Curiouser and Curiouser

An Interview With Charlie Winston

by Imran Khan

17 March 2015

The British singer's latest LP, Curio City, finds all of his influences distilled down to a funk-strummed groove of pure pop magic.
cover art

Charlie Winston

Curio City

US: Import
UK: Import

Review [4.Mar.2015]

When he dances onstage, it is as though he is being pulled by invisible string. Charlie Winston’s movement in song has presented a charismatic mystique laid bare by his forbearers, the kind of performances offered by those who have lived life on the stage. Indeed, the one-time live-in resident of a family-owned hotel has already paid his dues as a schoolboy growing up in Suffolk, keeping the patrons of his homestead entertained by his onstage larks. Now he does it in big-budget style, with a stunning hat-trick of sparkling pop tunes, articulating Chaplin-gestures with ersatz chic. With the uproarious approval from the French, the British-born singer has so far recorded four studio albums, each successive effort pushing for the more unplumbed reaches of pop music.

Winston’s latest, Curio City, mines the best of 30 years worth of popular music, a healthy reminder of how gratifying a simple chord-progression can be when done with the dedicated skill of a devoted tunesmith. The line of progression traces back to the humble beginnings of the artist’s debut solo effort, the Peter Gabriel approved indie-release Make Way (2007), an album that churned with the first hints of an irregular talent. Stepping aboard the planks of major labels brought Winston enormous success in his beloved adopted home of France.

Hobo (2009) retained a number of the tracks featured on Make Way, re-recorded with a higher budget and a fresher perspective. The album hit paydirt and Winston became one of Europe’s bona fide stars that year, landing coverage nearly every week and welcoming a growing fanbase which charted the singer’s success through his every tour round the continent. On 2011’s Running Still, Winston tackled the more challenging structures of rhythm, opting to focus on beats, loops, and grooves. The album gave him some minor attention on North American shores, and the hip-hop leanings of the material no doubt resounded with the more urban consciousness of American cityscapes.

Curio City is the cooled, leveled mixture of all the songwriter’s musings and influences distilled down to a funk-strummed groove of pure pop magic. His infectious tunes do not readily betray some of the darker currents that brew beneath the loping grooves; Winston’s affable charms indeed overwhelm the subtler, elegiac tones that draw circles in his lively, sanguine harmonies. Such musical nuances are a testament to a songwriter who manages a difficult poise between an onstage jester and a decisive composer, one who clearly knows that the risk-taking balances to be tested are maintained by a curiosity that kills… and thrills. 

* * *

Your last album, Running Still, was your “stepping out” album; it was all about rhythms, more emphasis on stylized grooves and the energy of the outside world. Curio City is more of the bedroom dance album—it works from a more internalized space of sound, giving sound to your thoughts. If you listen to the lyrics, you hear someone who has been living inside his head for the last year or so. Curio City is the introvert to Running Still’s extrovert. Not surprisingly, you produced the album yourself. Can you describe your experiences working on this album from a restricted space of the self, rather than employing the efforts of outside talents (producers, namely) to helm this project?

Firstly, your observations are well made, particularly in relation to the last album. I think the fact that Running Still was all about breaking out of something, it afforded me the more introspective standpoint on this record. I can only describe the process of producing it myself, in the comfort of my home, as a luxury I thoroughly enjoyed. That’s not to say I made it easier on myself. I was talking with another self produced artist (JATA), and we agreed that playing both roles of artist and producer can be a torturous experience because, after all, it’s us who are accountable at the end, so you can’t afford to sit on your laurels. However, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. By shutting out the world, I could create exactly the album I had envisaged.

Hearing the album, Curio City also seems like an album of departure, someone given to resignation and now ready to pick up and leave. Songs like “Say Something”, “Just Sayin’” “Lately” and “Stories” convey the feelings of looking and hoping for ways out. Every one of your albums seems to share this theme of leaving one place (either emotional or physical) for another. Sometimes your departures are happy ones, other times they’re not. There’s a fey sense of despondency to a number of these songs on Curio City. How would you describe the emotional designs for this album?

