by Andrew Ellis
Chuck Carrier was born in Guam, and spent his formative years in places as far afield as Florida, Boston, and Abilene. This unorthodox upbringing and its associated experiences was perfect training, you might say, for his chosen vocation as singer-songwriter.
After a spell in Atlanta pop-rock band Marathon, Carrier has since decided to expand his creative horizons by going solo and recently self-released his dark, yet deeply affecting and impressive solo album, Songs For 27.
Life as a singer songwriter is never easy, and it's a lot more difficult without a record deal, but as Carrier explains, it's all just one big muse...
I love the new record. Are you pleased with how it turned out and the reaction from people to it?
Yeah, I've never been so proud of a record. The whole process was the most recklessly creative thing I've ever done, and that kind of approach can go either way. Luckily, there are several moments within the CD where I feel like we caught lightning in a bottle. As far as reaction, it's been interesting. I think some people were expecting another Marathon record, and were surprised with how dark some of Songs For 27 is. Overall, though, I've been pleased with the enthusiasm I've heard. I've gotten a lot of nice feedback from people that seem to be real music fans, the kind that put their headphones on and listen to a record end to end, and that's important to me. I made this record to be listened to as an album, not as a patchwork collection of songs.
Give us a brief run-down of how you got into music and how you started writing songs.
My dad plays, so I grew up in a house full of not just guitars, but guitars I was allowed to play. He taught me all the basic chords, and I got pretty hooked. This is all when I was probably 6 or 7. As the years went on, I learned most of what I know by playing along with my older brother's record collection. A lot of Police, U2, REM, and the Indigo Girls. At about 14, my Dad bought me a little Tascam 4-track recorder, which I promptly became obsessed with. That's when I got into writing songs. They were, in retrospect, pretty terrible, but I didn't exactly have a wealth of life experience to draw from. The 4-track also brought me out of my shell as far as singing goes. I sang in the confines of my bedroom for a couple years, and finally worked up the nerve to play for people when I was 16. The first show I ever did, I had to play all originals, because I hadn't really learned any covers yet. I remember I made $80 from the door, and couldn't believe it. From then on, I played every coffee house, bar, party, fair, or whatever I could find. I did that all the way through college.
Most people know your name from the band Marathon. You wrote and sang all that material anyway, but why did you decided to release the new album as a solo project as opposed to a band project?
I enjoyed playing with Marathon, but the time came to move on. Musically, I never felt like we were quite living up to our potential. The band, as a whole, just stopped evolving, stopped pushing. So, just for a break, I booked a brief solo tour, and while I was out, I started to remember what it was like to work, creativity-wise, without the politics of the band. It wasn't the guys in the band, it was the process of the band.
How did you approach the writing of Songs For 27? Was it a cathartic experience and did you have specific themes you wanted to address?
I had just come off of a six-week solo acoustic tour opening for Edwin McCain. It was hands down the most successful tour I'd ever been on. I'd had all this incredible feedback, sold a lot more records than I'd expected, and felt like something big was about to happen. Then I got home, and absolutely nothing happened. In fact, throughout my entire career, I can't remember a more severe dry spell. So needless to say, I became pretty depressed about everything. I tried to pick myself up by writing most of what would have been the next Marathon record, but ended up scrapping it. I basically spent a month moping around the house trying to figure out if I wanted to do this anymore. Then, one day, I was in the shower and the lyrics to "Oyster Mud" just started falling out of my mouth. For whatever reason, the ideas I was having felt fresh again, so I sat at the kitchen table with a notebook and a tape recorder and spent the next several weeks writing songs. I wasn't even sure I'd ever record them, which turned out to be very liberating. I stopped caring if a song had the potential to be a hit or not, and that opened all kinds of doors for me.
Did the album take a long while to record?
We [Carrier and producer Grey Garner] tracked the whole record in 12 days. I'd like to say that was some sort of creative experiment we dreamed up, but the truth is that it was a budget issue. I'm thankful of the circumstances, though. It definitely kept us from over thinking anything. We would try things, and if we liked them, they were in, if it wasn't working, we moved on and tried something else. There was no agonizing over little details, no ProTooling stuff, and no piling on parts to choose from later. We were willing to trade some perfection for some realism, and that meant not leaving anything for the mix. If a guitar part was supposed to be quiet, you played it quietly.
What are your personal highlights from Songs For 27?
I think rather than any particular songs, the highlights for me are little moments within the record. The last chorus of "Anything", the bridge on "Smokestacks", the weird monotone guitar thing on "Trampoline", I probably have something like that for every song. If I had to pick a song, I'd say "Love Songs". That's one that came out just like I'd been hearing it in my head. That whole vocal track was one take that we recorded in the middle of the night, and that's how it sounded -- just tired. Empty. Pitch-wise it's definitely less than perfect, but it just fit the song so well we left it alone
Do you find that you have more freedom of expression as a solo artist?
Definitely. The fact that new songs didn't have to work their way through committee, so to speak, made the process for this record a lot more spontaneous. Ideas went straight from my head, or Grey's head, to tape without a bunch of cooks in the kitchen. Also, I could write songs that were significantly more personal than in the past, just because I knew I wouldn't have to explain them to anyone. I never felt comfortable spilling my guts when I knew it would reflect on the whole band. I always felt strange asking band members to expose themselves on my behalf. In the "solo" situation, though, I know that the only person risking something is me.
