New Slanged: Charlie Shafter

All Photos Courtesy of Artist

by: Thomas D. Mooney
Editor-in-Chief

“I don’t know, the whole record to me, feels like a bunch of B-sides…I don’t know if I consciously or unconsciously set out to make a record that was sort of B-sides…”-Charlie Shafter on his self-titled sophomore album.

The B-side. These days with digital sales and releases, it’s pretty much obsolete, rarely utilized–a lost treasure in music–though to be fair, there’s never been much fan fair for the B-side by the masses. While a number of artists approached the B-side as a secondary afterthought (Phil Spector comes to mind), some artists’ best work have come on the B-side. It’s no surprise that bands such as The Beatles, The Smiths, and R.E.M. often had compilations of B-sides, which went on to have commercial success and critical praise.

Yet, when you first hear Charlie Shafter calling his latest album sounding like a bunch of B-sides, it may puzzle you. But the more you listen and think about the statement, you come around to seeing the truth of it. In reality, Shafter’s suggesting that there isn’t a clear-cut “single” or “hit” on the album. But it’s certainly not a bad thing.

It’s a balanced effort from Shafter where you can’t necessarily put on song above another as being better. This approach to album making may not generate a giant radio hit, but I’m positive Shafter could care less. I’m not sure about you guys, but I too would much rather listen to an entire album instead of hitting the back button a hundred times before growing tired of it all together.

Shafter’s voice as a songwriter continues to get grow and mature–especially on songs such as “Sea Wall” and “Actor.” When I spoke with Shafter a few months back, we talked about something that really stuck out. It’s something that I’ve thought about from time to time about songs and different musicians. The “timelessness of music” and writing songs that you can perform at any age without looking foolish or out of touch.

It’s something that became more important, apparent, and learned from Ray Wylie Hubbard.

“The biggest thing is making sure you’re happy with it yourself. That’s one of the biggest things–before that, before I ever met him, I kind of always would write songs and throw out my favorite ones because I knew they wouldn’t be a hit or anything like that. Would try and write songs people could sing-a-long to. I don’t do that as much anymore,” said Shafter in our previous interview. 

It’s pretty apparent that Shafter kept the majority of his favorites this time around. Not only that, but continued writing songs he can still relate to years from now.

In many ways, “Charlie Shafter” reminds me of a couple of classic albums from the ’70s”: Gram Parsons’ two albums, “GP” and “Return of the Grievous Angel,” and Niel Young’s “Harvest.” I’m not suggesting that Shafter’s album is better than those flawless efforts–something that he would concede to as well. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t some similarities.

For starters, with the exception of “Heart of Gold” from “Harvest,” each album was a conscious effort to create an album of steady, laid back, calm songs that reflect what “Americana” is during their time of release. Parsons’ albums may be more jangling here and there and Young’s “Harvest” may have a calmer and more soothing demeanor. But they all leave you in similar fashion; they leave you feeling cool and refreshed.

“Harvest”  very well be the apex in what folk music was in the ’70s (an argument for another day). Parsons’ were the leadoff in a movement that brought rock and country as close as together as they had ever been (and ever since for that matter). Shafter may not start a music revolution, but he doesn’t feel out-of-place either. Throw all the albums on a playlist and hit shuffle. You won’t be skipping any of Shafter’s songs. I promise you that.

Charlie Shafter will be playing The Blue Light Saturday, August 18. 

 

New Slang: I’ve listened to the album a couple of times now and one of the things that stands out to me, is that it feels like it really lends itself to an acoustic show. A lot of the songs are more geared for singer-songwriter than full band. 

Charlie Shafter: Yeah. I think–it depends on where you’re playing, you know? But, I think a lot of the stuff on the album definitely goes over better doing that stuff. It’s more of a laid back record. It’s not a rocker at all–I guess there’s a couple that might be. You just can’t go into a college crowd in a bar and do that [laughs]. But I like both situations. I like being able to play with just me and Starfire and the full band stuff. I like being able to do both those things. Typically, if I’m doing a bunch of acoustic shows in a row, I just want to go play with the full band afterwards. If I’ve done a bunch of full band in a row, I just want to go back out for an acoustic gig. The record definitely lends itself towards that stuff. Some places, I can’t even play the whole record in a bar in front of a big, hyped-up college crowd because they’re there to party and not to listen to singer-songwriter stuff. 

NS: “Sea Wall” is a really strong song off the album. I know last time we talked, you said that songs aren’t necessarily about specific events and things, but rather are collages.  With “Sea Wall,” where did most of that song come from?

CS: Yeah. With “Sea Wall,” I had written the last verse first. I had that verse and it was about–for as much as it could be–was about a dream. Unfortunately, dreams don’t always rhyme. So I had written all that and  to me, it just sounded like the end of a song instead of the beginning. To me, the end part of the song is the strongest part. The rest before it, not that it doesn’t mean anything, it just came along afterwards. It’s one of my favorite ones on there. For me, it’s one of the more personal on there. They’re all personal, but that one seems more.

