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Charlie Cawood’s The Divine Abstract is a work of art. It is immensely and entirely beautiful, full of wonderful rhythmic and melodic content. It brings together Eastern and Western music in a cohesive way. There’s no MIDI, there’s no sampling, there’s only one keyboard part. Every instrument is performed by a real human being, carefully selected by Charlie based on their ability on specific instruments. It’s the kind of album you can listen to while meditating, while working, or while doing nothing else but listening. For every purpose, I’ve found it offers great joy.
Buy “The Divine Abstract” as a digital download on Bandcamp . It’s just a few bucks and is worth every penny. Check it out!
The more I’ve listened to this album, the more indescribably beautiful it becomes. The melodies linger and are easy to sing, but there’s so much interesting supporting material for discerning listeners. It’s well-recorded, well-mixed, and just fun. It’s an adventurous piece of music and I’m glad to have it in my collection.
This interview is particularly insightful. Not only does Charlie have a deep grasp on the history of the dozens of instruments featured on the record, but he understands their purpose, their texture, their timbre, their roles in an ensemble. He shares with us the path he’s taken to get here, including a deep look at his depression and anxiety, which has been extremely challenging for him.
We cover a lot of ground in this conversation and I hope you enjoy it as much as I.
AG: Charlie Cawood is a multi-instrumentalist from London who is a member of the band Knifeworld and has released a solo album called The Divine Abstract. Charlie, thank you so much for joining.
CC: Real pleasure, Anthony. Thanks for having me on.
AG: Yeah, no problem. So, tell us a little about yourself and tell us about your album, The Divine Abstract.
CC: Well, I’ve been playing music since I was about 11. I just started getting into playing guitar, studying classical guitar and electric guitar at the same time. Listening to mainly rock music, I suppose, and then very gradually started getting into Indian classical music, some Spanish music, and sort of wanted to get an active involvement in these types of music. So I started studying sitar when I was about 13 years old and continued from there.
Later on, got into other Asian music. Japanese music, Chinese music, and then started picking things up along the way. Then, eventually went on to studying seriously at the London Center for Contemporary music and later, SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. I was studying at the same time Western popular music, jazz, classical, rock, blues, all the stuff you learn in music college, but at the same time had this real serious interest in other types of music and wanted to have some kind of active participation in it. So I learned about Balinese gamelan when I was at SOAS and then straight away when I graduated, started going to sessions and learning about it and playing. I’ve been doing that for six years now.
I also was lucky enough when I was studying to be taught things like orchestration and arrangement and all of these more elaborate things that you don’t get taught in many places. And then gradually started getting interested in other music. Lots of contemporary classical music, like Steve Reich and Igor Stravinsky , practically minimalist and Messiaen and all. I was kind of influenced by lots of different types of music from everywhere. Originally the music I was listening to on the rock side of things was fairly ordinary. Iron Maiden s and Bad Religion s and stuff like that. Still into it, but then in my late teens, started hearing things more like Frank Zappa , Miles Davis , Cardiacs were a particular revelatory experience for me. And I got to see their last-ever London show back in 2007, which was quite a moment of epiphany.
The Divine Abstract–I didn’t know it was going to be an album until half of it was already written because it was part of that process of becoming immersed in other types of music. Having interest in all sorts of different types of music. I didn’t really see any sort of disconnection between them. And so I was writing pieces that had some elements of Indian classical music and had an element of contemporary classical and I was trying to get Chinese elements in there and this sort of cyclicity of Balinese gamelan. And then, about halfway through writing all the pieces, I realized, “Actually, these have got a sort of shape to them.”
The album didn’t really–I didn’t think of it as being an album until half the pieces were written and all written for different reasons. Some were written while studying, some of them were informal commissions from people. Actually, one of them was written–“Garden of the Mind,” which is in the middle of the album–it was written for an ensemble in the [United] States who never ended up playing it because it was too difficult.
And then, I think it was actually Kavus [Torabi] from Knifeworld that heard a demo of that and said, “Well, this sounds like a thing. You should put it out when it’s done.” And then, that was the point where I realized, “Oh actually all along I’ve been writing this–it’s got a kind of shape to it. There’s a kind of arc running through these pieces.” So I started writing stuff that would become the later part of the album, things like “The 32nd Path.”
And I always knew it was going to be this quite ambitious effort that’s going to necessitate lots of different instruments. It was going to draw upon lots of different things. I wasn’t quite sure for a long time how well these tunes would actually sit together as an album. Would it really work?
I turned freelance about seven years ago and started playing in all kinds of different projects and working as a full-time musician and teaching and all of that stuff. So I was playing in Knifeworld from about 2012 and working with them quite extensively and also working in other bands like Tonochrome started around that time. I was playing in an art rock band called Spiritwo , which had Bob Leith from Cardiacs on drums.
So I was playing all these different things and being fairly young and in this state of working on lots of things at once, it’s always your own project that gets put to the side. I always knew it was going to be quite a difficult thing to orchestrate and finish off. I did actually start rehearsing bits of it and making tentative recordings about four years ago. I had made a concerted effort to try and get the thing done, but then I started getting into a state of depression more and more. That’s when that period started, around then.
