Once, years ago, Charlotte Sometimes traveled out to a field in Pennsylvania to perform at a balloon festival. She had no idea where she’d ended up, and instead of the multitudes she imagined attended such events, found only a handful of onlookers—festival workers, at that. “High school,” she explains, and it becomes a bit clearer how this guitar-wielding, soul-bearing spark of a songstress spent her formative years.
From a children’s book, she borrowed the name of a precocious boarding school student who finds herself transported 40 years into the past, into the body of another girl. This curiously dark story of time-travel and interchangeable identities, written in 1969 by Penelope Farmer, captivated Charlotte and embedded inside her restless mind the inspiration for detailing her own exploits, into that tentative space between confrontation and escape. The idea that you could actually be someone else—that people often did adopt alter egos, depending on the circumstance—fascinated her.
Maybe the fact that she was adopted had something to do with it. For a long time, Charlotte didn’t have a clue about her actual birth date, or ethnic background for that matter (her mother has blonde hair and blue eyes; she does not). “The simple things that everyone else knows, you don’t know,” she explains. “It doesn’t seem like a big deal to anyone else, but it’s such a big deal when you’re young and you don’t know anything about where you came from.”
Dead set on coming from somewhere, she threw herself into the rigors of dance and musical theater until age 14, when she traded in her leotard for a guitar. It was a relief, she says, to no longer be forced to stare into a mirror all day and told to suck in this and suck in that. Instead, she began writing songs and playing them for people in her small town of Wall, New Jersey (just north of Brick—no joke), eventually making treks to New York and, on at least one occasion, to a poorly attended Pennsylvania balloon festival.
Charlotte Sometimes’ enchanting debut full-length, 1918: Waves and the Both of Us, is a product of insomnia, airplanes, and bodies of water, not to mention countless hours of daydreaming to the mesmerizing sounds of Billie Holiday, the Everly Brothers, Jeff Buckley, and Fiona Apple, among others. An allusion to the year to which Farmer’s protagonist travels, the title isn’t so much an overt reference to the book as it is a recognition of the fact every one of us is stuck somewhere, trying to be someone else, or at least play the role of one of our personalities. Also named for one of its songs (“Waves and the Both of Us”), the record tells a story of the currents that pass through our lives, some more uplifting or traumatic than others, Charlotte says. “It’s about all the different waves that live inside my head and heart, and how they affect others, myself, and the person I want or pretend to be.”
It’s difficult to say whether Charlotte’s onstage persona is an outlet from these personalities or just one of them. Probably both. As a performer, she’s flippant and seductive, and as a songwriter, she gravitates toward the shadier elements in life, like spiders and Valium (“Sweet Valium High”), using the eclectic imagery to dissect the dynamics between women and men. “The whole idea of the power struggle between a man and a woman entertains me—the idea of what a woman’s role is, if it’s to be submissive to a man, or if it’s to be in charge of a man, if it’s to be equal to a man.”
Leave it to a Cypress Hill lyric to score one for the girls. On “How I Could Kill a Man,” Charlotte reinterprets the refrain of a rap classic, graciously turning male bravado on its head. It’s a disarmingly upbeat and happy song colored with darkness and condescension. Her warm, amber voice isn’t murderous, per se, but you believe it when she says she’s “killed” men, metaphorically speaking. And still, you smile and move your feet—proof once again that dancing and misery are not mutually exclusive.
“It’s almost like you can dance your troubles away,” Charlotte says. Take another rosy song, “Ex-Girlfriend Syndrome,” which digs relentlessly inside an ex-boyfriend’s head. “I always imagine teenage girls in their car on a summer day just dancing around in their car listening to the songs, and being, like yeah, ‘Fuck you!’ A lot of the record is about getting those kinds of feelings out, but you don’t have to mope about it.” Throughout the album, beats—both instrumental and electronic—are a vital part of the drama, pushing the record forward and allowing the music and stories to pulsate underneath your skin.
Meanwhile, the somber, piano-laced “Pilot,” tells a different story, filling in the unspoken space between two people. Charlotte readily admits she’s not terribly successful at relationships, and this disheartening recollection is just one example. “I feel like, sometimes, people pretend to be so much more connected than they really are.” It’s a beautifully patient, if melancholy, glimpse into a familiar and hopeless situation.
While her high school years yielded a few homemade EPs and one live CD, recorded when she was only 14, 1918: Waves and the Both of Us is Charlotte’s first fully realized album—call it a graduation of sorts. Having poured so many of her influences into the album, she’s not entirely sure which genre it’s intended for, except that it pulls liberally from throughout her own personal arsenal of loves and neuroses, including dark poetry, dance beats, and indie folk. Her brain buzzes constantly, and she confesses to an obsessive streak. Why limit herself to one genre, she figures, when she can draw from everything she’s ever done? Music is mood, first and foremost, and in the midst of diversity, her songs remain alluringly bare and revelatory.
“I want to make sure that whole emotional connection is in each and every word and in each and every note of my songs, because if that’s not there, then what’s the point in music? Music is supposed to transport you somewhere. It’s supposed to make you feel connected to something,” she says. ““I would hope that I’m making a connection with people because if not, it’s almost like masturbating when it comes to music. That’s fun, but sex is better.”