I was strolling through the streets of the Saint-Germain-des-Pres area in Paris looking for Serge Gainsbourg’s graffiti-covered home when I first saw it. It was a simple picture in a coffee house window of a guy in a trilby hat. Underneath was his name, Charlie Winston. Once I had noticed it, I saw it all over the city.
Now, my French is pretty shambolic but I know enough to know that Charlie Winston doesn’t sound particularly Parisian. The thing that added to my intrigue was that on a recent visit to good old England I hadn’t seen anything about him at all. This seemed odd because a little research revealed that Charlie is huge over here in France — huge with a capital H.
Born in Cornwall, England in 1978 he grew up in Suffolk where his parents ran a pub. His brother is fellow muso Tom Baxter. Charlie is, in fact, the face of Charlie Winston And The Oxymorons who released their debut album in 2007. In 2008 their cover of the old Spencer Davis Group song “I’m A Man” was used in a Volkswagen advert and featured a singing dog.
Now we have Hobo, an album that has almost outsold croissants in France as it reached number one, stayed in the top ten for over four months, and achieved platinum status in the process. Staring at me from its cover is that now familiar picture of Charlie, avec le hat, gazing forlornly at the camera.
Perhaps that look is him wondering why the hell he isn’t as big in the UK as well. Or perhaps it is a sort of Gallic shrug revealing that he doesn’t really care and is simply enjoying and appreciating the success that the French are heaping on him.
Hobo includes his highly successful single “Like A Hobo”. This hit number one in France and neighbouring Belgium where it stayed in the top ten for eleven and fifteen weeks respectively. So what’s it all about? To answer it, Eurorock set out to investigate just why a bloke from Suffolk is splattered around Paris like the graffiti on poor old Serge’s house.
On the album Charlie delivers twelve highly engaging tracks that range from the tongue-in-cheek catchiness of “Kick The Bucket” (not sure how that translates into French), the bizarre “My Life As A Duck”, to the memorable key-soaked French flavours of “Tongue Tied”. The last is a song that more than underlines just why this guy has waltzed down the Champs d’Elysees and has been welcomed with open arms.
“Soundtrack To Falling In Love” has the multi-instrumentalist Winston stripped down to simple guitar, trademark honest vocals, touching lyrics. He is joined by the seductive vocals of Liza Manili, a la a modern day Jane Birkin. “Generation Spent” takes a huge leap to the left; it’s a well used sidestep that keeps the album impressively alive and always compelling.
“Every Step” takes us back down to the man and his guitar with a track that will have you gazing thoughtfully into your empty glass. For me, the highlights are “Like A Hobo”, a song that fully justifies its single success, the excellent “Calling Me”, and “In My Hands”, all of which successfully introduce us to the charismatic world of Charlie Winston.
The lovely ballad “I Love Your Smile” illustrates the quality of the songwriting at hand. This, and the guy’s honest vocals and lyrics, all help point to the reasons as to why he is so popular here. “Boxes” is a case in point; unpolished and yet effective, it somehow shines a light on what Charlie is all about.
Quite why he hasn’t yet enjoyed the same impact in the UK is beyond me. Then again, maybe I’ve lived here too long to work out the reasons. Either way, it really doesn’t matter, Charlie Winston is big here, and this album confirms just why that is.
Find out why most of the buskers around Sacre Couer are wearing trilby hats by visiting the MySpace page for Charlie Winston.