Also around that time I started touring with the Mediaeval Baebes , who I was a multi-instrumentalist for. And so, again, it was another thing that I put on the back burner for a while because I was working on so much. Then, it was around late 2016, I had that fairly low period, which I’ll talk about a bit more later. I just knew that this had to be done, so I started finishing off and orchestrating the last two or three tunes on the album.
I got in contact with my friend Amir Shoat, who’s a really good engineer and producer who I worked with before in London. I got together with him with all the demos and everything that had been recorded so far and, “Okay, well this is the thing.” With his advice and help and support, I was able to think of how to approach this because I knew it would necessitate loads of different instrumentalists and I knew it was going to be quite difficult music to put together and edit and mix.
The original demos didn’t really sound that cohesive as a thing. They sort of sat and it sounded like these could have come from different places. That was one thing we had to be careful of: making sure that they all sounded like they all flowed and they all sounded like from one place. The remaining few months I managed to call up loads of musician friends who’d be up for playing on it and contributing. In that time of me being a freelancer in London, I’d been lucky enough to meet all these different people who ended up on the record. Some of them I didn’t know when I first started writing it, so it’s almost as if it needed that time to gestate and slowly develop because some of the musicians who made the most important contributions on the album, I didn’t meet until a couple years ago.
It just seemed right to have them on there and it all worked out for the best, really. The whole thing of doing it, because it was quite an intense period having to record everything and then do all the editing myself, it was the two of us mixing it. It was quite intense, but it felt like I was doing the right thing. I was finally focused on what I should be focusing on. It was such a relief to finally have it done, because the very last tune on the album–most of the tunes are fairly sequential but it’s almost in a sort of consecutive order from when they were written.
The first tune on the album is the earliest one and the very last tune on the album I didn’t finish writing until about a year ago. It was this sort of big seven-year arc that covered the whole writing process, which happens to play out in 45 minutes. It’s like it covers quite an expanse of life, as it were.
AG: That’s actually something I really love about the album. It is such a rich and layered album with so many different textures and sounds. Can you talk a little about the instrumentation? How many different instruments are on the album and how many of them do you play yourself? For people who may not know who you are, you are a bit of an enthusiast.
CC: Yeah. In terms of what I played personally on the album, I didn’t necessarily want myself to be the focus instrumentally, so obviously I’m playing acoustic guitar and classical guitar and bass, but a lot of the melodic focus is taken up by the instruments I orchestrated for, like the woodwinds and the strings and pitch percussion and pianos and Chinese instruments and things. Mainly because I like music that’s texturally rich.
I’ve been a guitar player since I was 11 and I’ve been through the whole period of wanting to hear lots of guitar music, but there was a point where I wanted to hear music which had lots of different textures in it, lots of different sounds and instrumentation. Not necessarily needing the guitar to be a focal point and that’s what I wanted to get in my own music as well. I wanted to have all these guitar parts that are kind of the skeleton of the tune. The tunes were written on guitar and then later orchestrated, but I didn’t necessarily want it to be the focus all the time.
So I played all the guitar parts and I also played sitar, Indian sitar on the very first track. On several of the other pieces, I play Chinese pipa, which is this sort of pear-shaped lute thing that you see behind me there. Apart from that, I didn’t want to shoehorn in any of the other instruments I play onto the album. There’s a lot to choose from, but I didn’t necessarily want to try to get them all on there. It’d be sort of unnecessary and sort of inappropriate to do that. So that’s why there are twenty other musicians on the album. I couldn’t tell you how many instruments there are in total, but there’s a fair amount.
AG: A few dozen, probably? [Laughs.]
CC: Probably yeah, because seven of those instruments are doubled up. Lucie Treacher, who plays on “The 32nd Path,” she layered all the gamelan instruments that are on there. There’s about 8-10 different gamelan instruments on there that she did in the course of one day. We just multi-tracked them and I’d take them all and edit them later. There’s all kinds of things on there. It’s kind of what I like.
AG: One of the things that I love about these instruments is sometimes it’s even hard to tell if it’s a vocal part or a woodwind, if it’s a human-created sound. Sometimes it sounds like keyboards, but I’m pretty sure you don’t have any keyboards on the album.
CC: Only piano.
AG: Right, but no synthesizers or electronic instruments.
CC: There’s some Mini Moog on one track.
CC: On “The 32nd Path” and the piano and celesta . Samples, but they’re still samples of an acoustic instrument, so there’s no synth pads or anything like that and there’s no midi at all.
AG: Yeah so can you talk a little about the challenges of even engineering a record where–I wouldn’t know where to put a microphone on half of the instruments that you’re recording. So, what was that experience like?
CC: Neither would I, so that’s why I was so lucky to have my friend Amir working with me because he’s a real genius for recording acoustic sounds. He’s involved in lots of electro-acoustic music and experimental music and he does live sound, but he’s got this incredibly meticulous approach.
We’d have instrumentalists come in and sit with their instrument and he’d get them to play and sort of stalk around them finding the sweet spot where, “Okay, this is where we’re going to put a mic.” And then, “Maybe we’ll just have one mic in a very sweet location.” Some of them we might double up. He knows exactly what sort of microphones to use.
Working with an engineer like that who, with that kind of attention to detail, almost obsessive attention to detail when recording acoustic sounds, otherwise it wouldn’t have been possible and it wouldn’t have sounded as rich as it does.
