Don't Let It Pass You By: Pearl Charles Interviewed
My first memory of Pearl Charles is tied up with a very surreal L.A. experience, involving Nastassja Kinski’s daughter and a church hall in Eagle Rock. On certain Sundays, it becomes one of the world’s best secret music venues.
After a bizarre improv performance by a local actor (it’s one of those places) out comes Pearl Charles, acoustic in hand, cowboy boots on, dressed like a player from Altman’s Nashville. She seems a little shy or confused. The audience, still reeling from the performance before, have switched off and are headed to get a beer. But that all changes the moment Pearl sings.
A year later, I get to ask Pearl about it. “Oh yeah, that was a weird night,” she laughs, “we showed up, figured it was some kind of art show, but just got down to the music.”
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Earlier this month her sophomore album ‘Magic Mirror’ arrived, generating a fair few ‘One-to-Watch’ type features from the music press. The momentum has built from her well-received singles released in late 2020, including, ‘Imposter’, ‘What I Need’, and ‘Take Your Time’ (which I recorded that night on my phone, later Googling all the musicians on the poster to find her).
Pearl Charles really is something. Both her image and sound are rooted in Americana, but the album casts a wider net; from the sequin-studded seventies’, like Carly Simon, Elton John (on the album’s title-track) and Fleetwood Mac – “when rock ‘n’ roll peaked” – but also psychedelic prog and today’s floaty, salt-water California pop.
‘Magic Mirror’ is Pearl piecing it all together, with a title that points to the album’s themes of self-reflection (healthily tinged with candyfloss-psychonaut-soul-searching). It’s the artist trying to figure out who she is, and just as importantly she says, “how not to screw it all up!”
The tracklist is chronological, she adds, “it’s a journey, from when I first started writing the album over a year ago in simpler times, from the party song, ‘Only For Tonight’ to the middling estrangement of ‘Slipping Away’ and the final track,” the wistful, sweet, ‘As Long As You're Mine’. It’s easy-going listening, with honest, sometimes funny, writing. The album reflects on Pearl’s dreams for the future: her fears, coping mechanisms, loves, and unshaking hope – most poignant as her own story shifts from a popular L.A. artist to features in newspapers over the Atlantic. The album’s standout single, ‘Take Your Time’, aptly begins, “I hear your star is on the rise/don’t you let it pass you by...”
“That song in particular has really resonated with people,” Pearl says, “and with all the attention around the album, it’s as though the advice has become more meaningful. I’m trying to heed it myself.”
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Pearl is currently speaking to me from Joshua Tree, a desert just outside of Los Angeles. It’s long been a magnet for soul-searching, psychedelic gorging, gonzo musicians and artists. She’s the latest in this tradition. “There’s incredible country music heritage here. The kind that Gram Parsons took with him from L.A.,–from the city’s cowboy clubs. That’s a scene there not many folks appreciate. Everyone recognises Nashville or Texas country, but not Los Angeles country.”
What’s out there in the desert, then?
The space and scenery provide a sort of cosmic energy, she believes, that has given her a feeling of connection, and – along with psychedelics – have helped write some of ‘Magic Mirror’. “I know that’s going to read all spiritual and so L.A.” she laughs, “but it’s true. One of the album’s most played singles, ‘Imposter’ was written on a mushroom trip.” Picturing Pearl spaced-out under the vastness of the desert sky, the verses take on another meaning: “Now you’re off in the ether/astral project your entanglement / funny how you can still be here / and be somewhere else instead.”
But there are darker undertones. It’s the voice of imposter-syndrome, nullified (or given truth) with psychedelics. The chorus presses on repeatedly – against an otherwise upbeat tune – “And I am the imposter/And I already lost her/I keep looking for myself.” If you struggle with these feelings yourself, the second playthrough cuts deep.
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This is where the album really resonates. For all the positivity it inspires, for all the fun party-ready rhythms, ‘Magic Mirror’ has something to say.
“I was just speaking to a friend about this,” she adds, while we’re waxing on the state of modern music. “Since lockdown, folks have been seeking out songs for the lyrics. We kind of lost that in the last few decades, especially with pop. Music became background noise–for a commute, for the club…” Now, stuck with our own thoughts, confused, unsure of what lies ahead: “it’s the words where we find most comfort.”
In case you were wondering, Pearl isn’t alone out in the desert. She lives with her partner, the singer-songwriter Michael Rault, who she credits with inspiring the happier tunes on the second half of her album. The pair began as collaborators, but fell for each other soon after. “It’s an unspoken thing in Los Angeles,” she says, “people collaborate because they want to sleep with each other. But it was obvious we liked one-another…” since then, they have produced a number of songs - including a charming Christmas track recorded on tape. She hopes to release an EP entirely recorded in that format this year (FYI).
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I ask Pearl if she’s finally settled on her ‘sound’, as she continues to experiment. With each favourable review mentioning her seventies’ inspiration and aesthetic, is she worried she’s seen as a sort of throwback artist?
“I’m OK with it, because I love that era. I think that’s when music peaked, and I can’t escape the influence from the musicians of that time… But it’s just one part of it. I also want to be taken seriously in the Americana circle. Sometimes, they can be unaccepting, which used to bother me a little as I came up doing all the shows and with that scene,” she reflects, “but now I’ve decided to just do what I love. To draw from all the music I enjoy and find what works for me. Who knows? One day they might come around.”
After such a confusing year for all of us, with some promise of hope in 2021, ‘Magic Mirror’ comes at a time when we need it. It’s an album of questions, asked in a voice that is easy and nostalgic. Rarely does this mirror reflect back the answers we were hoping for, which is kind of the point. Instead, Pearl reminds us that, in the end, life’s a weird little journey. But if we keep going, we might finally get our moment in the sunshine.
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Watch Pearl Charles new video 'Take Your Time' below.
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'Magic Mirror' is out now.
Words: Chris Cotonou
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