Charlie Parr is touring this month, coinciding with the release of his new album, Dog, on Fri 9 Feb. The Minnesota-based virtuoso has long been making music but spent most of his years working with the homeless throughout the Northern Minnesota region, while playing shows at night. His observations from his time spent working with the less fortunate, coupled with his own life path make for a rich well of stories to draw upon. Those day-in-the-life narratives together with his incredible acumen as a guitarist have rightfully earned him his rabid fanbase both here in the US and in Europe.
Fans who have been following Charlie Parr through his previous 13 full-length albums and decades of nonstop touring already know that the Duluth-based songwriter has a way of carving a path straight to the gut. On Dog, however, he seems to be digging deeper and hitting those nerves quicker than ever before.
“I want my son to have this when I’m gone,” Charlie sings not 10 seconds into the opening song on Dog, “Hobo.” His voice sounds weary but insistent, his accompaniment sparse and sorrowful. By the second line, the listener has no choice but to be transported on a journey through the burrows of his troubled mind, following him through shadowy twists and turns as he searches for a way out.
It turns out Charlie’s been grappling with quite a bit over these past few years. “I had some really, really bad depression problems over the last couple years,” Charlie explains. “I’ve been trying to get fit, trying not to drink so much, trying not to do the rock ‘n’ roll guy thing. And then I got depressed. Really depressed. And to me, depression feels like there’s me, and then there’s this kind of hazy fog of rancid jello all around me, that you can’t feel your way out of. And then there’s this really, really horrible third thing, this impulsive thing, that doesn’t feel like it’s me or my depression. It feels like it’s coming from outside somewhere. And it’s the thing that comes on you all of a sudden, and it’s the voice of suicide, it’s the voice of ‘quit.'”
“These songs have all kind of come out of that. Especially songs like ‘Salt Water’ and ‘Dog,’ they really came heavily out of just being depressed, and having to say something about it
In the album’s quieter moments, Charlie confronts these issues head-on, using only an acoustic guitar or banjo to light the way. But the incredible thing about “Dog” is that it digs into dark matter and contemplates serious topics like mental illness and mortality while embracing a pulse of persistence and forward motion; throughout the album, more and more musicians seem to be joining in the fray as the tempo builds, keeping the overall vibe upbeat.
“Dog” is Parr’s most personal record yet. It’s an album that focuses on emotional issues, issues of mental health and the existential examinations of life, the soul, and the purpose of life and living. Originally, Charlie had planned to record these songs stripped down and alone but at the urging of a friend, he ended up asking his most trusted collaborators to play on the record. Experimental folk artist Jeff Mitchell, percussionist Mikkel Beckman, harmonica player Dave Hundreiser, and bassist Liz Draper, who traded her typical upright bass in for an electric at Charlie’s request, found an instant chemistry in the studio, capturing some of the tracks on the first take.
“I wrote all the lyrics on these giant pieces of paper, and I had highlighters, and I assigned them each a color. I was going to be super organized,” Charlie remembers. “And then we started playing, and all of a sudden none of that even mattered. These stupid highlighters, the pieces of paper – I should have just trusted in the beginning that these friends would know how to take care of my songs.”
In the album’s more raucous moments, Charlie turns from contemplating his inner struggles to examining his connection to other living creatures. The album’s title track, “Dog,” and the blistering “Another Dog” were inspired by some of the lessons he’s learned from his own pet, and wondering about the way dogs interact with humans and the outside world.
“I have a dog, her name is Ruby but I call her Ruben, and we go for these long, crazy, chaotic walks,” Charlie says. “Because I decided a long time ago that I get along really well with this dog, and I was taking her for walks, and she wanted to go this way, and I wanted to go that way. And then I thought, why are we going to go this way and not that way? Maybe I should be the one getting walked. Maybe I’ll learn something. So, I follow the dog.”
Despite the album’s darker moments, the listener is left hearing Charlie in a more optimistic and defiant headspace, reflecting on how far he’s come – and how content he is to accept that some things are simply unknowable.
Charlie Parr plays Brighton’s Prince Albert on Fri 2 Mar 2018. His new album, Dog, is released on Fri 9 Feb, via Red House Records.