everything is magic

singer/songwriter duo Charalambides discuss the struggle & the bliss of making music

photo by andrew macgregor

In a softly lit, gutted-out old theatre in Providence last April, Tom and Christina Carter, the two main forces in the band Charalambides, unleashed a kind of power: their music filled the expansive space and when it ended, the entire audience seemed to blink their eyes and let out a whistling sigh, as if we’d been held in a state of bliss, however momentary.

In their fifteen years of playing and recording music together, Charalambides have found what works, whether it’s soft folk-like singing or driving, undulating vocals, heavy electric guitar strumming or precise steel-guitar string picking, a song that is a journey or a song that is a tone. Whatever transpires in recordings or on stage, the genuine emotion in Charalambides’ sound always comes through.

Their name, pronounced Char-a-lam-ba-deez, the name of a former record shop customer but chosen for the way it looked and sounded, reflects the life of their music: “It was definitely intentional to have a name that didn’t bring to mind an object, that didn’t make the ‘band’ or music an object. Charalambides isn’t a thing; it isn’t an unchanging thing,” says Christina Carter.

Influenced by a diversity of musical styles, including blues, folk, ’70s rock and psychedelia, Charalambides music is made up of Tom and Christina on guitars, often wildly played, along with Christina singing. Originally based in Houston, Texas, the duo, which has included additional musicians over the years, is now geographically separated; however, their drive to make music together continues.
Charalambides treads the line, with much self-awareness, between that sense of idealized creativity and the everyday realities of life, as many artists do. Listening to their music is often a lesson in not only the existence of bliss in life, but its relationship to struggle. – rf 

Robyn Fadden  Over the fifteen years of being Charalambides, do you feel you’ve created your own network of musicians or artists? How important is community to you?

Christina Carter  Community is extremely important. We couldn’t survive without it. But we haven’t created our own community. We’ve become part of different communities at different times.

Tom Carter  What Christina says is certainly true, but I feel more like our communities are linked and overlapping, and constantly changing. Whatever community there is, we didn’t create it. It is absolutely important for me to be a part of a musical community. Existing in a vacuum really isn’t possible anyway, and while isolation sometimes seems to be a good environment for musical ideas to be born into, I think it can ultimately lead to stagnation if you have no one to share ideas with.

RF  I understand that you two were married and are now no longer together, but a deep connection was formed partly over music. How important is being in tune with each other, on a personal level and on a musical level?

TC  Christina and I developed almost everything about our musical approaches and philosophies together, from our early twenties until now, so it’s unlikely that we will wander much out of tune with one another, at least within the bounds of the music. That is important to me in the spirit of preserving our musical language. But in general, I don’t think it’s that important to play with someone who fell from the same emotional / musical “tree” as one’s self, in fact it can be kind of interesting to mix it up.

CC  I think we’re naturally in sync with each other musically at this point a lot of the time, and it’s not something we have to really be concerned about. The other thing is, that I don’t think we’re expecting to work from some idealized point of being in tune.

Sometimes for whatever reason people aren’t in tune with themselves and/or each other and that’s an equally valid starting point for music. In “real life” we have to deal with situations where we aren’t in tune with our surroundings, or others, so why not find a method for meeting that in music as well?

RF  As far as what influences you and your music, would you consider yourselves good observers of the world or is there a randomness to who and what influences you?

TC  I’m not sure what it means to be a good observer of the world – my first reaction is that I don’t observe enough of it! And just as I think I’m a self-aware, awake person, something will come up that reveals how deeply I see things from a habitual point of view. I try to observe things in as many aspects and perspectives as I can. I’ve been influenced by everything around me, and although I believe in chaos, calling things random seems arbitrary. In terms of music, I am definitely hit by music when I am ready to be hit by it, though when it enters my life is totally random.

I still find it very mysterious as to what combination of mood, feeling, venue or physical state inspires music. Certainly a serene environment (and one that encourages listening) is important, but sometimes chaos can produce music that is far more interesting.

CC  I don’t think that what’s influenced me has been random. Context and environment are important to a certain extent – there are a lot of variables.

RF  While the context or environment of playing and listening can definitely be different, both experiences can involve a feeling of moving beyond the music and into something else. I felt this while listening to you play at the Terrastock festival in Providence, Rhode Island, in April. Do you think about the listening experience when you’re playing for an audience?

CC  The audience’s reactions can be very important, very obvious. Sometimes it’s necessary to put a space around myself that keeps out the audience, but most of the time I want to feel them. There are different places I can create on the “stage.” Music seems to be a vehicle into other dimensions, a sort of time travel, for lack of a better term, and so if you’re driving the vehicle rather than just riding in it, it accounts for a different experience. There’s a different responsibility in driving.

