pearl charles makes dreamy country music for a cosmic disco
Pearl's debut LP, ‘Sleepless Dreamer,’ is a sweet serenade to heartbreak, reflection, and her native Los Angeles.
Photography Amanda Adam
Pearl Charles is a time traveler. Her debut LP Sleepless Dreamer is marked by a sense of nostalgia, serving as a sonic roadmap through cosmic Americana, classic rock and roll, and Charles’ own seductive concoction of country disco. A Los Angeles native, her songs are a sweet serenade to the canyons, the desert, and the city. Charles grew up near Laurel Canyon with a visual artist mother and filmmaker father who listened to the likes of John Prine, the Beatles, and Frank Zappa, gaining early exposure to numerous dialects of country and rock. After spending time in country duo The Driftwood Singers playing guitar and autoharp, then moving on to garage rock and psychedelia with The Blank Tapes, she released an eponymous EP in 2015. Having grooved through a progression of rock, psychedelia, pop and country, she has now tapped into the most authentic version of herself.
Charles’ sound effortlessly glides across tracks as our folk/rock siren examines relationships with friends, lovers, herself, and the universe. Her songs stem from an intimate place of reflection as she weaves a soundscape that unfolds like an ephemeral daydream. Sleepless Dreamer opens with “All the Boys,” which sees a steady rhythm build beneath Charles’ lovely voice — each turn of her vocals tinged with heartbreak and passion as she strikes a harmonious balance between nighttime sadness and romantic wistfulness. “I wanted something I couldn’t have,” Charles sings on “Night Tides,” her voice ascending light and sultry as country rhythm slides into a seductive disco sway. The LP was produced by Kenny Woods (formerly of Beck), with instrumental assistance from members of Father John Misty’s band. We recently spoke with Charles about Timothy Leary, psychedelics, and her new album.
If I were to make a mixtape with songs by Tom Petty and The Eagles, I would add one of your tracks to it.
That’s kind of what I’ve always said about this record. Of course we have our Emmylou’s and our Linda Ronstadt’s and our Stevie Nicks’s who have this small little place in history, but there’s a lack of a female voice in that genre, so I’m excited to bring that.
You do harken back to elements of the 60s and 70s but still inject something modern. What pulls you towards those eras?
I’m glad you said it still has a modern feel because I do definitely want to be in the now. But there is something about those times - there were a lot of things that were not great in those times for sure, but I grew up right near Laurel Canyon. I grew up going to Joshua Tree. My parents kind of are hippies. It’s kind of like a strange soul connection, something that led me there and I felt so akin to that time. I bring that into my personal style and I love to listen to music of that era, read books of that era, watch films of that era. It was really inspired.
How long did it take you to record Sleepless Dreamer and what was the process like?
A lot of songs on the record were recorded many times. Kenny Woods — who produced, engineered, mixed and helped co-write some of the songs — he and I did half the record fully demoed out before we even brought it into the studio. I’d gone all over and tried to work with tons of people and had had really good results but none of it panned out into a full record. It took a really long time. We started in November which was the first round and that was before we had a record label, so I had to pay for some of it myself to get the project going so I could show people what we were working on since it was so different. We showed it to Kanine [Records] and they loved it, so then we got started on the next round which was recording more songs. We started in November of 2016, finished and mastered in June of 2017 and now coming out in February 2018.
“Night Tides” has such a sexy disco feel and encapsulates a disco country concoction. What can you tell me about this song?
I think that was part of this missing piece that I didn’t really know about with the modern 80s country stuff. There’s a couple songs like that that exist but when I hear this very specific genre that I love and then go digging into all the record crates trying to find anything that’s like it, there’s just not as much as I’d like, and that to me was this obvious, glaring sign from the universe like, “Well look. There’s a space that you need to fill.” It’s such a perfect marriage of ‘70s things – disco and country – it goes so well together. There’s a tradition of this that exists, but again not as much female representation and just not as much representation in general.
You’ve read the work of Allen Watts and Timothy Leary, who focus on this philosophy of “being present.” What has this lent to you as a creative?
A hundred percent transparency: I wrote “Only In America” on a mushroom trip in Death Valley. It fully came to me — like lyrics, melody formed — presented itself to me, and that song of all the songs on the record is the most universally significant. It wasn’t just about me. I was feeling something about the world, and something that I felt I needed to say. Psychedelics are really amazing for that, for bringing you into the moment. Nobody needs them to do that. Meditation is another great way, and music — it feels like I’m cheating because it’s so easy that I’m like, “Wow. I get to transport to this other place of being present and it’s the best thing ever” - and you’re in the music. In my band we call it “jamnesia” when you get so deeply into it that you forget where you are. It’s literally the best feeling.
I noticed on your Instagram you post a lot of desert photos. The desert itself is almost like a psychedelic. Do you go there often?
I do. My mom has a house in Joshua Tree. It’s a really amazing house. I feel so lucky to get to go there. It’s built into the boulders by the first Native American Playboy Bunny and there’s all these rumors about people who came and tripped there in the 70s when it was built. I don’t know if any of them actually did — wouldn’t be surprised, you know. It was really out there that I felt drawn to classic country music and then started to read about Gram Parsons. I was like, “I feel a spiritual connection to this place.”
After tapping into different eras of music, where do you think you’ll go next?
I’ve been writing tons of songs that I write by myself in my room, with like an acoustic guitar, with a keyboard or something, which is how I wrote all the songs for the last album too. So they’re kind of open ended to go in whatever direction they end up leading me in. I have different ways that I figure that out, whether it’s with my band — I’ll bring them the song and we’ll play through it and they’re all such great players that they’ll figure it out — or I’ll go into the studio with a producer or someone like Kenny [Woods] and hash it out. I did definitely go into Sleepless Dreamer with specific ideas, but at the end of the day the record ends up writing itself if you let it, and you just listen to the songs and what they want to say to you, and I feel the music comes naturally.
"Sleepless Dreamer" is out February 2, 2018.