Wes Charlton Comes Back to a Workbench and a Way of Life

A lot has changed in the ten years since singer-songwriter Wes Charlton released his sophomore album, World on Fire. He’s moved back from Nashville to his native Virginia, started a family, and lived a lot of life out of the studio and off-mic.

That experience flows through his return to record-making, Morning Stars, out on Vox Records this year. In many ways, it hearkens back to his sophomore effort, World on Fire; you’ll find familiar tales of relatably flawed characters struggling in a callous world, all told in Charlton’s keen observations and irreverent wit.

That said, with a seasoned set of eyes, he’s more equipped than ever to look on a hard world with maturity and gentleness. Take the opener, “Tomorrow,” where big, bright, B-3 organ chords bear out Charlton’s faith in the conquering power of love. Later, you have the tender title track, a father’s acoustic ode to the guiding light of a family. Between the two, there’s plenty of room for portraits of death and self-destruction, but Charlton’s renewed sense of hope is never far away.

Shortly before the release of Morning Stars, Charlton spoke to The All Scene Eye about getting back into the studio and raising a new generation of music lovers.

When did you start working on Morning Stars?

After World on Fire came out and I toured it for a while–I don’t really have an explanation for this, other than I had been writing a lot. I mean, many songs a week for years. It doesn’t mean every song I wrote was good, but you write ten, you get one good one. I don’t know, man, I might have just burned out. I’m not really sure. It just sort of went away for a couple years, and I started moving on. I got married and had some kids, but I had probably two albums worth of material that I was just sitting on that I wasn’t sure I wanted to do. And then it was weird; it was like the winds changed. A song came, and then a new song came–next thing I knew, I was right back where I started and I had this flood of creativity. It was around 2015, maybe.

I started demoing these things at home on Garageband and sent one or two of them to my old manager, who was also the president of Wildflower Records–she manages Judy Collins and some other people–and she loved them. My first idea was that I was going to do a low-key album, nothing big deal, maybe even just do it locally with somebody. But I sent her the songs, and she wanted to work together again. Then my old producer, who did my first album, American Bittersweet, he got a hold of those demos. Next thing I know, he’s calling me, saying, “we can get Daniel Clark, who tours with Ryan Adams; we can get Kevin Salem, who’s worked with Yo La Tengo; we can do this and it can be great.” I thought, “well, okay, that sounds good.” Next thing I know, those demos lead to a publishing deal. All of a sudden this thing got bigger, but it was great and fun.

Morning Stars is a combination of three or four songs that have been with me since Nashville, and the rest are new. It was this cool realization of some of these old ones that I’ve been carrying for a while that I really felt close to, and then these newer ones. The title song, “Morning Stars,” I actually wrote–

That’s one I wanted to ask you about, yeah.

So, that’s a really cool story. We got these gospel singers to sing on two of my songs in the studio, and they were fantastic. Also, Macon Gurley is a good friend of mine; she sang on my first album, American Bittersweet. She sings like a bird. She’s just amazing, so I wanted her to sing on some of the songs too. So she’s in the studio with us, I’m in the main room with the producer listening to her, and she’s warming up in the vocal booth by singing “Bright Morning Stars,” this old traditional Appalachian song. It really struck me, and I asked her, “what is that?” She told me, and then she tells me what all the lyrics were, and I said, “well, can you just sing that first verse?” So we had her sing it a cappella on the spot, and she thought we were crazy. My producer thought I was crazy too, and I said, “everybody, just let her do this.” So she did it, and then we moved on, and she sang the songs she was going to do.

The next day, those gospel singers were in, but we didn’t have Macon sing to any instruments. It was in tune with itself, but it wasn’t in tune with any actual key–I think it was between D and D#. So we said to the gospel singers, “hey, we’ll play you this audio track, can you just do some stuff behind it?” And of course, they were amazing, and they did. So that intro is Macon singing the first verse to that old traditional song and these gospel singers behind her. I took that home with me that night–I was staying in a hotel room–and I wrote the rest of the song. I took that first verse as sort of an inspiration and wrote three verses and a chorus of my own.

You’ve got that refrain, “shelter’s a woman and children I love / led home by the bright morning stars up above.”

Yeah, I wrote that. Everything from after that intro to the end is my part of the song that I wrote.

Had you ever done something like that before, taking a traditional song as a foundation and building up from it?

No, and it was completely spontaneous. If you can imagine, it just was–“well that sounds cool, Macon, sing that again,” and then, “hey, this sounds crazy, backup singers, but can you try this?” Then I came in the next day and said, “hey, I wrote this, what do you guys think?” And they all said, “let’s do it.”

