On the release day of their outstanding sophomore record, Young Enough, Charly Bliss dish about their shift in sound, the joys of pop music, and the science of sequencing.
Note: this article originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Content warning: discussions of and allusions to sexual assault.
About 20 minutes into our interview, one of the band’s handlers pops in quickly to drop off some drinks for later in the night and remind them of reservations for a pre-gig meal they’re at-risk of running late for. Today, Friday 10th May, is Spencer Fox’s 26th birthday, an occasion which will later be marked by the customary on-stage ‘Happy Birthday’ rendition and a surprise cake. But it’s also the birthday of Charly Bliss’ sophomore record, Young Enough; their Headrow House gig this evening functioning as the unofficial album release party. Eighteen months ago, the New York power pop quartet – singer-guitarist Eva Hendricks, brother and drummer Sam Hendricks, guitarist Spencer, and bassist Dan Shure – played this exact venue on their first-ever UK tour to roughly 50 or so people who were slowly won over to their utterly irresistible bratty charms. Tonight, there’s easily triple that, perhaps way more, and the crowd is hot from the opening note.
Perhaps Leeds just needed some time to catch up. Guppy was 2017’s worst-kept secret in the music blogosphere, 10 perfect slices of classic Weezer cuts (sans Rivers Cuomo’s skeeviness) seemingly dropped fully-formed and effortlessly from the heavens. Upon its release in late-April, it was immediately acclaimed. By the end of the year, it was the talk of the entire Internet, even nabbing a spot on the prestigious Village Voice Pazz & Jop poll. Vindication for a record which, by the band’s account, was a nightmare to make; three years, a full-on re-recording, replacing nearly half the initial tracklist with newly-written songs ‘Black Hole,’ ‘DQ,’ ‘Scare U’ and ‘Westermarck’ (four of the best on the album).
Young Enough, releasing just over two years later, may be even better. It’s a levelling up for the band and a magnificent execution of the old sophomore album standbys: the darker and more introspective follow-up, lyrically inspired by an abusive relationship and sexual assault that Eva went through, and the cleaner poppier bid for stardom. A New Wave sheen runs through the record, some songs sound like Primitives (the arpeggiated accelerations of ‘Bleach’), others like lost cuts from Josie and the Pussycats – an observation which, when invoked in front of the band, sets them off on a quote-a-thon of the cult classic; Eva jokes that “we just ran Guppy through the Mega-Sound 8000” – and, in the extraordinary title track’s case, nothing less than indie rock legends Rilo Kiley’s Under the Blacklight. “I’m going to ascend to heaven!” is the response I get from Eva when I invoke the latter two comparisons, the first being a major influence on the band and the second being the reason Eva started writing music in the first place. Yet, despite how that may sound and despite what a vocal contingent of the fanbase may crow, Young Enough is still recognisably Charly Bliss through and through. After all, they’ve always been a pop band.
After the show, as talk turns excitedly to the inbound Carly Rae Jepsen record, Sam half-jokes about them probably having picked the worst time to release Young Enough, surrounded on all-sides by bigger-name releases even the band themselves cannot wait for. If I were them, I wouldn’t be worried. Word gets around fast when a band bottles lightning twice like Charly Bliss just have.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Do you think there was a pressure coming back after the acclaim of your debut?
Eva Hendricks: No-one could possibly put more pressure on us than the pressure we put on ourselves. The only pressure I remember feeling was that I had, and I think we all had, this very sharp vision in our mind for what our second album should be and making sure that we lived up to that. Because we’d know if we didn’t and then we’d have had to record it again! *laughs*
What was the difference between writing for Guppy and writing for Young Enough?
Eva: Part of writing something close to 30 songs is just that the first 10 or so that we wrote sounded like the logical follow-up to Guppy, and one of those songs was ‘Heaven’ [standalone single from September 2018] which, to me, sounds a little more in that vein.
