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Chloe Charles Doesn't Want to Entertain You

The Toronto-born orchestral singer-songwriter debuts her new album 'With Blindfolds On' and talks about family, feelings, and why Radiohead still matters.

Photo by Jen Squire

Near the end of our convo, Chloe Charles tells me she wants everyone to feel like shit. But she also wants them to cry and then feel happy afterwards. “I want them to go on an emotional rollercoaster,” the Toronto-born, internationally raised singer/songwriter/guitarist says. She’s talking about her sophomore album With Blindfolds On, an orchestral pop opus with elements of soul, jazz, rock, and about every other genre you can think of. “[My music] is just crazy shit that comes out of my brain,” she says, adding, “I love strings.” Charles’ rookie years were spent in Europe, playing clubs and jazz festivals in Germany and France, where her eclecticism was more welcome. “I think it’s important for artists to get out of Canada,” Charles says, “North America has a specific style that they want to hear. For example, in France, my music was pop. Here it was too jazzy.”

The daughter of a nightclub owner father and a more reserved, “bookworm” mother, Charles’ childhood was spent abroad, travelling with her father Noel and rubbing elbows with the world’s glitterati. “I felt isolated. You’re always on and have to look perfect,” she reminisces. Noel Charles passed away in 2013, with “five other family members” following shortly after, according to Chloe. “You start looking at life differently. I’d never lost anyone up to that point so my outlook may have been a little more… It makes you question a lot of things as well, trying to see the positive when you all you feel like is a pile of crap.” Charles took those feelings and approached With Blindfolds On–her first self-produced album–with a focus on big emotion, big arrangements, and no compromise on her end. Stream With Blindfolds On here, and read on for the rest of our interview with Charles.

Noisey: What are you personally drawn towards in your own songwriting?
Chloe Charles: I tend to like dark stuff. Darker vibes. I’m not really a fan of happy music. I definitely have a few songs that are on the happy, quirky, sweet side but those are not the songs that get me emotionally. The songs where I’m really tormented or really angry add mystery, something that feels a bit haunting. When I find chords that feel a bit melancholic, sad or just… I really like this darkness. The light side is just… you write it out, it’s out and then the next time you sing it, it doesn’t do much, it’s just happy.

How would you say your parents influenced you not only as an artist, but as a person?
My mom, she’s very down to earth. Things that she really cares about are nature, me and her pets. She lives in the country and brought me up with a quaint lifestyle. She taught me that what’s important are your relationships and the environment, and knowledge and education and always being open to new experiences. My dad, he had a different focus. He was much more showy, had a lot of bravado, was very charming, was very social. My mom is introverted and doesn’t need to show off. Through my dad I had a lot of experiences and got to experience a wilder lifestyle. The entertainment lifestyle, I guess. That was a lot of fun, but as an artist growing up, I learned that wasn’t something to strive for. Money and fame... it’s the icing on the cake but it doesn’t really have that much substance so you’d better be doing what you actually love.

There’s two different types of loss you write about on With Blindfolds On, being personal loss and romantic loss. What kind of parallels do you see between the two?
When you lose someone romantically, they’re not gone. In a way it’s harder because you know they still exist. I don’t know, to me it’s extremely different because when I’ve lost a partner I usually maintain a relationship that’s positive. Although it’s different, it’s just a transition into a friendship. To me that’s quite positive, it’s an evolution of your relationship. I don’t really see that as much of a loss as much as it is change, which is sometimes difficult for the other person [laughs]. But I mean, when I’ve lost my father, he’s just not there. It’s funny because I definitely hear his voice. I don’t mean really hear it, I mean that you never forget the memories, so that person is stuck with you in the positive and the negative. It doesn’t really change.

Is this pretty much your coming-of-age album?
“Coming of age!” [laughs] I’m a real person now! Sure.

Well this is the first album you’ve produced yourself, right? How did you coach yourself to be like “what I’m doing is right”?
You have to come to terms with the fact that no matter what you do, people will dislike it. You could work with the top producer now and lose half of your audience. I think your ideas are just as good as anyone’s. You’re an artist and a musician for a reason, you have a vision. I chose to trust myself. It’s just a decision to say “fuck it, I’m gonna do it and this could totally flop and if it does then I do another album”. It’s not the end of the world. One thing I really wanted to do was to take all of my ideas, everything I’ve heard in my head and try it to see if I’m crazy.

What are you hearing in your head?
Things that are pulling you. If I go to a concert and I’m not emotionally moved, I’m really not interested. I’m not interested in being simply entertained by music. So when I’m writing a song, I’ll hear strings, harmonies, percussion that matches with the emotion of the song. My taste is pretty specific. Pretty lush, deep, something with substance. Floofy stuff.

I like that word! I think I understand what you mean there. Was there anything that you were using as a reference point for this album?
It wasn’t one album or one artist or one song. It’s like “oh I love the drums on this one song”. Or the timpani from an orchestra I really love. Or the sound of lightning. The sound of a piano on a certain album I thought sounded so beautiful and haunting. A lot of it honestly was… I couldn’t tell you what place, it’s just tiny little things from everything I hear. In one song, we have rain in the background which you can barely hear. It gives this mood but you can’t really tell what’s going in.

What recent releases are making you feel optimistic for the future of music?
Oh, that’s a good one. James Blake, he excites me. He’s cool. He does his own stuff. It’s a bit weird. Some of it is really easy to digest but he plays with space and you can tell it has a lot of his personality in it and I really appreciate that. It’s beautiful as well interesting to me and the fact that it’s so successful makes me happy. What else? I mean of course I love Radiohead, I’ve always loved Radiohead. They never cease to be awesome.

What's the biggest standout to you from their new one?
[To her bandmate] What was the song we were… “Burn the Witch”. That one is amazing. We were talking about this and how strings are “dying”. You know [music] goes through all these stages. I remember I was doing this album and it was all “guitars are out”. The fuck does that mean? I’m sorry but what does that mean? “Guitars are out”... It’s an instrument! Now it’s all piano-based or synth-based. That’s stupid, it’s just music. But yeah I heard that strings are “out” and I heard this song and it’s totally strings and it’s super dramatic. To me that’s the perfect kind of song, it’s dramatic and it makes me nervous and anxious and excited. It’s this huge release and makes you wanna dance around but it’s not just entertainment.

So what you do isn’t entertainment?
Well, it is entertainment but it’s not purely to entertain people. I’m more interested in making people feel something more than just [makes a face and begins fake applauding].

So what do you want to accomplish with your album?
I just don’t want it to be like one of these albums that can just sit there and you can put in the background. I like that sometimes people have said that my albums are slow-warmers and I prefer that to being immediately listenable and something you just [snaps fingers] instantly get because it’s familiar and you’ve heard the same kind of thing over and over. You’re just instantly comfortable with it and you associate that with it being good. I have this thing where I’m super sensitive to music and I get a bit anxious. If I really like something, I get anxious, if I really don’t like something I get anxious and I wanna get the hell out. If I don’t care, it doesn’t matter. If I even like it, it’s too much stimulation for me. It’s like [dramatically gasps] “oh my God this is too good”. So you just have to force yourself to stay there and feel that crazy feeling.

*With Blindfolds On is now available for preorder on iTunes now

Phil Witmer is a Noisey Canada staff writer. Follow him on Twitter.