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Interview with Charlie Hilton (Blouse)

Charlie Hilton by Brianne Wills
12 October 2016

Photo by Brianne Wills

As a companion to Big Takeover issue 78’s short take on Charlie Hilton, here is the interview in its entirety. Having ventured to Salt Lake City for a couple of days to see her perform opening for Wild Nothing, her set was like a breath of fresh air compared to the previous evening’s performance by Beach Slang with its bad vibes and eventual implosion onstage. Hilton by contrast, was spot-on in all her airy and whimsical beauty, just like her solo debut “Palana” (Captured Tracks), the perfect come-down from the prior night’s uneasiness. Huge thanks to Charlie for taking the time to answer my questions and to Eloy Lugo at Grandstand for the coordination.

James Broscheid: I like to think music either compliments our moods or creates emotion. Palana has a couple songs that come to mind in regards to the love and loss rollercoaster that is life; the melancholy of “Something For Us Al_l” and the brevity leveraged by “_Let’s Go To A Party”. What is your source for music and what inspired you to record your first solo album?

Charlie Hilton: I agree, the directional quality of music varies from song to song. Sometimes it has more power over us than we have over it, and vice versa. Either way, I feel like our relationship to music is such a strange thing. Why is there any power there at all? It’s truly perplexing, equally so when it comes to the writing. I used to think that my impulse to write songs matched the very same need to write poetry or stories when I was younger—a sort of longing to abstract and simplify the disorder of emotion I felt inside. It’s very healing to take that chaos and very carefully arrange language around it. But I don’t know, things aren’t as chaotic inside for me anymore. Sometimes I don’t feel any emotion at all until I begin writing, so it’s hard to explain where the song originates. In any case, creating music has been a fixture in my life for so long that I have trouble coming up with any reasons why or where, but I will say it’s all very personal and I will never get tired of it.
Regarding the inspiration for the solo record, Captured Tracks signed me as a solo artist a few years ago and when Blouse finished its last album cycle, I turned my attention to it. To me, it was simply another opportunity to make an album that I knew would be released, which is a very lucky thing. While there wasn’t any deep philosophy behind it, I appreciate what it’s allowed me to do. I feel more open now, more relaxed.

JB: I was completely blown away when I first heard “Pony”. I instantly thought of the late, great Trish Keenan (Broadcast) and others like Christa Päffgen (Nico) as far as your vocal delivery. It is fair to assume they are influences on your work? Portland is/was home to some of my all-time favorites in Elliott Smith, The Decemberists, Dandy Warhols, The Dimes and The Wipers. Are there any others you want to mention, local or otherwise? Do you spend much time listening to other stuff?

CH: Yes, I’m a big fan of both Nico and Trish Keenan. Like them, I don’t sing with bravado, which I think is one reason why our voices feel similar. I couldn’t sing that way even if I wanted to, but I do think the way I’m able to sing is appropriate for my lyrics. I want them to do most of the work, and singing in a detached way feels natural to me. As a teenager, I loved singing people to sleep. It was my favorite thing to do! I’d always be that girl at the party with the guitar and I’d always manage to find a room full of stoned people. Haha, I haven’t thought about that for a long time.
Yes, Portland is a great city for music. It wasn’t until I moved to here that I met the right people to make music with, and that’s a funny thing to say because I’m from LA. I would probably add Unknown Mortal Orchestra to your list. :) And of course I listen to tons of music, but I don’t know a lot about it. I’m not a music nerd, like most of my friends, although I have strong opinions about what I like and don’t like.

JB: Was enlisting Jacob Portrait as producer a matter of comfort because of your work with him in Blouse (a pairing that offers tremendous results)? Did you have any other producer considerations in mind for Palana? Why was Jarvis Taveniere selected to produce “100 Million”?

CH: Yes, I feel very comfortable in the studio with Jacob, although I did try working with a few other people before I made the decision to do the solo record with him. Finding the right producer is difficult, a little like finding love. We hadn’t recorded together for a long time and I missed him. I knew that whatever we did together would be something I liked, and that confidence allowed me to relax and focus on the writing. In the end, I’m so glad I made that decision. It was the most fun I’ve ever had making a record, and the hardest I’ve ever worked.
Initially, I was planning on making this whole record with Mac Demarco and Jarvis, but after spending a week together in the studio in 2012, we never picked it back up again to finish. I think we all got busy and I kind of shelved the project for a while. But that week was pretty remarkable. I loved working with those guys.

JB: So Palana has been in the works for quite some time. Was it just a matter of schedules meshing to complete? Do you see releasing a second solo album before continuing with Blouse? Crazy busy but in a good way I think!

CH: Yes, schedules, writing, artwork, experimentation. The record was done for almost a year before it came out too. I think I may release another solo record before the next Blouse album, but that’s only because the label is expecting it and I’ve already started recording. It’s going to take some time to get the Blouse members back in one place.