I’ve always drawn inspiration from all types of artists. Sometimes I’ll play around with incorporating a phrase from somebody’s song, like a Velvet Underground song, as a nod to them, but nothing like this. In retrospect, I may have been subconsciously influenced by what Ketch from Old Crow [Medicine Show] has done with Bob Dylan. You know, like, “Wagon Wheel” is a snippet from the Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid soundtrack that was not used, and he completed it. I wasn’t thinking about that when I did it, but I had been exposed to that before I wrote “Morning Stars,” so it might have been somewhere in my subconscious.

I think any time you’re dealing with a specific genre sound, whether it’s Americana, or Blues, or Jazz, or what have you, you’re in conversation with artists who have done that before. It’s interesting to literally have that play out in the track.

Well, you’re absolutely right. I do feel intimately connected to a handful of artists that are very personal to me. Townes Van Zandt is one of them where it is almost like a dialogue sometimes. It’s not even that I’m thinking, “I want to write a song like this guy’s song.” It’s more than that. It’s more like, “this person has really affected me in his work,” or in her work, whoever it may be. This one was the most direct, personal interaction on that level. I was just moved both by the words to the first verse of that traditional song and by the way Macon sang it. And, you know, what was going on with me was that I have three kids, and they’re all really young–five, three, and two. My two older kids are adopted, and our biological child had just been born a couple weeks before that day in the studio. I had been away from my family for a while recording this album, and that was on my mind. When I heard her sing this song, it just happened where I thought, “okay, I know what I’m going to write about now.” That’s where that refrain comes in, I suppose.

You said in the electronic press kit that you’ve done a lot of living since the last album came out. How does something like being a father influence your songwriting perspective?

Some of it is something I can’t really explain. Part of this new flood of creativity, if you will, happened when I started having kids. Not planned–in fact, it caught me off guard. I thought, “where the hell is this coming from?” I don’t know why or how that happened, but that’s one thing. Another is–I don’t know, man, I used to live pretty hard. I’ll just say that. That was especially true when I lived in Nashville, and afterwards for a while, and that was something I had to confront and go through on my own. I don’t know if that was because of kids or not, but it was kind of a looking in the mirror and saying, “some of this is okay, but some of this is bullshit.” You know, great artists are not great artists because of drugs or alcohol. It’s despite that. John Lennon, right? He’s a genius despite the fact that he struggled with all his things.

Perhaps it’s a more sober outlook on life, but I mean that in a larger sense. You start to think about death as well as life. You experience much more acute joy, but you also experience much more acute pain. And that’s okay. It’s actually maybe more about living and feeling life more directly and intimately. I think all of that plays a part in this album.

There’s this theme, it seems to me, of growing up. There’s a line in “God Bless Your Crooked Soul”–“You said it’s been a while since you felt young at heart.” “Comeback Kid” also strikes me as being in that space of, what kind of person are you going to be when you grow up?

That’s a good example of an older song and a newer song coming together. “Comeback Kid” was actually written in Nashville, and “God Bless Your Crooked Soul” was one of the new songs. That line in “God Bless Your Crooked Soul” was about a guy and a girl who have just been–you know, you’re going through life, and things are getting hard, but you’ve known each other–my wife and I have known each other since she was 15 and I was 16.

That’s half your life right there.

It is. We’ve known each other longer than we’ve not known each other, if that makes sense. So when I say that line, it’s actually quite literal. It just means you catch yourself, maybe in some stupid argument, and, “my god, when was the last time we even felt young and free? It’s been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Comeback Kid,” that is a song that came to me out of nowhere very quickly and then it was done. I’ve known it was a keeper ever since I wrote it. I actually recorded it live into my laptop, like a demo, when I was staying in New York City at my manager’s apartment. She was out of town, and I was there playing some shows and staying at her apartment, and I emailed it to her. She never forgot it. It’s a song about your childhood friends growing up, and one of them just disappears. The dialogue is from the friends left at home, and the friend that disappeared comes back, but as a suicide bomber. And so, “are you on the right track / are you still doing what your father’s father did” is a reference to the friend that left, saying “where are you? Have you gone off to do what your father did?” Which is implied in the song that may be something his father did as well.

There are two different versions of “Comeback Kid” on the album–there’s a reprise at the end. What made you want to do that?

The reprise version is the way I wrote it originally, so, the faster version. When I was playing it to the guys in the studio, they were like you, kind of like, “what’s this song about?” I told them, and they were like, “goddamn.” [laughs]

If you’re just listening along the first time, it’s not immediately evident that that’s the kind of song it is.

It’s really only at the very end when it stops, and, “they sent you back with a bomb,” and people in the audience go, “wait, what?” We talked about it, and they were like, “man, that’s heavy.” And I was like, “well, yeah, it is. It is heavy.” We tried it a couple different ways and then Stewart Myers, the producer, he’s like, “man, why don’t we try this Bob Dylan Time Out of Mind kind of moody, swampy thing?” We tried it, and it was awesome, so we were just going to do it that way, but I sent it to my manager, and she was like, “I love it, but I also love it the other way.” I thought, “okay, well, do you want me to cut it the other way?” And she was like, “can you try?”

We went back in and did it the other way, so we ended up with these two versions that were great. At first, my producer was like, “man, we should really only have one of these on the album. It’s going to be weird.” And I was like, “well, I don’t know, let’s just try it and sequence it.” It was my idea to have it as a reprise; I might have been thinking of Wilco Being There, where they had “Outtasite (Outta Mind)” two different ways on disk one and disk two. We tried it, and to everybody’s surprise–except mine, I guess [laughs]–it worked, so we just went with it. It was like, “why not? Let’s do it.”

It’s cool when you see that a song like that has legs. A good song hopefully can go in different directions, which I always love. Like The Beatles Anthology, I love hearing how they do, you know–

The alternate takes and all that.

Yeah, they’re doing it, like, ten different ways. I’ve now had that happen with a couple of songs of mine, so it’s been cool to see how it finds its home.

There’s a really rich instrumental atmosphere on this album. Can you tell me about the arrangement process?

Sure. I’ve done albums a couple different ways. The majority of American Bittersweet was done by me and Stewart Myers, who engineered and produced it. The two of us covered probably twenty different instruments; we would bring a drummer in and then do everything else, and then bring in a pedal steel player, or a harmony singer, something like that. World on Fire, in Nashville, we did kind of like early White Stripes. My drummer worked for AKG, and every time somebody would drop a microphone and there would be a dent in it, even though it was fine, it’d get thrown away, so he’d get it. He had all these really nice microphones and this digital Boss 16 track recorder, and we just did it in our house–not live, we tracked it out, but we would work on it all hours of the day and night. We sent it to New York to my buddy Roy Hendrickson to mix it, and he did an amazing job, and that was how that album came about. It’s not as studio polished, but it’s great.

This one was completely different. The core musicians were Stewart Myers, who was producing, but he played bass; John O’Reilly Jr. was on drums–he’s done work with EL VY, the side-project of the singer from The National; Daniel Clark, who I’ve mentioned, toured with Ryan Adams and The War on Drugs; Kevin Salem on guitar, and I played guitar as well. We cut the core tracks live over a three day period. When I say the core tracks, I mean drums, bass, guitar, and either piano or organ–maybe Hammond B-3 or something. That was a three day around-the-clock sprint where we got all these tracks done live with a handful of punch-ins here or there. After that, we came back and added things like additional guitars, additional organs, or piano, or keyboard, and I would do my final vocals later.

So we get towards the end of that, and it’s like, “man, this thing’s got this Van Morrison early 70’s feel, like on ‘Cemetery Hill.’ Some horns would be cool. Can we do that?” “Sure. [laughs] Let me call these guys.” So they’re in there cutting their awesome horns for “Cemetery Hill,” and we’re like, “why don’t we just play them ‘Kerosene Heart’ and see what they think?” They flipped out over “Kerosene Heart,” and next thing you know, we’ve got horns on both of those songs. Then, you know how it goes, it’s, “well, shit, we got horns, what about gospel singers?” “Yeah, we can do that.” “Okay, okay, cool.” 

You start to just see what you can get and push as far as you can on on that.

Well, and at that point I’m like, “holy shit, okay, what about pedal steel? Yeah? Great, let’s bring pedal steel in.” So we started layering in these other things. I should say this too: we recorded at two studios. White Star Sound, which is owned by Chris Keup, who’s a good friend. I’ve been working with Chris since I was 19. Chris and Stewart, they kind of discovered me. They got a bathroom four-track recording of me when I was 19 and called me, and that’s how this whole crazy thing started.

We cut horns, some vocals, and other things at Chris’ studio, but the majority of the album was at Montrose Studio in Richmond, which is owned by Bruce and Adrian Olsen–they’re father and son. Bruce was very close friends with Mark Linkous from Sparklehorse, so that studio actually has Mark Linkous’ vintage 1960’s mixing board that he used on his last three albums. I love Mark Linkous’ work–he’s one of those artists I’ve always felt really close to–so knowing that, it was just great vibes. The studio was fantastic. They had a vibraphone, a Mellotron, all these different instruments.

