Four Quartets – Instrumentally Intricate “Subverted Pop” (from the Charlie Williams seed)

I found Rob Sharples, Four Quartets, through Charlie Williams.   He described him as “benefiting from the emphasis the British put on really well-crafted songs” and “saying something really, truly new without tearing their genre to bits.”  I am loving his creative imagery and beautiful instrumental structure – I kept discovering new things with every listen.  He is a softspoken force in his music, and took a moment to answer a couple questions.

Tell us a little about yourself…

I’m a London-based songwriter.  A couple of years ago I had brief dealings with an indie label who put out a couple of EP’s for me but since an acrimonious parting of the ways I’ve been engrossed in a new project  – ‘Four Quartets’ – which is my new band. I’ve just finished recording an album which will hopefully be released early next year.

How did you get started playing music?

My parents were given this decrepit old piano when I was six and I bashed out my first songs on that with a voice so shrill it’d make dogs wince.  I think I even preserved a couple of recordings from back then (invariably unlistenable) which I recorded on a ten-quid tape player.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

The Beatles’ Red Album on double vinyl from a second-hand record shop on Gloucester Road in Bristol (where I grew up). Sadly, the shop has now closed down – like so many others – in the advent of the digital revolution.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Hmm.. I always feel apprehensive about answering this question because I think that music is a medium that demands the experience itself to attain comprehension.  I can only really answer in generalizations which even then are buried in subjectivity but here goes..

‘Subverted pop with classically influenced progressions, rich arrangements (…sometimes… but sometimes quite stripped back) and plenty of harmonies..’

..but the sentence is meaningless really – just have a listen.

Do you prefer performing solo, or as part of a band?  Why?

I enjoy both, but since I’ve spent the last few years predominantly performing solo in the saturated myre of the ‘singer/songwriter’ circuit in London and been left pretty cold and disaffected by the experience, I’m now excited about gigging with the band.   Partly for the satisfaction of filthing everything up and making a lot of noise, but also for the singular pleasure and rapport of simply cutting loose with a bunch of fellow musicians. It’s great fun.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Ooh i don’t know.  At a push maybe T.S. Eliot or other ‘modernist’ writers like Kafka and Conrad because of their tendency towards an existential outlook and an impressionistic style. It’d be egotistical though to say I really compare myself to literary figures of that stature – it’s more a question of influence, or simply of the type of literature I like.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

I’d have to say that the Beatles (as cliched as it is!), Radiohead, Elliott Smith and Brian Wilson have all had a profound impact on my musical life in terms of what can be achieved within modern songwriting.  The idea of connecting a complex musical backdrop to an accessible melody when writing is one that appeals to me immensely because it leaves the imagination unchecked and free to run riot then tethers it all back to earth by the task of condensing the network of ideas to one through-line for the consumption of other ears. I guess its like the way a novel can lead a reader through innumerable complications by the sturdy guide of a plotline.  It also means that you end up with something that rewards on more than one level should the listener be interested.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Hmm.. Hendrix, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith (pre-heroin addiction), Led Zeppelin, Dr. Dog, Radiohead, Bowie (seventies era), Rachmaninoff, Rage Against The Machine, Dylan (pre 80’s), Nirvana, Nick Drake, Bright Eyes, The Beatles, The Beach Boys…  I wouldn’t be headlining though – I wouldn’t even be on the bill.  I’d be backstage – weeping.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

Well it varies because artists vary.  While I adore Elliott Smith for his imaginative progressions and melodies, I can equally appreciate Dylan for his astounding lyricism.  In general, I’d like to think I keep an open mind with a few exceptions that i can’t abide. Namely:

1) Style Over Substance  – It’s always evident and nauseating when someone is propagating a music style and image just in the interest of being conceived as ‘cool’ as opposed to really caring about the art.

2) Dishonesty of Delivery – We all hate a fraud don’t we? Gimmicky, fake emotion, assumed accents and the like. Horrifying.

3) Cliches – When you can correctly guess the chord progression and lyrics it never bodes well.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

Rob Bravery (Interesting progressions, deadpan lyricism, highly melodic and he has a ginger beard)

St. Sat B (Raw unpretentious energy, tasteful lyrics, great sound and songs)

Ashley Eriksson (Eccentric, low-fi, wonderful)

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Four Quartets will have an album out soon – but take a listen to a few tracks here

Four Quartets – “The Spirit Level”

Four Quartets – “Joke’s Over”

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Charlie Williams Four Quartets

Ben Arthur – The Quirky, Soulful, Singer/Songwriter Seed

I first heard Ben Arthur play in a lineup called The Modern Troubadours. I tagged along with some friends, having never heard of what I assumed was a band. Instead I was presented with four singer-songwriters, sharing their work in an intimate, acoustic setting. I fell in in love with Ben Arthur’s music that night – his quirky sense of humour balanced the sometimes morose cloud of soul-bearing lyrics. With songs like “Keep Me Around” and “Mary Ann” I found new use for the “repeat” button on my playlists.

