From the instant one hears the cascading disco groove that kickstarts “Only For Tonight,” the first track on Pearl Charles’ new album, Magic Mirror, it’s crystal clear where the Los Angeles singer-songwriter’s head was at when she went into the studio to record her latest project. Out this Friday on Kanine Records, Charles’ second full-length release marks a departure from the cosmic country-rock sound found throughout her previous solo material for a polished pop aesthetic that calls back to the heyday of ’70s FM giants like ABBA, Fleetwood Mac, and Steely Dan.
Originally slated for a spring 2020 release, Charles’ new album was pushed back to this January due to the fluid state of the pandemic. The passing months made for increasing anticipation, particularly because Magic Mirror is the album Charles has wanted to make for some time. On this go around, not only was she able to indulge in her classic pop-rock obsessions, she was also able to record with her own band, a distinguished group of players that includes partner Michael Rault, and with whom she’s spent large chunks of the last few years on the road.
The results speak for themselves. The music on Magic Mirror is lively, tight-knit, and kaleidoscopic, meshing together to form a lush and dreamy backdrop for a heavy helping of infectious hooks and shimmering refrains. Flourishes of pedal steel on songs like “Take Your Time” and the percussive “What I Need” prove the twang is still intact but maintain the feel of the pristine production alongside lavish bass grooves and warm keyboards. The bubbly chorus and Eagles-esque guitar lines on “Sweet Sunshine Wine” and the desert gypsy funk of “Only For Tonight” make for equally irresistible summer-pop anthems. At the heart of these catchy songs is a skillful melodic craftsmanship, a testament to Charles’ tuneful pen and the synergy of her bandmates.
For all its sonic wonder, Magic Mirror is also a remarkable step forward in songwriting and thematic exploration. It’s easily the most personal music Pearl Charles has made thus far. As the album title suggests, the songs approach love, fear, and other existential tropes from a point of introspection. “Imposter” and “Don’t Feel Like Myself,” the former of which was written during a psychedelic-fueled songwriting retreat on Nantucket Island, detail the dark self-examination necessary for one to arrive at their true purpose. Similarly, “Slipping Away” ponders impermanence and the ephemeral nature of art.
It’s unfortunate that the touring circuit’s immediate future remains uncertain, as Magic Mirror would make for surefire heat in the live setting. Outside of promoting the album, Charles is already chewing on the direction of her next project, something she foresees taking less time to manifest, given the current climate of the music industry. For now, her and Rault have hunkered down in a new home on the outskirts of Joshua Tree, taking in the solitude and exploring the wonders of home recording, perhaps tapping into the desert’s unavoidable cosmic aura while they’re at it.
The Pearl Charles universe allows for both disco fantasies and alt-country fandom: a place where the cults of ABBA and Gram Parsons can not only coexist but mingle serendipitously. Magic Mirror is the latest addition to that world, but its impact figures to be felt for the foreseeable future.
Editor Roberto Johnson caught up with Pearl Charles in late November to chat about making a full-blown pop record, her writing process and studio craft, looking within for guidance, and more. Check out their full conversation below.
How’s life been in the lead up to the new record?
Pearl: I’ve been pretty good. I’m grateful to be on the other side of the election and I think everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. The album was actually finished in January and was going to come out in the first half of 2020 and then things were so up in the air, I wasn’t really sure how to proceed, so we pushed it to January of 2021. We were just hoping, wherever things are at, we should have gone through a whole arc of the year at that point, so I think it’s a good time to finally put it out. There’s been a lot of anticipation leading up to it and I’m finally just starting to be able to breathe as it’s actually getting closer to coming out.
Did you find it hard to stay focused and committed to the rollout process with everything going on this year?
Pearl: A big part of the vision for this project was to be able to execute it live. Having to regroup around that idea has definitely been a new experience, for better or worse. You’ve got less people driving in their car to work every day, listening to the radio, and going to see shows. That’s been kind of a pivot, to be like, ‘How can we take this completely online right now, still promote the music, and let it be heard by the people who want to hear it?’
Magic Mirror is a major step forward by just about every artistic measure. The artwork, production quality, and songwriting are all so refined and well-executed. How much work went into making this project look and sound how you wanted it to?
Pearl: With my first record, I didn’t even know I was going to make an album. I just went in the studio, recorded some songs, and we put it up. It was an EP and wasn’t quite as fully thought through. For the second record, I was doing the same thing I had done before but in a longer format. On Magic Mirror, I had a lot more time and experience under my belt to think about the overall concept and how that was going to play out in the artwork. There was a lot more planning that went into it. Even if it wasn’t intentional, it was just more time had been spent working with the same group of people, which kind of coalesced the project into what it finally became.
Would you say you’re more of a studio perfectionist or someone who likes to try and catch lightning in a bottle?
Pearl: I am a perfectionist, but I’m coming to realize that the best way to achieve that is organically, through practice. We just released the Christmas song my boyfriend and I did, and it was my first time recording straight to tape, so the vocal take is straight off the floor after just a few practices. That’s not to say my other albums are highly edited, but they’re more polished. You have options to fix mistakes and redo little parts when you’re recording digitally that are not as prevalent when you’re on tape. I like to think that the best way to get that polished quality but still have it be natural is to really get it worked out before you record. Then it comes down to getting a take of the band really playing and feeling it.
