In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I found myself playing a song over and over, taking its melodic guitar tones and feeling some sort of warmth. I’m not religious, but something about the song instilled in me a sense of faith, or belief… something. Last year was filled with the opposite – unimaginable, stagnant, and emptier than the last. But then I heard Pearl Charles, paired with lover and fellow musician Michael Rault, covering The Band’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight” in her comforting Stevie Nicks-esque way. And just like all the virtual, intangible consolation we had to settle for last year, the song, in a sense, embraced me. I won’t remember this song as somber or sad, but hopeful.
As I was retiring holiday songs with 2020 in my rear-view, I was then stuck on Magic Mirror, Pearl Charles’ latest album, which came out January 15 via Kanine Records. These ten tracks became my quintessential feel-good dance-country-ballad welcome-to-2021 record. Album opener “Only For Tonight” immediately offers listeners upbeat ABBA boogie vibes, cemented by the “disco wonderland” created by director Bobbi Rich for the music video.
As the album progresses, it skips through various folk and soft rock influences, like dialing through a ’70s radio station – Carly Simon, Carole King, Linda Ronstadt, Helen Reddy, Judy Collins – and reveals Charles’ West Coast roots. But it also exposes the layers beneath her shimmering sonic reflections. She has always gifted us with honest songwriting, but Magic Mirror is more introspective than her 2018 debut, Sleepless Dreamer, which dealt more with dating and relationships. “There definitely is still some of that on this record, but I spent a lot more time looking inward,” Charles says. “[I asked myself,] ‘How does what happen to me externally actually make me feel?’ I spent a lot of time searching for myself and my own identity. I think [that’s] ever-present in my writing, but I really leaned into it on this album – that’s why it’s called Magic Mirror,” she shares.
Not all discoveries come from some grand event leading to an epiphany. It’s more of a state of mind, a feeling, being open to new ideas. Similarly to “Christmas Must Be Tonight” bringing out a hopefulness I didn’t know I had, Charles found a spiritual solace through “taking psychedelics as a creative inspiration and therapeutic sort of thing, she says. “When you do that, you have extreme highs and lows… but it’s a mental shake up every time.” she says. “It can really reveal things to yourself, that were in your subconscious. I think taking the psychedelics helped me address some of those deeper questions within myself and who I was.”
That’s most obvious on the bluesy “Imposter,” which Charles says was fully written on a mushroom trip; its opening lines stem from the age-old advice that you shouldn’t look in a mirror while tripping, but delve further into disassociation that culminates on the next two tracks, “Don’t Even Feel Like Myself” and “Magic Mirror.” For someone who has come of age in the spotlight, forming The Driftwood Singers with Christian Lee Hutson at age 18 and drumming with garage rock band The Blank Tapes by 22, it makes sense that Charles’ solo work would dive so deep into her psyche.
“Sometimes the words and music just flows out of you; you don’t even know what you’re saying until you say it. And you’re like, wow, that’s really how I felt, that’s where I was coming from,” she says, adding that establishing a strong sense of self is a lifelong journey. “I’d like to think we all reach enlightenment, but there is always going to be room for improvement and growth,” she states. Luckily, those feelings make great fodder for a record.
The consummation came with the help of Daniel McNeil at the studio of one of Rault’s childhood friends – none other than Mac DeMarco. “Loved working with Dan, he’s so talented,” Charles gushes. “It was my first experience recording straight to tape. So, that was something new for me, and required a level of confidence that I had to find within myself. This is one vocal tape from start to finish. There’s no editing. There’s no punching in. My albums aren’t highly edited anyway… but you know you have that option in the back of your mind. If you make a mistake, you can fix it. With [Magic Mirror] it was like, this is the recording.”
Maybe because Charles writes from personal experience, with the understanding that no human is going to have a flawless story, she was able to appreciate the beauty in McNeil’s embrace of imperfection. “Not every performance is going to be 100% perfect. It’s more of the attitude,” Charles says. “Dan was able to bring that out and be like, ‘It’s less about perfection and more about the moment in time – bands playing in a room and capturing that.’ In the same way the band embodied these beautiful and honest imperfections, I found a calming solace in my own reflection this past year.”
While we cannot dance to Magic Mirror at a desert festival or NYC speakeasy, Charles has been able to assemble a phenomenal band for some livestreamed performances, including Rough Trade Transmissions set via Instagram. With some kind of normalcy hopefully on the horizon, Charles looks to a Wings-inspired side project with Rault and has a whole new album written up. But even if we may want to forget this past year, she says, “Let’s get through this one first.”
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