By Alan Brostoff
Who wouldn’t want to spend some time with a musician whose own website reads “Charlie Parr has failed at most things. Music seems to have rendered him unemployable and is the only thing he’s ever done with any confidence.” Goldmine has the chance to sit down with Charlie Parr just as he was releasing his new album Dog on Red House Records.
Goldmine: You have a brand new record Dog out now on Red House Records, can you share how this record came to be?
Charlie: Well a lot of the songs on this record have been around for a while, some are actually really old, one of them is 15 years old, and one of them was not even born when we started the album. Since the songs all seemed to be heading in the same direction I was going to make a solo record. This was late in 2016 and I started rehearsing all of the songs, like it would be a solo record. Planning all the arraignments and playing the instruments and then it occurred to me that this was just going to be…terrible. It was going to be awful, I had no confidence in the songs being able to lift themselves up out of the mire of depression and really heavy, dark images and of course I had already made arraignments. I had found a place to record. I had contacted my favorite engineer, and all kind of stuff. Which is what I do. I get even the dumbest idea into my head and instead of giving it a little bit of extra thought, I just go ahead and start making some concrete plans. Which is what I did and so I had to cancel everything after I realized that this was not going to work. Then I thought I should make a full-on band record, just like a mob of people and make it into a big production. So I start calling everyone up and “Hey I’m going to make this big thing, it’s going to be like Big Pink.” I got everyone called up and three days later in the middle of the night I wake up thinking “Oh my god, what a horrible idea, What am I thinking about? Do I have to come up with the worst ideas possible?” The next day finds me on the phone telling everyone “I’m sorry, I was not really thinking straight, these songs won’t work that way.” It’s not going to work. I could tell about my songs, when something is not going to work and neither of these ideas was going to work.
What ended up happening is the engineer, who has like been with me for so many years and we have worked together, Tom Herberts, he’s such a good friend. He basically said let’s just book some studio time at this place I have my equipment at and bring some folks in that know your stuff and we will play around and see what happens. That’s what I did, and when we went in there and I got these four people who have been playing live with me a lot, and known me for over a decade basically, I took these large sheets of paper that I’m trying to describe to everybody these sheets with giant lyrics printed on them and all of their parts, I don’t read music so it all in this arcane, bazaar made up language and colored pencils. I tell them that you are this color and you are that color. They are all looking at me like I’m insane and then we just started to play, and of course they know me and they know what my songs are like and they make this a solo record with embellishments by these other folks and so by the second song everything was going so well I just threw all the papers away and threw the colored pencils away and we recorded the entire record in 6 hours. Half the record is just first takes. We had gotten in a big wide circle and we could watch each other and see what was going on. The next couple of days Tom and I just sat alone in the big booth and listened to everything we had and played around with different mixes and had a really good time. I got what I wanted. I got an organic sounding record. I got the actual thing these songs are about which is what they are about plus what music is for me. It’s not finished with the solitary part of writing the song. It’s never done then. The song is never really finished being written until it’s been performed in front of other people or brought to their attention. So this feels like a very community like effort for me to make music. I rely on other people in my life and at my shows to help me put together what it is that I’m supposed to be doing. So that’s what happened. I brought a small community to the studio and we created an atmosphere together that I could not create by myself. So that’s kind of how it went.
Goldmine: What has made music so important in your life?
Charlie: That’s a challenging question because I don’t have a lot of reference when it was not important to me in some way. When I was really little I don’t remember hearing the actual music, like I had a listening ear but I remember that it was always on and liking it. I remember it being important because when music was not playing I seem to remember that something good was not happening. Music was a comforting sound. When my dad would come home and put on a stack of records or my sister would be home and playing music in the back of the house, music was playing and everything seemed to be right with the world. When I first started listening to the music with an active ear I started realizing what an amazing thing it was just in its self. It filled part of my life that was just not getting filled. I can’t imagine life without music. I really can’t. I don’t know if I gone more than a day in my life without having access to it, either listening to it or playing it. It’s so meaningful to me.
Goldmine: You have shared with the public that you have dealt with bouts of depression, but it sounds like music has helped you get through the tough times.
Charlie: Yea, it definitely has. Music has been the constant through the difficult times and the good times. It’s been a solace. When I started writing my own music after my dad died, it become a therapy for me to do that and it still is. Writing songs is a kind of weird, challenging, multi-step process for me, yet it has a very therapeutic element that I rely on pretty heavily.
Goldmine: Your new release Dog, like most of your releases is available on vinyl. What role has vinyl played in your life?
Charlie: It has a lot to do with sentiment. It’s the way I access music in the earliest time I could remember. I still have a lot of the records I had and that were in the house, my dad’s records. A stack of my collection used to be his. When I started recording music and put out a little CD or CDR it did not really feel real. It did not feel like a big deal. It was this thing that has no sentiment attached to it. When the first time I managed to get a record pressed onto vinyl suddenly it felt a whole lot more real to me. It felt more, I kind of want to say valuable, but it’s more than value. Music is valuable in and of itself regardless of its medium, but vinyl for some reason has a sentiment attached to it for me. I really value it. I have a small but mighty record collection. I occasionally add to it here and there. I listen to a lot of music. I really like Bandcamp a lot because you can download a lot of music that contemporaries of mine are putting out. That’s really important to me but vinyl has a special sentiment to me that I place a high value on.
Goldmine: What are some of your favorite record stores to visit?
Charlie: Well I’m in one of them today, I just dropped a lot of road money that I could have probably used to eat on at Bop Shop records in Rochester, NY. It’s where I’m sitting right now waiting before I go play at Abilene Tavern. It’s a great shop. He has kind of similar tastes. I get the impression that I’m buying the records that he has in is collection also. Several record stores in Portland, Oregon that I love including Mississippi Records. In Seattle it’s Bop Street Records, like Dave who runs the place. He’s a nice fellow. If you go into a town and you can find the record store you will find a certain kind of hub for the community, and at least for me if doesn’t make me feel like I’m all alone when I’m on the road. You feel like you are part of some type of community.
Goldmine: You can record with anyone you want, who would it be?
Charlie: That list could be very, very long because I like so many people. I have always thought about how much fun it would be to sit down with and record with Spider John Koerner. He’s such a massive influence on me. On both my song writing and guitar playing. I don’t know how realistic that would be anymore as he seems to be in this phase of retirement, but he is a huge hero of mine and I guess he is the number one person on the list. Traveling around there are so many good writers and players and so many people seem really dedicated to all the best parts of creating and participating in music.
Goldmine: Last question, the new album is out on Red House Records, what is the best way for fans to get their hands on it?
Charlie: Well, I know that Red House has an online way to buy it and you can get to it through my website, charlieparr.com. The best way for me is that I have some in the van so just come to the show, see me, say hi and buy a record. That’s always my favorite way. It’s fun to meet the people and sell them a record. I like that the best. I love interaction with my fans. I can play guitar anytime, even at home in the kitchen. Half the time when I play in the kitchen it sound better than when I play at a show because I’m more relaxed and can do what I want. But when I play a show you get this extra thing, a community, some feedback and I have been really lucky that I have an amazing group of people that have been supporting me and I love hanging with them and meeting people and thanking them for coming out and supporting the music. It makes it very important to me and keeps me very, very positive.