It’s interesting what you said about how some of the melodic instruments almost sound like vocals because even though it’s fairly strange music and it’s very dense music, I wanted all along for it to have a very strong melodic focus. I like melody. Also I wanted this music to be able to tell its own narrative without the need for lyrics or voice. I think it’s totally possible to do that over the course of the album just using instrumental music. I love vocal music, but I find it more universal in a way. It gets to a deeper state, I think, on certain instrumental music.
But in terms of how I approached the recording of many of the instruments, it’d often be through collaboration. I’d get them to do a few takes of just playing the part straight. It’s all orchestrated, so it all exists in notation they’re reading. So once we’re happy with the part, I’d then get them to phrase it however they want. A really good example of that is on “Garden of the Mind.” There’s some brilliant clarinet playing by my friend Nicki Maher, who I used to play with in a band called Opaz [Ensemble], which was a sort of Turkish gypsy band with elements of Arabic and Kurdish and other things. I used to play in a band with her doing that kind of repertoire and she also plays G clarinet, which is much deeper–she doesn’t play it on the album, but it informs her phrasing doing all these melismas and quarter tones. It’s very colorful, decorative playing. It’s really expressive.
I recorded her just doing the part straight just to have it safe and then just said, “Okay, now play it however you want it. Just make it sound Turkish or play it the way you would play it.” And then she played all these brilliant–it’s the same notes, but she played it in her way. It’s like, every time I listen to that tune, it’s like, “Okay, there’s Nicki.” It’s just her characteristic and the other instruments I chose specifically for their richness in color. Say, on the three tracks that comprise the “Earth Dragon” set.
There’s a Chinese instrument called an erhu, which is a two-string spike fiddle. It’s a really simple instrument, but what it can do is it can sound incredibly emotional and expressive because of all these different ornaments that it can do. Again, that was another instrument I was really lucky to get because there are barely any professional players of that in London. At least, not many who would be able to play stuff that’s rhythmically challenging and elaborate as those tunes are.
I managed to find this player, Wang Xiao , who played on the album. I basically told her, “These are the notes, but do what you want with it. Make it sound like your instrument.” Just in a couple of takes straight and it sounded like, “Finally, this is the first time I’ve heard in this seven years since I originally composed the piece, it’s the first time I’ve heard that part the way I imagined it by an actual erhu player playing it with all that kind of phrasing and delicacy of ornamentation and color and everything.” It was wonderful. Yeah, so that was a big part of it.
Having Amir be able to record acoustic instruments so well was essential. The other thing was trying to make it all balance as well. That was the challenge for later on: editing it all and trying to make all the instruments sit together because they’re all recorded individually. There’s no ensemble playing on the album, even though it sounds like it. There’s a lot of hours of editing and comping and mixing to make it sound approachable.
Having Amir there as my other pair of ears, he would say, “Okay, this doesn’t make any sense here. I’m not quite sure what this part is meant to do.” And so he’d always be–if it made sense to him, then I know it’s working. If everything’s balanced correctly and not sounding too dense, kind of like obscuring everything. Because it’s so densely orchestrated music, it could easily sound like a mess. Having him there and make sense of it all was essential, really.
AG: I have to say it is a real work of art. It is not just a simple album. I don’t have ears attuned to all the various dialects of music particularly across Asia or a lot of where your influences seem to come, but to my western ear, I just thought about–between my western ears and my own sensibilities as a person who makes music, just thinking you had to learn all about these instruments. You had to learn how they sound and how they function. You had to learn how to orchestrate music to use those instruments and make an arrangement–you had to notate it so that you could have 20 different people playing on it. I mean, what an extraordinary work of art. It’s not like normal classical music where you can just hire this ensemble. I mean, you’re pulling influences from so many different areas, even if you went to India, or went to China, or Japan, or something, you wouldn’t be able to find the ensemble to play it. It’s such a homogenization of musical culture and sounds. So, it’s a real work of art and just the level of understanding that–and the journey you must have taken to be able to put it together–to me, is astounding. So, thank you for doing it.
CC: Thank you. That really means a lot. In terms of understanding about all these instruments, it’s just years of being a listener as well. When I was a teenager, I’d just be buying albums of Chinese music and Arabic music and Indian music and just listening and by ear being able to understand how these instruments work.
I was lucky enough to be taught orchestration as part of my music degree and I was really lucky because, in the place where I went (London Center of Contemporary Music), there were teachers there who could teach all these principles of orchestration and arrangement and things and that was totally necessary. And also, later on when I was at SOAS, even though it is oriental music and I was also doing some courses in Indian and Middle Eastern and everything, there was a little composition module there that I was doing and the fellow who taught that module (his name is Alexander Knapp) encouraged us to just write stuff to take some of these influences and do something that’s yours. He’d listen.
He’s a brilliant classical musician as well as knowing about Jewish music and Middle Eastern music and other things. So he’d hear this and say, “Yeah, this is really interesting and I really like it. Just do more.” It was that kind of environment in which I was able to finally coagulate all these ideas and realize that, “Yeah, this is a possible thing.” The instrumentation changes throughout the album as well. Each piece has a different orchestration, so if it were to be played by an ensemble, it’d have to be completely reorchestrated and reimagined for it to really work throughout a whole–which is part of the reason it’s not been played live yet. It’d just be… “How?”
