All the way back in 2013, I was working on something that took me to the main branch of the New York Public Library every day. The morning-to-afternoon work was quiet and solitary. It was during that time that a song from Blouse—the Portland-based three-member indie band headed by Charlie Hilton—crept onto a Spotify playlist. Blouse’s second album Imperium, and their self-titled debut from 2011 turned my work into a love-infused day-dream from the 80s, versus the endless, poorly-lit time it actually was. In short, Blouse salvaged two weeks of my life a couple of years ago (and many subsequent days since then).
Earlier this month, I was on Captured Tracks website and noticed one of its artists was Blouse. I wrote to Mike Sniper, who runs the label, and I was like, “Man, you guys are up to such cool shit.” Sniper wrote back: “Charlie Hilton, the singer, has a solo LP coming out in a few weeks. Google her.”
Thank god for Mike Sniper and his ability to direct a lot of ears to great sounds, because when I did Google Hilton, and then listened to some tracks off her solo LP, Palana—which releases on Friday—my present reality once again got a lot better. It shares Blouse’s vintage warmth, but the songs are less produced (Jake Portrait, a member of Blouse, produced the album), and Hilton’s voice, to me, sounded like it dug to a deeper, more personal place. I was reminded of the first magical moment I heard Trish Keenan sing for Broadcast. Out of a speaker in a Greenpoint apartment, a self-knowing melancholy rung clear and bordered on the spiritual. Hilton’s voice here carries a self-knowledge that sounds completely exposed, effortless.
“Life is really messy and confusing, and making art, you are forced to stand back and look at it from afar and make sense of it, and it gives you something to cling to,” Hilton tells me via phone from her home in Portland, Oregon yesterday. “People listen to music for that reason,” she says. “They’re like, oh, that makes so much sense—I understand my feelings.”
Hilton first began recording Palana with label-mate Mac DeMarco a couple of years ago. Even while working with Blouse, her intention was to do a solo project. It took a minute for her to get it off the ground, though; she’s been in school, studying graphic design in Portlland (“If I had the money to stay in school forever, I would,” she says, “It’s nice to have more than one tool in your bag.”), and she also toured Imperium for about a year with Blouse. After Hilton’s first session with DeMarco (the result of which, “100 Million,” sounds like a lullaby featuring Demarco’s twangy guitar), she finished recording the remaining 10 tracks at The End in Greenpoint. During her recording sessions with Portrait, Hilton says Beach Fossils and Yeasayer were also in the building recording, so Hilton—who was thoughtful and patient and nice as can be on the phone—said multiple run-ins with the bands organically led to Tommy Gardner from Beach Fossils contributing saxophone to her album, and Anand Wilder from Yeasayer adding cello. “It was kind of cool how it all just came together really easily like that,” says Hilton. Artist Robert Beatty, who has designed album covers for Tame Impala and Neon Indian, designed her cover art.
Hilton grew up in Los Angeles, and her father was a musician who, she says, lived in a house in the 70s with a bunch of other musicians in Echo Park. Hilton’s tastes, however, are quite different than her dad’s. “Growing up I thought he dressed weird, and he was a rocker; I appreciate him now in a way that I couldn’t when I was young—he inspired me a lot.” From the time she was in middle school, Hilton began writing songs and became serious about making music professionally. She would play open mic nights—but they terrify her to this day. “I still get too nervous to play open mics, even after playing so many shows,” she says. “It reminds me of what I used to go through, what it felt like in the past, and being really masochistic.” Luckily, her own shows don’t give her the same anxiety. “I know some of the people [in the crowd] and that some are interested in listening to me, or like the music I’m playing.”
Hilton says that to her, Palana incorporates a natural evolution of her song-making, from her Blouse albums when she was a little younger and a little less introspective, to present, when she feels a little more introspective and philosophical. Hilton says that, in part, she was thinking of Nico in the 70s while making the album—so it also rings with a similarly straightforward melancholy, but there’s a levity to it, as well. Songs like “Let’s Go to a Party” could make a room break out in dance.
I wondered if there would be, from here on out, more Charlie Hilton in the future, and less Blouse. “I don’t think Blouse is finished,” says Hilton. “There has never been a real end in sight. We don’t really know what’s going to be next, but we want to make another record.”
And what does her dad think of Palana? Hilton laughs a little bit. “He is kind of competitive, but in a cute way. He is really proud. When I finished the record I sent it to him and he said, ‘I think it’s good, but I think I might just not get it.” On second thought, she thought that might sound a little mean but, she assures me, “It’s all in good fun.”
Palana releases Friday off of Captured Tracks.