Years later, and I’m still listening with as much rapt attention as that first show. Arthur’s second album “Mouthfeel” was considerably darker than the first, showing a different side of his sharp wordplay and vivid imagery. His arid vocals put all the emotion front and center, but never without a musical cushion to soften the emotional blow.

We met about a year ago, after I wrote about “On A Sunday” for NPR’s Song of the Day. He emailed me, and I immediately jumped off the couch and danced around the room in fan-girl glee. Then I calmed down, actually met the guy, and realized he is a real person who just happens to make music I love.

So let’s meet….Ben Arthur.

How did you get started playing music?

My brother Michael lent me his guitar when I was 13 or 14 and taught me the chords to Lola. No idea why that particular song, but Lord did I play that one riff about a million times. (Badly.)

When did you decide that playing would be your career?

Shockingly soon thereafter. Something about it just seemed right to me, and I’ve never found anything I like doing as much. Well, actually, I like writing as much, but then I’m doing that these days, too.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Well, let’s see…I stole a copy of the Doors “13” when I was, well, 13 or so. But that doesn’t count, I don’t think. I’m going to say Appetite for Destruction.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical? A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Hm. My work is like…a corner bodega, There’s a lot of different stuff in there, it’s kind of a mess, but the folks inside are friendly.

When you’re stumped for ideas, what do you do? Go someplace, read something, drink copiously?

Rarely stumped for ideas. I always have 10 or so projects up in the air (by design), so that when I run into a problem with one thing I can just switch to the other. Generally when I come back the problem has solved itself.

I do occasionally run into a directional tangle, and then I usually chat with my wife or friend Asli, both of whom are whipsmart and have excellent instincts.

You also write books – is that a totally separate project for you, or does it feed into your musical work?

Funny you should ask…

The new project is a concept novel/album called If You Look for My Heart. The album has narrative songs that reflect elements of the story arc, as well as ‘artifact’ pieces, that is, songs that the characters themselves hear during the course of the story.

It’s been a fascinating, fun project so far and I’m looking forward to getting it out to the public.

You’re usually billed as a solo artist – do you prefer this over playing with a band? Or did it just work out that way?

I’m usually billed as a solo artist because I can’t afford to tour with a band. If I was playing Wembley, I would surely be billed with a band.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Dave Grohl–drums, vox
Emmylou Harris–guitar, vox
Rachel Yamagata–keys, vox
John Paul Jones–bass
Tom Morello–guitar, vox

I picked all live people because i am not at all partial to the undead/zombies.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

I like hearing something unusual, particularly lyric-wise. A new use of an old phrase, an interesting match of words, a reversal of some sort.

I’m also partial to writers to put themselves on the line. It’s fairly easy to hide behind obscure semi-nonsense lyrics, and I like hearing songs where the artist is brave enough to say what they mean, to put their cards on the table. (Which isn’t to say I don’t like the lyrics on, say, OK Computer. I do. But it’s a different thing, and I’d love to hear Thom Yorke write a true love song.)

In art generally I like to see contradiction. In motivation, in action. I like voices and characters that/who are difficult or disagreeable but still sympathetic. I like complication.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I love my friend Parker Paul’s songs. His voice is so true and pained/painful, and his lyrics are so beautiful without being overly ornate.

Pete Miser is a friend of a friend, and has a song called “I’m a Robot” that just knocks me out. The video is insane, and even more so that he managed to do it as a true indie. He has an iPhone video that is hysterical, too. He’s awesome and his albums are rock solid from start to finish.

Aesop Rock never fails to impress. His album None Shall Pass is a masterpiece.

My brother’s band, Balthrop, Alabama is a blast, particularly live. I played a show with them in the city over Christmas and they have such enthusiasm and such a sense of the theater of live music that it’s just a pleasure to see them do their thing.