AG: And expensive.
CC: That too, yeah. A guy can pull favors but there’s a limit to that. The thing about it being a work of art is kind of intentional because gradually, as I was coming to understand more about music and the reasons why I’m drawn to certain types of music (as well as other forms of media, like books or comics or graphic novels or films or whatever), I started to see them all as sharing certain ideals and intentions.
For example, a big influence on me as a creative person is Alan Moore , the comic book writer who wrote Watchmen , V for Vendetta , all this stuff. Just seeing him in interviews talking about art as being this catalyst for personal change and how as an artist it’s your responsibility to change the consciousness of the person that you’re communicating with. It’s totally possible. It literally becomes a form of magic to create something which then has a transportative or transformative effect on another person.
Like this series here was what catalyzed all these ideas. It’s called Promethea and it’s this really beautiful psychedelic comic book. It’s kind of like a Wonder Woman -ish superheroine character, but then it’s really an excuse for him to talk about these esoteric ideas. It’s really quite–[picks up a comic book] let’s find an appropriately psychedelic section. It’s got all this psychedelic art and the whole point of it is the imagination as a shared space that we can tap into as creative people and then we can draw from that and use that language to communicate.
Reading about that made me examine what I want to do as a musician and why I like the music I do, or at least a lot of it. Those are the things which connect lots of different types of music that you wouldn’t necessarily draw together. It’s a cliche, but it’s why people in the 60s were drawn towards Indian classical music because it is very much a kind of devotional music, it’s a spiritual music that’s intended to transcend ordinary consciousness. It’s the same with the jazz I listen to, like Alice Coltrane , and John Coltrane , and Miles Davis, and Pharoah Sanders , all these people. You start seeing all these connections and then also looking into things like dreams, the unconscious, and how our minds work.
Artists like David Lynch , for instance. There’s a big–the new stuff I’m writing, there’s a big influence, not necessarily musically but creatively, from Twin Peaks . It’s a TV show that a lot of people know, but at its heart it’s about the relationship between the material world and the immaterial world where things exist and things that don’t exist and how the things that don’t exist can have a very serious, very real effect on the things that do exist. Thinking about mythology and symbolism and how art and music can represent certain things and induce certain states. That was all stuff I was thinking about all the way through the writing of the album.
There are references all the way along to things and people like William Blake . There are several tunes which even the titles, like “The Earth’s Answer” and “Fearful Symmetry,” directly taken from William Blake. In fact the title of the album itself is a kind of compound of two of Blake’s ideas: the divine image and the human abstract. So, it’s a combination of those two ideas. He’s another character that recurs in my thinking about what I’m trying to do in terms of things I create because he had these, throughout the time, sort of visionary and unusual ideas about his own Christianity. He reversed a lot of the religious iconography at the time in order to communicate these quite visionary ideas.
Similar things I can investigate in other cultures, like–I’ve got a few things here. So, William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and the Experience,” that’s where those titles are taken from. And then the one that really had an effect on me was “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.” Sort of this glare on that. And reading that was–but then reading things like this, which is “The Secret of the Golden Flower,” which I came across a few years ago and it’s like a Daoist meditation manual, but it’s all about, through meditation and through certain practices, you can ascend to higher states of consciousness. You can sort of become a new person.
Also things like Joseph Campbell’s writing about mythology, like the hero’s journey. That played a big part in shaping the album, the track listing of the album. Where it begins and the arc in which it goes and where it ends. Like the last track, “Apotheosis,” the title comes from his ideas about the hero’s journey, how you’re taken out from your ordinary existence and you’re forced through all these trials and situations that change you into a new person. You take on all these new abilities and new powers, as it were, and then you overcome the parts of yourself that you want to get rid of. So you become a new thing at the end of it.
There are little symbols and messages like that written into certain parts of the album that probably not many people have picked up on yet. I know they’re there. Like, the very last chord you hear, the cyclic thing you hear at the end of the last tune is largely in C lydian and it goes around that for a good couple of minutes. Across that, you hear the woodwinds do all these different melodies that go across each other and all happening at once.
Those are all themes from across the album I’ve taken out and they all exist in this shared space. They’ve kind of transcended their own time and exist in this shared moment. And then right at the end of that, it resolves and modulates up a whole step to D lydian, which is where the album starts. The very first chord you hear is in a D lydian. I wanted it to be a bit more obvious, like with maybe the tune from the beginning coming back at the end, but it just didn’t seem to work, so it’s kind of there in a very subtle way, but probably not in a way that it’d be really noticeable.
AG: That’s awesome. That’s a really cool way of introducing all the cyclic aspects of life and these stories that you’ve brought in. Even in the artwork, it’s very–
CC: I couldn’t be happier with the artwork. That was a very late development on the album because the original image I wanted to use, I didn’t have access to because the artist wasn’t available. I had that as a planned image for quite a while and then it turned out that that wasn’t going to happen.
So, it just so happens that through Knifeworld and going to these more proggy gigs around London, I knew Mark Buckingham who’s a big, big fan of unusual music. He also happens to be an artist for Marvel and DC comics. He’s worked with Neil Gaiman and all these things. Brilliant artist. He was the artist on Fables , which is a well-known fantasy comic that ran for quite some time. It was really popular. I got to know him at gigs and we’d chat about comics and music and things.
