Pearl Charles hits the sweet spot of nostalgic genre-blurring songwriting

click to enlarge A Pearl of musical wisdom. - MIKE PHAM PHOTO
Mike Pham photo
A Pearl of musical wisdom.

There's no debating that we live in a pop culture era saturated in nostalgia. Remakes, reboots and rehashes dominate film, television and video games. The internet is overstuffed with oral histories of every piece of pop culture ephemera celebrating a round-number anniversary. Arena tours are constructed solely on "Hey, these artists all used to be on the radio at the same time!" (Really, why does a New Kids on the Block/Salt-n-Pepa/Rick Astley/En Vogue tour exist?). Over and over, it's clear many have ditched a balanced culture diet to gorge on "member berries."

One of the odder curiosities of this climate has been the Los Angeles songwriter scene over the past half decade or so. Increasingly, many young performers seem to be cloyingly regurgitating their idealized views of the '60s/'70s L.A. sound. It's nostalgia FOMO. These young musicians aren't reaching back to their own fond pasts, but seem to desperately fear missing out on eras that occured decades before they were even born.

Singer-songwriter Pearl Charles admittedly comes from that world. Her prior bands — the Driftwood Singers and the Blank Tapes — were fairly direct nods to specific time periods (the '60s Appalachian folk revival and psychedelic '60s garage rock, respectively). But unlike many of her contemporaries, Pearl Charles has moved well past bathing in nostalgia with her solo career, and that shines through on her 2021 LP, Magic Mirror.

"Everybody's on this journey of searching for themselves, which is a big part of the Magic Mirror album," Charles says. "I was in two bands before that were both trying on different characters in a way; the music, but also the dress and stuff. It felt like more of a costume. The stuff that we wear [now] is influenced by all the cool old style icons that we like, but I don't really feel as much like I'm wearing the costume. I just feel like this is who I am. I think it is probably what a lot of these people who are doing the retro thing really pointedly are probably just trying to find themselves within it. And they're like, 'Well... this seems like this could be me.'"

Magic Mirror is a sonic collage without ever seeming like a derivative rehash. One moment Charles throws a cheeky disco bash ("Only for Tonight"), the next steel guitar swells evoke dusty night drives under the stars ("What I Need"). The instrumentation can swing from a solitary piano ballad ("Magic Mirror") to AM radio pop rock ("All the Way") on a dime. All the while, Charles' voice shimmers with a smooth ease and confident slyness, even when singing about searching for her own distinct identity.

"Like, obviously, there's retro influences," says Charles. "But I also bring in influences from when I was growing up, some like '90s Sheryl Crow and that kind of stuff, as well as all like the '70s Fleetwood Mac, ABBA, all that kind of stuff. Some people really throw themselves into the full record retro thing. I think that if you're really kind of trying to be yourself, you are existing in the here and now. So it's inevitable if you're trying to stay true to yourself as an artist, you're going to bring in something modern and unique."

Charles' music does have a distinctly coastal Californian feel to it — that romanticized aura of a place pulled between laid-back ocean vibes and the mysterious majesty of the Joshua Tree deserts. Pearl even drills down further on what that sound evokes.

"Something that I think is really cool and like a lesser known history of California is how much country music [there's] been. In L.A. there was a huge country music world. So I think that there's this rootsiness that is uniquely California, because it's not the rootsiness that comes from the South, or the Appalachians, or whatever. There's like a kind of a cool breeze in a sense, that vibe. That's my artist's poetic way of imagining it. It's a unique meeting of the two places. I mean, California is so amazing for that; you really can have so many different environments within just a stone's throw of each other. And I think that's part of [its music]."

Charles' style can seem like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood-era chic meets Western glam. It's a fitting look for her music and for someone not defined by the past, but always willing to give it a playful nod.

"It kind of mixes a lot of different genres," Charles says of her fashion choices. "All the lines are blurred. That's a cool thing about, like, the post-internet age — things aren't so segmented as they used to be. You kind of get to make your own character. This disco hippie cowgirl." ♦

CANCELLED: The Liz Cooper & the Stampede and Pearl Charles show scheduled for Sat, Nov. 13, at Lucky You Lounge was cancelled after the Inlander went to print.

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About The Author

Seth Sommerfeld

Seth Sommerfeld is the Music Editor for The Inlander, and an alumnus of Gonzaga University and Syracuse University. He has written for The Washington Post, Rolling Stone, Fox Sports, SPIN, Collider, and many other outlets. He also hosts the podcast, Everyone is Wrong...