On the eve of releasing his debut album, Bedfordshire-born singer/songwriter Charlie Cunningham will tow his wares across the UK and Europe to sing for thousands of eager fans and patrons. His busy calendar notably has him scheduled to join Scottish vagabond King Creosote on a slew of dates before he later heads out on his own headline tour, which see’s the acoustic artist taking in the sights of London’s Union Chapel, as well as a country hop to Austin’s sacred SXSW. It’s never an easy fete to release a debut work of such esteem, but for Cunningham it’s proving quite the natural progression.
Monday night, I ventured through Manchester’s rainy streets to be greeted by an unusually animated Cunningham, just minutes before he takes to the stage in the huge room at RNCM for his first night on tour with King Creosote. We talked at length about creating his debut effort ‘Lines’, expanding the live set-up and why progression is essential as a musician.
Today marks the first day of a four month-long tour for you, how are you feeling about the mass of travelling and gigging coming your way?
Charlie Cunningham: “I’m feeling up for it. I think I had a good bit of time, just before Christmas, to chill out a little bit but I’m up for it because I’ve got people travelling with me this time. I’ve been [touring] on my own for the last couple of years, but yeah, I’ve got a couple of people touring with me now for some of the shows.”
Charlotte, BSS: “Do you mean a band?”
CC: “I do mean a band but there’s only three of us. So there’s me, a mate of mine that’s doing ‘light’ percussion and another mate of mine that’s doing synth stuff. So I’m really looking forward to it that I won’t be on my own.”
The main reason of course for this amount of touring is because you’re finally releasing your debut album ‘Lines’. Congrats!
CC: “Thank you very much, I like the ‘finally’ there. It’s been a while.”
I know it’s been quite a journey to get to this point, when you look back at the past three or so years, which moments stand out to you as the ones that were integral to getting you to this point?
CC: “To be honest, every step of the last few years has probably been just as important as the others. I think I gained a lot of confidence from some big supports like Kenny [King Creosote], who I’m playing with tonight, and then with Rodriguez. They all really helped me to do things that before I thought were pretty hard to imagine. So it’s all been really, really valuable [the experiences I’ve had over] the last couple of years.”
How did you make the album – was it in a recording studio?
CC: “Yeah yeah. It was down in New Cross in South London with a guy called Duncan Tootill, we recorded it at the beginning of 2016.”
When approaching recording the album takes for ‘Breather’ and ‘Lights Off’, did you seek to expand on the versions you have already released or stick closer to the originals?
CC: “I definitely wanted to keep them pretty close to the originals because they exist already, but I wanted to do a few things just to make them consistent with the rest of the album. So we [made] a couple of additions here and there to the songs but it’s still very much the same thought.”
Looking at the track listing of the album, there are a lot of new unfamiliar songs making their first appearance. Were you adamant that the LP should be a completely stand alone work from your EP’s – for it to retain its own personality?
CC: “Yeah exactly that, I just wanted it to be its own thing. I wanted one song off each EP but then the rest of it I wanted it to be new, to keep pushing forwards really.”
You dabbled with different instruments on your last EP, specifically piano. Was that you playing on the recording?
CC: “Yeah yeah. It was. I’ve always played piano but it’s taken a bit of a backseat for the last five or six years so I’m just re-visiting it a little bit. I do love the instrument so I’m glad to put it on the album a little bit.”
Are there any other instruments that you play?
CC: “I mean, I can get a sound out of stuff but I think I only know my way around keys and the guitar.”
What other instruments feature on the album?
CC: “So we’ve got a couple of these lovely old synths from the late 70s, early 80s. We used them a lot, these two synths, in particular. One being called a Juno and one a Solina. Then there’s brass, Duncan [Tootill] plays trumpet, where before I had vocal harmony, on this album we [applied] a lot of harmony using brass, just to give it a unique feel.”
As a guitarist, you play with a lot of feeling. Songcraft, for you, seems to be about more than just crafting simple arrangements and thoughtful progressions. Have you found that your technique has evolved since the early days?
CC: “I think it probably has. There’s stuff that I regularly come back to and keep playing, just to keep me in the right place. But it probably has developed just from playing a lot. I’m not quite sure how but I’m sure it has.”
Charlotte, BSS: “I know you post a lot of short video clips of you playing guitar on Instagram…”
CC: “Yeah I’m always trying to keep progressing on guitar, always practising, always playing. I don’t think you ever stop progressing really, unless you stop practising.”
When did you settle on the album title?
cc: “Probably just a couple of months after I finished the album. I had a few options but that one just seemed to…I always name [a release] after a song that’s what I’ve done on my EP’s, and that one just really stuck out for me, for one reason or another.”
Is there any significance behind the title?
CC: “The word ‘line’ in various contexts just kept coming up, and then I took this photo that I ended up using for the cover. I saw these lovely natural lines that were created on the side of this image, and I used that image because it was really spacious and calm, and I thought that really reflected some of the music. So it just seemed to be the one, and plus I didn’t want to obsess over that kind of stuff, you know what I mean? If you like it instinctively then it’s probably worth going with it.”
I’ve always marvelled at the level of insight that your songs provide. Where do you draw inspiration from?
CC: “I guess most things. It’s difficult to say – my experience, other people, friends, family, their experiences, stuff like that is usually it and then just the music itself. I always start with the music and that tends to emote something in me.”
Do lyrics come easy for you?
CC: “No they don’t actually. They’re not instinctive. Once they start coming, once I kinda break the seal, they tend to come. But then I don’t sit and write and write and write; I don’t have access to a book full of lyrics. It can be tricky but I’m getting the hang of it.”
Your songs always feel very intimate, like they require solace and space to create. Do you find that this is the case?
CC: “I definitely need to be on my own to do anything like lyrics, or to really work out melodies and stuff like that. So it’s definitely something I need to do on my own yeah, I don’t even like it if people can hear me. I usually have to make sure that no one’s in the house or if I go to a practise space or something.”
So after the album is out and the touring is done, what’s next?
CC: “I’m not sure to be honest. I’m just going to try and stay in the present a bit more, in the past I’ve always been looking on the horizon a bit but I think now, I just want to be present and enjoy things as they are before thinking about the future too much.”
Well, I feel like there’s plenty of opportunity for more UK touring in the future because you don’t tour here that often. Especially, a headline show in Manchester needs to come…
CC: “I know, it does need to come. I’ve only ever done one headline show in the UK and the second one is [happening] next month [in London].”
Charlotte, BSS: “Yeah and you have the incredible Fenne Lily supporting you at that show too.”
CC: “She’s brilliant isn’t she? Yeah I’m made up. She’s coming on the whole tour.”
Charlotte, BSS: “And in an amazing venue, The Union Chapel.”
CC: “I know, man. I’m made up with that. I played there once supporting Rachel Sermanni, it was one of my first gigs but I was so intimidated by the venue. So I’m looking forward to going back with a little bit more experience.”
Charlie Cunningham will be touring throughout the year, his headline tour reaches its end on 25th April in Madrid. For a full list of tour dates, visit https://charliecunninghamlive.com/.