He said at one gig, “Well, let me know if you ever need anything.” At the time, I still had this other image in mind for the cover. I said, “Okay, maybe next time.” Maybe I could ask him some other time. But it turned out that the original plan fell through and I just sent him a really panicked message saying, “I know you’re busy, but can you do something.” He said, “I’m busy but I’ll…” Yeah, the first pencil sketch, I had to make some changes to it, which felt pretty weird telling this really amazing comic artist. “Well, maybe we can make some changes.” It felt kind of odd. But then the second sketch was perfect and that’s pretty much what you see on the cover. He turned it into a really beautiful black and white, sort of art deco ink drawing and it was colored in later on with some adjustments.
I couldn’t be happier with it because he really listened through the album a few times and looked at all the song titles and made a lot of effort to integrate all those ideas into the mandala on the cover. It’s got elements from all the different tracks on there. It’s one of those real fortuitous things because I wasn’t planning that until quite late. It was about two months before it came out. Less than two months before it came out when we actually had the artwork. It was right at the last minute.
AG: Is the music idiomatic to the performers and their instruments or did they have to spend time trying to understand what you were after?
CC: Everything was orchestrated, so no one came up with their own parts, necessarily. Some of them made alterations to certain things, maybe in the piano parts. Certain voicings needed to be more pianistic.
AG: I mean, because you’re blending different types of music, you might have had someone on the erhu playing something that might have been more of an Arabic type melody or something like that. Did you run into any of those kinds of situations or did you really just place the instrument where it was most appropriate?
CC: Oh yeah, definitely. I wrote for the instruments, so I made sure that the tunes that, say, the erhu played were the sort of thing you would imagine in who might play. It wasn’t taking it too far from its original context. In that way, it can play in its own way. It can be played and add their own.. It’s not something that’s unfamiliar. The only things that were unusual were the counting and–in the tunes, there’s all kinds of odd time signatures and hemiola and all kinds of stuff going on. That’s the thing that makes it not melodically that complex, but the rhythmic placement of it is quite unusual and definitely not the sort of thing you would encounter if you were a professional erhu player, unless you’re doing really “out there” contemporary music. Most of the time, it’s not really a thing.
AG: Right. So I have some simpler questions that are more about being a musician. Doesn’t mean the answers are simple, though. [Laughs.] First of all, how many instruments do you play?
CC: I kind of lose count. I think it’s about 15 at varying levels. There are some that I’ve been playing for a long time and some I’ve just picked up and learned on the spot, put on records and things. It’s about 15.
AG: And how many do you own?
CC: Uhh… [Thinking.] Somewhere around that. Fifteen, maybe. I’ve got two electric guitars, the Les Paul and the Jazzmaster. A classical guitar, acoustic guitar, a sitar, the oud, the saz, acoustic bass, electric bass, I’ve got a Fender 6 that’s on there. There are some that are borrowed, like the hammered dulcimer that I use–not on the album, but it’s all over the Mediaeval Baebes album. It’s been used on a couple of things. That’s borrowed. And a couple of the other things are, like the zither I borrowed. There’s a lap harp I borrowed for the Mediaeval Baebes album that is borrowed. Other than that, I lose count.
AG: [Laughs.] Okay, and…
CC: Too much mental occupancy.
AG: Can you talk a little bit about the instruments in the room with you?
CC: Oh yeah, sure. I’ll introduce you to a few of them. The newest one I have, which I’m really excited about is this.
AG: What is that called?
CC: This is a tsugaru shamisen . It’s a Japanese, three-stringed lute.
CC: Oh right.
AG: It looks like that’s the same instrument that he plays. A two- or three-stringed thing that he just strums and plays some simple chords on.
CC: Might not be the same one, but the shamisen came from the sanxien , which is a Chinese instrument. It traveled over to Japan a couple hundred years ago. It’s slightly different. It’s got a sort of snakeskin body. There are other central Asian instruments that the sanxien is related to. Basically, the Silk Road is where a lot of these instruments traveled. There are probably relatives in Tuva , Mongolia , and various places. The shamisen came into being when the sanxien moved over to Japan via Okinawa and it fell into the hands of musicians who played the biwa , which is another Japanese lute instrument, which is played with this massive plectrum. I don’t play that yet, but at some point. So that’s why the shamisen is played with this.
AG: Is that flat?
AG: Okay, interesting.
CC: Yeah, it’s called a bachi. Originally, the skin was snakeskin and it changed to dogskin. This is synthetic. I’m a vegetarian, so that’s kind of preferred. The instrument itself is used in all kinds of forms. Kabuki theater , storytelling, chamber ensemble music, but tsugaru shamisen happened around the late 19th century. So, the edo period of Japan and mainly played by destitute blind musicians. It’s almost kind of a blues music. The style is a lot more aggressive and it fell out of favor for a long time and then over the course of the 20th century, people started becoming more interested in it. It’s really a cold, brash style. You hold your plectrum like this and your plectrum travels through the string and into the body, like this.
AG: Ah, I can’t see.
CC: Like this.
CC: Can you hear that?
