Los Angeles-based singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Pearl Charles, who released her damn near perfect debut EP last August, is a talent on the rise. Her style seems, on its face, to be pure throwback: a melding of 1960s rock and 1970s cosmic country, an amalgamation of lessons learned from forerunners like Joni Mitchell, Linda Ronstadt, Gram Parsons, Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and many others. But in truth, Charles' style — which, despite divergences, fits perfectly within the garage rock formula of her label Burger Records — is more than a mere collage of pastiches. She's too rock and too fuzzy, and her mood too heavy, to be considered country in any typical sense. Her vocals and the details of her sonic decisions are too pristine for her to be counted among the constantly growing ranks of the garage rock congregants. Adaptations of familiar elements aside, this 24-year-old has crafted an organic and unique sound.
Charles, who began music lessons as a child, was probably always bound to be a great artist of some kind. Her father (a filmmaker) and her mother (a visual artist) always encouraged her artistic ambitions and explorations. Once obsessed with musical theater, by the end of high school she "dropped the theater part" and began to focus on writing and performing music.
A native to the area that was once home to many of the important influences mentioned earlier, Charles seems to have inherited some of her musical tendencies as much by osmosis as by conscious apprenticeship. However, while attending CalArts to study music, Charles began to find more direct influences. As a part of the alt-country duo The Driftwood Singers (with Chris Hutson) and later throwback rock act The Blank Tapes (lead by Matt Adams), Charles put her own songs on the backburner and learned from her role in two very different bands.
"Not only has playing with these other projects taught me a lot about the work of leading a band but learning from these guys has really helped evolve my songwriting process," Charles told the San Antonio Current over the phone from her parents' home in Joshua Tree.
When I asked her about how her studies in music theory find their place in her relatively conventional approach, she chuckled that while the more experimental or academic side of music is interesting to her, it's not the kind of music she wants to make, at least right now. Quickly, she added, "that's the beauty of having my project just called Pearl Charles — I have freedom to take the sound wherever I want."
There's something ritualistic about the sound she conjures on the EP — a fire-circling swirl of drums, sinewy and syrupy guitar passages, bright organ parts and skyward vocals — that, coupled with the garage fuzz and the Laurel Canyon, hippie country vibe, makes for magnetic songs that are at once delicious and nutritious, deeply satisfying in the pop sense and yet, somehow, still spiritually edifying. I'm especially impressed by the range — from catchy to mind-bending, from haltingly pretty to stonerific — of EP tracks "Night and Day," "Indian Burnout" and "Idea to Her."
As it turns out, this spiritual aftertaste is no accident. "I want to write pop songs, based in country rock, with real depth to them, so everything doesn't always have to be about heartbreak or love," Charles said. "Sometimes," she continued, "even catchy, really enjoyable music can address deeper, more spiritual themes."