Charlie Cunningham interview: Fenders, Flamenco and the future
After selling his Telecaster to pursue the art of Flamenco, it looked like singer songwriter's career in music was all over; but now he's back. Greg Wetherall interviews.
Last updated: 1st Oct 2019
Image: Charlie Cunningham
A few years ago, guitar-toting virtuoso Charlie Cunningham cashed in his beloved Fender Telecaster so that he could fund a train ticket to Seville to learn flamenco. A few years passed before he returned home. Like a musical prodigal son, his return secured a record deal and a hit album, Lines.
Now back with album number two, Permanent Way, Cunningham took the opportunity to sit himself down with Skiddle to discuss ongoing struggles with social media, the importance of streaming platforms for new artists, his expansive new album and immersion into the ‘fucking hard’ art of flamenco.
What made you sell your Telecaster to pay for a trip to Spain and hunker down there for two and a half years learning Flamenco?
I wanted to get away. I was working in pubs and restaurants and putting up marquees. Doing all sorts of jobs, basically, and then doing music when I would get home. When I got to about 27 or 28, I thought that I must really somehow find a way of doing this music thing. I just needed to put the hours in. I’d never really put the time in. I originally wanted to go to Seville for three months, but then I realised that (flamenco) is fucking hard, so I stayed for two and a half years in the end.
Was it hard to leave?
Yeah, it was a bit. The way of life is pretty great over there, but then I thought that I’d better go home now. I was there to learn something but if you’re not careful you can find your goalposts keep changing. I just got to the point where I thought I could go home and finally give it all a crack.
Did you write songs whilst you were in Seville?
No. I was only doing flamenco. I didn’t do any composition the entire time I was there. I was just immersed in flamenco. I had written a load of songs before I went and I felt that although the songs were goodish, I wanted to bring them to life a little bit more. I felt as though I was limited in my playing.
When I came back I got some work in some places around Oxford places playing guitar. Once I was earning my living, a small living, then I started playing some of my tunes.
Did you revisit the old songs? Did you play them any differently?
Yeah. The structures were all the same but I used my new techniques to bring them to life, but there was a shitty moment for about six or seven months when I got home where I suddenly couldn’t play any of my old stuff because my technique was different, and then I couldn’t play any of the flamenco stuff, so I just became this person who couldn’t play guitar any more. But then, every week I saw incremental improvements, bit by bit.
Who influenced your playing originally?
Eric Clapton for sure. And Bob Dylan, the Carter Family. Radiohead. Thom Yorke has a great finger picking technique – really underrated. Street Spirit was definitely one of the first things I learned to play.
Where would you place this second album against the first record?
The first album was much more about the guitar and the voice. It was about the song in its simplest form. I actually think I had to do the first record in order to feel like I was in a position to do this one.
I wanted to have some more instrumentation this time around, so I opened the whole thing up a touch more. It goes to some darker places.
What’s your view of the music scene around you at the moment?
I have no idea, man. It’s hard to keep up. Everything can seem quite transient. You just have to think about what you’re doing and not think too much about where you fit in within the musical climate because, if you start doing that you’re destined for failure somewhere down the line. I think you’ve just got to stick to what it is that you’re doing.
How important are streaming platforms for upcoming artists?
It’s played a big part for me as it’s provided the chance for people to hear my music. And it goes out far and wide. People come up to me after shows telling me that they heard me through Spotify all the time.
Do you feel an obligation to participate with social media?
Social media I struggle with. I am quite a private person and don’t like people knowing too much about me. I don’t think you need to give too much away. I certainly like it if the artists that I’m listening to have something slightly enigmatic about them.
You’re signed to BMG. Have they put pressure on you to use it more?
Yeah, they would like me to do a bit more than I do. Lewis Capaldi smashes it and does a really good job but I struggle with it. It’s a real balancing act. I do see it as a chance to reach people and if you want people to come to your shows, it’s good that they know where you’re playing but they don’t need to know what I had for breakfast.