I don’t know, the whole record to me, feels like a bunch of B-sides. When I’m listening to a bunch of records, usually my favorite songs are the B-sides. I don’t know if I consciously or unconsciously set out to make a record that was sort of B-sides and that didn’t have a big hit on it or some catchy thing that you could all sing along to. Those are my favorite types of songs. If I’m not making my favorite type of music and I’m pandering to an audience, it’s just not as fun. I have to pander to the audience when I play a lot of times [laughs]. I figured I’d do a lot of songs that I wanted, if I were to listen to my own music. Which, I can’t even listen to this new record any more since I’ve had to listen to it so much already. Back when those songs were really new and recorded them, I actually did for the first time ever really, liked listening to my own record. 

NS: That’s something I find interesting. Do artists listen to their own music from time to time?

CS: I think they do more than they’d admit. Especially when something’s new. The only time I’d even consider listening to “17th and Chicago,”–I wouldn’t ever consider putting it on–but the only time I’d ever have the chance to hear that would be I’m driving down the road and it comes on some radio station. But if that happens, I usually change it anyway. When you’re going over the mixes and mixing songs, you have listen to them over and over until you get sick of them. Finally, you just want to listen to that final product. I listen to that a couple of times, take a break, listen to it again, and if I like it, I really don’t want to listen to it again. It’s just like a song of anybody’s really. If you were forced to sit in a room and listen to “Heart of Gold” for five hours straight, you might not want to listen to even “Heart of Gold” again, even if though it’s one of the best songs ever written. Know what I mean [laughs]?

NS: Yeah. I definitely see that. One of the louder, upbeat songs on the album is “Lost in a Crowd.” You think that’s the “biggest” song on the record for “crowd participation?” 

CS: Yeah, I think so. “Lost in a Crowd” is kind of a remnant of when I was doing the whole Gnomes thing. I’ve changed it up a lot, but there’s another version on the “Live at the Blue Light” album. The whole guitar lick, that whole thing, Adam Cline came up with that and I just wrote lyrics around it. That’s kind of a co-write between Adam and I, who is my old guitar player. There’s another one on there that Ray [Wylie Hubbard] and I co-wrote called “Dog on a Chain” that’s kind of rockish or bluesy. You know Ray, anything he touches has to be bluesy. It’s kind of that way as well. Those are really the only two on there that really do that. I think that with Starfire and I together, we do a pretty good job doing a duo set with even the rockers. Starfire’s great at playing mandolin and coming up with parts and making it interesting. 

NS: Another song you co-wrote with Ray was “Moss and Flowers,” which was on his last album, “The Grifter’s Hymnal.” How did that process go on those songs working with Ray?

CS: Well, Ray is a good sort of finisher. I mean, he’s a great writer in his own right. But there’s always these songs where I’ll have about half of it written. I tend to sort of throw it away if it doesn’t feel like it’s going somewhere quickly. Ray works completely the opposite. Ray will at least attempt to finish every song he starts. So I was sitting around with Ray and he asked me what else I had and if I had anything half written. I said, “yeah, I’ve got this thing here, ‘Moss and Flowers.'” Which, it wasn’t called that at the time. Ray actually wrote the moss and flowers part of the song. I had this lick and thing that I started to write, but just didn’t know where to go with it. A couple of writing sessions and e-mails later, it turns out the way it is. That’s kind of how both of them happened. They were just two songs that I hadn’t ever liked the product until I worked with Ray on. “Dog on a Chain,” I tried writing it with Josh Abbott. I tried writing it with Matt Martindale. I tried finishing it with several other people and still never really ever liked it. Finally when I got to Ray and threw out all of Matt and Josh’s parts and just went back to what I had originally done, Ray got a hold of it and I really liked it after that. 

NS: Was there any songs that were real struggles to write? Other than “Dog on a Chain.”

CS: Most of them, I’d say four or five of them, I wrote–I knew I was going into studio with Ray–I wrote in probably a week about a week before I went into studio just because I wanted to have more songs than I needed. All those I wrote that week ended up being on the album. Those weren’t a struggle, but some of the older ones on there. I’m trying to think of one in particular besides “Dog on a Chain.” Well there’s one that actually isn’t on the album that’s always been a struggle for me. It’s an older song called “Periwinkle Sky.” We have a recording of it that was about to go onto the album and I just cut it at the last minute because I didn’t feel it was as strong as the rest of them. It just doesn’t sound finished to me. As far as struggles, I don’t think there’s anything on the album that was a struggle to get to the final product besides “Dog on a Chain,” which really wasn’t even a struggle because Ray just came in and wolfed through that thing and made it a Ray Wylie Hubbard thing, plus me. When you listen to “Dog on a Chain,” you’ll definitely know that Ray had a big hand in that. 

NS: That’s something else I was going to say about the entire album. Obviously you worked with Ray on the album. But, when you’re listening through, it’s–well, it doesn’t feel like you’re listening to a Ray Wylie Hubbard album, even though he was producing. Know what I’m saying?

CS: Yeah. He’s really good. He wanted me to sound like me and come across as my sound. That’s one of those things initially going in I was worried about. I was going, “well, Ray’s a badass, but I’m not sure how badass he’s going to be with stuff like mine.” It was perfect. Just great. He listens to stuff. It’s not like he listens to stuff that just sounds like Ray Wylie Hubbard. He’s a fan of a lot of music so he knows how to produce other stuff. He knows what’s cool and what’s not. I think he did a great job of just letting me be me. 

 

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