The Song Is Never Finished: Interview with Charlie Parr

Charlie Parr is a totally mesmerizing performer and I really hope that you are able to catch him live as he has a string of shows in Vermont, Maine, and Massachusetts over this next week. Charlie was the first person I ever interviewed for Red Line Roots a few years ago and I was pretty damn nervous the first time we talked; but within a few minutes, his warmth and good humor made me feel like we could talk all day. He has a new album, Dog on Red House Records, and I had the real pleasure of talking with Charlie about staying mindful, sharing songs with others, and the layers of music on this record.

RLR: This album is called “Dog.” You have said that at some point you stopped walking your dog, whom you call Ruben, and started let her walk you. How did that change in habit impact you?

CP: You know, it sounds like a real simple thing. At the time, it was kinda silly. Everybody talks to their dogs, and Ruben and I have bizarre conversations too. Suddenly I was like, we’ll see where you wanna go. I try to be the kind of person who doesn’t force my hand on other people, so I thought, I’m just going to do that with the dog and see where she wants to go. And it turned into an exercise in mindfulness for me. Because the responsibility, and it doesn’t sound like a big responsibility, but the responsibility of walking the dog suddenly went away, because I wasn’t walking the dog anymore, I was following the dog around. My only job at that point was to keep the dog from getting hurt. So I didn’t really have to pay attention to anything else.

And it was really good for me, because, you know, I’ve got clinical depression. I’ve had it for the better part of my life now; I was diagnosed when teenager. One of the things I’m supposed to do is practice mindfulness and do these daily check-ins. So that was one of the biggest ways that I was able to really get to what it means to be mindful. Trying to look through the eyes of another being and be empathetic. Dogs communicate differently than we do, and you forget that when you’re tearing along and you want to go for a walk and the dog’s going along whether the dog likes it or not. So that’s how it changed; I think I learned a lot about myself and learned how to practice the mindfulness I was supposed to be doing anyway.

RLR: There are several references to interconnectedness on this album. You sing, “we’re all one soul,” you talk about “a soul is a soul” on the title track and in “Rich Food and Easy Living,” there are several transitions between states of being–the end of the world, beginning of the next one instead. Can you talk a little bit about that sense of interconnectedness for you?

CP: These songs are all of a piece. They could be one big song if I worked at it a little bit more. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last few years, with a few things in my life that have gone really haywire and me trying to get a handle on that, I’ve been thinking a lot about interconnectedness. A good friend of mine is massively into quantum physics, and we’ll take these walks where he’ll clue me into all this stuff, which is not so good, because I get just enough of this stuff to be dangerous with it and decide that I know something about it. So all of this is swimming around in my head. But as I go along in my day to day, the process of mindfulness is really a process of seeing connections. Once you start looking hard enough you can find connections in places that you didn’t see them before.

 


 
RLR: There also seems to be a throughline of people or souls being overlooked or forgotten or left behind. There’s almost two sides of the coin for each song.

CP: That makes good sense. The mother of my kids listened to the record (and was a little more skeptical about whether it was a good record), and she saw that as the throughline: the missed connections, the constant state of upheaval, everybody’s leaving, everybody’s running away. There are no solid connections that keep anybody in one place. That’s the piece she saw. When I play the songs, I tend to think more about the other side of it. There are connections, but it just seems like a necessary part that there are two sides to the coin.

RLR: I heard your conversation on the Contemplify podcast about “Life on Payne Hollow.” You said that the small things in life make up the biggest things and that you’ve always longed for that very simple and uncomplicated way of the life. So there are these ways to access mindfulness at home, but the reality of being a musician these days is a lot of time on the road, moving from place to place to place. So I was wondering how you think about that aspect of things and being able to slow down and pay attention.

CP: It’s definitely challenging. As a matter of fact, I was just talking to a friend of mine this morning about this. There’s things that have to be done in my personal life, places to be home, time with my kids, time to help my sister take care of my mother. So you start doing that stuff and then it’s time to go. I’m leaving tomorrow, looking at about thirty days of road time. All the stuff I’m doing right now stops abruptly and I start doing the next thing, which is a real exercise in mindfulness because every day you have to figure of where you are when you wake up. I’m in the van, but who knows where the van might be? And then you have this rigid schedule of immense differences–one day in Pittsburgh and the next in Manhattan. It’s a weird thing to do. And then when you come home, you’re reset to zero. You’re saying to your mother, “What’s been going on for the past thirty days,” because I can’t just pick up where we left off. She’s been traveling and I’ve been traveling in a different way.

