Charlie Dore, singer, songwriter, actress and multi-instrumentalist, brings her tour (in support of Milk Roulette, her most recent album) to The Pheasantry, King’s Road, on Wednesday 17th June and it’s a chance to watch a master songwriter at work in a lovely, up-close-and-intimate Central London venue.
Over the course of a forty-year career, there is little she hasn’t done, except acquire the level of fame commensurate with her talent. But in any case, the pursuit of fame as an end in itself doesn’t seem to have interested her. “I don’t have very sharp elbows,” she confides. And since she darts adeptly from genre to genre, pulling in elements of folk, pop, country, classical, Americana, bluegrass, jazz, bossa nova and more, she’s been impossible to pigeonhole since her first album appeared on Island Records in 1979. “Every time I try and accurately describe my songs, it sounds like a casserole of indecision cooked up by a procrastinator with ADHD,” she says. Although this has always made the marketing of her work a complex undertaking, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “It’s what I relish. I use folk instruments, but I’m not strictly folk – or country for that matter, even though I enjoy words in a way that might be considered more in the country vein. I suppose I’d love to inhabit my own category”.
Photo: Nikoletta Moneyok
The arc of her career so far should be immensely reassuring to anyone worried that they haven’t got it all figured out by twenty-five; it’s only over a series of post-millennial releases, starting with 2004’s Sleep All Day, that Charlie feels she has started making albums that accurately capture her musical identity. What’s more, the critics have concurred, and her last five sets have come out to increasingly rapturous reviews. “I want to keep at it until I drop,” she says. Her achievements as a recording artist alone guarantee her a significant place in rock history, but then there are her other careers, including writer-for-hire (with songs recorded by Celine Dion, Tina Turner, Sheena Easton, Jimmy Nail and George Harrison), actress (working with Jonathan Pryce and Tim Curry), impro comedian and club owner.
Charlie grew up in a vibrantly musical household where singing and piano-playing were actively encouraged…”but not in a bossy, stage-mother kind of way. My mother gave up trying to teach me to read music because I cheated and learned the pieces by ear, slightly wrong of course”. Hers is a true musician’s lineage: “My mother was a really gifted pianist and I remember hearing her play Chopin, Delius and Liszt when I was in bed at night but she had a fantastic ear and could knock out a Beatles tune or a Fats Waller song with equal style. She was in a dance band in the 1940s, the Tetherdown Night Owls. Her mother and both sisters were serious pianists too. Her father played the organ. My father’s mother was also a very good pianist and enjoyed telling us she was taught by Gustav Holst”.
At theatre school, Charlie’s early passion for stage musicals waned. “I went right off show-tunes and fell in love with the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Dylan”. Her first big break came in the early seventies when, with Julian Littman and Karl Johnson, she was lifted out of repertory theatre and beamed into the living rooms of the nation for 18 months as the musical element of Thames Television’s children’s programme, Rainbow. “We recorded three shows a week and they needed a song for each show, differently themed. So we had our work cut out for us. We were all living together at the time, so by the end of three series we were clawing the walls to get out. But it was fun for most of the time, great training for future jobbing songwriting and compared to basic Equity rates, we were earning well for the first time in our lives”. She and her flat-mates became savvier about the industry in general. “Someone in the canteen said, ‘Have you joined PRS yet?’. I said, ‘what’s PRS?’. They said, ‘They pay you each time your songs go out on television’. I thought, ‘again?’. We couldn’t believe our luck!”.
After building a following on the pub and club circuit, rubbing shoulders with The Police and DP Costello (soon to become Elvis), Charlie signed with Island Records and began work on her first album, self-written with a few co-writes from Julian Littman, who remains her writing partner and integral band member to this day. The album, made in Nashville and London, had a complicated gestation. “They signed me as a sort of British Emmylou Harris. We were having the time of our lives, recording a very rootsy, real-sounding album”. But the initial results were too country for Island’s ears, so remixes and re-records ensued, designed to sweeten the sound and give it a pop sheen. The end product, entitled Where To Now, was more ‘British Karla Bonoff’, an enticing prospect to be sure but not what Charlie had first envisaged.
Charlie’s band circa 1976 (L-R Stewart Johnson, Bruce Simpson, Julian Littman, Garrick Dewar, Charlie, Karl Johnson) Photograph: C. Hickman
What no one anticipated was that ‘Pilot of the Airwaves’, the bouncy, harmony-laden single, would soar to No.11 on the Billboard Hot 100 with almost no promotion. And although in hindsight, it’s possible to see why a song about DJs would have inbuilt, enhanced chances of airplay, effectively serving as its own PR, the song was not written with that possibility guilefully in mind. But if Charlie thought she’d be whisked across the Atlantic to capitalise on the accidental hit, Island had other ideas. “There were some weird politics going on between Chris Blackwell [head of Island] and Warner Brothers and they decided they weren’t going to pay for me to go out to the US. And I didn’t have the funds to be able to do it without their help.”