CC: Yeah, you’re gonna hear that. It’s quite loud. It’s got this kind of percussive effect. It’s become really popular with young people in Japan over the past couple of decades. It’s become fused with other types of music. These two players called the Yoshida Brothers , who are kind of rock stars in Japan. They’re a duo playing this. I first saw it when I was about 16. There was a concert in London of the best player of this instrument, a guy called Shinichi Kinoshita and it was amazing. I’d never heard any Japanese music before. It was totally my introduction to a lot of East Asian music. It was just wonderful. The traditional pieces were great and he played his own compositions. It was a real life-changing concert. I wanted to learn it, but there was no one playing it in London at that time, so that sort of fell by the wayside.
Then a few years ago, this fellow moved to London called Hibiki Ichikawa , who is the only professional player in the UK, currently. He was actually on the soundtrack of this film called Kubo and the Two Strings , which came out a couple of years ago. It was a stop-motion animated film. He’s on the soundtrack of that. We actually did a gig together a few years ago and I thought, “Okay, I can get some lessons from him sometime.” Only recently, I’ve thought, “Okay, I need to do this.” I’m teaching him Western music theory and he’s teaching me shamisen. It’s three strings, fretless.
AG: Can you give a very brief sample of what you might play on that instrument?
CC: Yeah, sure. Remember, I’ve only been playing this for about a month. [Plays shamisen.]
AG: That’s cool.
CC: It’s all that kind of stuff. It’s great. It’s really fun to get to grips with because you’ve got this wide vibrato and the sliding and it’s very improvisational, which is unusual for Japanese music. So, there’s that. I’m looking forward to learn more of that. In terms of stuff that’s on the album, there’s this and this is the pipa that I mentioned earlier. This is Chinese. This is actually related to the biwa, which is the Japanese lute. The biwa came from this and it dates back to the 8th century. It’s got a long history and it’s old, hundreds and hundreds of years. It’s got four strings. There’s your decoration on the thing there. And you’ve got a dragon carved on the back.
AG: Oh wow, what a beautiful instrument.
CC: Yeah, it’s all rosewood, which is lovely. What’s unusual about it, it’s played vertically, like this. You can see all the frets are raised off the body, like that. It’s played vertically and the fingerstyle technique is really weird. Your nails are going into the string like this. It’s the opposite of fingerstyle guitars. So it’s–[plays the pipa]. That’s your basic sort of sound. There’s also the really characteristic technique. The instrument uses a really fast five-finger tremolo which starts with the index finger all going into the sort of strings like this. So it’s all five fingers. [Plays the pipa.] The reason why the frets are so high is because the instrument uses all sorts of bends and decorative techniques. It’s really versatile because of all the different sounds you can get from the instrument.
AG: It’s beautiful.
CC: It’s lovely.
AG: What’s around your fingers on your left hand?
CC: Oh this is for the shamisen, actually. This is the fingerguard for the neck of the shamisen.
AG: Ah. To protect it?
CC: Yeah because you’re gliding along the neck all the time. This is just to help reduce friction.
AG: And protect your skin, too.
CC: That too. The shamisen strings are this yellowish color because they’re dyed with turmeric. Notice these tiny blood stains starting to appear on the strings. It’s because I’ve been working hard enough. So, that’s great. The pipa is really useful for–I’ve been able to use it in all kinds of situations. I actually played this a few years ago in a performance of a Philip Glass opera called Sound of a Voice , which is a chamber opera based on Japanese ghost stories. They use this instrument because it’s tuned to a chromatic scale. It’s got very wide range, quite diverse tonally. So it’s pipa, flute, cello, and percussion with two voices. I was asked to play in that because I was a professional player of the instrument, which is unusual in this country, and I can read all the notation. It can be used in all kinds of situations.
AG: That’s cool. And that other instrument?
CC: Oh, and this one here, that’s the massive one. That’s called a daruan. The ruan is a family of Chinese stringed instruments that’s actually older than the pipa. It kind of disappeared for centuries and wasn’t reconstituted until the 20th century where it was redesigned and turned into sections, like a string sections. I also play the zhongruan , which is the tenor one. There are smaller ones, but this is the one I thought I’d show you, because this one is the massive bass one.
CC: It’s really fun. I started playing this a few years ago and my teacher–I was transcribing a tune for acoustic guitar. A piece for this instrument because it’s in D A D A. Makes a deep sound. I transcribed it for guitar and she said, “Why don’t you just play on the actual thing?” And she just handed me this.
CC: The performance of that was a week later. I had a week to get to grips with it and perform the piece of bass. It’s really unlike a lot of other Chinese instruments. It’s got this deep quality. [Plays the daruan.] So it’s got that real boomy, slightly brutal quality to it, which is great.
AG: It’s funny. When it’s on the stand, it looks maybe as wide as an acoustic guitar, but then when it’s in front of your body, it looks like it’s bigger than your torso.
CC: It’s a perspective thing. It’s great.
AG: That’s very cool. All right, so, how do you make a living? London is one of the most expensive cities.
CC: It really is.
AG: In the world. And you live there, and you play all of these strange instruments, playing pretty much not-mainstream music. So how does that work?
CC: Well, I have played mainstream music before, but I don’t talk about that as much. Making a living as a musician in London is practically impossible. It’s a really difficult thing and a lot of people either have to give up or just stop. Most of all, they have to bolster their income with other professions. Someone might just have a full-time job, maybe, or they might just–I know pretty well-known musicians who, during the day, will do painting and decorating work and then make weird music with the rest of their time. It’s pretty normal.
