Sometimes you encounter a musical artist for a first time and find yourself experiencing a warm sense of déjà vu – not a feeling that you’ve heard it all before, but a feeling that you’ve reunited with a person you’ve known for ages, someone with whom you share a connection. That’s the vibe conjured up by Charlie Shafter, a young singer-songwriter with an old soul – and a knack for forging a connection with just about anyone who crosses paths with his songs.
On his self-titled debut album, the 26-year-old Shafter weaves ten richly-toned tales that recall iconic writers such as Townes Van Zandt and Elliott Smith, songs that range into acoustic blues and the grittier side of country-rock on a panoramic trek through blue-highway Americana. Shafter doesn’t write songs that grab you by the lapel and shake you into listening; they’re more likely to throw an arm around you and whisper their way into your consciousness.
“I don’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a songwriter,” he says. “When I was a little kid, I’d listen to my parents’ records and they were mostly singer-songwriter type things. Those really made me appreciate what a good song was all about and made me want to do that – to write songs people would really be moved by.”
He succeeds in a big way on his debut. Buoyed by his affably gritty vocals and his warm, enveloping guitar tone, songs like “Sea Wall” and “Actor” wash over the listener, leaving a strong, sensual imprint long after their last notes resound. He takes a more direct approach on other tracks, like the gently finger-picked “Drunk on Desire” – which underscores the song’s hopeful plea for love – and a little bit of lustfulness on the side – with its playful melody.
On the other end of the sonic spectrum, “Dog on a Chain”(co-written with Ray Wylie Hubbard, who also lent his production talents to the project) finds Shafter mining the deeper end of both his vocal and emotive range in order to drive home the dark tones of the slide-and-organ laced bluesiness. That tune, a travelogue of cultural touchstones and sonic landmarks, finds him weaving down the dirt roads of memory, creating a picture that’s at once vivid and surreal.
“I hardly ever write an entire song about one thing,” he says. “I know what it all means, but when you look at it, it’s more like a collage than a picture. I can be writing a love song, but then throw in something that’s actually about my grandfather. I guess I like to let people fill in the blanks themselves – sometimes I can’t even do that for a couple years after I write a song.”
Shafter has had some time to fill in those blanks. While he’s lived in Texas for several years, Shafter actually cut his musical teeth in his home state of Illinois, first in cover bands specializing in standard fare like Nirvana and Pearl Jam, then gradually pushing the envelope by exploring the corners of his record collection – artists like Leon Russell and Tom Waits (both of which can be heard lurking in the corners of Shafter’s own compositions). He also came to appreciate the sounds of the Lone Star State – particularly smart, hard-scrabble artists like Hubbard, who’s emerged as something of a mentor.
“I moved down here after high school because my brother in law had a band down here and it was the only place I’d ever heard of where you could actually make a living playing the music you wanted to play,” he says. “I never wrote a song about Texas or being a Texan and I probably never will –– but it’s had a profound effect, for sure. Just seeing these guys and how much they know about music, all kinds of music, not just the stuff you might think at first glance, that’s been really inspiring.”
That inspiration can be heard throughout the disc. Yes, you can feel the rich earth of the hill country rising up through some of its darker grooves, but there’s also a sense of light-heartedness that comes with the troubadour’s territory – like “Big Debut,” which calls to mind “Big Rock Candy Mountain” in its jaunty delivery of a message that’s deeper than one might think at first listen. Each of the album’s ten tracks, in fact, reveals new facets with repeated spins – something that can probably be attributed to Shafter’s stated desire to make a mark more than a paycheck.
“Most of the songs come out of a struggle, really. I think anything hard to do is indicative of something that will last,” he says. “I don’t necessarily see my songs as something that will make money, but I see them as steps on a road that will last, potentially, my entire life. I want to write songs that I will be happy playing when I am 60, not songs I’ll look at it five years and say ‘what was I thinking?’”