The ‘accidental’ hit. Photos: Norman Read
Although the song has had an extremely long shelf-life, Charlie describes it as a “blessing and a curse”. “It became a calling card in certain areas,” she says, “and also gave me a basic income which in turn gave me a chance later on to pursue other strands of work, like improv, that were interesting but didn’t pay much. I’d be churlish to complain about its success, but in truth I’ve spent years trying to convince people that those very glossy pop records didn’t really represent me. I was a folk-country-singer-songwriter who played roots-acoustic music. Back then, the producer was king and if you were as green as I was, you presented your songs in their raw form and the record sort of took shape under the direction of the producer and the A&R guys. I thought, ‘Well, they know more about making records than me’ – and they certainly did, but not always what was right for my songs”.
Charlie interviewed by Melvyn Bragg, 1978. Photo: LWT
The musical misrepresentation continued with her next project, which began in what seemed like auspicious circumstances. “Island forgot to pick up the option so when it lapsed we had a chance to shop around. As I’d had the US hit despite a complete lack of help, I thought it would be good to look elsewhere”. Soon, she found herself in the enviable position of being haggled over. “Island woke up and offered another deal but Chrysalis were keen, so I signed with them.” This time, instead of the partial re-record she’d endured with Where To Now, the project, produced by Glyn Johns, was completed and then scrapped entirely and Charlie was sent to L.A. to record from scratch with Stewart Levine, backed by the Porcaros and Steve Lukather of Toto. “I chose Stewart because I liked his attitude and because he’d produced two artists I admired, Minnie Riperton and BB King. He was a musician himself and I felt I could communicate with him”.
The difficult second album. Design: Alexander Vettiers
Somehow, though, something got lost in translation, and the album, Listen, was even smoother and more blemish-free than its predecessor. In fact, it has a very similar sound to Brenda Russell’s second album, Love Life, another Levine-helmed project that came out around the same time. While there is much to enjoy about both of them, their turn-of-the-decade, studio-perfect sound occasionally lapses from smooth and polished into sterile and listless. “It turned out very slick,” Charlie concedes. “My English voice on top of all the fabulous playing and somewhere along the line I felt I’d completely lost my identity. My fault. I felt very isolated. Looking back, I wonder why I was so mousey about the whole thing, but as it was a re-record anyway, frankly I didn’t know which way was up. I still think Stewart’s great but I don’t think the songs are my best and I’d rather that album was forgotten as all it represents to me is a time when I was creatively floundering. I was really pissed off when someone re-released it! [Charlie’s first two albums were issued on CD in the mid 2000s].
Listen also included one song by an outside writer, something insisted on by Chrysalis – “They were nervous that there weren’t enough radio-friendly singles on the album”. ‘You Should Hear How She Talks About You’, written by Tom Snow, became a huge hit by Melissa Manchester a couple of years later but didn’t go anywhere for Charlie. “It was a good pop song and obviously very commercial, but I felt it was completely wrong for my voice and I didn’t want to do it. There was a lot of pressure and, especially as the album was being made for the second time, I didn’t feel in a strong enough position to argue my case. I caved in. Never liked the result”. When it became apparent that her label was going to continue pushing the idea of ‘radio-friendly singles’, Charlie walked away. “I just lost the desire to jump through those particular hoops. Also, I was offered a part in a film.” Not just any film, this was The Ploughman’s Lunch, a political drama directed by Richard Eyre, with Charlie cast alongside Jonathan Pryce, Tim Curry and Frank Finlay. “It re-awoke my interest in acting. It was my first ‘proper’ movie, so I was secretly terrified as it was quite a big role”.
A year later, although her career as a singer/songwriter was in a period of decline, her name began to pop up in the songwriting credits of other people’s records, and she made her second appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 when Sheena Easton reached No.4 with ‘Strut’ (a co-write with Julian). Soon, this third career was well underway, although it was notably at odds with her own preferred sound, perhaps most obviously in the case of ‘Ain’t No Doubt’, the New Jack Swing-style song that reached the top of the UK singles chart for Jimmy Nail in 1992. “If I’m writing specifically for an artist, I want it to sound right, coming out of their mouth,” Charlie explains. “It shouldn’t sound like some world-weary songwriter in an office somewhere, honing slick little phrases and bon mots”. Still, Charlie found she was able to slip some of her quirky qualities under the radar. “‘Rain, Tax (It’s Inevitable)’ got cut by Celine Dion. That surprised even my publisher, who told me it would be hard to get a song covered with the word ‘tax’ in it. Not sexy, she said”.