Many of the songs on the album are very introspective, especially songs like "Oyster Mud". What is that song about?
Like I said before, this was the first song I wrote for the album. It was written about letting go of my music career, which I was seriously considering at the time, and it expanded into sort of a meditation on the vacuum between what people think will happen in their lives, and what actually does. I'd spent my life wanting to be a rock star, and I was coming to terms with the fact that it hadn't happened, and that maybe that was okay. It was a big revelation for me, and it set the mood for the rest of the record. For the first time, I was writing songs that were about my own life, and it was cathartic. The risk of putting out such personal material, with a disregard for how people would react, was exciting. As far as the imagery in "Oyster Mud", it's based around my parent's house in Florida where I grew up. Our dock went out into a canal, the bottom of which was mostly dredged oyster shells. As kids, we'd jump in the water, and when you'd hit the bottom you'd just sink down to your knees in the muck, with your head below the surface of the water. You had to struggle to free yourself. The concept of the song was that my musical-self would jump in and not struggle to get out. I had envisioned this song being the last on the record. I thought the last line ("The late day storms, they roll me off...to my new life") would be a great finisher, and a swan song of sorts, in case I never make another record. It came out better than we'd expected, though, so it moved up in the playlist.
Is a major record deal your absolute priority, considering the way a lot of new artists get treated these days by labels and given the huge amount of CDs you have to shift to break even and remain signed?
Admittedly, a record deal is a blessing and a curse, but it's a notch-in-the-bedpost that everyone strives for. If it were up to me, I'd be on the road playing as many shows as possible. Unfortunately, the bottom line of touring can limit that sometimes. A deal would ease that for sure. All this having been said, am I ready to sell my soul to the devil so I can get signed? No.
You have issued your new album independently. How important is it for you to get your music out there independently, and how have you found it working in this way? At least most of the money from CD sales goes back into your pocket rather than eaten away by huge label costs.
The Internet helps guys like me stay afloat. Everything I sell is sold either at shows or online, and neither of those channels require a great deal of overhead. Not to mention, those who buy online have a tendency to spread the word online, so the fan base keeps growing and growing. Would I be better off with massive distribution at a major label, even though there's less of a profit? I don't know. I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. To be honest, I'm just happy and flattered that people are listening to the music.
You recently played a label showcase in NYC. How do you approach those events? Do you view them as a really pressurized environment?
The "Label Showcase" is sort of a necessary evil. I don't particularly enjoy them, but I understand their purpose. I do my best not to take them too seriously and just play them like any other show. Still, it's always tough to play in such a sterile environment. The best thing about performing live is that circular flow of energy between the band and the crowd, but the showcase dynamic is usually a lot more one-sided. I did get a free trip to New York, though, and a lot of free drinks, so that worked out well!
How do you view the immediate future for solo artists like yourself? Are you inspired by the success of people like Pete Yorn and John Mayer?
I have to admit, when John Mayer blew up, my first reaction was insane, seething jealousy. I got over that though, and realized that guys like him help draw attention to the rest of us. Industry-wise, there's definitely a sort of singer/songwriter boom going on, with the likes of Pete Yorn, Jack Johnson, David Gray doing well. Suddenly, every kid in America wants to be the next John Mayer, the way a few years back, every kid wanted to be the next Dave Matthews. I just hope the scene doesn't get overexposed. It would be too ironic if songwriters that are the "real thing" were suddenly considered a fad.
What music influences your songwriting?
For Songs For 27, a lot of my influence came from listening to college radio. The college stations in Atlanta were playing all kinds of stuff that I'd otherwise probably never hear, and while I didn't always like all of it, it opened my brain up to some different things. Chord changes, phrasings, stuff I'd never thought of trying. It also turned me on to the idea of imperfect recordings. Records that felt spontaneous, and were full of "happy accidents" that, in a more traditional setting, would probably be erased. That sort of sweaty recklessness was exciting to me.
How do you usually go about writing a song? Do you write on acoustic guitar mainly?
Yeah, I still write primarily on acoustic guitar. The acoustic has a unique ability to convey everything about how a song should be. No other instrument can reveal a vibe in the same way. It's musical, it's percussive, and when I go to work a song into a full-band version, it's like the parts are already there. These days, though, I come up with more and more stuff away from any instrument. When I'm driving or showering or half asleep, I get ideas. My hands have habits when they're on a guitar, and it's good to get away from those.
Would you ever write for other artists as a sideline to your own music?
I'd love to write some stuff for other people. There are genres out there that I don't have any interest performing in, but that I still really like. I've also always wanted to write songs for women. Women have, just by nature, more attractive, more sexual voices. I'd even be interested in hearing a woman sing the stuff I already have. I'd love to hear Faith Hill singing "Endless" or Patty Griffin singing "Onlookers".
What's in your car stereo right now?
I have a 6-disc changer, one of which doesn't work, so...Pete Yorn, the new Coldplay (maybe one of the best records I own), the new Patty Griffin, Radiohead -- The Bends. I know it's cooler to like the newer stuff, but I love this record.
And, brace yourself, Justin Timberlake. A couple of his songs got stuck in my head, and I finally broke down and bought it. It's got some corny songs, but I'll admit, some of it's pretty good. And if I'm going out for the evening, I need something a little more upbeat. No one wants a Gloomy Gus at the table!
Songs For 27 is available from http://www.chuckcarrier.com.