Alongside the smooth, sometimes glistening feel of Pearl Charles’ second album, Magic Mirror – a record which doesn’t just evoke the spirit of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, it wraps it in denim and silk scarves and feeds it coq au vin – there’s an earthiness that reminds you these are real people, with flaws and needs and quirks, playing it.
After drafting some quality session musicians for her 2018 album, Sleepless Dreamer, the native Los Angeleno drafted her live band who were very familiar with her stylistic reference points and influences, for Magic Mirror .
“It’s been noted as one of my specialties that I’m very good at curating a band,” Charles says beaming in from her other “home”, the southern California desert fringe of Joshua Tree. “Even down to curating a boyfriend who also gets it and working him into the project.”
It was producer, and occasional co-writer, Lewis Pesacov, with whom she had been planning this album for some time, who convinced her to shift from studio specialists to what you might call Charles specialists, including boyfriend Michael Rault (whose 2018 album was reviewed here).
“I always say I kind of locked them into a van for the last two years and just got to play them my favourite stuff,” says Charles, who is as much a fan of British easy groove duo Marshall Hain as Abba, as comfortable referencing any period Fleetwood Mac as she is Gram Parsons. “I don’t say I’m a control freak [but] I was the one who was playing the music, who liked to drive. I’m the tour mom. So, whether they liked it or not, they listened to my stuff … I had to fully immerse them in the world of Pearl Charles.”
You gotta like someone who says I don’t want to say I’m a control freak, and explains exactly how they are a control freak. Charles laughs at this truth, but thankfully is not in any way embarrassed. Name one successful artist with a clear idea of what she or he wants who does not take control. Any? Exactly.
“I have a very clear vision and that’s taken years of development. When I made my first record my vision was very different and I wasn’t as well thought-through as an artist. I’ve had some experience under my belt. But I would really say curation is one of my specialties: to be able to find the right people and then set them free,” says Charles.
“Even though I am in control of creating the universe, once I put them all together, they are such great players and producers and everything that I let them do their thing with the knowledge of what I want. And the magic happens.”
At this point it should be acknowledged that Charles could almost be said to have curated herself, or at the very least is in many ways the profile writer’s dream, with a store of quotable tales up her sleeves before we even get to the songwriting and the recording.
There’s the country singer/songwriter at whose house she smoked pot (and then being caught, having to give up the musical theatre group she was in); growing up in the Hollywood Hills with parents in the film industry; starting her Joshua Tree experience in the house owned by the first native American Playboy bunny; an avowed fondness for lysergics; did I mention musical theatre?; and a past performing at the Edinburgh Fringe.
The suspicion is that if Charles wasn’t real, some school of journalism would have had to create as an academic exercise/teaching example. The truth is they’re all real stories, beginning with the country songwriter.
“I have kept the name to myself, but if someone asked me I would have told them,” says Charles. “It was Mac Davis.”
Yep, the man who wrote In The Ghetto, Don’t Cry Daddy and A Little Less Conversation (all hits for another southern boy, Elvis Presley) and hits of own like Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me and It’s Hard To Be Humble.
(For trivia fans, bonus points for knowing that Davis had a US hit with a song written by Australian Kevin Johnson, Rock N Roll I Gave You All The Best Years Of My Life.)
Davis only died last year and it was his death that had her discovering his music properly. “I wasn’t into that kind of music at the time [that she was imbibing in his house] so I was like, yeah Mac Davis that’s this kid’s dad, whatever.”
The small twist in the tale now though is that Davis’ 1971 solo song Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me (which got to #2 in Australia, and #1 in the USA) is exactly the kind of smooth, just groovy enough, made for denim, ‘70s pop that is one of the key flavours on Charles’ album.
Added to the fact that even if Davis wasn’t himself indulging, you just know that in the 1970s someone was toking on a doobie listening to that song on AM radio and smiling beatifically.
“It’s really funny because the song obviously is about not wanting to settle down in a relationship and at the time [she visited] he had a much younger wife,” Charles remembers. “You could tell he had a whole life before this wife: the life that he didn’t settle down in, and then it was like, I’ll settle down but with a much younger wife and have kids.”
The bigger twist in this tale is that it’s possible to think that if she hadn’t been caught smoking, and lost privileges, she may well have ended up as a musical theatre writer or performer rather than the pop/country singer-songwriter she has become.
“It’s very easy to attributed to that moment, and there’s no way to know otherwise,” she says with a benign smile. “Part of me feels like whether it was going to be that incident or another one, I probably would have ended up where I am now because I think that was my ultimate calling. All that being said, I still say to this day, if I was offered to be in Mama Mia on Broadway, I would do it. It would be the ultimate convergence of all my favourite things.”
Spreading things a little further, the fact that musical theatre and lysergics are two key parts of her life is more interesting when you realise that her lyrics and music don’t disappear into either abstracts/fogginess or complexity and wordplay. Those influences may be part of who she is, but they are so well entwined with country music, Americana, Laurel Canyon songwriting, and gentle pop, that delineating influences in Magic Mirror’s songs is foolish.
“My music has never been psychedelic in the ‘psych rock’ sense but it is born of psychedelics, it is about experiences that have happened on psychedelics,” she says. “I wrote Impostor on a mushroom trip, and we recorded two of the songs on the album on acid. So it’s definitely a part of the whole process. A big part of it.”
This is not just an idle, or drug fun experience for Charles. In conversation she casually makes reference to totemic books of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s when alternative lifestylers, escapees from the mainstream world and regular people, looking for some kind of enlightenment, sought guidance in things such as Ram Dass’ Be Here Now, as well as in mind expanding substances.
“How do I explain it? It kind of allows you to put the guard down a bit. I think it brings out stuff that is already there but really brings you into the moment,” Charles says about the chemicals. “I think they say in Be Here Now, they call [psychedelics] ‘the shortcut to that headspace’.”
Odd as it looks now in retrospect, that trippy age feels a lot more chilled than the musical and social period which followed, when the ‘70s, and some of her other favourite albums, were being experienced in blizzards of coke and waves of bitterness.
“I’ve read a lot about Laurel Canyon and I’m also into true crime, while the Manson stuff has been one of my topics of study, and I think that a lot of that can be attributed to the fact that in 1969 with Altamont and Manson, people started to get a little scared,” says Charles the student of the counter-culture.
“So this openness that had existed in the Canyon, and in San Francisco and all that, went, and the drugs started getting a bit harder, and made people a bit more paranoid. And they were right to be paranoid. It was kind of a perfect storm that did end that era.”
Still, let’s not get too censorious.
“Kind of the best time is the early ‘70s where you had a mingling of both. But listen,” she says, now laughing. “Rumours, wouldn’t be a record without cocaine, so we can’t take away its due.”
TOMORROW. In part two of this interview, Pearl Charles discusses losing the fear of being seen as soft and vulnerable – personally and musically. “I’m not presenting as if I have a hardened exterior, this is who I am, a little soft and a little sweet.”
Magic Mirror is out now on Kanine Records.