"It's near impossible for me to write in one style only," says singer/songwriter Charlie Winston. "And today in my generation of songwriting, there's a bit of a lack for me. People have forgotten the power of song, since the technology swept through, and how it carries. Coming from parents who are songwriters, that's my No. 1 thing, really."
That latter reference would be to the '60s English folk duo Jeff and Julie. And arguably, Running Still -- Winston's third, following Hobo and his 2006 debut Make Way -- is the album to which his whole life has been leading. Winston was raised by his parents in their small East Anglia hotel, which he describes as "Fawlty Towers, but with a family" -- with two bars and a ballroom, hosting a constant stream of musical, theatrical and comedy performers. He says he was the "cheerful" one of the four children, responding to his father's coercion to entertain.
"He bribed me to learn how to juggle and ride unicycles and all that at eight years old!," he says. "My brothers Tom and Jo had their own band, so I was watching them do their thing. At 10 years old both my sister and I got piano lessons and my musical world started to be developed."
Charlie's teenage dream was to be an actor, but music pulled at him. His first band, when he was 15, had a brass section for which he got into writing parts. A love for all sorts of jazz intensified - complementing what had been a pre-teen obsession with hip-hop, through which he learned to beat-box, as heard on "Speak to Me", "Wild Ones" and "Hello Alone".
"I like to keep that element that sounds personal and intimate. If something's produced by the body, it's immediately more intimate."
At 16 he followed brother Tom to music studies in London amid a vast array of students, he being the youngest. The oldest? "An old Jamaican guy, 72, who was a terrible trumpeter!" he says. "For me it was like home, used to odd characters around the hotel. My complete goal at the time was to become the best jazz pianist in the world, which is a little high. But nonetheless, good to have that focus."
Ambition, then, was not a deficit. The campus also sported a dance school and Winston made contacts there and wrote music for some programs. He also, not much later, wrote a "little trio piece" for the London Symphony and "realized my calling was in composition as opposed to improvisation. That became everything to me."
Next came a three-year stint in Baxter, the band fronted by his brother Tom Baxter (Charlie, Tom and sister Vashti Anna all use their middle names as stage names), learning the ropes of the pop life. Approaching 21, though, he needed a break and traveled to India for a month alone, returning to London to concentrate on writing music for theater, but quickly sliding in to the dual role of performing music as well as composing for stage productions before his brother recruited him back, this time often giving Charlie the opening slots on his shows. It was while recording Baxter sessions at Real World Studios that Winston met Peter Gabriel and a bond formed. A publishing deal allowed Winston to record Make Way.
The somewhat vagabondish life he'd been leading inspired "Like a Hobo," and though he decided not to include it on the debut, it became a regular part of shows and grabbed hold of fans' imaginations.
"The song seemed to generate this persona for me in people's minds," he says. "People would say, 'How's your hobo life?' I'm not really a hobo! It's like a hobo, but it was about my core values. Thinking about things my parents told me that I keep close to my heart. Important not to put material values at the top of my list. Having few possessions was important to me, as a means for keeping loved ones closer."
At that time a girlfriend prodded him to get out of London, travel more. So he busked his way around Europe, getting gigs where he could, making friends along the way, ultimately landing in Paris, and everything came together: He fell in with drummer Medi (a singer-songwriter in his own right, with an album released in 2011) as well as a manager and label who took a very active role in building up his name. Even a month before his second album was released, he was startled to be recognized by two girls while waiting to get on a Eurostar train. When Hobo was released, it all took off.
After the whirlwind of travel and performing that followed, those around him suggested he take a break. "But I'd heard of too many artists on their second album being stuck after a hit record, and I didn't want to be in that position," he says.
So he set to writing fresh material while continuing the promotion of Hobo, plus his travels and explorations. Coming into the start of the new album process, with a full 28 songs ready to go. That's where producer Tony Berg (Beck, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Michael Penn, Aimee Mann, Ozomatli) and his expertise came in.
"I sat with him in pre-production week and went through everything. We talked about each song and it was very clear on most of them. We both understood that we striving for greatness. 'The Great Conversation' is the one that hooked him in, a whole commentary on what I'm striving for. As an artist if there's one thing I'm obliged to do, one thing I have a duty to do, it's create good work and at the right moment, produce work people can get excited about. If I can't bring forward an album or even a couple of songs people can get excited about, there's no point in even a discussion of making another record. Then I'm just wasting people's time -- which is embarrassing to me, and for everybody else."
'Running Still' was released in Europe and Canada in November 2011 and will be released in UK and USA in January 2013.