The first time I heard of Charles Latham’s songwriting prowess was through Dan Willson’s (AKA Withered Hand) cover of his wonderfully witty track “Hard On”. I must admit as it was on his debut album “Good News” I did originally think it was a Withered Hand composition, it was only through Dan himself talking about it at gigs and online that I came to fathom out that Charles was the true genius behind the song.
Last November the Philadelphia based singer songwriter embarked on a small UK tour in support of his new album “Fast Loans” and I was lucky enough to catch him supporting Withered Hand in Mono in Glasgow. After an extremely well received set I ventured over to have a few words with him and purchase the two albums he was selling, 2006’s “Pretty Mouth” and last years “Fast Loans” (both of which I highly recommend) and I also managed to get his contact information to do a follow-up interview in the future. What lies below is that very interview, Charles was kind enough to answer my questions about his trip to Scotland, being an independent artist, his influences, being lo-fi and of course “Hard-on”s”
You were recently over in Scotland in support of your brilliant latest album “Fast Loans” playing with the brilliant Withered Hand, how did you enjoy your visit? I know you lived in England for a few years but was this tour the first time you ventured north of the border? Apart from playing what was your favourite part of the trip?
This was my first time in Scotland. I went to the University of Sussex in Brighton, England, but rarely had any money to travel. Apart from seeing old friends in Brighton and London, touring Scotland was my favourite part of the trip. It’s such a gorgeous country. People seemed very warm and laid back. The whisky is pretty great too.
I took the bus to Inverness on a day off, and the countryside just kept getting more and more beautiful as we got into the Highlands. I went to Urquhart Castle and saw Loch Ness. I didn’t see the monster, though, which was really disappointing. Unfortunately I didn’t have time to check out Glasgow, so I need to do that next time.
You played in Glasgow and Edinburgh while you were over in Scotland, did you see any discernible differences between the crowds in each city?
I was warned by an anonymous source that the audience in Glasgow would be tough, which I found to be true, but tough in the sense of not easily impressed, which I think is an admirable quality. The show we played in Edinburgh was a house show, so there was a built-in sense of intimacy. We were literally playing in someone’s living room and there was a fireplace. I don’t know, based on that, if I’m qualified to compare music fans in Glasgow and Edinburgh. I will say that in both cities, it seemed like people took music very seriously, that they had come to the shows to listen to the songs and not to socialize.
The first time I became aware of your music was through the Withered Hand version of “Hard On”, that tracks also been covered by other great artists such as Neil Pennycook from Meursault and Samantha Crain, How does it feel to have written a song which seems to have resonated with so many of your peers?
One of my earliest goals as a songwriter was to write a song that someone would want to cover. Like most musicians, I learned to play music by playing other people’s songs, and I always thought it was an amazing thing to have written something that another person would want to spend the time to learn. It’s a strange and thrilling feeling. I have a narcissistic fantasy about being the subject of one of those tribute concerts one day and getting to listen to a bunch of much younger artists butcher my repertoire.
I had assumed you and Dan Willson were old friends from your time living in the UK but I gather your recent trip to Scotland was the first time you’d actually met in person? Can you tell me a bit about how you first got in contact with each other, was it through his cover?
I had not met Dan in person until he picked me up in Edinburgh to head to the gig in Glasgow. One of my best friends, Jimmy, is Glaswegian: he’s a tailor, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist in one of my favourite bands, The Bobby McGees (who I performed with in Brighton during the tour). Jimmy gave Dan a CD with my music on it at a festival they played together.
Sometime later I got an email from Dan saying that he liked my songs and that he wanted to record a version of “Hard On”, which I agreed to. He sent me his album and I was blown away. We kept in touch and talked about playing gigs together: the tour was many years in the making.
You’re an independent artist releasing your own albums and touring off your own back, how hard is it to accomplish everything you would like to achieve with your music while remaining independent? Do you feel that the complete artistic freedom that comes with independently releasing your music outweighs any monetary gains or ease/access to recording studios that might come with a label release?
There is no denying that what I’m able to do as far as touring, recording, and promotion is limited by not having the financial backing of a label. Everything I do is out of pocket, and my pockets aren’t particularly deep. On the other hand, I doubt there would be any significant monetary gains by having a label: I know a lot of musicians who end up owing the label money. No one is tracking how many albums I sell, and no one is telling me what kind of songs I need to be writing. I can play where I want, and with whom I want. I think the biggest advantage to having a label would be the opportunity to reach more listeners, and so if the right label came along and wanted to sign me, I’d go with it.