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Listen to some Ben Arthur:

Ben Arthur – Mouthfeel – “Tattoo”

Ben Arthur – Roadkill – “Keep Me Around”

And of course, pick up a few albums while you’re at it…

Elana James – the Fiddler, Songster, Country Swing Seed

I am a recent convert to country. I scoffed, I scorned, I teased. Then I listened. And I learned. And now I’m hooked….not to all the “my dog ran off with my wife and left me with a broken truck” stuff (although it can be fun) but to some of the most mind-blowing technical and musical artists I’ve ever laid ear on. And one of the incredible musicians who showed me the way was was Elana James.

Her song, “Twenty-Four Hours A Day” was in heavy rotation on WDVX. I listened for a week each time missing the artist announcement before I finally gave up and emailed the DJ in desperation. That song became one of my first Song of the Day columns for NPR, and I’ve been following her career since.

On stage, her fingers fly, words pour, and I am entranced.  From the classics to her own writing, she brings a electric spark to each thing she sings, and simply shines out.  Even when it’s heartbreaking, the music is fun, making your feet tap and fingers want to skip along.  So it is my pleasure to introduce….Elana James.

How did you get started playing?

My mom is a violinist and my older sister played the flute. When I turned four it was time for me to start playing something. I liked the violin, since I always heard my mom playing it and I wanted to do something different from my sister. I had a very emotional reaction to playing in a way–when I cashed in my 3/4 sized violin for the full sized one I have now, it was covered in the accumulated dried salt from all my tears and snot from tantrums when my mom used to make me practice.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

The Violent Femmes. And right after that, Thriller.

You play with your band, Hot Club of Cowtown, and also as a solo artist.  Is it different performing as the named artist, instead of part of a group?

Yes. As a violinist, who you’re playing with is really important.  It’s not a self-sustaining instrument–I can’t accompany myself when I play.  The band encompasses the sound and creates something bigger that frames and supports the violin. I am comfortable in both formats (solo and band member), but there’s a kind of certainty and security in a band–all three of you are there or there’s no show. You have this force that is unmistakable.

Sometimes as a solo artist, I can feel self-conscious, that the show rests on me personally, that pressure to DELIVER, whatever that means. I think the model I am comfortable with is as a band leader who regularly features all members of the band–If I do more solo stuff, it will be along those lines. In a way, that’s what the Hot Club feels like to me–everybody’s featured and everybody shines.

Did you always want to play violin, or were there other instruments you tried out first (or since?)

The summer after my freshman year at Barnard I was all set to throw myself into the violin and give it a go–see if I could catch up with other players my age. I had a great teacher, Lucie Robert, who was teaching at the Manhattan School of Music back then. I had auditioned for a special program they had with Barnard and was assigned to study with her. She was incredibly inspiring, but a few weeks after we started a summer session at this place in upstate New York, called Meadowmount, she told me at my lesson that I would never really have a future as a violinist and that maybe I should consider the viola? So I wept for a weekend up there, and then rented a viola and got busy. I stopped playing violin for about four years and just concentrated on viola, and I grew to really like it, and grew a lot musically during that time, though I never could play fiddle tunes on it as well 🙂

What attracted you to swing?

Actually, that same summer, Lucie and her husband Jeff had a little gathering at their cabin. They are both hardcore Classical musicians, but this one night, kind of as a joyful guilty pleasure, they got out these Gershwin songbooks and played them together. I was so moved and enthralled to see them playing this very different king of music–it was thrilling. That night I went back to my cabin and wrote on my calendar that that was the day I decided to go into music. I guess I was 18. But it took several years for that to come about–I had to keep meeting this music in unexpected places. We were like strangers who just kept bumping into each other. I didn’t think the music remembered me until we got formally introduced.

The stereotype of “country” music people is pretty strong – do you think you fit that mold?

I certainly have the street cred to be a “fiddler” in the country sense of the word, since I can ride and rope, have worked out west as a wrangler and packer, and have allowed my life to be shaped by these unconventional loves of music and western life. In that sense I feel totally authentic and I think that is something I have always felt, and I feel that must come through in my playing.

In a kind of country tradition, I’ve been been welcomed and encouraged by those who have gone further down the path [to music] than I have (yet), and gotten to play alongside them (Johnny Gimble, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Cliff Bruner, Buck Owens, Frankie McWhorter).  It makes me feel like I am on the right track–like that these people have taken the time to believe in me, in one way or another, offer advice and wisdom, and that means so much.

