July 3, 2010
When Charlie Faye, a New York native now based in Austin, played Rockwood Music Hall earlier this month, it was at the midpoint of a ten-month tour whose concept is pretty much unprecedented: to support her new album Wilson St., she’s playing ten cities – and living in each one for a month. In locales ranging from LA to Burlington, Vermont, she’s setting up residencies, enlisting local musicians to back her up, and recording new material for her next album. At Rockwood, Faye delivered her songs with a vocal clarity and strength – shades of Neko Case, Chrissie Hynde, even Patti Smith – that suggested an untold number of gigs in her recent past. A few days later, at an office in the Meatpacking District, she talked about her monthly “miniature life,” her New York roots, and what she’s learned along the way.
JM.com: So this is kind of like intermission for this tour, would you say?
Charlie Faye: Yes. I’ve done five, and I have five to go.
JM.com: How do you feel?
Charlie: I feel like, you know, half the time I’m on the greatest adventure of my life, and half the time I’m doing something completely insane and I don’t know why I’m doing it. But that’s part of the adventure.
JM.com: What’s a day-in-the-life?
Charlie: I get somewhere at the beginning of the month, I move into wherever I’m moving into, I spend the first few days really by myself exploring, getting my bearings. Then I start meeting people. In that first week, I’m sending emails, making phone calls to friends of friends: “Who do you know in Burlington?” “My drummer’s friend’s brother is a guitar player.” So I’m gonna call that guy and have coffee with him. Then the first gig – I’ll probably do it solo or with one person I’ve brought on. Then by the second week it’s getting more exciting and social. I’m making friends and I’m putting together the band, and the third week is usually heavier in terms of more gigs, maybe some regional touring, and the fourth week is crazy ‘cause that’s always when I do my recording for the month. So I have that last gig, the recording, saying goodbye to everybody. It’s like one miniature life. A month-long life.
JM.com: Are you traveling alone?
Charlie: I’m traveling alone. And the crazy thing is, I’m originally from New York – I didn’t even start driving until I moved to Texas three years ago. So for me to be doing this solo cross-country trip is pretty nuts.
JM.com: What’s in the tapedeck, and what albums pick you up when you’re feeling spooked in a new town?
Charlie: I listen to what I’m given more than anything. There’s this one record that I just listened to for a month straight. It’s by this band Li’l Band o’ Gold. It’s incredible. I think they call it Swamp-pop. I also just like old music, and I feel like there’s so much left to learn from that. Carol King – when I was a little girl I’d listen to Tapestry over and over again, so that’s kind of like my musical comfort food. I travel with a turntable, my Califone. The first thing when I get to my new place, I set up the Califone in its rightful spot and put on a record and then it feels like home.
JM.com: How does it work with accommodations? Is everything set up in advance?
Charlie: That’s part of my job, you know, I have a pretty limited budget but I also refuse to live with anyone. I’m an introvert, and I have to really live a extroverted life to do what I’m doing. I like to be able to retreat into my own space.
JM.com: So no living rooms, no couches…
Charlie: Oh no, not for me. Actually, I’m crashing on my mom’s couch right now, in New York. Each place has its idiosyncrasies. In LA, I put out the word on Facebook, and a friend of mine said, “I know a guy who’s going to be out of town recording that month. Let me see if I can get you in touch with him.” So she did. The guy had this little one-bedroom rowhouse in Culver City, and he was totally cool. After we talked, I Googled him: he’s a member of Iron Maiden! And he told me that’s where the munchkins lived during the making of Wizard of Oz. I called the whole place “Hard Rock Row.” One of my neighbors was the LA Shredding Champion of 2009.
JM.com: Thinking back to last year, was there an “aha” moment when you thought this kind of touring could actually work?
Charlie: I was talking to friends about what I was going to have to do about releasing this record. The general consensus was, “You have to be on the road for the next year,” and it scared me. The whole place-to-place, night after night, never getting to see anyplace or connect with anybody – I know that’s the way most people do it, but I didn’t want to do it that way. And then I was talking to a friend about Poi Dog Pondering. They would go to a college town and be there for a week or two before the gig, and they would hang out with all the college kids and everyone who lived there, and then by the gig everyone was excited. And when they came back through town later, the people actually felt connected to it. They had a stake in how these people were doing.
JM.com: How long have you been performing solo?
Charlie: I’ve been doing it about five years, but then I had a year with Dan Zanes where I was really just doing that. I still feel relatively new. I was a late starter.
JM.com: What was it like when you started gigging in New York?
Charlie: I was a beginner. I was not a musician. I bullshitted my way into being a musician, which is pretty funny in hindsight. I was out at a bar one night and started talking to this guy, and he asked me what I did. “Oh, I’m a musician,” ‘cause I played a little guitar, and he said, “I book this place, and we’re doing this Johnny Cash tribute night next week. You should come and do a few songs.” And I was like, “Uh, okay!” I didn’t tell anybody ’cause I was scared out of my mind, but yeah, I did it, I loved it, so I kept going.
JM.com: How did it feel coming back around to your hometown on this tour?
Charlie: It’s kind of an out-of-body experience. I don’t know where I am, ever. Wherever I am, once I’ve been there a couple weeks it starts to feel like home and then I have to leave again. It’s weird. I’ve always had that wanderlust, and I wonder if now I’ll really want to be home. Maybe I need to do this before I ever feel that. Although I’m thinking about doing a European version of this thing.
JM.com: Was Wilson St. informed by your move to Austin?
Charlie: Yeah, it totally informed my songwriting. Two of the songs were co-writes with Will Sexton, so he’s definitely an influence on my writing. I’m influenced by whatever it is I’m listening to, and when I’m in Austin all I’m listening to is my friends.
JM.com: Do you feel like there will always be stories attached to your albums?
Charlie: How can there not be? If you’re writing the songs, it’s your story.
JM.com: But you seem to really refine them. They’re specific stories, and the one you’re doing now, with one song from each stop on the tour, seems almost like a concept album.
Charlie: Yeah, it’s not though. It’s not trying to be schticky. I’m doing the tour this way because I want to do the tour this way. I realize that it’s an interesting thing to do, but I’m not trying to attract attention. And the album – I didn’t intend on doing an album on this tour. It just kind of happened. I’m not writing specifically for the place. What I do hope is special about it is that the music community in each place that I became a part of is more excited about the song that came out of their place. I hope that people feel more connected to it because it happened where they were.
JM.com: Do you have any advice to artists or bands who hear about what you’re doing and think, “I want to do that”?
Charlie: Email me! I’m doing this because I love that I get to set up a national network of musicians. So now, when a friend of mine is going to be passing through Boulder, CO, and needs a drummer, I have the drummer for her. One thing I would always advise people…if you’re on the road for ten months, you have to take care of yourself. You can’t live like every night is the last. It’s a long haul. Another thing: it is all about community. You’re going to get lonely, you’re going to need someone to help you record something, you’re going to need someone to help you fix the shower, and when you’re all alone out there, you end up making friends easier than you think you would. But you have to be open to it. You have to sit down at the bar and talk to the guy next to you, no matter who he is.
JM.com: So we’re not just talking about Facebook and social networking and stuff…
Charlie: No! That’s exactly what this tour is the opposite of. It’s going to the places and meeting the people and connecting face to face. And it does make a difference. I got into music because I don’t want a desk job; I don’t want to sit at a computer everyday! I want to be out in the world and traveling and meeting people and having adventures. So that’s what I’m doing.
by James Rickman