January 15 saw the arrival of local alt-country/indie-folk artist Pearl Charles’ third album, Magic Mirror, and it’s a thing of beauty. Gorgeous, warm and understated vocals in a Linda Ronstadt realm bring honest, relatable lyrics to life, all framed by the sweetest of melodies.
It took her a while to get to this point; Charles started taking piano lessons when she was five after pestering her parents for a year. That led to guitar lessons, then musical theater and summer camps, as her folks encouraged her passion.
“They enrolled me in all of that, and that was really great,” Charles says. “Then I got in some trouble in high school — smoking weed, nothing really serious but it kinda kicked me off the path of musical theater and more into the path of rock & roll. Once I started doing that, my parents were like, ‘If you’re going to pursue doing music in a mainstream sense, we encourage you to look into writing songs, because that’s a great way to express yourself as an artist and be in control of your own artistic destiny.’ The rest is history.”
Despite that brief flirtation with rock & roll, Charles met Christian Lee Hutson while attending Cal Arts, ad formed the eight-piece Driftwood Reunion Band. That was eventually whittled down to the two-piece Driftwood Singers.
“It was very cute, but eventually we were like, ‘What’s the easiest way to actually really do this? Let’s just go out on the road as a two-piece, Carter Family style’,” says Charles. “I would play autoharp and eventually moved onto playing guitar. He was a great guitar player, and we would do close harmony duets. It was great, we loved it. It was so fun.”
Hutson is now having success of his own, signed to Anti-Records and working with Phoebe Bridgers. Charles went on to play drums in the garage rock band the Black Tapes, before going the solo route. She says that both of her previous bands taught her a lot.
“[Hutson] taught me how to sing harmony,” she says. “I had sung in the choir and done a little bit of harmony study. But he really taught me about Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, the Carter Family — he taught me how to listen for the harmonies. That’s changed my life and been such a crucial part of my music ever since.”
Charles describes her sound as a little bit of country, a little bit of soft rock, and even a little bit of disco in the ABBA, “pure pop” sense. She adds that he sound has organically evolved through the three albums, climaxing with Magic Mirror. Naturally, she’s delighted with the way it has turned out.
“I feel like my songwriting and my vision has become more clear,” she says. “I think I started in a very different place than I ended up. But on this record, I got to really use the band that I tour with. We had spent the last two years promoting my last record and touring that, but at the same time we were working on the new songs and really getting to road test them. I think that’s something that is unique to this record, that the other two records didn’t have. Because I’m actually a musician out on the road now, I had the time to really workshop the tunes and get to know the people who are going to play them, and they get to know me. They were trapped in a car with me for eight hours a day, and I was just blasting the music at them that I wanted my record to sound like. I think that really seeped in.”
The singer and songwriter, who splits her time between Los Angeles and Joshua Tree, says that the new album is a record about identity and self-reflection.
“However that comes to pass whether it’s through a break-up or a psychedelic experience,” she says. “Whatever it may be. There’s a song called ‘Imposter’ about imposter syndrome. Whether it’s coming from a dark place or a positive place — that’s life, we have two sides to ourselves. The yin and yang of life. I think it’s really about looking at yourself. That’s the ‘magic mirror’ — there’s the two sides. You might not always like what you see, but it’s always going to show you the truth.”
This region has a great history of folk-rock and alt-country, not least the incredible music that came out of Laurel Canyon in the ‘60s. Charles says that she couldn;t help but be influenced by that.
“I grew up in Hollywood, but just blocks away, I would say in the shadow of, Laurel Canyon,” she says. “So whether I knew it or not, it was always influencing me. Then my parents bought a place in Joshua Tree, and only this year in the pandemic I decided I wanted to live out here even though I’ve been coming out here to visit forever. I feel like, between L.A. and Joshua Tree, the history of this kind of music is so strong. Obviously, it initially comes from maybe English folk and African music then it comes to the south and east of America. But the way that it’s come to be now really started I think with the Byrds, Gram Parsons. This is the birth of that style. I think it’s always going to have that magic and mystique to it, and that draw.”
With the video for new single “Take Your Time” about to drop, Charles is looking ahead to a better (fingers crossed) 2021.
“I’m ready to get on the road, when it’s safe,” she says. “These songs were born on the road, like I was saying before. Regardless, I’ve been writing the whole time during pandemic. It might be a blessing in disguise that I can be ready to release even more music sooner than I would have been if it wasn’t for the pandemic. I’m trying to see the bright side and hope that we can get back on the road. That’s the main thing.”
Pearl Charles’ Magic Mirror is out on January 15.