At one point in Charles Walker’s new video for “Passenger Side,” he hangs up a picture of Nashville next to a picture of Boone, where he’s lived for the last four years. He then stands between them and stares at the camera. It’s some pretty straightforward symbolism, as the Charlotte native plans to leave his home state for The Music City sometime soon, but he couldn’t have guessed just how much he had hit the nail on the head.
Walker, who became a virtual graduate of Appalachian State University in May (he didn’t bother logging in to the online ceremony), originally planned to move in August, but now with COVID-19 putting an end to live music for the foreseeable future, he’s waiting things out, stuck between locations with no real home.
We talked with Walker, who turned 22 earlier this month, over the phone from Winston-Salem, where he’s been staying with his mom post-graduation and awaiting his return to Boone to … well, he doesn’t know yet. What’s not in limbo is the release of his self-titled album, his full-length debut, on June 12. We chatted about the Boone come-up, the new video (shot and edited by Josiah Clark) and how his precarious situation has helped him deal with his anxiety rather than make it worse.
Queen City Nerve: So you started your music career here in Charlotte during high school.
Charles Walker: Yeah, so I played bass in Placeholder, and it was funny because we could only play places that would allow under 18 for the most part. So we used to play coffee shops as a punk band, and weird shows, whatever we could get. I remember one time we played a 4/20 show on the back porch of this weird vape shop in Huntersville and there were nine kids there and it was at 2 p.m. We never knew what we were walking into, and I don’t think any of us played a club until after I had moved away.
That was most of my exposure to the scene. I would go to The Milestone in my senior year before I moved up [as I was] getting more into local music. I would try to go to Petra’s when they would do all ages earlier in the day, but other than that it was weird trying to play shows and attempting to integrate into the scene because there’s so much cut off if you’re not 18. So I got into the scene as well as I could for that time period.
You’ve since built up your solo act in Boone, where some bands like Nude Party have begun seeing success. What’s it been like to legitimately start your music career in a small town like that?
Charles Walker: It’s been amazing. It’s kind of funny, I was talking about how going to shows in Charlotte and getting integrated in the scene was kind of weird because all the venues were over 18, but then as soon as I moved to Boone, there weren’t any venues, all of the shows are house shows; the majority of the local scene is out of houses. There are five to seven houses at any given time, sometimes more. I also ran a show house for about a year and a half in Boone and booked a ton of bands.
Honestly, it’s been really good. There’s a lot of great music in Boone. It’s small enough to where the art is really diverse, meaning that there’s not really any two bands that sound alike in Boone. It’s not like there’s 30 metal bands and everyone’s just competing with the metal bands. They have Basilica, which is an amazing beatdown hardcore band — although they’d probably be mad if I labeled them that — there’s great R&B music, there’s a couple great local jam bands, some other folky dudes like me, and there’s a couple country bands.
There’s only about 20 active bands because there’s only 20,000 people in the town, so you get a lot of different perspectives. And this is where I found DIY, playing house shows up here, so it’s been a great education. Most of the stuff I’ve learned about music and most of my growth definitely point to different things that happened there over the past four years.
Has moving to Nashville always been the plan for you?
Charles Walker: It’s been a thing since probably 9th or 10th grade — way, way back. I just felt like it was the closest city that was a big music city. I always wanted to move to a big city. I know Charlotte’s a huge city but I just didn’t want to live permanently where I grew up.
I’m also interested in commercial songwriting and songwriting of many different natures and I would love to coproduce and cowrite with some other acts. I’ve done that for a few bands in Boone, and Nashville is a huge city for that as far as songwriting collaboration and networking and that kind of stuff. I don’t think I’ve always known what I would do when I got there, but I have known for a while that you have to get out to Nashville because it’s a big music city that’s not like N.Y. or L.A. or anything.
Tell me a little bit about “Passenger Side.”
Charles Walker: The song is sort of in two parts, it has a big tempo change in the middle, I think it’s clearly divided. It’s sort of about the duality of being on the road so much. I think when I wrote it, it was specifically about being on tour, but the meaning of it has sort of redefined itself in the last year or two.
By the time we were making the video my life was in a place where it felt more contextually about moving or not feeling like you’re tethered down to one place. That’s how I’ve felt for the last year. My town is like a college town; no one really stays in Boone after they graduate, the turnover rate is like 100%, so I already had that feeling of not being weighed down to a certain place. I guess with the Nashville move, it was still kind of up in the air because it hadn’t happened yet, and I was still planning it, then it all sort of fell through right around the time we were making the video.
So it’s taken on a whole new meaning to you?
Charles Walker: The lyrics were originally about being on the road and touring, “Hunter’s asleep on the passenger side.” In a literal sense it’s about being on the road all the time, but over time it’s come to mean that it’s weird in both a physical way and in my relationships with people to not know where I’m going to be at any time. For anyone I think, to not know when you’re going to be moving, when something’s up in the air, just not knowing exactly where you stand.
I feel like where you are is a big part of how you identify as a person, and that’s something I’ve thought about a lot for the last year; it’s been up in the air in various different ways, so just not knowing who I’m going to be around, who my relationships are going to be with, and also physically where I’m going to be, what’s the scenery going to be? I guess it’s just about feeling untethered and wanting to be more tethered to a place and wanting a little bit more stability.
The visuals make it feel like you’re torn in your decision, despite the fact that you’ve been waiting all those years for this move.
Charles Walker: I was kind of trying to express the range of feelings and how it changes so frequently. Because the first half, both lyrically and sonically, is the positive and the back half is the negative, which honestly is the way a lot of my days go, as far as when I’m thinking about Nashville and all the stuff that I was just talking about. I wake up and feel optimistic about something, but a lot of the times in the evenings when I’m alone and it’s dark and I’m laying in bed or just otherwise in the later parts of the day is usually when I get reflective and concerned.
It’s easy in certain moments to completely throw concern to the wind because the advantages of doing a move like that are so in the forefront of your mind and you’re really excited about it and everything. Moving is just one of those things where it’s extremely exciting but at the same time it’s really terrifying. It’s almost like because I waited all those years, that’s part of what makes it more exciting and also what makes it scarier. It’s just kind of a big thing and it affects it in both ways.
And now the move has been put on hold, so how does that add to those feelings?
Charles Walker: Oh my God, well it adds to the anxiety for sure, like a ton, as it adds anxiety to literally everything. The positives are still there, but I would say that it has made me a lot more anxious, because now I’m not exactly sure what I’m doing until I move there. Do I get a job that I use my degree for, and then just move out there? Or do I work as a waiter for however many months? I also don’t know how long I will be staying in Boone, because you don’t know when everything’s going to be reopening. You don’t know when you’re moving, which also isn’t good for trying to find places out there because I have no clue when I’m going — in three months or in nine months?
I’ll tell you what it’s done, it’s made me want to find a stability within myself without the move. For the last year especially, with all those feelings of not having a tethered place where I live, it’s been very easy to be completely consumed with, “How long am I going to feel this way? Am I going to feel this way until I move? And when I move am I just going to keep feeling this way?” Now it’s like, well, the world has told you that “Hey, you don’t get to move. You don’t get that light at the end of the tunnel, so you need to find it yourself or you’re going to have to wait x amount of months to even see if it’s possible.”
Sometimes it easier, especially with mental health and anxiety and stuff, to rely on a big thing that’s coming up or push it off and try to put your own health in the hands of an event or something else, but realistically that never really happens. It’s made me think about how to just feel good on my own without any external influences no matter where I am.
A lot of the times I’m like, “Well I’m anxious but it’s because I have this big move and this career and I think about that all the time and I want to get at it.” But I’m going to be anxious until I do what, sign a record deal? What fantasy am I trying to pull? When does this end? What the COVID has made me think about is that it doesn’t just end; it ends whenever I decide, and that’s the only way that it ends.
What do you hope people take away from your first full-length album?
Charles Walker: The record is a lot about the stuff we’ve been talking about in this conversation; it’s about anxiety and self-image and reflection. When I songwrite, a lot of my stuff is self-attacking, self-confrontational, so the record is kind of about learning to be comfortable even when you aren’t the biggest fan of yourself or if you’ve made mistakes. Bringing up that previous point, the record is sort of about finding peace within yourself, and accepting the fact that nobody else is going to do that for you.
A lot of people with anxiety talk about cyclical thoughts and getting stuck in a self-hatred cycle that’s basically unproductive but it’s all your brain knows how to do in the moment, and the record is about waking up and realizing that you have to fix that.
Nobody else in the world is going to make you feel any type of way. You are in control of that. When you realize that, you can start to get there, but as long as you sit there feeling sorry for yourself waiting for someone to fix it for you, you’re just hurting yourself. And that’s the big theme of most of the art that I’ve ever made, and definitely this record.