Charlie Hilton by James Broscheid
Photo by James Broscheid

JB: Reviewers love labels and some have been assigned to Palana in comparison to Blouse of course. I’ve read “Art-pop”, “haze-pop”, “indie-electronic”, etc. but I’m more interested in your transition to a solo artist rather than labeling it. I thought the personal mantra you cited from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf was way more tell-tale because Palana comes across as a transition from a band member to something incredibly introspective, personal and all your own. Is that a fair assessment?

CH: Yes. Like I said before, I wasn’t really planning on having a spiritual experience with this, but once the project was underway, it evolved into something very meaningful and healing. Having just finished our first small tour, I’m feeling pretty emotional about it right now. Performing these songs to a live audience felt different to me than with Blouse. Even with a full band behind me, I somehow felt more alone, but in a good way. I feel more comfortable with myself.

JB: I think the minimalist structure of Palana offers the perfect platform to highlight your vocals and its adaptability. There’s wonderful psych, folk and synth underpinnings to the music while your vocal delivery sounds at home with all genres on the record. “100 Million” is a great example. Meddle_-era Pink Floyd but modernized with Mac’s collaboration. _Palana seems like a natural progression for you, combining elements of both of Blouse’s LPs with synth and traditional instrumentation. Was this something you were aiming for when ideas of a solo record were being considered?

CH: I’m glad the progression feels natural to you. Yes, I knew I wanted the vocals and lyrics to be more accessible, easier to decipher. Initially, we thought the record was going to be mostly acoustic, but once we began recording we decided to just do what felt best for each song. I think Jacob and I felt like it was ok (and even ideal) to allow some songs to have a Blouse-like feel because they could act like a bridge between the two projects. Our natural inclination in the studio is to experiment a lot, and basically do whatever we want, but we definitely talked about being careful not to make the whole record feel like Blouse. That was a concern we had to keep in the back of our minds.

JB: Like any fine art, it is easy to lose yourself within it. Whether watching a film, standing in front of a painting, or reading an engrossing novel, art can be so compelling you become removed. When I listen to Palana (whether with headphones on, in the car or at home) I listen to it in its entirety rather than cherry pick favorites. Is that something you think about when recording? There are other factors that come into play as well like sequencing but is that something you are aware of? A listener becoming completely absorbed into your work.

CH: I think that’s something every artist hopes will happen, someone losing themselves in the work. I’m extremely happy to hear that you like listening to the record all the way through. Sequencing is a thing that we all take very seriously when putting the final pieces of the record together, so I’m sure all music workers hope that what they did makes it across in one piece. That said, I’m fine knowing that people cherry-pick. We’re all so busy, sometimes there just isn’t enough time for a whole record. Artwork is another thing that i take very seriously. Getting it right is almost harder than making the record!

JB: I love the fact that you take an album’s artwork as serious as your songwriting. That is another reason why the resurgence of vinyl is so important; the artwork. I remember being a kid and sitting in a rocking chair, listening to records and zoning out on the album artwork as I listened. I always wondered what artists were thinking when coming up with album covers and how it relates to what’s on the wax. Is there a process you go through when evaluating, and eventually settling on cover art? Is it a matter of several concepts coming to life and settling on one idea?

CH: Yes, I think it’s a matter of going through many concepts until you know you’re done. I’ve never been torn about choosing—to me there is only ever one.  For this record, I was having a lot of trouble before I started working with Robert Beatty. Once I saw his work, I was so relieved. I knew he would do something that I would like and that would fit the record. We pushed the release date forward just to be able to work with him. But even then, it wasn’t easy. We were having trouble with that portrait—when you combine illustration with a photo, things can get a little strange. He came up with the idea to make a kind of frame around my face.There were a few things that inspired him, but I know vintage Hermes scarves came into play. I really love what he did.

JB: You mentioned being on a mini-tour of sorts this past week (back in February 2016). Now that you’ve had time to reflect, how was the new material received in a live setting? I am really happy to hear you being more comfortable as I would imagine some apprehension would be completely understandable.

CH: It was received well! People seemed engaged and happy. I decided not to do any Blouse material on that tour, so it was a little scary playing all new songs with nothing familiar to fall back on. It’s a lot to ask of an audience. But I enjoyed myself and felt very open. I liked performing these songs more than I thought I would.

JB: What does the future hold for you? Are you planning on double-duty for the foreseeable future, being a solo artist as well as a member of Blouse?

CH: I hope so. I always have a hard time looking too far into the future. For now, I’m planning a few tours this year and working on a new record, which I began last summer. My band and I will be doing a US tour with Wild Nothing in May, and we’re working on getting to Europe in the summer or fall. I’d love to make more Blouse records, but that will probably have to wait until 2017.


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