The antifolk singer-songwriter has lived in Durham for the last two years, in that time penning the song “The Living Wage,” with all proceeds supporting the Durham Living Wage Project. His fourth full-length album, “Little Me Time,” was produced at Caveman Studios with a collaboration of local artists including Omar Ruiz-Lopez (Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends), Gordon Hartin (Kamara Thomas and The Night Drivers), Catherine Edgerton (Midtown Dickens), Stephen Mullaney and Christine Fantini (The Wigg Report), and more. We asked him to share more about the inspiration behind the album, his other projects and why Durham such is a great place for artists to live.
I grew up around good music. My parents always had music playing in the house, in the car. My father has been a guitar repairman and luthier since the early ’60s, and used to play in folk groups in the D.C. area. I was really into folk and country rock as a kid, which put me sort of out of step with my peers. I’ve always been interested in history, so I was into old ballads, especially disaster songs. D.C. has a pretty legendary punk scene, too, so eventually I caught onto that and got an electric guitar. I played in a bunch of different bands in high school; I started writing songs as soon as I could put a couple chords together.
I can’t say enough about Durham from a musician’s point of view. Nashville is “Music City,” but I think Durham is a low-key version of that. Your neighbor is probably a zither virtuoso – it’s that kind of place. When I set out to record this album, I was able to assemble a massive band in no time, which illustrates the collaborative spirit of the music community in this area. The Wigg Report especially: they’re something of a Durham institution, and I more or less officially joined the band as their bass player last year. They introduced me to Greg Klaiber when we recorded their most recent album, and the whole band appears on my record in various capacities.
Antifolk is notoriously hard to define, which I think is also part of the appeal – for me, it’s musicians who have an unconventional and uninhibited approach to songwriting, who use language and sing about topics you don’t hear in most popular songs. I’d point to Beck’s “One Foot in the Grave” as a quintessential example of the antifolk sound. It’s convenient shorthand to let the audience know to expect something different. I think it more closely characterizes my early output, though. This record is definitely a departure.
It’s more than just musically collaborative, though: When it came time to do the album art, I was able to recruit a photographer and a graphic designer from my circle of local friends. There’s a wealth of local talent and I’m already cooking up ideas for my next collaborative project.
In fact, making this record has been an entirely new experience for me. Early on, I thought being a solo artist meant you did everything yourself. I used to hole up with an 8-track and whatever instruments I could scavenge and record as a one-man-band. The results were always pretty lo-fi, and I love that aesthetic, but the sounds I was hearing in my head were a little more ambitious. After recording “The Living Wage” at Caveman and hearing the result of talented players and Greg’s ear on my songs, I knew I wanted to do a whole album the same way. Stephen Mullaney, Hunter MacDermut and I went to Caveman in the spring and cut the skeletons of these songs in a couple days, and then folks came in piecemeal to lay down their parts over the next few months, so the songs were evolving and changing in the studio.
The bulk of the songs on this record were written during a very difficult time for me – ironically, I wrote them with the belief that they were purely therapeutic and not for public consumption. It’s a much more personal album than anything I’ve done in the past; coming from a folksy background, I used to write in a more didactic way about politics or social criticism, and with this album those threads are hidden in the tapestry a bit more.
An example of this is my song “The Living Wage.” I wrote it before I got involved with the Durham Living Wage Project (DLWP), but I recorded the full band version specifically with the DLWP in mind. I occasionally do set out to write something topical, but this was a song that came out of personal experiences with financial stress and the frustration of barely scraping by, so to play it live and have lots of other people reacting so strongly to it and relating to the story made me want to dig into a song in ways I never have. It’s somewhere between a union song and a Johnny Paycheck vibe, so we did it with fiddle and pedal steel and put it out there for people to name a price and download it.
The DLWP consists of volunteers who are advocating for wage equality and certifying local businesses who pay a “living wage,” which basically means the minimum a person needs to actually make ends meet (technically speaking, it’s $12.53 an hour). It’s one of many similar organizations, locally and internationally – in fact, the Orange County Living Wage Project launched last year.
I lived in Chapel Hill from about 2005 to 2007, and then I moved away and did some wandering. It took leaving to realize what a special place this is. I’ve heard it called “the Durham magnet;” people leave, realize what they’re missing, and come back.
Pre-release copies of “Little Me Time” will be available at The Pinhook during a special show featuring John Howie Jr. and The Rosewood Bluff on November 3; the official worldwide release is slated for January 13, 2017. For 2017 tour dates and to download “The Living Wage,” visit www.charleslatham.com.