A Q&A with Charlie Greene

Claiming the likes of Ornette Coleman and Merle Haggard as his influences, raised in Atlanta, GA and now based in Los Angeles, CA, singer/songwriter Charlie Greene has a rather interesting story — he’s the son of a touring singer/songwriter, the grandson of a big band leader during the 40s and 50s, and his great-grandfather used to pick the banjo; so music is in his blood. And although Wildfire Music was released with seemingly little fanfare, as a songwriter his material manages to be warmly familiar and yet entirely distinct. Much like Caitlin Rose’s latest effort, Greene’s Wildfire Music has a sweetly, easy-going 70s AM radio, easy-listening, country twang vibe. But lyrically, the material belies it’s easy-going nature as Greene’s vocals express a deeply aching, desperate yearning, a sense of regret and despair with an unflinching and affecting level of candor. With a novelist’s attention to detail, each song’s narrator feels much more like a fully fleshed out person with dashed hopes and expectations, their own dysfunctions that they often can’t completely understand. On a track like “I Count the Bricks,” a lonely narrator counts the bricks in his regular bar. And he’s likely done this half a million times to distract himself from thinking about his own sorrow. On other songs the narrators admit that they’ve fucked up their lives royally – or that they’re frightened that they may have fucked up their lives in an endless pursuit of women, drugs, alcohol, money, fame. It’s the sort of album that’s perfect for last call at a lonely out of the way dive, where you’ll likely try to drown your sorrows – at least for a little while. 

In this emailed Q&A, the talented Greene displays an easy-going, relaxed, deeply Southern sort of charm, while revealing that a great deal of the material on his latest album was influenced and informed by his personal experience and observations. He passionately talks about his extremely eclectic influences and what he’s been recently playing. Unlike most songwriters, he openly admits that the process of songwriter can often be pretty damn hard – but with a self-effacing sort of humility. I think you’ll be hearing more of this man in the future, especially if you’re into alt country much. So check out the Q&A below. 

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WRH: Who are your influences?

Charlie Greene: They are legion and it’s a moving target…How bout J.P. Donleavy, Dale Murphy, Serge Gainsbourg, Merle Haggard, Henry Miller, Moskowitz, Bert Berns, Hoagy Carmichael, Jim Rockford, Fishing with John, Eric Dolphy, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blaise Cendrars, Mike Greene, Seal, W.G. Sebald, David Bowie, Joseph Cornell, Andrei Tarkovsky, Geoff Agnor, Tintin, Jabberwhorl Cronstadt, In Watermelon Sugar, Robinson Jeffers, K.D. Lang, John Barleycorn, Nick Tosches, Harry Nilsson, The Gods Must Be Crazy, Tom Waits, Gary Oldman, Bob Dylan, Ray Price, Bruce Hampton, Kobe Bryant, Albion Moonlight, Lucinda Williams, Garbage Pail Kids, John, Paul, George, and Ringo, Joni Mitchell, Gram Parsons, Miles In The Sky, Neko Case, Living Space, Billy Strayhorn, ZZ Top, Steve Reich, Ray Charles, Bernard Herrmann, Johnny Hodges, Danny Elfman, Henry Mancini, Under The Volcano, Knut Hamsun, Paul Bowles, Kermit The Frog. Man, what a question…I could go on and on…I love stuff! 

WRH: Who are you listening to right now? 

CG: The records laying around from last nights nonsense are Joe Walsh’s The Smoker You Drink …[The Player You Get] Waylon’s “Honky Tonk Heroes” Steve Winwood’s Arc of a Diver Wynonie Harris Oh Babe, J.J. Cale’s Troubadour, Ry Cooder Bop Till You Drop, Wilson Pickett Miz Lena’s Boy and that’s for real … Listening to Rachmaninoff’s Vespers and drinking coffee right now…does that sound pretentious? . . It really calms me down sometimes … the vespers I mean, not the coffee … Check out that Wilson Pickett record though, it’s outstanding!

WRH: How would you describe your sound?

CG: I’ve just been saying Rock ‘N’ Roll lately… I was sort of hoping that at some point someone else would explain it to me … How would you describe my sound? On Wildfire I made an effort to focus and simplify towards a singer-songwriter with a kick-ass band direction. I was referencing some of the stuff on Danny O’Keefe’s Breezy Stories and Dire Straits Communiqué as far as mixing and mastering… I don’t know if that comes across but that’s sort of the sound I ended up chasing… 

WRH: Music has presumably been in your life as long as you could remember, especially since your father, your grandfather and great grandfather have all been musicians. So how much has their experiences informed and influenced your career? Has there been any point where you felt that you had to do something to distinguish yourself from your family – or had a hard time living up to their reputation?