I’m lucky because I don’t have a family to look after. I don’t have children or anything, so that’s something that a lot of my friends have to deal with. I’ve been quite lucky with the breadth of experience I’ve had in terms of studying classical music and playing classical guitar and learning theory and things, being able to read, has been quite an important thing. The ability to read music well.
A lot of it’s teaching as well. I’ve been a guitar teacher for just over a decade, which has its own rewards and frustrations. It can be brilliant as well. I’ve got one student at the moment who’s about 11 years old and he’s just passed his grade 3 classical exam. All he wants to talk about when I get to his class is the anime series he’s watching. “Don’t start because I will talk to you about this.” It can be really fun, but I also–teaching evening courses and even though all the instruments I play might not necessarily be used for mainstream music, very few people are playing them on any sort of professional level, so I have the advantage of being “the guy that people can come” if they need someone like this.
Hence why I was asked to join Mediaeval Baebes. Kavus was the previous instrumentalist and then when he joined Gong , he didn’t really have the time anymore, so he asked me to join. It seemed like a logical thing because I play all these things. So then you can get session work doing that. Things like the Philip Glass opera. I’m pretty much one of two or three people who could have done that because the combination of playing the instrument well enough and being able to read pages and pages of classical notation is quite a niche skill. So I’m able to get by with that thing. Also just being competent enough to play bass and guitar in any situation that might be useful, though I have gone through periods of doing other things as well.
I was actually on TV once. It was on This Morning , which is a real mainstream breakfast show. I was playing bass for a country duo, these two twin sisters. The only reason I got the gig was because I was friends with their manager and he saw a picture of me on Facebook playing bass and a hat on the stage with Knifeworld. He was like, “Oh yeah, looks really good. Bass and a hat. Fancy some television work?”
AG: “Bring the hat!”
CC: Yeah. I didn’t wear it on TV. It was too much for TV. And that was a thing I got to do once and was paid to do it by the manager and we signed a release form to use their image. Then ITV sent me a check a couple of weeks later for the same amount, so the occasional weird things like that.
AG: So that’s a big hodge-podge of gigs.
CC: Oh totally. Just real corporate things where you’ll be playing in the corner and no one in the room is listening. Those are often the best paying gigs you’ll ever do. But, then that facilitates everything else.
AG: You do get by and you have a place in London.
CC: More or less, yeah.
AG: And you’re doing it, so that’s awesome.
CC: Yeah, there are certain–it’s that thing of having to work constantly. It’s never quite settled so I always have to be active, but it’s just being lucky enough to know lots of people in London and being able to exist in all these different worlds in London and know the guys in the weird, funny music. The proggy scene and knowing people who do traditional ethnic stuff and–it’s just sort of putting yourself out there. If people know you and they like you and you do good enough work, on time, and are reliable, that counts for a lot. Some strange things have come along as a result. Bands paying me to go with them to Antwerp to shoot music videos because they like the ideas I did on their record. It’s just strange things like that. It’s a hodge-podge. It’s fairly scattered and variegated, but it’s just the way things are.
AG: It’s what it takes. Okay, and then–I do have to get back to work, but I do want to talk about–you have talked about the stress, anxiety, and depression around finishing The Divine Abstract, at least on Facebook. And this morning, I believe it was this morning, you posted something about returning to that era. Working through certain things in your newest composition work. Can you talk about that era, what led to it, and how you’re working through it now?
CC: Yeah, so I came to terms with the fact that I suffer from depression about four years ago, four and a half years ago. Around then, around 2014. Before that, I’d probably gone through periods of anxiety before. I knew I had friends with depression, but I could never quite relate to it. It never seemed like something that could happen to me. It was always like this other thing. And then finally I had to be honest with myself and say, “This is what I’m going through.” It’s a combination of things: general existential crisis and, who knows, maybe a certain amount of psychological stuff from the past, perhaps. A combination of things. The stresses of being a freelance musician in London and the crises you go through with that. Relationships and things.
AG: Do you get discouraged about your music as well? “Not enough people care about it” or “Why am I doing this weird, esoteric things?” Does that get to you?
CC: Oh, of course. All the time. I think that’s quite common amongst people who do what we do. It’s the thing you have to live with. Maybe what you do will appeal to a certain number of people and might not necessarily have much value outside of this sphere that you operate in. It’s a shared thing amongst friends of mine and people I work with. The main thing was being open and honest about it. It got to the point where I just had to start talking about it with friends and be open about it on social media.
What happens then is that you start being contacted by people who you didn’t know were going through the same thing. They’ll tell you privately and it creates this deep connection with other people, I’ve found, being open this way. Maybe what was happening before was I was trying to be guarded. You start realizing that the version of yourself that you present to other people is often just that. It’s a construction.
What happens with depression is that the illusion is then dissipated. You don’t have that image of yourself anymore. It kind of destroys that image of yourself because you realize that it’s possible for you to be brought down to such a level. It can happen to you. You start assessing all different things about your personality and how it manifests in relationships or day-to-day things or in life in general. So it’s this thing you have to face. You have to go through it. You have to face these things. Often quite uncomfortable things about yourself.
