“I don’t drink it all the time, just a couple a day. It lasts in your body quite a long time.” Charlie Winston arrives at the interview dressed in his eccentric English Gentleman garb, complete with the ever-present Trilby with what appears to be a double shot espresso. Before the interview starts, Charlie assures me that coffee isn’t his way through touring. “Caffeine withdraws on your adrenaline system. Sleep and water, well oxygen, what they do is recharge the system, so if you don’t have enough sleep or enough oxygen in your body then your body can’t produce adrenaline that the coffee instigates. so that’s why sometimes when you drink coffee when you are tired it just makes you more tired.”
With the coffee talk (and the coffee) drawn to a close, Charlie relaxes in his seat and takes a breather from his busy touring schedule. Charlie is not the new overnight sensation, he has been touring for several years – be that as a solo artist or simply playing bass for his already popular brother Tom Baxter (both Tom and Charlie use their middle names as stage surnames — their real surname is Gleave).
“There’s some inevitability. Everyone can be creative, we are all born creative. It is the very innocent discovery of the world but you need to remind yourself the whole way through your life that that is always possible, then it is very hard to put it down. I have fortunately had an extremely blessed childhood, on two accounts. My parents have ensured we are creatively aware of the world. Secondly, it wasn’t an easy childhood, quite chaotic always living in hotels.” Born to folk musicians Jeff and Julie Gleave, Charlie recognises that music was probably always going to be his end point. A family affair, Charlie has supported Tom on tour and now that he is having success, he is not about to break the trend. “Vashti (Charlie’s sister) is supporting me on tour, she has also come out to France to support me there. Tom’s working on his new stuff at the moment. I invited him to come on my French tour, but he said he wasn’t really ready to do it. My eldest brother is now my finance manager, he quit his job so he can work for me. He used to play drums, then he moved to London and he got into films. He went travelling then settled with his family in Bristol.”
Everyone can be creative, we are all born creative.
With a strong family unit as support, Charlie was “in no rush. I just decided to not really approach the industry and let the industry approach me in whatever way it wanted to. I was working with my brother Tom, playing the bass and we were doing some recording at the Real World studios which is where we met Peter (Gabriel). I became friends with his daughter and then I got to know Peter really well. I eventually gave him my CD and he liked it and then a year or so later I signed a publishing deal. In that year I recorded a self-produced record, it was all very independent. I wanted to keep it all grassroots and build up a repertoire of songs. Then he asked me to go on tour with him and he couldn’t justify asking me without having me on his record label so he offered me a record deal with Real World. The deal came one week before I supported him on tour. I didn’t actually sign till a year later, but we had a verbal agreement by email.”
Thanks to the traditional route of ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’, Charlie’s years of hard graft finally paid off. A true musician to the core, he is still more about the artistry than the commercial gain. However, he does jokingly admit that he “was considering going on the X Factor with a completely different persona. You know, someone from a council estate called Steve with no musical ability. Then he’d compete and if I won, If I were to do well enough, then I’d just give them the two fingers!”
Whilst slightly anti the commercial elements of the music industry, Charlie is aware that record sales are declining. “It’s difficult for artists as advertising is such a big part of it. Trying to avoid being known for any brands. Especially in France, I have been approached by some companies, but I’m not really that interested. I get disappointed by artists who have worked so hard on their music for a bit of integrity, that when they get a little shot of success they grab the opportunity to sell out.” His former drummer, Jamie Morrison (who plays on “Like A Hobo”, “My Life As A Duck” and “My Name”) is now a member of The Noisettes, whose major success in 2009 came from adverts. “But people do it for different reasons though.”
