5 Questions: Charlie Kaplan

Sunday | Digital Cover | © Charlie Kaplan

Musician and singer-songwriter Charlie Kaplan caught up with Esthetic Lens about his latest ventures and musings in our 5 Question feature. He shares how he has found moments of optimism amongst the rubble of this year and discusses the release of his debut album, Sunday.

1. What’s been keeping you up at night?

I lie on my side in bed and look out the window east. The shade is low and my view is only obscured by a glass of water and a bottle of Tums that I rely on more than I’d like. My phone is plugged in beside me and I don’t do a good job avoiding it. I worry about falling and staying asleep even before I get in bed, so I try to tire myself out with Words With Friends and Twitter. The former sometimes helps and the latter rarely does. Eventually I’ll flip my phone upside-down and stare out the window at one particular high-rise building. It abuts the river so nothing stands behind it, a solitary monolith. Late at night its towering facade is a patchwork smattering of lit apartments, here and there illuminated cubbies of night owls or profligate energy users who leave the light on. With my glasses off I can’t see any activity, just a random set of fuzzy glowing squares, defined only by their position and the warmth of the bulbs their inhabitants chose.

Even if I’m tired when I head to bed, some nights a new burner of worry lights to keep me awake. Sometimes it makes me feel small and inconsequential to think of myself as another nondescript window to someone; once in a while that solipsism inverts and I feel profoundly fortunate to be able to witness the still silence of the sight, occasionally disturbed by a rowdy group of drunks on the street or someone racing down the avenue a block away. Sometimes the placidity makes me feel vulnerable, as if the calm necessitates a storm. I remember as a kid my older sister telling me about nuclear warfare: An explosion of blinding light and then – pow! – you’re ashed off earth’s cigarette. So I lie and wait for the flash. Other times I fall down a well of grudges and fishhooking resentments, rusted axes to grind at 1:45am on a Tuesday for some reason. I need to tire this homunculus of agita out before the grip loosens and I’m gone.

2. What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen or heard lately?

I live in New York, which is soldiering through this pandemic with incredible dignity. Here restaurants are adapting, demonstrators are demanding their rights, Bill Frisell’s trio is playing to folding chairs on the sidewalk, friends are cautiously finding a good time in the crowded, beloved parks. People are manifesting hope and, to paraphrase Jason Isbell, fighting the urge to live inside their telephones.

On a good day I feel that change is inevitable and the spirit of the city is etched into bedrock too thick to be cracked. Other days I get into ruts searching for what remains and what’s been lost permanently. I grew up close enough to the city to idealize it and pick up some of its markers – music, slang, cuisine, hangout spots, an appreciation for its attitude and syncretism. I spent a lot of time with music from Biggie and the Strokes as a teenager. The city’s cultural radiance cooked me into the person I am. So I worry how everybody’s doing. The changes the pandemic wrought sometimes make me feel like the world I peered in at, then eventually got to inhabit, is more past than paused.

So the other day I walked up from the Q train and turned right onto the sidewalk, past a taco cart, across a street, and past a produce stand. Lost in thought; Aware of my mask and the risks about me instead of the signs of life. I was looking down at my phone and I heard – really, I felt – an eminence approaching. I turned my head to see a Ford Explorer, it must have been almost 20 years old, with the windows down rolling down the street past me. It was that weird color they used to make for cars, kind of a dark teal. All its windows were down and, as if it were megaphoning for a political campaign, the sound of Slick Rick’s “Children’s Story” boomed forth so loud I felt it through the soles of my feet. I remember downloading that song on my computer as a kid, right when I started getting into music and figuring out what I liked. I must have been 14 or 15. It felt so much like New York to me, a New York I barely knew but suddenly felt like I did.. 

As that car passed me, I felt myself filled with hope at the resilience of this place, the heat of its embers, its unshakable character and history. It was like a message both from an undeniable past and a still-possible future. It stomped my fretting just as coolly as I’d expect.

3. What’s the most exciting thing you’re working on right now?

I wrote songs for years and never had the confidence to think of them as a solo project until one day in 2016 my friend – and eventual producer and collaborator – Andrew Daly Frank asked what I was going to do with all my voice memos. I went back to all of those demos, some of them stretching back to college, and organized them together into 9-12 song groups that hung together emotionally, stylistically, thematically. All of a sudden, I had assembled a discography of several unmade albums. Sunday is the first, but there are more coming after, dozens of songs that I love and I can’t wait for people to hear. They each draw from reference points in different places, and I want to make them each uniquely. I’ve already got three songs started for my next thing. It’ll be quite different, and I can’t wait to branch out.

4. If you could add anyone, alive or dead to your team, who would it be?

My dad. I wrote these songs to counterbalance the darkness I felt after his death. This album, Sunday, is functionally warm and light; These were (and are) what I play when I feel lost or enshrouded. After a long day I’ll get lost in the chords to “California Days” or improvise a mediation like that at the beginning of “Small Business”. This question is the only scenario where that trade is even ponderable, but instead I have these songs. It makes me think of Aeschylus: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” This music is as close to wisdom as I’ve gleaned from that pain.

5. When the movie of your life is made, what will it be called?

Maybe I’ll try a lyric from this album – “Today’s the day”.

It’s not my favorite line I’ve ever written. It’s pretty plain but it speaks to an enduring feeling I’ve had even before the series of events that resulted in this album. Time is limited, days are numbered. I’m not just talking about death, though that’s a subject of Sunday; I mean moments pass, people change, classes graduate, crews break up, sunsets dip, meals end and the bottle gets emptied. The present moment is filled with encumbrances and sadness, but is full of fleeting moments and ephemeral openings too. You’re either in this moment or it’s behind you. Sometimes we yearn for the past; sometimes we pray it’ll pass faster. But when it’s gone it’s gone, and today’s the day.

Photo by Emma Racine

New York based musician and singer-songwriter Charlie Kaplan (Office Culture) has shared “Pete Williams” – the gripping, impassioned second single from his forthcoming debut album Sunday, out November 13. 

The cover of singer-songwriter Charlie Kaplan’s debut record, Sunday, is an image of himself, comprised of just a few squiggled pen marks. In 2014—two months after the passing of Kaplan’s father—a stranger at a bar in Brooklyn sketched it for him on a napkin, as a birthday present. Its haphazard style reflects the presumably dim light by which it was drawn.

Kaplan wrote the songs on Sunday in the wake of his father’s death. “Each song was an exercise in conjuring light, warmth, insight, guidance, release – my life’s absent emotional palette,” he explains. “I used music as a way to induce feelings that no longer occurred naturally.”

Sunday will be self-released on November 13, and is available to pre-order on vinyl at Bandcamp.