One way I am not a traditional country fiddler though is that I have a degree in comparative religion from Columbia University and had a bat mitzvah!! But honestly, I also am spared the worry that I have seen some more traditional players have (so unnecessarily!) from time to time–I don’t worry about what it would be like to read music, or, you know, how would my life have been different if I had gone to college or been more formally trained? I tried all that, I did it, I checked those boxes and I have chosen this because I love it and it’s me. So I don’t have doubts like, “what if?”

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

Of course!! Usually I picture it like the circus, or like being a gypsy, or urban camping, or a traveling salesman of pots and pans.  It’s also like how Tibetan monks make sand mandala paintings: getting out there every night you are painting the same picture again and again but it’s always different and you never know how it’s going to turn out. And then it’s gone forever and you start over the next night. But it’s also like an iceberg–people just see the snowy tip, not the dark, blue ice mass beneath it that supports it and allows it to appear to be floating effortlessly. But that’s where the snowy tip comes from. And they shouldn’t see that. That’s the nature of show business–it’s not accounting!

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

When I am around other people playing, especially in other cultures–India, gypsy music, old-timers of one kind or another who are authentically steeped in their tradition, where the music is playing through them, that is deep and inspiring to me.

Great moments – seeing Hun Huur Tu live, seeing Taraf de Haidouks, watching Johnny Gimble play, watching anyone play–the violin especially–in a passionate way. I have been guided and inspired by the playing of Stephane Grappelli, and the fiddlers from the Bob Wills band of the 1940s most of all, as far as musical ideas go.

If you could pick a perfect lineup (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

I’m going to keep it to people who are alive–otherwise, it would be too vast to contemplate!

I guess I would do a tour with Bob Dylan where he and I played and sang in kind of a small trio format.  Dorado and Tchavolo Schmitt, Taraf de Haidouks, Hun Huur Tu, and the band Csokolom would also be on the bill.  Oh, and Romain Duris would be the emcee.

What attracts you to a particular song? An artist?

It varies. It’s some kind of authenticity. It’s like that person has been somewhere I want to go, or haven’t yet had to go, and they are reporting back for the rest of us.

Or that feeling that someone has distilled something so deep and private, and sometimes painful, that it becomes magical.  The Bob Dylan song “I Believe in You” is like that. Also Tom Waits’ “Long Way Home.”  My favorite songs often tend to be like prayers.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

I really like Emily Gimble, who is a young singer and piano player out of Austin, TX who sings with an amazing, free, effortless style. She sounds a little bit like Norah Jones and Billie Holliday, but it’s not as mannered or stuffy as other female singers I’ve heard in that style. What I like about Emily is that she is totally unaffected and the music just pours out of her, like it floats up out of her body, like an essential part of her.  She is also the granddaughter of Johnny Gimble, my fiddling idol. When they play together–which is often–it is magical and moving.

I also love Csokolom. They play traditional Romanian and Hungarian folk tunes on fiddles. I don’t know if they even still exist, but one CD they made, “May I Kiss Your Hand” is definitely one of my favorite CDs ever. This woman sings in this husky, natural voice and the fiddling is pure and rustic–again, no Mark O’Connor affectations and nothing antiseptic–just clean and beautiful playing on these beautiful songs about gypsies, bears, and traditional songs.

Finally, there’s something about this other young woman from Austin, Betty Soo that I can’t put my finger on. She is a singer songwriter who just put out her first CD.  She is Korean, too, which you (or at least I!) don’t see very often in the world of Americana music, though I don’t know why. Anyway, I have not heard her CD but I have heard her sing live and she has a great voice–kind of like Sheryl Crow, but again something rich and deep about her singing–totally unpretentious.  She strikes me as a totally unassuming person, but a really soulful singer, very tasteful, nothing over-wrought.

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Like Elana?  Listen to a few tracks:

Elana James –Elana James – “Twenty-Four Hours A Day”

Elana James – Elana James – “I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good)”

And pick up her amazing records:

Charlie Williams – the Creative, Intellectual, Music-Crafter Seed

Charlie Williams has one of those minds that is frightening in it’s creativity. This is a guy who not only plays beautiful music, he composes, arranges, develops new sounds, and then thinks about physics and builds a circle-of-5ths clock in his free time.

Only out of this kind of brain could Mira Mira emerge, a band where beauty and geekdom live side by side, and inspiration comes from anywhere. Their latest project, Music for Scientists, brings the technical world further into the musical one,and creates some really fascinating songs and sounds.

Having first known Charlie as a classical musician, studying piano at the Meadowmount School of Music, and then through the many various stages of creative development that have come since, I was so happy to hear what he would have to say about his journey and musical tastes.