I would agree that certainly the first two albums share the sentiment of leaving one place for another, but not so much for this one. I would describe the songs you mentioned as drawing a line in the sand, expressing where I stand and being comfortable with it. “Say Something” says unless you communicate, we cannot continue this. “Just Sayin’” tells a friend, in so many words, if you’re unhappy with your man, talk to him, rather than wallow in your sadness with me. “Lately” is a message of defiance to those who are looking for more power than they have earned, or been granted; it’s about other people’s egos and pride. And “Stories” talks about unhappy memories by embracing them as being that which shapes who I am, ultimately drawing the line in the sand and making distinction between my past and present. To answer your question in relation to the rest of the album, the emotional landscape of this record is generally of a similar sentiment to that I’ve mentioned above. It hangs over the general theme of unlocking myself from the years in making. I feel as though I have finished the apprenticeship and now I am ready to cut away the fat. It includes the topic of security, the future, and metamorphosis.

You’ve mentioned that the new album was influenced by the soundtracks/films for Blade Runner and Drive. In what ways, either stylistically or thematically, have those films/soundtracks informed Curio City??

Atmosphere and space. When I think about what those films created in me, I feel an intense sense of heavy atmosphere where the air is wet with feeling and curiosity. Time gets stretched out by a selective choice of words. Space is warped by the hanging over of a particular feeling, coupled with the contrast of the organic and the designed. What now defines man’s evolution is the development of technology, which is currently hitting a steep ascent into a new species. This challenges our entire value system which we rely so much upon, from security, to beliefs, to love.

You’ve said that much of the new album was influenced by electronic music. It’s not really an album of electronica or EDM, but it could be argued that the album is electronically textured. There’s still the sense that the bones or frame of this album is still essentially a singer-songwriter’s, much the way Suzanne Vega writes pop songs from the elemental base of folk, or how Annette Peacock works from the foundational point of jazz structures when she explores rock, pop, blues and even hip-hop in her work. For this album, in what ways did you employ the electronic elements to give flesh to the principal structures (either the guitar or the piano) you were working with?

Essentially, I had to start with the principle instruments of voice, plus guitar/piano, but I had no precious feeling about them. They were simply setting markers for us to build the song arrangements. Even the markers could change but it was a starting point. Most times, having recorded them, I would then get to looking for some way to replace or interpret them differently from that which seemed too typical of my style, be it either in a more electro, or acoustic way. Sometimes, it worked, like in “Lately” and “Just Sayin’”, other times, sticking to my original part, like in “Wilderness”; it served the song in the best way I could find. In that case, I had won myself the platform to go big on the electro sound in the chorus, as a contrast to its more intimate-sounding verses.

A more subversive comment on the album is that of technology, its developments and its effects on our relationships, our lives and our futures. From Curio City’s preliminary source of influence (Blade Runner) to the album cover’s depiction of human biology in the process of (de)constructing like a metropolitan city, there seems to be some sentiment that technology had a hand in redirecting the course of your relationships and ultimately your life. What do you have to say about our advancement of technology today and how we are situated in the unfolding landscape of digital revolutions?

I’ve become most interested in technology’s role in human evolution from the philosophical angle, since it has begun to demand that we change our perspectives on our own existence. Morals are deeply challenged, with questions like, “Can we love or be loved by a computer?” These questions go on in my head on a daily basis in subtle ways, as it does many others, I’m sure.

I read fewer books than I did, because the smart phone has become a tool which absorbs so much of my headspace and time. I go from feeling comfortable and excited by it to more disorienting sensations of having a profound connection with my own soul sacrificed by a curious, voyeuristic hunger. The architecture of today’s digital revolution is a changing landscape in our minds. The more ingrained into nature machines will become, the more we will see ourselves as spiritual machines. That will be an enormous shift in human consciousness. Just sayin’.

Splash and thumbnail images: press shots of Charlie Winston © Sony Music.

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