PHOTO CREDIT: Cristobal Rey
I have been talking to Charlie Grant…
about his move to Berlin - and why he decided to head to the city. Grant talks about his new work, The Astronaut EP, and some of the themes that go into it; what sort of music got him started and hooked; how he transitioned from writing songs for big names (including Melanie C) and embarking on his own career – and what tour dates we can look forward to.
I discover how The Astronaut EP differs from his past work; what advice Grant would give new musicians; what his treasured memories of music are; how he spends time away from music – and what the next steps of his career will entail.
Hi, Charlie. How are you? How has your week been?
Hi! I’m good, thanks. I played a gig in Berlin last night and did a couple of new songs that went down a storm. So, I’m still buzzing from that. I’m also recording a song for my next E.P. next week, so was rehearsing it with my band. It’s a very energetic and up-tempo tune where everyone gets to rock-out - so that’s going to be a lot of fun.
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourself, please?
I guess the obvious phrase to describe what I do is ‘singer/songwriter’, but I’d say there are also elements of Rock, Blues; Americana and straight-up Pop in there, too. I’m a fan of the craft of songwriting and I like storytelling in songs. Being able to work with great musicians never fails to be exciting and inspiring for me. Especially great drummers - I’m in awe of them.
PHOTO CREDIT: Danny Feng
Tell me about your new work, The Astronaut EP. What themes and ideas compelled the creation?
Well. The song, Astronaut, was inspired, lyrically, by becoming a dad for the first time. I wrote it with two other artists, Jonathan Kluth and Flavian Graber from the band, We Invented Paris. Flavian has a daughter - and I’d just found out I was going to be a father. It’s about how it can be hard not to let the disappointments and losses that come with life shut down the part of you that can be touched by simple things. That kind of innocence and joy that is natural for children: everything is new and amazing to them.
Other than that; there is a song about wishing you could talk to the future version of yourself and get some reassurance that everything is going to be ok - and one called Blood Don’t Lie that talks about how, sometimes, your body won’t let you keep secrets, in the context of being around someone who you have strong feelings for but they doesn’t necessarily know about it. I think my favourite song on the E.P., lyrically, is Born Broken. It’s inspired by those times when someone you care about is in a weird relationship. Like, when a person, deep down, doesn’t believe they are worthy of being loved; so they keep choosing people who treat them badly.
How do you think the E.P. differs from your previous work? Are you more adventurous as a songwriter would you say?
I’d say I’m getting more adventurous as far as experimenting with different sounds goes but, in all honesty; I’m not that interested in trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to songwriting. I am interested in breaking free from traditional song structure more but it’s hard - and the trouble is it (just) works brilliantly; so it’s a bit of a case of ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’…
The more I write, I feel (like) simplicity is the ultimate form of sophistication, so I don’t know how that fits in with being adventurous yet.
The single, Astronaut, is out. It is an uplifting and compelling track. What was the decision behind releasing the track to the world?
It connects with me a lot because it’s inspired by a huge recent event in my life; so it resonates with me at the moment - and I felt that it could do that with other people too. I like the energy of the track and, yeah, I think it has an uplifting quality to it and a kind of innocence to it in a way. Maybe people could use some of that with all the grim stuff going on in the world…
I know the 1970s plays a part in your tastes and music choices. What sort of music were you raised on?
My parents were both, mostly, into Classical music but really loved a few 1960s and 1970s bands like The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, ABBA: things like that. I remember being five or six and (just) wanting to listen to A Hard Day’s Night and Help! over and over again. It was overwhelming in a way: the energy and the amazing melodies. We lived in a remote part of Scotland with an ancient T.V. that could only pick up two channels in black-and-white, but we watched Top of the Pops religiously and enjoyed passing judgement on who was great and who was crap.
Later on, my dad lived in the U.S., so my brother and I would visit him in the school holidays and I got exposed to lots of the greats from the 1980s like Prince and The Police via MTV – and, really, that’s when my music obsession started properly. Much later on, I got really into 1970s Soft-Rock: stuff like Fleetwood Mac, Bread; the Eagles and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Also, The Beach Boys - stuff that came after Pet Sounds. I don’t know why it speaks to me so much; it’s just undeniable somehow. It’s funny that Yacht-Rock is finally considered cool nowadays. I consider the fact that my daughter Coco asks to hear Steely Dan to comfort her if she’s upset (to be) a huge parenting achievement.
You started in the U.K. - and wrote songs for big names such as Mel C! Was that quite an enjoyable time? Do you feel you were honing songwriting skills whilst penning for others – or was it quite a stale time?