It’s a long period of being honest and open with the people around me and therapy and trying to create and trying to keep myself busy with music as well and remain active. And yet, it’s a real liminal state, this real transitory thing where after all you almost start seeing it as a positive because the person you become when you have to deal with all these things is so much better than the one that existed when you first started going through it. More open, more empathetic, more able to express emotions and things like that in language with other people. That can only help your creative work as well because if you’re closed off emotionally in your everyday life or you try and hide certain things about yourself then that’s only going to come out in what you write, I think.
Then I also had this relationship with the music I was writing, the music that ended up becoming The Divine Abstract. It almost became a way of writing myself out of these states, so it’s not necessary that I be depressed and write depressing music because it’s a means of wallowing in it. It’s almost a means of escaping it. You’re trying to create an ideal state for myself, like a world in which I could exist that brought me back to not necessarily normality, but beyond that, above that. Trying to aim for the best aspects of myself. I think you can do that with music. When I was talking earlier about things like magic, it’s just manipulating symbols and sounds to create these things.
It informed my approach to harmony as well, in terms of harmonic shifts. It’s what you’ve changed in harmony, about what they’re doing. You can create these changes in color and these changes of mood and these changes of mental state through the manipulation of harmony. You can create agitated, manic states through the manipulation of rhythm through hemiola or time signatures or polyrhythms. You can create musical depictions of these kinds of states. It’s kind of what I approach with the music on the album, it became this liminal thing. This thing that you pass through to become a new person, as it were, a new entity.
The music I’m writing currently, which is going to be the next album, is similar but different to the music on The Divine Abstract. It was all written in the space of about two months in terms of the original demos. At first it was this manic period and that broke, and then it became a real depression, like a really bad period of depression. It was that same period of depression that led me to finally be honest with myself and then make the music that’s on the album. But I’ll finish the music that’s on the album that’s just come out.
So the process of working on this music now, a year and a half later, to a certain extent takes you back to that time, to that period. It reminds you of the space that you’re in, but it would feel creatively dishonest if I didn’t do that, if I didn’t face it and then go through the cathartic process of turning that into something, which is that alchemical process of turning a leaden consciousness into a golden one. Taking these negative states and then channeling into something that is positive, that not necessarily sounds like it’s coming from a place of depression because I wouldn’t necessarily want it to sound like it did, but has come through it and has expressed these states and created something from it.
AG: Well thank you so much for sharing all of that. That’s very insightful and vulnerable, so I appreciate that.
CC: Thanks, yeah. It’s wonderful to talk to you about it.
AG: Thank you. So, finally, for people who want to learn more about you and your music, what do you suggest they do and how can they best support you?
CC: The album is on Bandcamp, charliecawood.bandcamp.com . I’m also on Facebook and I’ve got the musician page on Facebook, which I use to update about exclusively musical things. I do Twitter and Instagram . There’s also the wikipedia page now, which is a real fun thing to have. That’s actually fairly well sourced and it’s pretty much accurate, so there is that. Working on a website currently, that’s something that’s going to happen. Other things that are happening soon is new Knifeworld at some point. There will be the follow-up to the current album that I’m currently working on, which is going to come out hopefully in a year’s time, maybe a bit more than a year’s time.
The last part of this year, there’s the new Mediaeval Baebes album, which I co-arranged and played about twelve albums on it. It’s a compendium of nursery rhymes and children’s songs, done in this partially beautiful and partially horrifically discordant way. For what’s essentially a pop-classical project, it’s probably one of the most avant garde things I’ve ever worked on. It’s brilliant.
There’s a new band that’s going to come into existence online soon called Lost Crowns. There’s an album in production with that. That’s almost like a supergroup of our little group of musicians in London. I’m on bass and the music is written by a fellow called Richard Larcombe, who’s one half of this really brilliant band called Stars in Battledress with his brother James. Josh [Perl] from Knifeworld on keyboards, Rhodri Marsden from Prescott on keyboards. It’s this real collection of far-out musicians. And the music is totally psychedelic and singular and strange.
I’m really looking forward to people hearing that one because it doesn’t really sound like anything else. It sounds like the sort of music for Stars in Battledress, but done with a full band. So there’s all sorts of stuff happening in the next year. New Matrix in Spirit, which is a sort of Balinese gamelan mixed with electronica and psychedelia and other stuff. That’s on the go as well, so that will hopefully be coming out next year. There’s all kinds of things. I tend to update everything on my social medias and my Facebooks and that kind of thing. There’s that.
AG: Okay, cool. Thank you so much for joining us. I do want to say there are two Charlie Cawoods, same spelling…
CC: Very different.
AG: Yes, extremely different music. So if you do search for Charlie Cawood, make sure you’re getting this guy and not the singer/songwriter acoustic guitar player. If you want to listen to that, go for it, but that’s not this Charlie.
CC: Yeah, it’s pretty much diametrically opposed.
AG: Yeah, pretty diametrically…
CC: It’s a fair distinction.
AG: You’ll know when you’re listening to this Charlie Cawood when you hear all the instrumentation.
CC: You might prefer the other one. Oh this is really good! This is much better than that instrumental stuff.
AG: Although, anyone who’s gotten this far in this video is probably interested in what you’re doing.
CC: Or experiencing slight cognitive dissonance.
AG: All right. Charlie, thank you again so much. I really appreciate you spending the time with us.
CC: Thank you. Real pleasure talking to you finally.