Voted the city’s “Best Singer-Songwriter” in 2011 by Scene magazine, Charlie Mosbrook has been one of a handful of people at the heart of the Cleveland folk scene over the past twenty years. Known for his intimate performances, warm voice and sterling songwriting, he’s also been the emcee of many open mics, fostering with understated patience the ambitions of eager songwriters, including me.
I met Charlie in 1996, maybe 1997. Those Monday nights at the open mic at Arabica coffeehouse in Coventry, where you’ll now find the Grog Shop, there was a chance I’d hear anything I could imagine—mostly acoustic singer-songwriter fare, influenced by Dave Mathews and Ani DiFranco and the occasional Bob Marley, but also an avant-garde duo called Mount Nepal Philharmonic Orchestra, or poetry from the locals. Established names stopped by as I watched amateurs get better and better. Charlie would usually be wrapping up microphone cords at the end of the night as I helped, which was really an excuse to pester him with a litany of questions. How do you get a show? What was that chord? What were the lyrics to that Dylan song? This returns us to his aforementioned patience.
Released this February, Something to Believe is Charlie’s tenth full-length record, a remarkable feat for any musician these days and made all the more remarkable by the events of late 2009, when sudden spinal cord problems left him an incomplete quadriplegic. Having “adapted to a new body,” as he puts it in our conversation below, he’s also been releasing the best music of his life. Something to Believe distills what’s best about Charlie’s songwriting even as it incorporates new influences from traditional American folk music.
I caught up with Charlie just after the release party for Something to Believe and just before he heads west by train in April for gigs in Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and other points west.
Tell me a little about the scene around the Arabica coffeehouse in Coventry in the 1990s and how you got involved with it.
I was sixteen and working at Arabica. I spent most of my high school time working there. I dug all the musicians, John Bassette, Carlos Jones, Jim Volk, Mark Webster. There were poets, too; Dan Thomson and Tim Calhoun were well thought of and always around. There was a lot of political banter too. Communists, hard right and everything in between. I had fun with all of it. I was clean at the time but I was getting bad grades, so the school threatened drug treatment. I started going to AA to prevent that. It was common to send kids off for drugs and drinking in an effort to fix problems.
So even though you weren’t on drugs or alcohol, the school threatened to send you to a drug treatment program? And then you went to AA to avoid that?
Yes. I’d smoked and admitted it, but drinking was a family holiday thing. A touch of wine at Christmas. Nothing worthy of branding a child a drug addict. ‘Twas common in the eighties.
So that became my peer group; we all hung out together. A lot of the kids were into music, and we all started groups, started playing. I was getting into Dylan and the Dead. When I was eighteen, I took off on tour and settled a few times in Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin. Eventually, I always came back to Coventry and would work at Arabica or Grum’s (Sub Shop). On one trip back, the owners of Arabica were looking for ways to improve business on Mondays. I suggested an open mic. The boss said do it.
I did. We started quickly with really primitive mismatched gear. As time went on we became more sophisticated yet simple. The open mic got very popular and thrived for twelve years. When the place closed, Monday was the best day of business. A lot of great musicians came through. I had an amazing opportunity to develop my music, too. The creative scene was awesome, and sorta fizzled after they closed. After the Grog Shop opened in that spot, and the Phoenix (another coffeehouse) moved in, the scene got new life. It’s alive now.
You continue to host a few different open mics. Have they changed at all for you since you started?
I’ve always maintained the same goals with open mic. I basically stick to the same game plan. I’m a much better entertainer now. I think I’m better at communicating with both the players and the audience. I’ve always encouraged the acts to take it seriously, but now I also encourage them to treat it as a workshop. Take chances and tighten the skills. My biggest hope is that they have fun.
I’ve been thinking about my experiences at your open mics and others around Cleveland: some really great performers, some not so good. I picked up so much from you and other really talented folks, but do you think a musician can learn from the bad performances, too, including one’s own?
I think the learning often comes from the bad nights. When I suck, I go home and practice.
Take me through your recent health problems. How are you doing these days?
I’m an incomplete quadriplegic. My spine is injured at c5-c7. The problems developed in December 2009 when the discs started to move and compress the spinal cord. My doctor ignored the symptoms for two months. My surgery was March 5, 2010, and following that came extended in-patient physical therapy. The cause of the injury is unknown. I have mobility issues and numbness in both hands. The long term prognoses is that I am basically who I will be. The surgery hopefully prevents further damage. I’m doing well. I’ve adapted to a new body. I love my life right now. I do miss running, but now I use a handcycle. It’s liberating.
What’s a handcycle?
A handcycle is a recumbent tricycle powered with hand cranks. The steering is controlled with the same cranks. Brakes are on the right crank. It’s geared like a bike.
Did you take a break from playing while you underwent treatment and therapy? I seem to recall that you did, but not for very long. How did music help you through that time?
Because of the numbness in my hands, I feared losing the ability to play. As a result, I’ve practiced religiously. I also got back to performing quickly. I did a couple in a neck brace. It has kept me moving forward and focused. I believe it has given me much of what I have. Spirit, physical, financial, mental, creative and mood. I did take a break while pursuing Ironman. One day I decided to refocus back to music.