I recently saw a video interview with Jeffrey Lewis where he said he felt pressure to make the best album that he could at that given time, and as he has got more popular, with a bit of money and more options, the best he could produce became something different all together; As in lo-fi was no longer the only option. Would you like to go into a studio with a licence to put bells and whistles and slick production on your songs or is it not something that really interests you?
This is a good follow-up to the previous question, because the crux of the issue here is simple: money. I have never recorded my music “lo-fi” on purpose: it sounds that way because I record the songs at home, usually by myself, on an 8-track, and I do it that way because it’s the most affordable option. The last thing I want is for my music to be difficult to listen to. That being said, I tend to prefer records that sound like a group of musicians performing in the same room. Some recordings benefit from creaks and pops and hiss. Whatever best enables the song to realize its full potential is what I’m interested in.
How does your song writing process usually evolve? Are you a lyrics or melody first kind of guy?
It usually starts with an idea, a concept that I want to express. I play around with progressions and styles until I find something that works. Sometimes, though, it all emerges fully formed.
Are your songs autobiographical? Or do you tend to create characters that act as the protagonists in your compositions?
They’re equal parts of both: I draw largely on my own experiences and then exaggerate. My songs are often self-fulfilling prophesies, which is unfortunate because the plots tend to be rather dark. For instance, I wrote a song about needing two jobs just to afford rent while I was still a student and living in university housing. Once I had graduated and was living on my own, I really did need to work multiple jobs to make rent. I need to write a song about winning the lottery.
Which musicians do you personally love and look up to? Who would you say has had the biggest influence on your musical style and career?
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Petty is one of my favourite songwriters. John Prine is another. I listen to a lot of country music. I like the wit in Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton’s writing, and the gallows humour of songs like Hank Williams’ “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”. The Violent Femmes were a huge influence on my sound, but I think as far as style and career it would be Elliott Smith. I started doing home-recording and multi-tracking the different instruments because of him, essentially trying to emulate “Either/Or”. My songs are funnier than his, though.
“Fast Loans” has obviously been released at a very turbulent time for the US economy with songs such as “I’m Moving Back To My Parent’s House (Ballad For The Boomerang Generation)” and “The Living Wage” particularly dealing with the issue. Are you happy with the reaction to the album? It was obviously my first time hearing almost all of your songs at Mono and for me it was “The Living Wage” that really hit home, you really nailed the injustice of it all. Have you found any song in particular that people at shows seem to give the best reaction to/ come up and talk to you about after the gig?
One of the songs on the album is about the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—after I performed it live for the first time a guy came up to me and told me in a semi-joking way that he’d been enjoying his evening up until the point that I played that song. He was out on a Saturday night to have fun and didn’t want to think about what was happening in the Gulf. I considered ruining his evening in that way a major success. Not that I’m out to sour everyone’s mood, but I’m not trying to make background music. Both songs you mentioned, “I’m Moving Back To My Parent’s House” and “The Living Wage” are newer songs written for and about the state of the economy and the time we’re living in, and were the songs in my set during the tour that people seemed to want to speak to me about afterwards.
Finally since we seem to have survived the Mayan apocalypse what are your plans for 2013?
The idea of apocalypse comes from Christianity; the Mayans believed in cycles. So in this 5,000 or however many year Mayan cycle, I’d like to write a bunch of new songs, record them, tour the west coast in the U.S. (which I’ve never done), tour in Europe, and last, but certainly not least, return to Scotland.
These last three questions which we here at Up Late At Night Again aim to ask everyone that we interview this year.
If you could have written any song in history what would it have been? and why?
Any of those Taylor Swift songs. I’d never have to work again. Just sit and watch the royalty cheques roll in. For the pure style of it, maybe “Waterloo Sunset”. That’s a really pretty song, and probably as close to a “perfect” song as you can get.
If you could share a cheese fondue with anyone living or dead who would it be?
Today is Elvis Presley’s birthday, so I’ll say The King…though I suppose there wouldn’t be much sharing. He’d probably dip some bacon or fried chicken in there, which would be interesting.
If you had to punch one of either Paul McCartney or Mick Jagger in the face who would it be and why?
McCartney, mostly because the holidays were recently upon us and I’m only now recovering from hearing “Wonderful Christmastime”. I loathe that song. Also Jagger is in much better shape, he could probably kick my ass.
A big thanks to Charles for taking part in the interview and I look forward to seeing you back on our Scottish shores in the future.
You can find out more information about Charles and his music here
Pics Mike Mckenzie