CG: I tried to resist the need to make music for a while but it was unavoidable. No one has really been able to make a career out of it. I find the prospect of being a 4th generation failed musician very romantic. 

WRH: Throughout almost all of the material on Wildfire Music, there’s a palpable sense of regret, anguish, and longing. The narrators of each of the songs strike me as looking at themselves and their lives with an unflinching and affecting candor. In some of the songs, there’s the realization that the narrator screwed up and lost his true love – and that maybe he subconsciously repeated destructive, dysfunctional patterns. Others describe that sense of frittering one’s life away with drugs, drink, women, money, fame, etc.  At the heart of it all, is the narrator exploring the issues he’s had with his parents – in particular his father. How much of the material is based on lived in experience –whether yours or someone else’s?

CG: A lot of it is based on personal experience. Ideas for songs come from unexpected places sometimes. The lyric for “Seven Shades of Grey” came from watching The Night of the Iguana. The scene where Ava Gardner chains Richard Burton into the hammock so he can dry out and he’s yelling about the blue devil’s got a hold of him. The first line “Picking up speed on Old New Hope” came from driving to a shooting range outside of Nashville. There’s a road called Old New Hope and I really got a kick out of that. It could be interpreted differently though. Every line of “Dear Danielle” is 96% true. She has since been rehabilitated and is hostessing at Ruby’s Diner in the valley so god bless her and her red flannel hash. As far as regret, anguish, longing and frittering one’s life away I’m not really as miserable as all that. I think extreme experiences inspire a need to relate to someone. It’s why there are so many love songs and drug songs and sex songs and only one song about cross-town traffic. 

WRH: What I love about Wildfire Music is that the songs are deeply personal and yet they have a novelistic attention to detail. On “Waking Up on Coney Island,” Coney Island is described as “where the F train goes to die.” And he talks about (again presumably) drunkenly missing his stop at Church Street. But it also seems to serve as a larger metaphor for hitting bottom. The opening line of “I Count the Bricks” where the narrator describes counting the bricks at his favorite bar as he dreams of fame and other things. And of course there are so many more that I can think of. It gives your material the sense that it’s been carefully crafted. Has this close attention to detail been a conscious effort? And when do you know that you have a fully fleshed out song?  

Well sure it’s a conscious effort. I’m out here trying to do the best I can you know? I tend to work, or at least finish best when I’m working towards a deadline. Sometimes it just comes down to editing. Taking a look at what you got and screwing with it till nothing makes you sick with shame. You know that part of The Fantastic Mr. Fox where one of the guys turns to his son at the campfire and says “you wrote a bad song Petey.”  I just wanna stay away from that guy. Check out this quote. “Oh, how hard is writing: it blurs the eyes, squeezes the kidneys and tortures every limb. Only three fingers write, but the whole body suffers…” That was written by a scribe in the margins of a Visigothic dictionary from the 8th century. The 8th century!!! It’s exciting to be able to empathize with that poor fella. I read this Billy Joel interview where he said: “I hate writing but I love having written.” It’s a curious endeavor and I’m addicted.

WRH: Ed Cherney, who’s worked with a who’s who of music was the producer for the album. How did you end up working with him?  

CG: He heard some demos around 4 years ago, called me out of the blue and said he wanted to do something together. Ed actually mixed a couple of the songs (“If I’ve Been Insulting” and “Pop Song”) on this record. We did an EP called Slow Panic a couple years ago though that’s got some very precocious tunes on it. I’m not sure I’ve let him know yet but we’re gonna make the 174th greatest record of all time in 2014. Everything’s really falling into place nicely except the money. Where oh where is the money? In addition to having a gorgeous pair of musical ears Edward also gives great relationship advice.

WRH: Who’s the sampled voice at the beginning of “GH&F”?

CG: A sweet little lost wild thing. She was banging around L.A. a couple years ago talking about getting into acting. She moved to Australia and I haven’t heard much from her since. I doubt she’s heard the record. I think she would approve.

WRH: How did you meet your backing band?

CG: Micah Holster was playing piano with me before he moved to Nashville. I met most everyone through him and Chad Brown who engineered the record.

WRH: What advice would you give to artists trying to make a name for themselves? 

CG: Bring plenty of water and ammunition…