How did you get started playing music?

My parents got an upright piano from their landlord when I was very small and we lived on the Iron Range in northern Minnesota. I wrote songs like “This is a Rocket Ship Taking Off” and “This is a Rainstorm” for a while, and eventually got lessons.  Eventually I got a keyboard and played in a band in high school, and somehow fell into writing music for school plays, which is how I got started writing actual structured pieces of music, as opposed to improvisations.

What was the first recording you ever purchased?

Wow, that’s a real Freedom-of-Information-Act type question. Um, it might have been: (a) Billy Joel’s “Storm Front” cassette, or (b) MC Hammer’s “Too Legit 2 Quit”, also in cassette form. Billy’s got the better album, but MC has the better single. Can’t touch “U Can’t Touch This”, though. That’s still Stan’s best work to date.

How would you describe the music you play now?

Now? Lately I’ve been trying to focus on what I’m best at— playing the piano and making weird electronic textures. I’ve been inspired by the music of Yann Tiersen (Amelie), especially after I saw him live at Logan Square Auditorium and he wasn’t all sugar and spice. He’s such a master of simplicity, without ever writing simplistic music. Also, his band has ondes martinot, concertina, violin, ukulele and melodica. Wow.

Your band, Mira Mira, has changed personnel over the years – is it a sound you are looking for, or a particular group of people?

I think I was chasing after a sound with Mira Mira, but I also didn’t always make the best management decisions. You might say. I was lucky to play with a large number of very gifted musicians, but several times we added someone to the band who wasn’t making music their way of life, and that brought some stress to the full-time musicians in the group, who were used to a different level of dedication and focus. I’m not saying that we always were ready to know what to do with a higher level of focus, but for whatever reason things never fully coalesced.

But to answer the “sound” question in a different way, I think I’m still searching for a sound. And maybe a group of people will come with that, or help me find that. Right now, though, it’s me and the piano.

How does your classical music background feed into what you’re doing musically now?

On the one hand, it’s great to have an instrument where you know you can play anything, and that’s what classical training gives you. On the other hand, I love to surround myself with instruments I don’t know how to play— lately clarinet and bandoneon, as well as ukulele, have been inspiring. Uke is sort of in a separate category because almost everything you do sounds great. It’s so much fun to play. But when I’m playing an instrument I don’t know, I have to really be fully present and focused in order to do anything at all, and I think correspondingly my musical ideas are a lot more interesting. On piano it’s possible for me to run on autopilot. These other instruments are teaching me how to get out of that habit, whatever instrument I’m working with.

Is there a comparison you would make between your music and something non-musical?  A painter, building, dish of cereal?

My music is like a pear tree.

Who would you consider your musical inspiration?

Andrew Bird is a big one. Every time he puts out an album it makes his previous albums look like warm-ups. This is, like, four albums in a row he’s done that for. Radiohead would break the laws of physics if they kept doing that, but of course everything they do is perfect and inspirational. Also since I’ve been working with Max/MSP this year, the fact that Johnny Greenwood uses that program onstage has been prompting me to try to hear what they’re doing with it in albums and live shows. I only recently got into Ben Folds, but I think he’s an incredibly talented guy and I also respect his production skills a lot. I took a break from Wilco for a while, but now I’m enjoying them again. Not the most recent album, but YHF and Ghost.

If you could pick a perfect lineup of bands (dead or alive) for a show where you were the headliner, who would it be?

Oh jeez. I don’t think I’d be able to go onstage if these famous acts I admire so much were to stoop to share a show with me. I’d have to pick bands I’m friends with — The Cedar, from Bristol, UK are one of my new favorite bands, and I’d love to play a show with them. Also Rob Sharples, from London. I could play a show with those two and not feel totally ashamed of myself.

What attracts you to a particular song? An Artist?

They have to be trying their very hardest, and not treat the music like they might break it if they get something wrong. One of the reasons I love Joanna Newsom is because of this quality. Also the Magnetic Fields.

Who should I be listening to right this very moment? Why does their work get you excited?

The Cedar and Rob Sharples are two that aren’t well-known on this side of the pond, but should be. They’re both benefiting from the emphasis the British put on really well-crafted songs, and they’re both also saying something really, truly new without tearing their genre to bits. That’s harder to do than it seems.

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Listen to some of Charlie’s music:

Mira Mira – Music for Scientists – “Churches”

Mira Mira – Music for Scientists – “Is It Snowing/Part 2”

Pick up an album, while you’re at it: