Chazzy Lake on Imperfect Enlightenment and Allowing Art to Happen

Over the years spent developing his solo material, New York City singer/songwriter and producer Charlie Hill has also amassed an extensive list of credits and collaborations. He’s performed with the likes of disco-punk trio Bison and country ensemble Olivia Lurrie & the OTB Band, and he’s contributed engineering, mixing, and live sound for many others. 

So when he carved out the time to make his debut full-length Sup, Circumstance–under the name Chazzy Lake–he came to the project with the support of a built-in community of musicians, not to mention a colorful palette of genres to draw from. The finished record blends solo acoustic soliloquies and gang choruses–it spans alt-country and electronic-tinged lo-fi pop as it follows Hill in his ongoing quest to reconcile the differences between reality and the particulars of his own perspective.

Hill released the album’s first single and video, the catchy and thoroughly-felt “Not Afraid Of Your Crying Eyes,” in August of 2019. But in the midst of finishing the record, he’s had plenty of other work to share. After the onset of the global pandemic, Hill took songwriting commissions in exchange for COVID relief donations, ultimately releasing the finished recordings on Bandcamp to raise even more money for the New York Women’s Foundation Covid-19 Response and Recovery Fund. He later released a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Here I Am,” pledging Bandcamp proceeds to the Black Trans COVID-19 Community Response Grant.

Sup, Circumstance is available now on Bandcamp and coming soon to other streaming services one track at a time. Before the release, Hill spoke to The All Scene Eye about the hodgepodge process of its recording, plus making space for himself as a soloist.

How have you been, just in general, given the ongoing pandemic conditions?

I’m doing okay–I just got up to Vermont. I live in Brooklyn, but I used to live up here, and I came to sort of escape the city for a little while. I honestly have been better, I think, than some people. I’ve gotten the lucky case, you know? I have been able to stay safe, my family has been healthy, and most of my friends are doing fine, but it is a really weird time. 

I mean, it’s kind of scary to see what’s happening in this country as well as the rest of the world, but also, it instills this feeling of, like–excitement is not the right word at all, but this sort of enticement towards life and how strange it can be. There’s some comfort knowing that everybody in some way is impacted similarly, you know? Or at least by the same thing. It’s definitely enlightening to see how people have reacted and dealt with it in different ways, and it’s really highlighted a lot of things in society, but–thanks for asking. I’m doing fine. [laughs] 

How has everything that’s been going on impacted the way you work musically, whether that’s writing or rehearsing or any of the things you would normally be doing?

Well, I haven’t been able to work. I was working in a cafe for a while, and I’ve been collecting unemployment, and it honestly is such a strange opportunity. I know a lot of other people who have had to collect unemployment and can’t work their job, and for me, it’s really exciting because I all of a sudden have had all this time to just work on music and get ready to release this record. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of people moving to Berlin because the government will pay you money to be an artist there [laughs] but I feel like I’ve gotten this opportunity all of a sudden out of the United States, which is kind of weird. 

I’ve been working especially on getting ready to release the album, and then definitely writing a lot of music, which has been cool. Because of what’s been going on, I’ve taken a lot of opportunity to do some fundraising, which has been pretty fun. I made this album for donations, back in, like, April or May–if you donated an amount of money to the New York City COVID-19 relief fund as well as the MusiCares COVID-19 relief fund, I would write you a song of whatever topic you wanted. I made that album and just put it up on Bandcamp. It was just a bunch of iPhone recordings of songs I wrote, and then I sold the album to make profit for the New York City Women’s Foundation COVID-19 relief fund–this was all before a lot of the Black Lives Matter movement started.

It was pretty cool to be forced to sit down and write a bunch of songs. It was definitely tough, but it also really made me get in the practice of sitting down to write more often as opposed to finding time or writing when I’m inspired to. Out of that week of writing songs that people commissioned me for, I wrote extra songs just because I was in this flow, which was really cool.

Some of the things you got commissioned to write about are pretty out there. “Aliens Eating Vegan Chicken Nuggets” is great. What was it like writing about things that you normally wouldn’t have written about?

It really pushed me to almost my desperate creative level, you know? [laughs] Like, my friend asked for a song either about aliens or about vegan chicken nuggets, and I kind of just sat down with my phone on record, and that just came out. Just a story about aliens running into hipsters in Brooklyn eating vegan chicken nuggets. Yeah, so it was this weird, desperate level of creativity, and then I had to write one about my brother-in-law, which was really weird. [laughs]  But it was fun, you know. It was interesting.

Like I said, it forced me to create, which is something I tend to try not to practice. I’ve always found that I write best when I’m allowing myself to sort of be in what I write, but it was a cool experience in self-discovery. Like I said, that week I wrote some extra songs that just came out of me because I had been practicing songwriting. It was pretty cool to have a more hands-on experience rather than just allowing it to happen. I honestly was really prepared to have to write too many songs–and of course, if more people had donated, I would have written as many songs as needed–but it turned out to be a solid amount for a little iPhone recording album.

Let’s go back to the start of this album that’s about to come out, Sup, Circumstance. When did you first start working on the songs?

I first started writing these songs for Sup, Circumstance probably, like, three years ago. I think one of them is even four years old at this point. I wanted to make an album for a long time and finally had enough songs that I was confident in. I started recording it two years ago, and I had most of the songs chosen, but I ended up writing one of them in the middle of the production process, which I decided to keep for the album too–yeah, so the oldest songs are probably three to four years old.

Which one was the late addition?

It’s “Not Afraid of Your Crying Eyes,” which I actually put out as a single last summer.

What made you want to highlight that one and release that one on its own?

It actually was just the first one that was done, and I was really excited to have it. I wanted to share it just to put a single out there–I was just ready to go, and it felt right to let a song out, so I decided, “Why not?”

You’ve described this album as a “journey through the gray area of the mind, where perspective and imagination meet truth and reality.” Can you elaborate a bit more on that and just what overarching themes came out when you started writing these songs?

I tend to write about the process of learning and adapting my perspective to reality. The title of the album, Sup, Circumstance, is really just a question, like, “What’s up, circumstance?” It’s a collection of experiences discovering what’s really going on with myself and trying to understand how I feel and feel about my life, the people, in it, and where I’m going. To me, the album is really just a snapshot at fitting your personal perspective and sort of universe next to the reality of the world around you. To me, it feels almost like balancing parallel realities.

One of the songs that stands out to me is “Walls Of My Eyes,” which deals so much with privilege, ignorance, and the idea of where somebody’s perspective is coming from. Where did that song start for you?

That song actually probably is the oldest song on the record, and the lyrics ended up being about–I mean, just like I was talking about with developing your perspective around reality, but that one was more specific to privilege. Balancing what privilege means for different people and what it looks like for others who are disadvantaged compared to where you’re at. I also was trying to emphasize something that I have felt, that we’re kind of always developing our understanding of others, and even when you do feel enlightened and you understand, there’s still perspectives out there that are skewed towards yours, if that makes any sense. Kind of like, I don’t see green the same way that you may see the color green.

It’s funny, I wrote that song so long ago and it sat on the back burner for a long time, but I found that the meaning of it has really come back to me a lot with the social justice action that’s been taking place recently, and especially the emphasis on white people being aware of their privilege and the disadvantages that black people experience in this society. It’s been really interesting to [laughs] hear that song today and rediscover the meaning of it.

It takes a long time for an album to get from writing to release–how has your perspective changed in the process of the last few years, of the songs and taking stock of these things?

Well, producing an album has really been a learning curve for me. I’ve been in some other bands, and we’ve put out some EPs, and another band I’m in–we haven’t been doing much recently, especially due to COVID, but we’re getting ready to release a second studio release, like, eight songs. It’s really interesting learning what producing a recorded song means, and it really can be done in so many different ways. This album, Sup, Circumstance, to me, feels a bit hodgepodge-y, in that I recorded some parts here, some parts were recorded there, you know, I did some of the guitar parts here, another friend of mine did some of the guitar parts there, and it really came together over an extended period of time using a diverse series of resources. 

I’m planning to make another record after this this fall, and my plan is to do it in a much more streamlined way. I recorded a lot of Sup, Circumstance myself, and for this next one, instead of calling up my drummer and being like, “Hey man, can you record one song this weekend?” The plan is more like, have the songs rehearsed, record the majority of the parts within a week or so, and have some consistency in that sense. Not because I think it needs to sound more consistent or that I thought Sup, Circumstance didn’t sound consistent enough, but more so just to develop a sound, if that makes any sense.

I’ve been recording for a couple years now, and I love studio work. I love recording and engineering, and I feel like a lot of people, when they’re getting into it, there’s this idea that there’s a standard for everything. And there certainly is a standard way to go about doing any of it, but just as we see groups like 100 gecs do something crazy and, like, redefine music, you can really do it any which way. Like, the song “Me” on the record is actually just an iPhone recording. I tried some studio versions of it, but I was just so tied to that one recording. I didn’t really want to give it up, the performance of it, so I got to this point where I had to say to myself, it doesn’t matter if my–my friend who was helping me produce the record wasn’t exactly for the idea of putting the iPhone recording on it. I felt the most solid about that, and that just felt right, you know? I could have absolutely put a studio clean, pristine version of the tune up, but it just didn’t feel like how I wanted people to listen to the song. 

If anything, what I’ve learned is, in creating art, it helps to let things be what they are. Being critical can only get you so far, and allowing things to happen naturally is where I’ve come to be happy with the way things get done. 

With this record, I think that lack of consistency is the consistency–it’s the stylistic hallmark of this album, right? You have those super stripped-down moments, but also you have all kinds of electronic drums and synths–the country sound versus more of the electronic sound. How do those individual song identities take shape?

I’ve got a lot of ideas in my head that I try to implement to the furthest extent that I can, but there’s always things that I discover as I’m working with other people and sitting down to work on things myself, too. I think there’s this idea that people who create music or whatever have so much of it figured out, and like, have moved through every single detail very meticulously. It is a very meticulous process, but I’ve discovered that when I’ve made my record and come up with everything, a lot of things just end up being the part that fits, you know? There wasn’t too much speculating about what needs to go. It just was like, “Oh, we should probably do that there,” or “do this there,” you know?

When you think back on this process, who are the other people who influenced the shape of this album?

Well, one of my good friends who I was making music for a long time with, he did a good amount of the recording and the general production. He also mixed it and he was a big part of it, my friend Kevin Bloom. He has a project called The Dead Shakers. He definitely was a big help with creating the final sound of the record, and then my drummer–well, I had two drummers over the record. You can hear their drumming pretty particularly. For instance, on “Walls Of My Eyes” as well as “Please Look Away” and “Icy Hot,” and I think one other one, this friend of mine, Zach James, played drums. He came into the studio with–we were recording with Kevin trying to get some songs started, and he hadn’t heard the songs before. We were just like, “Let’s see what happens and get some recordings.” He ended up laying down those takes, and they were great. They really defined some parts of the tune that I was able to later build off of. My other friend, Scott [Meynard], who’s my more permanent drummer, he did the drums for songs like “Glasses,” “Fake Friends,” “Take A Pass,” and he’s a big country musician, actually. He plays with an outlaw country band that I know pretty well, but he also grew up on post-hardcore, so he’s got this weird blend of musical tastes. Having his playing worked for some of the other songs really well.

My friend Ryan [Jory] played all the bass parts, except for on “Please Look Away.” That was another guy. My friend Libby Camp played a lot of the keys as well as did a lot of backing harmonies with me, and having her parts to make those pieces of the songs were really critical. For “Fake Friends,” my friend Francesca Blanchard sang with me–she and I are really close, and she was the first person I ever showed that song to. We started singing it together years ago, soon after I wrote it, so it was a really natural step to have her do the secondary vocal part.

I’d say the final major influence on the record was my friend Noah [Schneidman], who was playing in the band with myself as well for a while. He did a good amount of the lead guitar, and he actually wrote the guitar riff for “Fake Friends.” I just sat down to play with him one day, and he started playing that part, and I was like, “That is great.” So there were a lot of contributions from lots of different directions, which was really fun. I like to say that the record is very much for them as much as it was for me to make.

There are certain moments where you really feel that energy of contribution, of having lots of people in the room, having a good time. “Behind That Wall” comes to mind–you start with that candid conversation sample, and you have group vocals toward the end. Tell me about how that track came together.

I tend to write backing vocals along with the main melody of a song as I write them, so–I wrote that song not long after I wrote “Walls Of My Eyes,” actually, which is kind of funny. The “wall” thing came together–like, a wall between perspectives. That song was one of those ones too where I just sat down with my phone recording and just sang that, and it never really came close to having too much more of a chorus than what it was, but I really loved the idea of the music stopping, and at the end, it’s just a chorus of people singing a cappella. For all those big group harmony parts of the choruses, I got five or six friends together, and we sang the parts around two microphones to get that big, live-sound feeling.

You’ve worked with a lot of other projects, a lot of other people’s bands, in the past. What is it like having this solo debut album as Chazzy Lake?

It’s exciting. I mean, it’s cool because I have worked on a lot of different things and helped people create a lot of different projects, and I’ve always wanted to make my own record. I really never got the opportunity to feel like I could do it until I had all this experience of working with other people and I knew how to record. It sort of took all that experience to get to the point where I was like, “Okay, I know I can make my own record,” and it just came time for me to do it. I took all of last year’s summers between, like, 2018 and 2019–I was playing with this band J Bengoy, but that was, you know, we practiced once a week, we played some shows, but it wasn’t as full-time as I was making this Chazzy Lake record to be, and it was interesting to kind of make space for myself.

It’s something that I feel like a lot of people dream of, is like, the space and time for yourself. I feel like a lot of people are much better at giving themselves that than others, and I think I struggle sometimes to give myself my own space and time to do my thing. It was a pretty weird experience sitting down by myself and being like, “Okay, I’m gonna record my record today.” [laughs] But it was cool, and like I said, it really took the community that I was a part of to help me make it, so I really am grateful to a lot of people for it.

We’re at this weird point where album releases don’t really look like they used to–how are you planning to celebrate this album once it’s been released?

You know, that’s a great question. It’s funny too because my friend the other day was like, “Are you gonna have a party when you release the album? Or at least, are you gonna celebrate?” And I was like, “Yeah, I mean, I’m planning a live stream thing.” And she was like, “No, like, are you gonna celebrate?” [laughs] And I was like, “Oh.” Like, “I didn’t even think about that.” And honestly, I have been struggling to focus on the album release because I’m really excited to make another record. I know I should be slowing myself down and sort of rewarding myself for making this first record in the first place because it’s been a dream of mine to make a full-length album for so long, and I finally have. 

I think to me, celebrating the record honestly means knowing to myself that I did it. I assume it feels the way that an author does after they write their first book, you know? It’s weird because I feel like making music can sometimes seem like a really selfish endeavor, and obviously it is in many ways because you’re like, “Well, I got some art that I want to make that I think is worth making.” I kind of hate to take up space for myself and gloat about the record, but I honestly feel inspired to make music because I feel like it’s something that in some way can benefit others, and I’m just excited for anybody to listen to it. That’s really why I made it. So, yeah, great question. I’m going to have to plan a little vacation for myself or something.

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