Something to Believe is a bit more traditional in its sound than some of your previous records, particularly the instrumentation and the song structures. What spurred that?
As we went through the nineties and into the last decade I was influenced a lot by Daniel Lanois and his production with Dylan, Emmylou Harris and a few others. Michael Hedges also influenced those ideas. I enjoyed the folk hybrid and saturated soundscapes produced on those records. Part of it was about creating a scene, changing scenes, introducing new sounds. When I heard a straight acoustic guitar and vocal it sounded empty and weak. It worked on some old Dylan records, but I didn’t feel I could pull it off so I would get into experimenting with different tones and instruments to give the sage more scenery. I still think some of those recordings were really cool.
With this group of songs, I was influenced right away by the tone coming off this Martin 0-18 that I acquired last year. The guitar is forty-nine years old and the tone is amazing. It sort of led me into these Steven Foster-like melodies. They stood on their own. The simplicity of these ideas really worked and the tone of the instrument was so good that I thought it would be wasted by trying to embellish the sound too much. As the songs began to develop, it became clear to me that these tunes were strong and would stand up on their own. I was also working with a banjo player and wanted to write for that kind of lineup. String band stuff. Having such a good group of musicians willing to play on the record also helped my decision process. There was little reason to add to what already sounded great.
I have always been a big fan of Jerry Garcia, particularly the records he did late in life with David Grisman. The song choices were timeless, the music was fun, the storytelling perfect, and the picking was amazing. The recordings were honest and intimate. I also was finding Gillian Welch records inviting. Simple tunes with thoughtful instrumentation. These records went beyond the song with their performances. The players on the stage became as relevant as the stage. The overdone scenery of my past seemed unnecessary, as I was now working with players that made my production embellishment’s seem silly and foolish.
In the online description of the record, you mention that you’ve “written a collection of new songs for the 19th century.” That’s a wonderful thing to say. Could you explain that a bit?
The idea that I was writing for nineteenth century was slightly tongue-in-cheek. I had a few opportunities to spend time with Andy Cohen over the past year. He is one of this country’s biggest proponents of traditional music. He is the traditional guy in Folk Alliance and had a big write up in Sing Out magazine last summer about his role in keeping that music alive. He really impressed me with these tunes and the need to keep it alive. I also was working with Avin Baird on her last record. It was written in the style West Virginia blues, yet seemed very contemporary to me. As I got moving forward with this record I had this idea that I would try to help maintain older traditions while remaining in the moment. The songs follow simple styles that Foster, James Bland, Woody and others would incorporate. The arrangements sometimes would lean further into time. Ultimately I wanted to write songs that would be at home in the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries.
You also mention Norman Blake, Jon Hartford, and Doc Watson in that record description. Did you recently get into their music again, or has it been a constant dialogue? The instrumentation here really echoes some of their approaches, especially Blake and Hartford, on songs like “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane,” “Something to Believe,” or the great harmonica on “I Will Be Coming Home to You”.
The influences John Hartford, Norman Blake, and Doc Watson have had are enormous. I think they’ve been with me for years without my knowledge. I met Norman twenty years ago and really had no idea who he was. People like Andy Cohen and Dan Levonson, and Peter Goldsmith would make sure I was becoming aware of these players. I was raised with jazz, so in my home those names were foreign to me. As I took a leadership role in Cleveland’s folk scene, the older members of the community wanted to be sure that I would help continue to pass along the traditional stuff.
John Hartford was an entertainer, great songwriter and multi-instrumentalist. Blake is as good a guitarist as any with a pure clean traditional sound. Doc Watson is one of our nation’s greatest ever like Louis Armstrong, Chuck Berry, Woody, Ray Charles, Doc Should be held in the same regard as those others. This music is filled with an amazing history. Gary Davis, Elizabeth Cotton, Leadbelly, and so on. They all left us much. It should be kept alive both in the performance of the older stuff and in a continuing tradition with new songs and recordings. This record for me tried to address that need.
The harmonica on the record is played by Steev Inglish. He was a known for a while as Mr. Downchild around here. He played with Robert Lockwood Jr. who was a direct link to Robert Johnson. Steev took a step back from playing after his wife died a few years ago. He resurfaced a year ago. This is the first public recording he has been on since his return.
Your voice is really powerful, always has been—you can let ‘er rip—but there’s a new twist here, I think, something more intimate and scratchy in an appealing way.
My voice is starting to settle in a bit. I was always a very ambitious singer. I wanted to make sure that the words were heard. I had always been insecure about my guitar abilities, so I would tend to let my voice become the focus. More recently I have become much more confident as a guitar player. I now think of the guitar and voice as working in tandem rather than as an accompaniment. Just before my spinal cord injury I was working with a woman who helped me start to utilize the lower register in my voice more. It seemed much more natural and I think I have found greater control as a result. The influence of Garcia and Hartford is heard more now as I try to settle in more as a story teller. When it is time to reach for the rafters, it has a lot more impact than when I used to hang from them. I am less likely to fall by keeping my feet on the ground. The scratchy sound is a product of age, smoke, coffee, bourbon, and years of singing as loud as I could. It is very comfortable for me. I feel like it is aging well.
