Every Step: Chatting to Charlie
Charlie Winston Interview– 23/07/2009
The first time I saw Charlie Winston live, his open and candidly charming character unveiled to me a great depth in what he had to offer both musically and as an all-round entertainer. Quirky, vibrant, “stylishly styled” and with a raw, authentic talent that is atypical of today’s musical landscape.
Charlie Winston is an acoustic folk singer easing his way tenderly but firmly onto the scene; namely in France, where he currently reigns at No.1 in the Album charts with his album Hobo and rose to Number 1 with his single Like a Hobo. It is only a matter of time before Charlie and his merry manner come sailing onto the scene in the UK. I chatted with Charlie, who is currently touring in France, to dig a little deeper and to find out if what I thought I knew about this individual is true…
After exchanging pleasantries, (one of which included a light-hearted apology from Charlie, who had just awoken from a much needed nap, which is more than forgivable given the intensity of his French tour– “I have got 17 festival dates in France alone”), I got down and chatty with Mr. Winston.
Hannah: So you’re touring quite intensely in France at the moment– your single Like a Hobo reached No.1 in France and your album Hobo reached No.2 in the physical charts and has been in the Top Ten album charts in France since its launch in January. You obviously have a very strong fan-base there; what do you think it is about your music that makes you so successful across the channel?
Charlie: I have a very particular, refined style. I have had time to develop what I do and who I am, I’m 30 and I’m glad that I have taken the time to really give substance to what I am about. I don’t follow fashions– I would say I’m sort of “dandy” like and my style is quite…stylish. I have a very strong sense of my own style and it is genuinely who I am…I think they respond well to that in France. You know, the French like fine wine, mature cheese and mature musicians…
H: Well, you’re not over the hill yet!
C: [laughs] No, but I mean I took my time to develop my style and I never rushed. I knew I had something quite substantial to offer in my music and so I took my time and worked up a really good sense of my style…the Parisians and French in general respond well to character.
H: That makes a lot of sense. You have actually led me right up to my next question! I have read your biography and am a close follower of your work and it seems as though you have made your successes in this industry in a very authentic, honourable manner– for example you were introduced to Peter Gabriel in 2003, but you waited until you knew him as a friend before showing him your music– at which point he signed you and produced your first album Make Way. What gave you the sort of confidence in your material to hang back and wait for the right moment instead of trying to charge into the spotlight like so many aspiring artists do?
C: I have held onto a very strong sense of what is real and what isn’t real and, you know, fame…it’s all just a 20th Century invention and doesn’t really mean anything. It isn’t who I am and could all change at any time. I constantly remind myself of what is real and, with meeting Peter, I was more interested in connecting with him as a person than just getting straight in there and promoting myself to him. Peter was actually quite impatient with me, he wanted to get the ball-rolling and hit it big, getting Virgin involved…but me and my management wanted to do things slowly and properly.
H: Are your management as patient as you?
C: Yes. They know they have to be and they would be shooting themselves in the foot if they weren’t. That’s not what I am about. I am a complete opposite to the manufactured packaged artists. Everything that I produce from the “Charlie Winston” brand is genuinely Charlie Winston.
H: Yeah that really comes across in your music and in your live performances.
C: Thank you. Have you seen me perform?
H: Yeeeeesss…[I then regale Charlie with the (true) tale of the first time I met him after seeing him perform a beautifully sensitive and poetical song called Every Step (on the album). This ‘meeting’ involved me flying after him in desperation as he made his way off stage and towards his dressing room, while I shrieked that I needed the name of the song and a copy of it. Instantly if possible. A year later, I got it when Hobo was released in France. Charlie seems flattered rather than scared…]
C: Oh yes I remember that! I was chuffed that someone had picked up on that song.
H: [Well pleased with myself] The kind of acknowledgment that you’re currently getting in France…
C: Yeah, and I think I will be okay in the UK. You know I have done a lot in the UK with Tom (Baxter– Charlie’s brother who is also an established folk–singer), with Daniel Powter…But it doesn’t matter. I look at what I have got rather than what I haven’t and you know anything from here is just a bonus. Even if I don’t make it really big in the UK, at least I have got this, what I have got now.
H: Is it this attitude that has made you so successful?
C: Everything is a magnet in the world, you know. As soon as you push something too hard, it doesn’t work out. As soon as you stop wanting for something, you attract it. It’s like with relationships; you have to just let it go for it to work. And the relationship between me and my music is the same. It is almost that when you let things go, they go right for you.
H: How would you describe yourself in 3 words?
C: [much deliberation] Erm… Fun… Serious.
H: Did you say “Curious”??
C: [laughs] No I said “Serious”. But Curious is better. I am Fun, Curious…[More deliberation] thoughtful…[Evidently!]
H: Well done. How would you describe Hobo in 3 words?
C: Fun….Curious…and Thoughtful!
H: [laughter] I was hoping you would say that!
C: Ah there you go, you didn’t push too hard for it…
H: …so it worked out well for me.
[more laughter. mainly from me.]
C: Another way I like to describe my records is Fight-club…you know, the film. The film really reflects my records, all the underlying themes and illusions about the modern world. I watch and I think that is exactly it!
H: I didn’t actually realise Brad Pitt was an illusion until right at the end of that film.
C: [Laughs] What? How near to the end before you realised??
