charles, who today is wearing an Eagles T-shirt she got from Australia. Not that she’s been here, though she insists that “I feel like I was an Australian in a past life”.
If the feel of the turn of the ‘60s/’70s is the most striking element at first, the other intriguing boldness of Magic Mirror is that Charles is quite prepared to write and play softly.
By that I don’t just mean quietly, or without spikiness lyrically or emotionally: lord knows we don’t have a shortage of people at the moment who think if you strip back or slow down it makes everything “meaningful”. In fact, listen closely to Charles and you’ll find doubt and darkness in many songs, on top of which her love of melody is too strong to just amble into place.
No, softly here refers to being prepared to make music that is gentle and sweet and is unafraid to be seen as, well, middle of the road – reclaiming that once cursed term.
While there used to be an assumption that if you aren’t in some way agitated you must be making trite, wet wet wet fare, singer-songwriters like Charles, Australian Joel Sarakula and UK artist Rumer are happy to say we like how the middle of the road feels and how it makes a listener feel. And irony or distance or mocking does not figure, or matter.
“I think that there is a generational difference. I didn’t grow up with that taboo. I mean, I kind of do because my mom, who really turned me onto a lot of the classic songwriters – Leonard Cohen, John Prine, Townes Van Zandt - she doesn’t like a lot of the same stuff that I like. She doesn’t like the Eagles, she definitely doesn’t like Fleetwood Mac, she doesn’t even really like Neil Young and she might like Linda Ronstadt,” Charles reveals. “They said this on NPR too about my record, that the first time they heard it did they didn’t want to like it because these people grew up with punk or post-punk. I didn’t have that; I just embraced it.”
Actually, not just embraced it but finding a philosophical grounding for it. She tells me about a conversation earlier in the day with the musician father of her partner, fellow musician and contributor to her new album, Michael Rault. Rault senior was marvelling at the appearance of a rose in a city footpath, wondering “how does the sweetness and softness make it through the hard world?”
“And I was like, underneath the hard exterior of the world that everybody’s put up is the earth, the universal thing out of which everything grows,” says Charles. “That sweetness is in there but we as a world have tried to cover it up and stamp it out because we are scared of being vulnerable.
“There is this vulnerability in being this is who I am: I’m not presenting as if I have a hardened exterior, this is who I am, a little soft and a little sweet and I think being true to myself is going to get me the furthest.”
Is the world more receptive to this idea? Well it helps that while her first album, the more country rock-leaning Sleepless Dreamer, was appealing, Magic Mirror is a significant upgrading in quality of songwriting and sound, projecting her as someone more confident and more in control.
On that first record you could see the ideas brewing; here they are realised
“To be really honest, there were some energetic blocks around the last album. Some of them had to do with me, some of them had to do with the people I was working with,” Charles says. “When I look back I really did have a lot of the same ideas, the beginnings of the same ideas, and I wanted to do a similar thing. But I think I was a bit insecure, and some of the people I was working with were a bit insecure, and like I said [in part one of the interview] we used session musicians who were great players but I don’t think it was quite as personal.”
Was it just experience and confidence lacking?
“There was too much focus on - my therapist just gave me this quote - perfection as the enemy of the good, out of fear of being exposed as being a fraud. Both for me as an artist and the producer I was working with specifically,” she says. “This time around, everything fell into place in a really cosmic and beautiful way. It’s still a very polished album, but it was more a mental state of mind.
“I do feel like it’s more authentically me, and that’s what I feel like is going to connect with people the most.”
Magic Mirror is out now on Kanine Records.