Hence why you released it separate from the album as like a goodbye.
Eva: And we love that song! It’s just not where we wanted to move towards next. I think it’s always dangerous to write with too much intention. “Oh, we’re gonna go write a pop song!” It can quickly be like, “this song is really cheesy…”
Sam Hendricks: “Really forced.”
Eva: There’s something cool that happens when you write beyond your first instincts. Especially when I first started writing songs, I thought of songwriting as, “Oh my god, a song’s just gonna fall from the sky and there’s not a lot I can do if it doesn’t! I’ll just have to wait around for one to pop into my brain!” That’s fine, but I think something really interesting happens when you play out all your ideas, demo your ideas, try to write but “I don’t have any ideas!” and see what comes out of that. Also, I had always written on guitar but I got an iPad with GarageBand on it and it is very, very fun to make music on GarageBand. It’s a good challenge to write on an instrument that isn’t the instrument you’ve been predominately writing on.
Sam: A lot of the time with those 30 songs, we reached a point where the song was fully fleshed out and we went, “This is a Charly Bliss song. Cool, but we can we do now to push a little outside our comfort zone?” That happened a good amount.
Eva: A lot of that was also Joe [Chiccarelli, Young Enough’s producer].
Did you seek Joe out based on his resume [The Shins, The White Stripes, Pat Benatar, Spoon] or did he come to you?
Sam: It was a little of both, I think. We had a long list of producers we would have been honoured to work with and he was definitely on there. We were on the West Coast touring, taking a lot of meetings with people and he was actually one of the first. He just came in with such enthusiasm for us and we were blown away, just instantly vibed with him…
Eva: On every point we brought up he was like, “EXACTLY! That’s exactly where I think you guys should be heading next!” Totally got it. Not in a way where it felt like he was saying what we wanted to hear, it felt like he totally got what we were already hoping to work towards.
Sam: And it was cool because, like, “This guy doesn’t know about us. How would he?” But he said… He’d just produced the Broken Social Scene record [Hug of Thunder] and they were on a lot of Year-End lists right next to us and it was, “Who the hell is this ‘Charly Bliss’ band? I have to check this out!”
Lyrically, I noticed it’s a lot less sardonic than Guppy. One of the reasons I related a lot to Guppy was how you wrote about anxiety, but also every bite or emotional hit would be chased down by a joke or an aside. And I noticed as I was listening to Young Enough, you’re allowing yourself to be a lot more direct now. How do you manage to get yourself into that space to write that way?
Eva: I hear lyrics and albums that I’m inspired by and I’m like, “Holy shit, that is so much better than I could ever do.” I felt that way listening to Lorde’s Melodrama. There are just so many moments and images on that album that would break your heart and felt so brutal to listen to in the best way because it allows you to connect so much. I heard that album, how honest she was, and it made me want to work harder at being honest. On Guppy, I think I had a tendency to get really close to saying something that felt really hard to say and then just swerved with a joke. I was singing as a caricature of myself, making fun of myself, and I just don’t feel like that anymore. In the past couple of years, I’ve grown a lot more comfortable with who I am and the things I don’t like about myself which is a wonderful part of getting older. And I think it was a really big challenge to myself. I had a teacher in college, a songwriting professor, who said that my lyrics were so “esoteric” that you would need like a tour guide through them…
Eva: Exactly! And I know that I have that tendency. So, especially on a song like ‘Young Enough,’ which Sam wrote and then came to me to work on melodies together for that song… It was really the only time when Sam’s come with thoughts about how he wanted the lyrics to be; he wanted them to be really clear. Sometimes, that’s a challenge for me. There’re moments on ‘DQ’ I’m pretty sure no-one’s guessed what they’re about! Certainly “toe in the cornhole” [from ‘Black Hole’] is an enigma I maybe regret! *laughs*
Spencer Fox: No! No regrets!
Eva: But this felt like a challenge, it felt like a reflection of where I’m at right now, and it made sense to go there.
