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Interview: Charles Stuart – The Man Who Likes Watching – Part One

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London based singer/songwriter Charles Stuart has recently released his new album, The Man Who Likes Watching, on the Slowfoot label. It is a record of startling beauty, with an aura you can sense connecting to you. His voice is significant and striking; for all its beautiful warmth, tone and spirit, there is a subtlety, as well as a dynamism, at work that sets the moods and equally guides the swings on his album.

Some resolve has clearly gone into pushing the musical boundaries here. As the organic and electronic flecks and splashes summon the nuances of a kaleidoscope, tipping the mirrors and the balance just enough to push the forms in and out of shape. To keep you guessing just when you think, you assume where Charles's songs are taking you. This makes the vibe interesting, refreshingly different and not at all predictable without interrupting the flow. I like that.

Charles is performing gigs in London and working on other musical projects that include the sub-aquatic observations of dub, jazz, afro-beat, krautrock and electronica that is Snorkel. I was fortunate to catch him during his downtime and we chewed hard on the global fat.

So, Charles, how are things from where you are sitting?

Well Paul, right now I am sitting in the living room and its very peaceful. The sun is out, the birds are singing and what would really top it off nicely would be a lovely cup of cinnamon tea! The album has been out a few weeks now and we're steadily starting to gig the songs with a mostly new band. I'm feeling good about the way things are starting to sound. I guess you could say we're starting to sound a bit like a band! (Lots of chin-stroking) Oh, and my local football team (soccer) were almost relegated, but managed to stay up thanks to some divine intervention. All in all things are working out. But hey, they always do, right ?

Sounds all good Charles. Tell me something about your background, your roots?

I grew up one of eight children in Upton park, east London. (This might give you a clue as to who my local football team is)

Yes indeedy, it has to be West Ham United.

Well my parents came to London in the late 50's from Dominica to live and work. There was a fair sized west Indian community in east London in the 1970's, so there was always a generous helping of reggae, soca and calypso in the air, as well as coul, funk, jazz and rock.

One out of eight kids, bet that was busy around the dinner table?

Coming from a big family had its plus points! It was generally a creative household, so there was always something going on. My older brother was an actor, my younger sister was a dancer and we all brought different kinds of music into the house. I guess looking back that was where my appreciation and education started.

What instrument did you first learn Charles?

There was an old piano in the house, it was brought in for my younger sister to play, but I think she was more interested in dance, so I decided to have a go. By this point I already had song ideas in my head, lyrics on paper and vocal ideas scattered around on old 90 minute cassettes. I started to try and learn some chords, concentrating closely on the white notes only and writing roughly five to ten new songs per new chord.

That's prolific by most musicians standards, who were your musical heroes or icons?

There were so many, musical and otherwise. People who touched my life. Some who are no longer here, some who are still here and some who are not quite still here.

And what was your first band like?

An absolute fucking mess.

Okay, brutal, but honest, I really can empathise with that first band description. So how did your musical path develop from there?

Well you could say things took a turn! I decided that I wanted to do some form of musical study. I wanted to play with lots of different people, experience playing different styles of music and just focus on my level of playing.

So I went down to Lewisham College of Music and met up with Dave Moses, the Head of Music there at the time. This was all very different for me. Intellectualizing the music wasn't something I was used to up to that point. I wasn't able to listen to or create music in that way. I found it all very interesting and stimulating.

Charles, you mentioned that your other brothers and sisters were into dance and acting, and there was a lot of different music in the house, what interested you about music in particular?

The form, the shape, the content, the journey, the adventure, and the way I felt when something sounded sooo absolutely fucking amazing that I could just forget myself.

Yeah, you can't get that on prescription and it beats working for a living, doesn't it? How did you get involved with Frank at the Slowfoot label?

Frank and I were at Lewisham College of Music at the same time. We played in various college bands together and in one or two bands/projects outside college too. There were always musical projects floating around that we both seemed to be a part of. It was only really a matter of time before we started on a project that heavily involved my material and this particular project is what became The Man Who Likes Watching.

How was the process of making that album?

Exciting, anxious, frustrating, funny, scary, tiring, joyful, tedious, crazy, dark, merry and long.

It's beautiful that you can feel all those emotions when you are making music, isn't it? What are your musical influences on your album?

A whole mixture of stuff. I've always been heavily influenced by rhythmic/groove music like reggae, soca, calypso and jazz-funk through to electro and hip hop. The groove is definitely important too, and very evident across, the album.

As is the slightly leftfield experimentation. We were beginning to improvise a lot more and I guess that we were looking for that happy medium somewhere between improvisation and set parts.

The experimentation for me really marked the tracks out when I first heard them, one of the things I picked up on early. What about your lyrics, because they stand out too?

I've always been interested in manipulating words. Hearing hip hop for the first time was great. You could just put all these words together that didn't need to mean anything or make any sense just as long they rhymed. That really appealed to me in the same way Tom Waits drunken ranting or Joni Mitchell`s soothing voice appealed to me because they had a way of putting a line or a phrase across that would just break your heart.

That's special when someone can do that. Do your paths cross with other
Slowfoot artists?

Sometimes, yes. Because Slowfoot is a small label most of the artists are also in house musicians so it means that there is a greater chance of you playing on another artists material. In addition there are a couple of other artists on the label.
129 and Crackle, who with a few of the other musicians and myself, make up another monstrosity called Snorkel. It all sounds somehow incestuous doesn't it ?

It's funny how it's often the way, isn't it?  You mentioned you and the band are breaking in songs, getting used to each other, what's the set up ?

Live we have Frank on drums and samples, Kim on bass, Felipe plays guitar/effects, Ben on keys/samples and percussion. Oh, and myself on keys and vocals.

Many thanks to Charles Stuart, Frank Byng and all at Slowfoot.

Part Two to follow shortly.

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