TC  When listening, you’re being transported; when playing, you’re not only being moved but also moving and creating, much more of a part of the process and inseparable from it. Listening to music can sometimes be a blissful experience, more so than playing, since listening is a passive thing (physically that is) and doesn’t require attentiveness to what your fingers are doing. A good record can create an environment and an extended temporal space, which is what bliss requires, I think. But on the whole, I don’t feel as at home in that state as I do when at the centre of the vortex of creation.

RF  It seems sometimes that your music has a life of its own – that it unfolds organically. Is making music a holistic process for you? How much is improvised and how much is planned?

CC  Making and playing music is definitely a holistic process, so much so that very occasionally it can be “artificial” as well. Not much is outlined at this point, but there are certain things that are more appropriate for outlining than others. We never discuss for instance what kind of emotional tone a song should take, but we do sometimes discuss what we’re going to play and in what order.

TC  Music seems to come more easily if there’s some kind of mental space created for it to happen. A lot of what we do is improvised, mostly around a structure. To us a song is a melodic phrase or two, a handful of lyrics, and a key, and that’s about all that doesn’t change. Everything else is up for grabs. We don’t really talk about approaches to the songs, but will sometimes briefly discuss our overall approach to our performances in the most general terms, as a way to catch each other up on our thoughts on music, since usually when we get together it’s after a long separation.

RF  I ask about your music’s organic creative process partly because when listening to your 2004 album, Joy Shapes, the vocals seem so instinctual and yet there’s something other-worldly or transcendent in them even though they most definitely sound like you, Christina – it made me wonder where they came from.

CC  The truth of the matter is that I chose to go for it, to be reckless, to be drunk, to be primal. For quite a while, we’d been doing very sort of detached, controlled music and I was tired of it. I wanted to really sing from my gut, and have that feeling of wanting, of earthiness. At one point I wouldn’t have called it “other-worldly,” but a few years later I came to understand that those elements of “wanting” exist in “other-worlds” as well as here, “on earth.”

There is a kind of transcendence sometimes – transcendence for me is something that shouldn’t be expected, but rather, received. It isn’t for every time; it is the exception. Then again, there’s just magic in everything: in every day, every act, every thought, every feeling, every moment. Everything is magic. Magic is everything.     

RF  Would you say there are times when you experience a sort of bliss in your own life and in your music?

TC  In general, “bliss” implies to me more of a prolonged state, detachment, apart from the everyday life and struggle which I am a part of. I do sometimes hit points in the music where reality seems to arrive at a singularity where everything vanishes, but I wouldn’t really call it bliss – I prefer “ecstasy.” I do strive for ecstasy but think of it more as the gift at the end of a process, and not always linked to music.

CC  “Bliss” is a loaded word for me. I wouldn’t say I feel it in my own life. Music is most definitely my life, and with it I experience wholeness, peace, curiosity, excitement, anger, love, clarity, etc. But “bliss” I find to be a word of ending, completion, which I don’t identify with. I tend to identify more with struggle.

RF  In the struggles of everyday life, many people turn to spirituality. I realize this is fairly personal, but would you consider yourselves spiritual?

CC  It’s okay, I don’t consider the spiritual to be the personal. That seems to be part of the problem in the United States. Those that consider the spiritual to be something for public life are born-again Christians, while others tiptoe around the issues. I consider myself spiritual, though it’s been a struggle in the past few years to integrate worldliness and spirituality. My family raised me as a Catholic, but I don’t think spirituality is about prescribing to a specific religion or spiritual following. On the contrary, for myself I feel so attuned to particularities and exceptions that I find it difficult to follow anything at all with prescriptions and answers. Lately I’ve felt the need for a more personally disciplined spiritual practice because there is such a darkness in this country, and the world, that it is overwhelming sometimes. I’d say at this point that I identify more with “primitive” spirituality than the “esoteric.”

TC  I’m spiritual in the sense that I don’t believe that the world we see is the actual world, or even closely approximates it! So much is hidden. I suppose “spiritual” means to me that there’s an aliveness to everything, that we’re part of a huge process that no one person will ever completely understand. But that process is totally indifferent; I don’t imbue it with any godlike properties or consciousness or anything like that – existence itself is magical enough without adding consciousness to the picture. To me, playing is surrendering to that process, though it’s also listening to the music inside your head, and bringing that to life, which is a product not only of the process but also of one’s experience, emotions, experiences, and so on. I don’t follow any kind of religion, though that’s fine for others. To me, my musical work is my spiritual practice.

Robyn Fadden writes, blogs, edits, reads, makes music, and mixes art and academia in Montréal. She unreservedly loves the band she’s in.

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