Do you think some of that might also have been helped by the change in social climate since Guppy? #MeToo, elevation of female-centric media, conversations about sexual assault. Do you think that support made it relatively easier to talk?
Eva: Yeah, you know… It’s so complicated. I think we’re all still figuring out how to talk about this stuff. We’re in a really massive historical moment of change. I was raised understanding that, like, rape could only be “someone tracks you down in an alleyway.” Obviously, things like that happen, but learning and being in a moment where people are really discussing this stuff and explaining that it’s also much more nuanced than that. There’s so much that plays into relationships and what works and what’s right or wrong, and I feel really fortunate to be living in a time right now where there are so many women being so brave talking about it because that’s the only way this stuff changes. I might not have ever been able to articulate what happened to me if it wasn’t for the bravery of other women sharing their stories and recognising something that I went through in what they were describing.
I’m someone who loves therapy – benefits from therapy, couldn’t live without it – and something I know about myself is if I keep things inside, they have so much more power over me. I’m usually very good talking about things and things that are very hurtful to me. For whatever reason, with this I could not talk about it and did not for years. So, seeing all of these women come forward and the power it seemed they gained and the bravery I admired in what they were doing… it was very inspiring. I really went back-and-forth on how much I wanted the lyrics on the album to mean and I’m glad I did because I feel the more I talk about it, the more in control I am.
Then you get to turn that experience into something positive that you and other people can take power from.
Eva: Absolutely! I wrote a song like ‘Chatroom’ for myself and it helped me so much. It’s like a gift that I gave myself in writing it that I hope that other people connect to.
Hard tonal pivot from that… Who was in charge of sequencing the album? [Sam raises hand.] Because the order and flow are amazing, like how two of the more triumphant songs on the record, ‘Chatroom’ and ‘Hard to Believe,’ are sat either side of heavy ballad ‘Hurt Me.’ It feels like a closed-loop where every track feeds into or offsets another. How difficult is it to figure out the sequencing?
Sam: It’s my favourite thing to do of all-time, I even got a spreadsheet going! My favourite albums are the ones that, top to bottom, take you on a journey, peaks and valleys. There’s plenty of pop albums that put their best five songs in the first half and the rest is like whatever.
That’s most pop albums from the 90s.
Sam: Which, totally get – you’re more likely to listen to the first songs on a record. But one of my favourite albums is Neutral Milk Hotel In the Aeroplane Over the Sea because it does a similar thing [to Young Enough]. It hits you with this incredibly heavy song, ‘Oh Comely,’ then after it’s ‘Ghost,’ which is such a different vibe but it just works because it’s this release after such an amazing build of emotion. Kind of like with ‘Young Enough’ and ‘Bleach,’ you let it build and then this huge release. I love albums which feel like albums and not just like a collection of songs. I love doing it!
With a change in sound will inevitably come people who will assume you’ve “sold out.” Is it hard to look at it and go, “have you not been paying attention?” Cos Guppy is a pop record…
Spencer: YES! That is my answer to your question!
…just under distortion and loud guitar solos! It’s pop, it’s always been pop, and pop music is great!
Eva: Totally. Anyone who says that they see a mean tweet about their band on the Internet and they’re like “it doesn’t affect me at all” is lying. *laughs* Sometimes we’ll see, “they’ve sold out, they’re just trying to make money!”
Spencer: “WHERE ARE THE GUITARS, MAN?!”
Eva: There’s a guitar on every song, first of all…
Spencer: Every song. Still in the band! *laughs* Don’t know what they think happened to me.
Eva: And there’s not really one song that just uses drum machine, either.
Dan Shure: There’s no drum machine!
Eva: We made drum samples out of Sam drumming!