H: Oh someone had to tell me. About five minutes before the closing credits. I need to watch films like this under supervision [laughter]… So Fight-Club defines your music then? I like how you’re illustrating your music with films!
C: And also Casablanca, have you seen that?
H: Yes I have seen that…at some point…I think!
C: And a bit of the German film Wings of Desire, with that guy who is in Columbo, peter Faulkner. Wings of Desire is this amazing film with angels in long black trench coats.
H: It sounds like City of Angels…
C: Yeah City of Angels is a direct rip-of of Wings of Desire. These films are a big influence and are really reflective of my music.
H: So speaking about what influences you…You come from a very multi-talented musical family it seems! We have already mentioned your brother Tom Baxter, who I know is very successful in the industry, and your sister Vashti Anna also sings. How big an impact has your childhood had on your musical career and directed your path as an established singer? I know you grew up in your parent’s hotel, through the doors of which many artists and performers passed…
C: Childhood is a very powerful parlour of memories and food to fuel music– from listening to my parents singing to the guests at the end of the night in the Hotel bar, to Tom singing in Charlie’s Bar at the back of the hotel, my lessons with Mrs. Mills, break-dancing with my friends in the ball-room at the hotel, playing drums at 8 years old, listening to my sister doing singing lessons and learning how to sing properly… and then there’s all the chaos. You know my parents divorced when I was 11 and we were all still in the hotel, so it was quite destructive…that destruction is what gives the break-through when you’re writing music. It was an escape from city life and I definitely take a lot of inspiration from all that.
H: The influence your childhood and your family have on your music really comes across in your songs– you get a really strong sense of childhood and “growing up”. So speaking about your family a little bit more, you were actually in a band with Tom for 3 years; did you see that as a period particularly instrumental to your success?
C: I was playing on and off with Tom since I was 19. You know, I had just finished studying, I didn’t have a piano and I was staying in Tom’s apartment in Clapham. The apartment had a basement and Tom got excited and said “let’s get a band together!” So we did and I started playing Bass. But after I while I missed composition and doing my music for myself, so I went to India for a month when I was 21 and when I came back I decided to set off on my own. I did a lot of big productions in London in that time, but was still working on and off with Tom and when he started getting interest he took me along with him– it was a hand-in-hand thing.
H: That is really lovely!
C: We’re brothers and we support each other as much as possible. I helped him out and he wanted to give that back. Tom always felt a bit indebted to me and you know that’s why he gave me so many supporting slots in his gigs. But you know it is funny ‘coz the tables have turned a bit and he is supporting me in France in the future and it’s great that I can do the same for him as he did for me. We put our egos to one side and you know there are things more important than getting competitive. You know we all die in the end, not to sound morbid, but that is what happens and that is the one thing I am certain of in life, so you know there’s things that are more important.
H: We all kick the bucket in the end, Charlie… [I am really pleased with myself again as I manage to squeeze in a line from Charlie’s song Kick the Bucket– also on the album]
C: [Laughs] Yes, we do!
H: Just a few more little questions if you please! I mentioned earlier my love of the song Every Step; it is so perceptive, I listen to it and I think “How does he know that is what it feels like?” So what or who inspired that?
C: It was a relationship I had that was like a firework, you know it went out very quickly and it hit the floor quite hard. I spent the relationship realising there were issues and thinking I could help that person, but all I could do in the end was step away and so that is what I did. The song is about that.
H: But for a man to sing something so perceptive of female feelings, what you sing about in Every Step is very specific to women and that feeling of rejection and insecurity…yet you express it so accurately given that you’re a man!
C: You know it is funny, a friend asked me that after they heard it. She said “How do you know this is how it feels?” But you know it is just a perception. I wrote that song in one hour. It is a very universal feeling I think. Like the line caught in the anger you feel for your dad- it is a very universal feeling. And I know this from growing up with my sister and from girlfriends I have had. People ask me why I write so much about family and relationships, but you know these things are what reach out to everyone. They are universal feelings and concepts and so people can understand what you’re singing about.
H: And finally…you have a song on the album called My Life as a Duck, would you be reincarnated as a duck do you think?
C: [Laughs] I actually wrote that song after a dinner party where we were all saying what animal we would come back as, and I said I would be duck! And then I was playing this game with my girlfriend of the time and we would give each other song titles and we would then have to write about it, and she gave me that one! But you know it’s weird ‘coz I showed the song to my mum after I wrote and she read it and said “oh that is weird…” and then she told me this story about how when Tom and I were little we used to come running in saying “we know this, we know that” you know like kids do, and to shut us up she used to turn around and say “I know everything about you, your father was a duck!” And so that is why I added that last line.
H: That is funny! My friend Marcus and I were trying to work out what the hell that line meant. So thanks for clearing that up!
C: You’re welcome.
H: And thank you very much for your time, it has been absolutely lovely chatting to you Charlie and I wish you best of luck with the rest of your French travels and hope to see you soon.
C: Thank you– I’ll see you next time I am up in Sheffield! Have a great day Hannah.
Somehow I think I will have followed him after a gig, demanding song names off of him well before he next makes it up to Sheffield…
* * *
Charlie Winston is exactly the man his music presumes him to be and he is as authentic an artist as his acoustic guitar and trademark waistcoat & tie combos imply. The French have beaten us to it in recognising such raw talent and salient performance, but it certainly isn’t too late for the UK to skip onto Charlie’s cheerful bandwagon and enjoy the journey, like I certainly am.
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