Unlike past projects, you made this record with your actual touring band. What kind of impact did that have on this particular album-making experience and executing your vision for these songs?
Pearl: I mean, those guys are my best friends. We spend hours and hours and weeks and weeks together. First of all, it allows me to show them all the music I’m being inspired by, the stuff that’s seeping into my brain. I’m usually the one driving and on DJ duty, which is fun as the band leader. Then they’re really getting where I’m coming from. Beyond that, we’re just really close, along with the fact that we play together all the time. We’ve really gotten to grow together as a group, which is something I’ve never had as a solo artist. It’s a true honest friendship.
For a lot of people, especially in obscure country and rock circles, sounding raw and unpolished is the more “cool” thing to do, but you haven’t been shy about flaunting your pop influences. Songs like “Only For Tonight” and “What I Need” are so blatantly funky and rich in sound. What do you think has pushed you in that direction the most?
Pearl: I think I just had a dream of making something that reminded me of those big ’70s pop records, like Fleetwood Mac and ABBA. Within audio file and recording-freak communities, people are obsessed with the sounds those bands got. They were in multimillion dollar studios doing multimillion dollar records that took months and months to make with the finest equipment out there. I haven’t quite reached those levels, but those things are really inspiring to me. Maybe it’s not perceived as “cool,” but I think it is. I also think the fact it’s a woman in front gives it a different perspective than if it’s a man. ABBA and Fleetwood Mac both had men in their bands, but the face of them was female a lot of the time. Nowadays, I feel like people automatically think mainstream pop star, like a Taylor Swift, when they hear a woman doing pop, but I’m trying to recall a different era of that polished sound.
How has your approach as a vocalist and harmony singer developed over the last few years? How much of that is through experimentation and practice versus trying to emulate other acts that you look up to?
Pearl: Studying a lot of bands and their harmonies has definitely influenced me a lot. The first band I was in was a close-harmony duo, kind of in that classic country style like the Louvin Brothers, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, George Jones and Tammy Wynette. That’s where I learned that from. My boyfriend, Michael Rault, is a crazy harmony singer as well. Having him around to show me the ropes always helps.
Thematically speaking, this record is very introspective. It dwells on spiritual awareness as much as it does existential joys and fears. How would you describe your mindset when you were writing the songs that made it onto the album?
Pearl: I think I was definitely on a journey of self-exploration. I talk about this a lot, but I like to take psychedelics and a lot of times that can turn in to inward thought. Writing is very therapeutic and cathartic. It kind of helps you on that journey of finding yourself. I think this album really did that for me.
Songwriting is such a fluid and unique form of craft. Are you meticulous about your lyrics or do you like to work more spontaneously and free?
Pearl: I think the best songs come without you really having to do much work. They just spill out of you. But I’m definitely an editor when it comes to lyrics. I focus in very closely and want to make sure that everything I say makes sense. Even if it’s in a roundabout poetic way, it at least has to make sense to me, so I can understand the point that I’m trying to make. So I do spend a lot time like thinking about concepts and then reworking them to be the lyrics.
There’s a distinct contrast between the dark undertones of songs like “Slipping Away” and the uplifting, exuberant moments on tracks like “Sweet Sunshine Wine.” Was there a conscious effort to explore both sides of the same coin in that sense?
Pearl: The album is like a yin and yang. A piece that came out recently said it’s a perfect album for Saturday nights and Sunday mornings, which I love. It’s something where you can listen closely to all lyrics and take it in as an emotional experience or you can zone out, dance to it, and just enjoy yourself. That’s life, you know? We all have ups and downs. I feel like I’m a complex person with complex emotions – everyone is, really. The people deserve an album that is going to address all of those things (laughs).
Did you find that your relationship with these songs changed as they evolved into what we hear on the record?
Pearl: There’s been a lot of songs with multiple versions – different bands, different arrangements, different lyrics. As time goes on, they do take on different meaning. Life will imitate art in that sense. That’s a little hippy-dippy cosmic stuff for you there. Obviously these things happen in life, but I wrote a song about having a relationship with someone at a time when I was single and then it ended up happening. It’s kind of interesting how that changes your connection to it. You write something in a state of mind you want to be in and then you can actually maybe get yourself there.
In a way, Magic Mirror is an album of songs written and addressed to yourself. It suggests that a lot of the answers we are looking for can be found within us. How has learning to turn inward for guidance helped you grow as a person?
Pearl: That’s a great question and I think that’s totally true. The thing about the title, Magic Mirror, is every time I talk to someone new about it, they have a different interpretation of what it means. Someone asked me once how often I look in the mirror. It was phrased in a weird way, but it really made me think about it. What do we see and what do we want to see when we look into the magic mirror? We want to see the best version of ourselves, but the truth is, if we’re really looking honestly, we’re going to see everything, the good and the bad. I think taking those honest, hard looks at yourself allows you to grow further as opposed to just seeing what you want to see. It’s important to keep that vision of who we want to be in our mind but not let that vision cloud what really is and also not be hard on ourselves for not being perfect. As human beings, we’re not perfect and we’re never going to be perfect. But being real about that and working on improving ourselves constantly, that’s the magic of the magic mirror.