“Blame” is really witty, especially as a duet. How did that song come about, and did you always intend for it to be a duet?
“Blame” was written as a reaction to the presidential election and political climate last summer. I don’t have cable, so I rarely watch broadcast TV. While I was in the mountains working on the songs there was a TV and dish available. I like watching the Olympics, so I would turn it on. The commercials were filled with accusatory ads about the two candidates. No one really seemed to have good reasons for their own election, but it was clear that there were plenty of reasons not to elect anyone based on the blame game. My political songs tend not to be obvious as much as they are just inspired by the politics. I took the blame idea and started writing.
When I tested it out on others, it came off as petty and mean in a Dylan-hates-Joan Baez kind of way. Since the song came from political ads on both sides of the aisle, I thought it would be better to make it a duet. Abbey Blake has such a pretty voice and good spirit, I thought it would complement my own and remain more fun than bitter. We recorded it with one mic and later added Avin’s guitar part.
What are some good political songs that come to mind? What makes for a good political song?
Do you mean political songs I wrote, or in general?
On this record, “Listen To A Woman” and “Crooked Stick” are the political ones. “Listen To a Woman” was inspired by the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke story last year. The central message is that we should let people speak on their own behalf and listen respectfully. With “Crooked Stick”, I address the medical marijuana issue.
I like the protest song when the song stands without the protest: “Pastures of Plenty,” “This Land is Your Land,” “Hurricane,” “Get Up Stand Up,” “What’s Goin’ On.” I think songs like that affect us in many ways. They tell the story of struggle and determination. They reveal injustice. They are great songs first. I was never a fan of protest songs for the sake of the protest or protest for the sake of a song. I tend to see my own sense of politics in a spiritual way. I have certain political leanings, no doubt, but they should always be guided by my sense of right and wrong. I expect little from politicians. I assume they are being pulled in many directions. I’m not sure that’s bad; my fear these days is that the pull is off-balance. But it’s tough to say, really.
When it comes to using music for politics, I’m always open to community needs. My first goal is to try to help build community. I love lending music to small events that help gather folks who can work together to build and improve the world we live in. I think songs can help us build momentum in this area. Music has the ability to move people in ways that few other things can. It can inspire us to look further into issues. Ultimately as a songwriter I hope never to run from what my heart tells me to say. If that’s political, then so be it. Apparently I have something to say. If my conviction is strong, I should say it.
I’m not sure yet. I have one tune written. It’s in the same tradition. I continue to work with Avin. My dad has been requesting an all-instrumental record. I may try to do a live record as well. Those will likely be downloadable records with no CD. They are fairly easy to publish that way. Three of my earlier records are available just as downloads.
Download cards are starting to catch on, too. I carry them for everything. I assume this is the future. Most CD sales happen as a result of direct interaction. Point of sale at shows still remains the best way to distribute. The download option offers us easy global distribution, but it’s still difficult to get folks to purchase music online. So much is free. So the motivation is tough. The download card offers me a chance to sell a download at a show. It’s cheap enough for me to carry the cards, so I stick with it. I haven’t seen big demand yet, but time will tell.
What has been your experience so far with Kickstarter fundraising? Is it like download cards: the future?
Kickstarter has been a great thing for me. Having developed a good audience that enjoys what I do musically and values what I’ve brought to the community over the years, I have good reason to create these records. My audience has demonstrated that they believe it’s worthwhile. However, if you were to make a pure financial choice, my music might not be a consideration. Kickstarter allows us a great opportunity to reach out to an existing audience for funding without worrying about the bottom line or the whims of investors. For the sake of art, I think it’s a much better platform than the label model. It allows us a good opportunity to build awareness for a project as well as to fund it.
Kickstarter can be viewed as a donation-based system. It is common for creative people and organizations to seek financial support through donations. I think that’s legitimate. College radio, the orchestra, and the solo folk act working for tips. It allows those who appreciate it an opportunity to place their own value on it. I think the first time I used Kickstarter I approached it as, “Please help support a local indie artist.” This time around I went after presales for the CD. I avoided any large gifts and made sure that the value of the rewards matched the pledge amount.
I don’t know if Kickstarter is the future, but it’s working now. Crowd funding has been responsible for some great projects. Netflix often shows films funded this way. There are still many questions about arts funding in the future, but this is a good direction.
Robert Loss is a visiting full-time faculty member at Columbus College of Art and Design where he teaches writing and literature. His short stories and critical writing have appeared in numerous print and online journals, including Mayday, Ghettoblaster, and PopMatters, where he writes a column titled “Ties That Bind.” A recent column about Bruce Springsteen was featured on The Boss’ official site. Recently he founded and served as the programming coordinator for the Mix 2012 Comics Symposium which featured cartoonist Chris Ware.