American Singer/Songwriter Charlie Faye out of Austin, TX took touring to a new level with an experimental idea that has landed her music in front of more crowds and given her many more collaborators, and she had a full length album at the end of her journeys. Her exploration was documented in her sophomore release “Travels with Charlie”, where you follow the sultry folk singer from one city to another across the U.S. in search of new experiences and musical adventures. I had the opportunity to interview Charlie in Asheville, NC, while she was on the road, and now that the album is finished she continues to tour and promote with daring enthusiasm.
Let’s begin by letting our readers know a bit of your background. When did you first pick up the guitar & start pursuing a career in music?
I didn’t pick up a guitar until kind of late, compared to most people I know. It wasn’t until I was a junior in college. I started off playing bluegrass and finger-style blues, which is what I was really into at the time. But I didn’t start singing or writing songs until even later, after I had graduated and was living on my own in Philadelphia. Living alone for the first time… well, that was the first time I wasn’t afraid to try singing, to experiment with songwriting… because nobody was listening! At that time I was getting into Lucinda Williams and Rickie Lee Jones, so I had some great songwriting influences coming into play, in addition to all the older stuff I was listening to.
As for pursuing a career in music, well, that kind of happened to me. I got hired to play as a sideman with Greg Garing, a country-bluegrass virtuoso who was living in New York at the time. I played mandolin and guitar with him, and he taught me how to sing harmonies. After that, I landed a gig playing with Dan Zanes. So my first professional ventures into music were as a sideman. It was only after I stopped working as a sideman that I really began to develop my own career as an artist. I moved to Austin in 2007 with the intention creating a career for myself as an artist, and I haven’t looked back since.
Charlie the last time we spoke you were working on a compilation album, Travels with Charlie, released August 2011, where you traveled to 10 different cities in the US, found band mates, and collaborated on a new songs. How did you come up with the concept?
Well, I had just put out my last record, Wilson St., and I was talking to a friend about how I would tour to support the record’s release. He started talking about some friends of ours, a band called Poi Dog Pondering, who, in their early days, would go to a college town and hang out for a week before they played a show there. In that week they would hang out with the college kids, make friends, have jam sessions, and by the time the gig rolled around, everyone was excited to go see the show. Then, the next time they came back through those towns, they had friends to hang out with, places to crash, and an audience for the gigs. It sounded pretty genius to me, so I decided to do my own version of that — and spend a month in each of 10 different cities (Tucson, L.A., Portland, Boulder, Shreveport, Burlington, Milwaukee, Nashville, Asheville, New York). I was traveling by myself, so I just ended up putting together a group of local musicians in each place to play live shows with.
The plan at the beginning was to just tour to support Wilson St. To live in each of these 10 towns for a month, to play a residency, to meet and play with local musicians, and to build a fan base in each city. It definitely morphed along the way. For example, recording wasn’t a part of the original plan. But when I was living in Tucson, my first month of the tour, I wrote this new song called Broken Heart Maker. I played it for one of the guys in my band, Sergio Mendoza, and he suggested that we record it with some of the guys he was playing with in the band Calexico. It was such a cool experience that I decided I would do that in every town on the tour. And that’s how the record, Travels With Charlie, came into being.
This experience was also about getting to know the 10 towns you visited a little better, did you feel like you got a better understanding of the places you stayed?
Definitely. Normally, when you’re touring, you don’t get to see much at all. Maybe you have dinner someplace, but that’s about it. You see the hotel, or whoever’s couch you’re staying on, and then you’re out the next morning. So, yeah, I had a whole month to get to soak up the feeling of each town. I had enough time to realize what everyday life would be like if I lived there. Some of them I chose because I thought they would be musically inspiring. Others I chose because I got offered a great gig. And a few of these cities I’d just always been curious about. And remember, I started the tour in January… so I wanted to go somewhere warm first!
Was it easy finding people to participate, and where did you find the musicians you worked with?
It wasn’t as hard as you might think. I have a great musical network, so I had a lot of friends suggesting people I should play with. And then I would just go out, too, and look for musicians. I would go see bands play and think to myself, that drummer is awesome! And then I’d go up and tell them about the tour and what I was doing, and most of the time, people were totally on board. It was just fun.
What were some of your most memorable experiences from making the album?
The recording I did in Vashon Island with Ian Moore was pretty memorable. It was raining, we were setting up to record in his house, and everyone else had gone out to go fishing, in the rain. When we finally got everything set up and were about to do the first take, all the kids, dogs, and everyone burst through the front door. So we tried to record with them all there, but it was almost impossible. There kept being weird noises, like a kid’s whisper, or a dog’s clip-clopping on the floor. There is still a faint sound of dog toenails on a wooden floor in the background of the recording. If you listen hard, you can hear it.
The other recording experience that was really memorable was in Lafayette, LA. I was such a huge fan of the Lil’ Band O Gold, I was floored to play with Warren Storm and David Egan… and I had a blast recording with those guys. Warren Storm is a trip! He’s got a crazy mustache, and even crazier stories. He’s not only one of my favorite drummers, but also one of my favorite singers! We tried to get him to sing a part on the song, but it was just too weird in contrast with my voice, so we cut it. The studio, La Louisianne, has been around since the 50’s, and it had all kinds of vibe. And great old microphones.
With so many new people working with you on Travels with Charlie do you think the album still reflects a majority of your style & influence? Did it bring out a new side of Charlie?
Yes. And Yes. Even though I allowed the musicians who played on the album to put their spin on my songs, the songs are still very much my writing and my voice. Playing with these various musicians all across the country, I was able to experiment with some different flavors, and let myself lean a little more toward pop here, a little more toward country there, a little more toward a vibey indie thing over there.
Obviously this adventure brought you some new opportunities, tell us about some.
Well, it allowed me to connect with people in a different way than a regular tour does. I would say the coolest opportunity it’s given me is to form real relationships with people, and then have the chance to connect those people from all over the country with each other. Sticking around for a month allowed that to happen. Someone would see me play a gig at the beginning of the month, and ask me to do something later in the month — and unlike on a normal tour, I could do it, because I was still around!
Would you do it differently if you did it all over again?
Nope. I would not.
Any intentions of experimenting with another concept like this?
If I could, I would love to do it internationally. I would start with Dublin, Melbourne, Amsterdam, Toronto. But that would take a larger budget. Let me know if you meet an adventurous investor.
What are you working on now, and what can we expect?
Songs for the next record! I’m not sure yet. Remember, when I go for something, I go big, so it’s better for me to wait and make sure I’ve got a really good idea brewing before I push the “go” button.
Where are you touring now & what do you want to share with new & old fans the most?
I’ve got a Midwest tour and a Northeast tour coming up this summer, as well as some dates around Texas. I would love to share a live show with you guys, so check my website and see if I’m going to be where you are this summer. It not, and you’ve got a venue or a house concert you want to suggest to me to play, send me a note! I’m easiest to follow on Facebook, so find me there.
As a touring musician that has seen some success, what advice do have for singer songwriters that would like to go on tour?
I would say, eat healthy, rest when you can, be open to everyone you meet, and try to take the time to really experience the whole thing… otherwise, what’s the point?
Thank you Charlie for taking time out of touring to chat with Songwriters Marketplace.