Sam: It’s funny cos we released ‘Heaven’ as “here’s an ending of what we’ve sounded like now.” But I’m sure other people heard it and thought, “they’re leaning even further into the distortion.” So, I think when we released ‘Capacity,’ it really hit people out of nowhere. We had a lot of people who were, “oh, it’s not for me, I’m off the Charly Bliss bandwagon,” and they’ve since commented…
Eva: “Ok, I guess it’s pretty good.”
Spencer: So common! You see these dudes going “MAN, WHAT IS THIS AUTOTUNED BULLCRAP!?” Then you’ll go on their same comment two weeks later, “man, this is kinda growing on me.” *laughs*
Eva: We had to make the record we were proud of. No matter what we did, someone wasn’t going to like it and you have to know that. Through our experience doing this, there’s always going to be someone who rips it apart and I’ve found the only way I can stay sane when people behave that way is knowing that I love the album. That’s ok if it’s not totally for you, but I love our album!
Sam: We listened to the album, the entire thing, on the drive over and were dancing and singing along! *laughs*
Eva: We don’t do that often!
Sam: There are very small windows where you get to enjoy your own music; it’s right after you finish mastering everything, then right when you release it. After those, “don’t put that on!”
Eva: Lastly, I thinks it’s important to recognise that even I have that tendency sometimes with music. You mentioned Under the Blacklight by Rilo Kiley, who are my favourite band. I now love that album, but when it came out, I was “this is BULLSHIT! This is WRONG! WHY DID THEY DO THIS?!” But that’s now one of my favourite albums! I think it was genius of them to do something different. I even did it with Taylor Swift’s reputation…
Sam: We all did!
Eva: And you know what? That album is fucking genius, I love it! So, I’ve learned to take that stuff with a grain of salt. “You’re just getting it out your system!” And Guppy will exist forever, you can return to it time and time again.
Plus, if you just did Guppy again… I remember when The Strokes did Room on Fire and everyone went “it’s just Is This It again!”
Dan: Well that was the thing about ‘Heaven.’ People went, “I wish ‘Heaven’ was on the album.” Why does it matter? It’s on the Internet! You can listen to it forever!
And, with the sound and the sequencing, where would it even slot in?
Sam: People on our team were fighting for that to be on the album and we said the same thing. Sonically, it doesn’t make sense.
I love your focus on videos and visual content. How important is it to get the visual stuff right?
Eva: It’s so important to us. For Guppy, I wanted it to be like you’re in this suburban neighbourhood world where everything looks pre-packaged but also a little bizarre, and we played on that riff a lot in the music videos. For Young Enough, especially cos this was such a personal album, I thought of it as if you’re kind of walking in on the middle of a movie, on this moment that’s super-dramatic and kinda disorientating. So, I wanted to play that up in the album artwork and I’m super-happy with how it came out. And, something I feel is really worth mentioning, we all love acting! Sam didn’t grow up doing it but he’s great at it…
And, of course, Spencer the famous Pixar actor. [Spencer played Dash in the original Incredibles.]
Eva: Yes, Spencer is famous! Plus, it’s how Dan and I met, doing musical theatre together. I think it’s the best part of what we do. Being in a band is kind of incredible in that you are constantly taking on different roles in order to make it happen, all requiring different parts of your brain, and I feel it involves a lot of things that I am very interested in so I don’t really have to trade one thing for another. Getting to act in music videos, write treatments for them and work with directors is so fun. We’re people who love music videos so, like, why would we make a bad one? They cost so much money to make!
What is everybody listening to at the moment?
Eva: Lizzo, Kim Petras, Sigrid, those are the big ones right now.
Spencer: Anything Jack Antonoff does; his project, Bleachers, is incredible. The 1975.
Eva: We love The 1975!
I saw them in Sheffield back in January…
Eva: You did?!
Outstanding. Frankly, I feel there’s a part of my soul still left there.
Eva: That’s the best feeling.
Spencer: On the long van rides, I’m just watching their live videos on my phone the whole time.
Callie Petch is young enough to believe it should hurt this much.