To be honest, I haven’t found a good way to deal with it; I wish I could say that I have the answer. Frankly, this lifestyle, have given me the best parts of my life and kind of destroyed a lot of other really good parts as well. At this point, being 50 years old, I’m in an odd place where I can’t imagine doing anything else, I don’t want to do anything else, but I also recognize that I’m unlike any of the other parents at the high school where my son goes.

When I’m at home, I can be on automatic pilot for a while. But when I wake up in two days and I’m somewhere between Pittsburgh and Rochester, NY and I don’t know where quite that is…my habit is to drive out at night to some random truck stop or rest area. So it’s not like waking up and just being forgetful; you kind have to be on your toes.

RLR: I remember you telling that story, but I’m forgetting where it was, about you waking up in your car and there were people fighting outside…

CP: Oh, God. Sparks. Sparks, Nevada. That’s the joke, you know: Reno’s not Hell, but you can see Sparks from there.

 


 
RLR: Sonically, there is a lot happening in the background of some of these songs–I’m thinking of “Rich Food and Easy Living,” “Sometimes I’m Alright,” and even the harmonica on “I Ain’t Dead Yet,” is subdued. How did you think about that sense of sounds happening in the sort of peripheral hearing?

CP: My initial crazy plan was to do the entire record as a solo record, and do it in a close mic’d fashion, very high fidelity for a change. As I was rehearsing the songs that way, some of them felt oppressive after a while. Sometimes it takes somebody else to kick a song into another gear. So then I thought what if I recorded the whole record as a solo record, and then recorded the entire record again as a rock band, like a Captain Beefheart kind of thing and just let it be as weird as it could be and release as this big giant double record. No one has the money to do that nowadays, though. So the idea came to me that I could kind of do both at once.

The record is primarily a solo record, and I asked specific people to play on it. I don’t read music or anything, so I’ve got this crazy way of drawing what the song might sound like. It’s looks like my impression of sound waves, and there are weird notes and arrows and vectors all over it. I assigned them each a color and got colored pencils and said, “At this point in the song, you should think about this…” So it turned into them trying to decipher that. I wanted it to be a solo record, but I feel like what I got best of both worlds because I brought along guys like Jeff Mitchell. He’s an experimental musician and it was really fun when we were mixing because we  isolated Jeff Mitchell’s tracks, especially on “Rich Food and Easy Living,” and his isolated track is a thing in itself. He’s doing some really amazing landscapes behind this song that felt like it added a lot to the song, but didn’t add too much, and certainly didn’t take away. It was both by design and by accident. These people who were involved are all really close friends and they’re all really aware of where this batch of songs was coming from.

RLR: On your last album, Stumpjumper, you said that you needed some help from Phil Cook to unlock those songs. This process sounds different from that, but that you again put a lot of trust in other people.

CP: Oh, one hundred percent. I think music for me has been a real kind of social enterprise. I write a song and it’s definitely one thing when I write it, it’s almost as though as soon perform it for someone else it’s another thing. I don’t regard songs as ever finished anymore; they’re never fully written; they keep getting re-written every time I play them. Even audience reaction has a tendency to change them a little bit, and I’ve come to really value that. Even though it’s my name on the record, it feels like these songs are now a product of every interaction and the song has a life of its own. The songs on Dog have all morphed into different things now just from being performed since the record came out. It’s part of my process of being inspired and influenced. I’m built out of my influences; I stand on the shoulders of every musician I’ve heard, every writer and poet, and every friend I’ve ever had. To me that’s really valuable and I don’t want to lose that.

RLR: I want to share appreciation for you being open about depression and how it has impacted you. There isn’t really a question here, just appreciation for your openness.

CP: I appreciate you saying that, thank you. I’ve been getting a lot of nice notes. I got diagnosed pretty early on in life. I was only fourteen or fifteen and I tried to kill myself and ended up in the state hospital and was there for four or five months. And you still had people when you got outta there saying, “Snap out of it,” and not understanding what was going on.

For however small a group, I’m a more public figure than maybe my neighbor is. I have some pretty bad episodes still and it became clear to me that just for my own peace of mind I definitely needed to say something about it. And it went from being a selfish impulse to being really glad I said it because people are mentioning to me that their reality includes these types of diseases and it’s a big deal. I’m happy I said it. It hasn’t changed much about my treatment plan, but it’s much easier, because I used to just say, “I’m not feeling well,” and accept the fact that some people probably think I’m taking heroin because depression looks like that sometimes when it’s really bad. But now I can say, “I’m having an episode and I need to do this, this, and this to take care of myself,” and everyone almost across the board has been really supportive.

 

If you’re in New England, you can see Charlie live at Higher Ground (South Burlington, VT), Waking Windows (Portland, ME), Atwood’s (Cambridge, MA), and the Parlor Room (Northampton, MA). Full tour dates and tickets are here.

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