It was great because, when I got my first publishing deal as a songwriter in London, it was the first time I’d ever felt acknowledged, and actually got paid...so it meant a lot. I could finally give up the day job. It was definitely a time of honing my skills, working with some great people and learning all the time.
It did get stale though in some ways, eventually. I made the mistake of neglecting the part of me that is an artist by nature.
What was the reason for embarking on your own music? How come you decided to move to Berlin?
When you are writing for others, you are more there to provide a service than to satisfy your own muse. It’s rewarding in its own way, but I missed the freedom of being able to express myself without having to think of anyone else. That, eventually, led me to start work on my own artist project, though; so I guess it was all part of the big picture. I also had a stockpile of songs that I really liked that were kind of just sitting around - so I thought I’d do them my way and have some fun with them.
I came to Berlin for a songwriting camp in 2010 and had an amazing time here. I met enough like-minded musicians and writers to start coming back a few times a year. Meeting my now-wife here in 2012 sealed the deal as far as moving over goes…and I’ve never looked back.
PHOTO CREDIT: Cristobal Rey
Is there a very different pace in the German capital? Would you advise other artists to come over there?
Compared to London; I find Berlin actually very laid-back and the music scene is on a much smaller scale - in a good way. It’s kind of more manageable and everyone knows everyone. It feels pretty friendly and communal in that way. London is way more competitive, as surviving there as a musician is bloody hard - which makes people more ruthless almost by necessity. That pressure can push people to do their best work, though: things being too cushy isn’t always conducive to digging deep.
Generally, though, I do prefer it here and it’s an exciting time to be part of it as Berlin is, more and more, becoming a creative hub on a global level. So, yeah; I would recommend it.
Which musicians did you grow up on? Can you remember the first album you ever bought?
Apart from the ones I mentioned before; I went through a massive Rock and Metal phase. My older brother got me into Led Zeppelin and I loved some of the poodle-hair bands of the 1980s like Van Halen and Def Leppard and, then, eventually Nirvana and lots of 1990s Alternative-Rock bands. Also, Beck, Jeff Buckley and Elliott Smith…I got heavily into soul artists like Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers at some point, too.
The first album I bought was Queen’s Greatest Hits on cassette.
PHOTO CREDIT: Diogo Castro
Can we see you tour soon? What gigs do you have coming up?
I’m in the early planning stages of a German tour in the autumn but, right now, I’m mostly focussed on getting the next E.P. ready to release – it will come out in late-May. I do have some Berlin and London gigs coming up, though:
24th April: Prachtwerk Berlin (with Dorothy Bird and Adam Wendler)
18th/19th August: London Express Live (support for Lee Mead)
23rd August: Artliners Berlin (with Mike Featherstone)
20th September: Be’kech Berlin
What do you hope to achieve in 2018?
I’d love to keep building on the great start we’ve made getting Astronaut out there on the radio in Germany; start playing more gigs further afield and getting some songs on some well-known Spotify playlists. My big dream for this year, though, is to put out a fourth E.P. and, then, compile them all together on a double vinyl album. That would feel like an amazing way of wrapping up all the work I’ve done so far as an artist.
Have you got a favourite memory from your time in music – the one that sticks in the mind?
That’s a tricky one: there are lots…
One of the best was a couple of years ago when I was touring in the U.K. as support for my friend, Ben Montague. We played at a venue in Newcastle called The Cluny and it was packed. I was, basically, unknown to everyone there but the reaction when I played was overwhelming. People really got it and were singing along with songs by the last chorus - it was magical. It was such a great feeling and it gave me a huge boost in confidence to keep doing what I’m doing.
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
Don’t be too precious about your work: all artists are in love with what they create to an extent and that can blind them to whether it’s actually any good or not. Play live a lot. Open mic nights are a brilliant way to start. I still enjoy doing them pretty regularly. If you are an introvert like me, it can be hard to put yourself out there and risk being criticised (or worse); no-one giving a sh*t either way, but you have to be seen and heard.
You end up meeting like-minded souls along the way and you can support each other - it can feel like a lonely path, but it doesn’t have to be. Feeling like you are part of a community of fellow musicians can really sustain you through difficult times when it feels like nothing’s working out, I think.
Everyone’s been there at some point.
Do you get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?
Um; not really, to be honest! My daughter is two so, the last couple of years have been full-on. It’s wonderful, though, and I love my life. I still have a lot I want to achieve - so chilling out is hold for a while longer, I expect.
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
One of my favourite songs of last year was For What It’s Worth - from Liam Gallagher’s solo album. It’s great to have him back - and it’s got everything going on that a great song should do, in my opinion
Follow Charlie Grant
PHOTO CREDIT: Cristobal Rey