Monday, March 11, 2013

Charlie Parr Discusses "Barnswallow"


The last time I spoke with Charlie Parr, we dug through his rich musical history and personal evolution as a songwriter. It was a lengthy chat that has stood as one of my favorite interviews. When I heard the news at the end of last year that Charlie had a new album in the works for spring of '13, I reached out to check in with him to line up another interview.

Not only did he happily agree to answering my questions, he send me an advance copy of the new album along with some unexpected treasures: a rare import CD and two beautifully printed limited edition vinyl records that have been out of print for some time now! This is just the kind of guy Charlie is: a generous soul who is eager to share his music with fans that love it. I am thrilled to share my new interview with Charlie about his new record, Barnswallow.

Did you know what kind of record you wanted Barnswallow to be overall, or did it come together more song-by-song?

Charlie Parr: Not really, I did record more songs than I needed and some of them didn't fit, so I'll keep working on those for the next one. The songs had all been written from late 2010 up to now, so they span a pretty wide area for me since I normally write in clumps, time-wise. I did go into this one thinking about recording a 'live to tape' style record which was very much what we did, the whole thing took about three total hours and it's almost all first takes.

Which tunes came first and how did they set the course for the record?

Charlie: The earliest songs were ballads and 3 of those were cut. "Jesus is a Hobo" and "Badger" were the ones left over, and all the rest are pretty upbeat. The livelier songs kind of took over and set the tone for the record.


Who are the players and your collaborators on the album? Can you share how you see their contributions regarding the writing and recording of the record?

Charlie: Mikkel Beckmen (washboard et al) has been a friend and collaborator for years and years and Dave Hundrieser (harmonica) is a close friend and neighbor of mine. We did this record more like a band, I think, would do. I played a bit of the song, they jumped in and as the song moved to accommodate them, we got how it wanted to sound and hit record. It would have been completely different without them, and I think it wouldn't have had the energy it has.

What were you listening to during your writing and recording of Barnswallow?

Charlie: I've been listening to a lot of folk-blues and particularly Dave Ray and John Koerner who are heroes of mine. They carried the tradition forward and that's been my goal for a long time, even though I have a long ways to go.

What were some of your non-musical sources of inspiration?

Charlie: I'm influenced by just about everything, especially the landscape around Duluth and Winona. The lakes and the river really seem to energize me and get me moving to write. Also, the weather has a big effect on me, and I think it seeps into the songs either when they're written or when they're performed.


How would you describe your songwriting process?

Charlie: I've never really thought of myself as having much of a process, and what of it there is changes all the time. Sometimes I come up with a story I'd like to tell, and set to hammering it into a song or a scrap of melody that's buzzing around in my head and sometimes I have the whole song show up at once and feel like I'm learning it whole from somewhere else. It doesn't feel very organized, in either case.

Was there a tune(s) that set the course for Barnswallow?

Charlie: We figured out a good way to play "True Friends" pretty early on, and that seemed to be the way to go from then on, kind of taking it as it comes and letting the songs fill whatever space they wanted to. Not to be too organic about it, but it felt right, and I don't like pretending that I know what I'm doing when it's clear that I don't. I usually don't.

Can you discuss the title of the album and the cover art?

Charlie: I wrote a banjo instrumental called "Barnswallow" and decided to leave it off the record. But Jamie Harper had already painted that beautiful cover art and so it had to stay. Plus Joe Tadie wrote this great essay about Barnswallows ... I really like them, anyway, they're very plentiful around the river watching them fly is pretty amazing.


What would you say are the biggest similarities between Barnswallow with your previous records?

Charlie: The way we recorded it, as a more or less live show, is my favorite way to record and the way I've relied on most. Also having these friends involved made it very comfortable for me, and that's a big deal. I don't like feeling too much pressure, and will go to great lengths to avoid it. That's been my mantra for all the time I've gotten to make records.

What aspects would you say sets it most apart for you?

Charlie: I think I've gotten a little bit more the hang of writing songs, and am kind of embracing the idea that songs are just a slice of whatever time you record or play them in and it's ok to go ahead and keep working on them after they're recorded and they might become different. I don't think I understood that before.

I'm really looking forward to seeing you at Mississippi Studios in Portland, OR on March 30th. What are your plans for 2013?

Charlie: I'm looking forward to Portland, too, I love MS Studios! I've got a lot of touring planned for '13 and maybe an instrumental record or another gospel record or a combination for late this summer/early fall. Also an EP for Tin Angel in the UK, and 2 UK/European tours, plus an Australian tour this fall... Things are going well.

At home I'm going to build a treehouse with my son, and possibly build a chicken coop underneath the porch that would have some access to the basement. Then we'll need some chickens ... I also have plans to outfit my pickup with some kind of camper/topper. Stuff like that.

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