In the mid-nineties, buoyed by the success others were having with her material, Charlie made a second foray into the recording industry with her third album, Things Change. “It was a toe in the water of performing and writing for myself again,” she says. Although it didn’t quite achieve lift-off in the UK, it was unexpectedly big in Italy and Israel where its accompanying single, ‘Time Goes By’, hit numbers 6 and 1 respectively. The album itself was very much a nineties pop production about which Charlie remains ambivalent. “There are some songs I like, but I was still looking over my shoulder with an ear on the commercial. I was very much in the world of trying to write hits. In retrospect, I think this didn’t serve the songs well”.
By now, Charlie had both acting and comedy to fall back on. In 1990, she co-founded The Hurricane Club, a comedy-impro venue on Oxford Street, and also worked with Eric Idle on Behind The Crease, the BBC cricketing radio show. “It was such a buzz to pluck a scene out of the ether and make a roomful of people laugh. We were nervous about filling the place with just impro, so we always booked a couple of stand-ups – Jo Brand, Harry Hill, Mark Lamarr, Alan Davies, Stuart Lee et al. Robin Williams turned up one night and joined us onstage, which was one of the most exciting nights I’ve ever had as a performer”.
The impetus to record again came from a BBC TV assignment. Charlie and Julian [Littman] were commissioned for two series of a drama set on a Scottish island. “They didn’t want slick, orchestral loveliness. They wanted it to sound more like the music that might be made by a little band from the island. So I bought a little Indian harmonium and Julian and I wrote melodies we liked. The only criterion was – did it help the scene? I loved it and it seemed to flow naturally. Some time later, I thought, ‘Why not just do music like this, using a palette of instruments, acoustic guitars, mandolin, harmonium – and make it into songs? Hang the idea of being commercial – I’ll just write what comes out'”. Thus, over a series of five (so far) albums, Charlie is, for the first time, making records that reflect her own, unadulterated vision. And despite the dizzying array of styles and influences, each one is a cohesive whole. The Guardian, The Telegraph and Mojo have championed her with renewed enthusiasm, penning liberal amounts of stellar reviews.
Milk Roulette – Design: Tom Climpson
Milk Roulette (following Sleep All Day, Cuckoo Hill, The Hula Valley Songbook, and Cheapskate Lullabies), is arguably the best so far, a moving and intricate mix of pop crossed with Victorian parlour songs, drawing room ballads and a sprinkle of folk and country. The work of Kate and Anna McGarrigle springs to mind, although Charlie’s supple singing voice is less warbly and therefore an easier taste for the uninitiated to acquire. One also senses the presence of a sardonically-raised eyebrow reminiscent of Kirsty Maccoll. The story-songs include tales from the viewpoint of a couple undergoing IVF and the parents of a newborn child before, before a dramatic change of pace occurs and songs about alcoholism and the defiant resisting of one’s own mortality play out. The album concludes with a wistful, melancholic piano piece written by Charlie’s mother at the tender age of six. “I found the manuscript hidden in an ancient book of piano exercises,” says Charlie. “My mother’s mother, Dora, wrote it out for her and at the top she added, ‘By Betty, aged 6”.
Another of the album’s highlights is ‘Three a Penny’, which subtly mocks the current culture of free or nearly-free downloadable music. “There are now two generations of people who expect music to come out of a tap for nothing, whatever the CEOs of Spotify say,” says Charlie. “All I know is that when I look at my royalty statements, there are too many zeros the wrong side of the decimal point. There’s a lot of talk about monetising streaming properly, but I don’t know how that’s going to happen now that the genie of cheap, easily available, all-you-can-eat music is out of the bottle. If we can change that mindset we might be some way to making a living out of it again, but I don’t know how we do that”.
I caught Charlie live last year and couldn’t help but notice what a starry crowd she attracted – at one table, Eric Idle, at another, folk royalty (and fellow Island alumna) Linda Thompson. It was a stunning show, with a three-piece band (including Charlie on assorted string and keyboard instruments), held together by consummate poise, humour and musicianship. It also confirmed that Charlie’s creative rebirth, begun ten years ago, is still in full swing. As she explains, it has been founded on the principle of not second-guessing what the audience might want. “I just felt that there was no point in me trying to consider writing and performing anything with a view to it meeting approval by some mythical taste-maker somewhere. It had to feel authentic and personal. I’ve spent too many years trying to fit some sort of mould and I finally decided just to do whatever felt right – and if people don’t like it, they don’t have to come into my shop!”
There’s also no chance of Charlie slowing down or drifting into soft-focus projects (e.g. Christmas albums or re-heated hits collections). “I want to keep making better albums,” she says of her future plans. “I’d like to write a book, a film and a play…and learn to relax. I may do all of them, but possibly not the last one”.