“I’d rather be known for my music rather than for the adverts. I don’t want to be associated with the car.” Charlie has also had a fair share of commercial success. You might not be aware, but he was the voice of “I’m A Man” (the Spencer Davis Group cover) found on the Volkswagen Polo advert. “A friend of mine called me up a year or two ago and he writes for adverts, he was doing an ad for which they needed a voice. They were having trouble finding the voice and they needed something like on “Like A Hobo” and so he asked ‘would you come in?. It would be worth £100.’ I thought why not. It was for that Volkswagen advert with the dog. Everyone really liked it and so when I came back from gigging in America I asked my producer if we should record it as I’d only recorded the first verse for the advert, and so we did. I started playing it at gigs and it just became part of my repertoire.” Charlie has nothing against cover versions but insists that his version of “I’m A Man” is as much his work as it is The Spencer Davis Group. “It is my own arrangement. I changed the riff. I started writing another song with the riff but it worked better with that.”
"”Like A Hobo” became a bit of a mantra for me. I was playing it and people would as me about my hobo life, but i didn’t really have one. I’d just been touring and playing with my brother.” So, with several years gigging experience, a record deal and an advert under his belt, Charlie decided to hit the road. “Like A Hobo” was to become a prophecy as opposed to a fairytale. “I decided to start my journey and make it about playing and writing as much as possible. So I went to France, Spain and Italy and wrote quite comprehensive blogs with videos and photos and stuff.” As things turned out, he couldn’t have made a better decision. Some people say that everything is pre-determined, by living “Like A Hobo” the final piece of the puzzle would be found. “I bumped into an old friend in Paris who is now my drummer. He’s also a songwriter, he wanted to do gigs in London and I wanted to do gigs in Paris, so we started exchanging. I was selling CDs at my gigs in Paris. Somehow my CD got into the hands of a French label called Atmospherique, who got very excited about releasing my self-produced album Make Way. We arranged to talk to Real World about licensing. They wanted to change a few things on it, and push came to shove and we decided to record some new tracks with some old songs.”
There is a certain element of quirkiness to what I do. The way I dress is quintessentially English with the hat and tie.
The deal with Atmospherique was the final link needed. Charlie set to work on his album Hobo. Despite being known for the track “Like A Hobo”, Charlie is unable to pick a favourite song from the collection. “They are all my children. My album is like my house, my home. All my children still live at home and I send some of them out to radio station to get sociable. They hopefully bring people home to check out my other children, the rest of the album.”
Now almost a demi-God in France, Charlie’s European popularity is fast growing. “There is a certain element of quirkiness to what I do. The way I dress is quintessentially English with the hat and tie.” Cleverly styled, Charlie plays on his image to keep his persona aligned to his music. However, he believes there is another reason why the French may have warmed to him. “I wanted to go to another country to learn another language and stretch my mind. As I got to France when I got the record deal, they like to see me as their discovery.” That may well help him in France, but what about the rest of the world? “I also like to think they like the music”, he laughs.
As 2009 draws to a close, Charlie has returned home to the UK to try his luck here. Though he’d like to emulate his French success, he does enjoy “being anonymous”. Charlie remains nonchalant about the effect failure on home turf. “It’s like saying would I like my cup half full or half empty. The fact is my cup is a lot fuller than it was last year.”
“The album is going to take a lot of work, it will be very gradual.” With his focus solely on his career, Charlie is as ever on the road. “It is always more special to play something new, it is like showing off your new baby. But it depends on the mood actually, sometimes I’m really upbeat and happy and want that kind of song. I did a gig a couple of weeks ago, I was feeling really pissed off and there was thing one song, “Generation Spent, that was in the middle of the set that let me get it all out. Then the whole gig changed for me and I started to enjoy myself”
If it is his eccentric Englishness that has made him stand out in France, it will be modest charm that distinguishes him in the UK. Years of touring have lead to the release of Hobo, in that time Charlie has seen many acts burn bright then burn out. He seems determined to keep it about his craft rather than celebrity. “For me it is just a catastrophic dumbing down, it is the same as the Twitter generation for me. There is no substance. Pop culture, where everything is what someone has for breakfast rather than what they actually have to say.
Charlie Winston’s Hobo is out now on Real World Records. Visit his official site for more details.
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