There’s a big studio shot on your website, and I was geeking out over all the keyboards and things I could pick out.

There’s a picture on my website of me leaning back in a chair in front of a mixing board–that’s Mark Linkous’ mixing board. Daniel, the keyboard player, was getting ready to go back on tour with Ryan Adams, so Ryan FaceTimed him while he was in the studio. Daniel walks over, and he’s like, “Hey Wes, talk to Ryan.” So I’m talking to Ryan Adams on FaceTime, and Ryan sees the mixing board, and he starts geeking out. He’s like, “oh my god, that’s like the board I have at Pax-AM Studios in LA.”

So you’re not alone; a lot of people do that, and we were geeking out on it. It was great. I played vibraphone on three or four songs just because it was there, you know? There’s the whole, “let’s let this get out of hand and see how many cool things we can get” combined with, “what’s laying around the studio?” That’s how a lot of different, cool instruments got on the album.

When I was younger, my parents would introduce me to the music they liked, and they’d call it my musical education. What’s on the curriculum for your kids?

Oh man, my daughter Nora, who’s the oldest–she’s five. Huge music lover. Of course, she loves Katy Perry and Taylor Swift and all that stuff, but every time I drive her to school, she says, “daddy, can you play loud rock and roll?” “Yes, I’ll play loud rock and roll.” And she says, “oh, make sure it’s loud.” And I say, “okay Nora, it’s going to be loud.” She likes Jack White, she likes Radiohead. The one thing I couldn’t get over on her though–she went through this phase where there’s this Australian group called The Wiggles. I don’t know if you’ve heard of them.

Oh yeah. Oh yeah.

Okay, so she went through this heavy Wiggles phase. They had this song called “Rock & Roll Preschool” and that’s, like, all she ever wanted to listen to, and every time I listened to it, I was like, “this is such a ripoff of ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll High School’ by the Ramones.” So multiple times now I’ve tried to sneak in the Ramones. I think I tried to play her “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” and some other songs. She shot those down, though. She doesn’t like the Ramones, so that was unfortunate.

Not yet, anyway.

Not yet. I’m going to try it again in, like, another year. But yeah, I play them everything from The Replacements to Joy Division, to early REM, to newer stuff. I tried Tom Waits once, but that just didn’t go over. I’m going to have to wait a while for that.

The other thing is I’m constantly writing new songs and demoing them, so I always play demos for them. If they start bopping their head or nodding to it, that’s like, “okay, this is cool, I’m on the right track here.” If a five-year-old starts nodding her head to something, it’s, “okay, other people may like this too.”

I feel like it’s easy that way to see if it has whatever that element is that makes people latch onto it. Kids have a sense of that.

It’s so true, and what’s funny is on my new album, we released “Snow-Covered Cars” as the first single, but for a long time leading up to that, my management company were talking about one or two other songs and not that one. I was always thinking to myself, “no, man, ‘Snow-Covered Cars’ should be the first single.” Every time we got in the car, that’s the song my daughter wanted to listen to. She’d say, “play rock and roll.” And I’d say, “do you want to hear my rock and roll or somebody else’s?” “Your rock and roll.” And I’d put another song from the new album on. “No no no, do the other one.” Then I’d put on “Snow-Covered Cars”, and she’d jam out to it. Lo and behold, a couple months later they saw the light. “Oh no, we think you should do Snow-Covered Cars.” I’m like, “yeah, I know.”

Sounds like you’re raising the next generation of managers.

I think she’s going to be groundbreaking, man. She’s already doing crazy beats and stuff on keyboards at the house and she’s making up her own lyrics. It’s great.

What’s your biggest goal for this album?

My biggest goal is that as many people as possible get to hear it and get to make it a part of their lives, and then that I can make another album. I’m not just saying this to say it, but I’ve got probably another two albums worth of material ready to go. When I actually do my next album, it could be that none of those songs are on there, or like this time, it could be a handful with another handful of new ones. But it’s the work–that’s why I relate so hard to people like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark. There’s almost a workbench mentality there, but also ”this is what I do to keep myself okay and keep moving forward.” [laughs] It’s the craft, but also this is just part of how I live. I will keep doing that no matter what, but my biggest hope is that as many people as possible get to hear this and that I can go make another album. That’s my modest goal, I suppose.

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