Charlie Cunningham: “I needed to commit to something - put the hours in”

Meet Charlie Cunningham, the innovative singer-songwriter making bold steps forward and channeling one of the world’s most ancient and dynamic guitar styles in the process.

London-based musician Charlie Cunningham is supporting Lucy Rose, he has thumping endorsements from the likes of Zane Lowe and he has released a stunning debut album that melds ambient synths, dynamic Spanish guitar and poignant penmanship. But it was a decision to board a flight to Spain in self-imposed exile that got him here.

Raised in Bedfordshire, Charlie studied music to degree level, doing time with a Botch-style hardcore band and developing an obsession with ambient music and atmospheric spine-tinglers like Sigur Rós and Mogwai in the process. 

There was no inbetween for this atmospheric playing and stuff that had more drive to it. Then I started listening to Spanish music

“I spent ages playing reverb-y stuff on a Tele,” he tells us. “But I was torn - there was no inbetween for this atmospheric-y, soft playing and stuff that had more drive to it. Then I started listening to Spanish music and it seemed like there was some of kind of link. One minute it would be beautiful and then quite loose and dirty. I always loved that.”

The perennial bar/waiter jobs had previously been enough to support the guitarist, but with his twenties passing at a rapid pace, Charlie knew he had to act. 

“I had mates doing function stuff and earning better money than I was as a waiter,” he explains.

“I knew that you needed two sets of 45 minutes, then someone planted the seed about going to Spain and trying to learn flamenco and I thought, ‘Actually this could be a loads of birds, one stone situation…’ I could come back with something that I could do to make money, learn this way of playing and completely commit to something - put the hours in - which I really felt I needed to do at that point.”

Investing time

It’s fair to say focus had been an issue for the songwriter. A school expulsion for “all the silly shit that kids do” had, perhaps more by luck than judgement, forced his hand and led to his first college music course, but teenage distractions of many varieties had taken its toll on his practice regime.

“I hadn’t put the hours in,” acknowledges Charlie. “I didn’t deserve it and I wasn’t at the level I should have been at. I would play like an hour a day, but I wasn’t pushing, I wasn’t investing that time.”

It needed to be different and, with the proceeds from the sale of his Tele, a trip to Seville and a stint at a flamenco school was booked.

I realised, ‘Shit! I’m not going to get anywhere f***ing near this in two months.’

“I was going to stay for two months,” says Charlie. “And then I realised, ‘Shit! I’m not going to get anywhere fucking near this in two months.’ I ended up having one lesson a week and going to flamenco shows at night. And I was practising like you wouldn’t believe: eight to 10 hours a day sometimes.”

Two months became two years before the songwriter felt he was nearing his goal. “My good mates who were working in sessions, I knew they had done four hours a day for time, so I was trying to do the math,” says Charlie. “I thought, ‘Surely I’ve paid my dues enough now to have the gall to ask to be paid to play my music.’”

Ability wasn’t the only thing Charlie brought back, though. An Antonio Bernal classical guitar, purchased right at the end of his stay, also made the trip.

“It’s the best thing I’ve ever owned,” says Charlie, with some reverence. “It’s beautiful. I’ve played everything on it and done all my touring with it. If you make an investment in a guitar like that, you look at it and you go, ‘I’ve just got to play this and make it sound like it needs to sound.’”

On his return, Charlie and his guitar found immediate pay off, with three nights a week in Oxford bars soon returning the kind of cash that previously took 40 hours pulling pints to acquire. Then came recordings, Radio 1 plays and, finally, his enthralling debut album Lines earlier this year. Now in his 30s, Charlie’s break has come later than some musicians, but the reward is a bruised grace to his playing and writing - suggestive of life’s capacity for both beauty and random brutality, and often in quick succession.

“I think those are the things you really draw from,” acknowledges Charlie. “The fundamental, ‘This is fucking crap’ ones. You have this idea that you’re invincible, especially if you’re passionate about something. But [life] can just go, just like that. And if you haven’t done it, you haven’t done it. You’ve just got to do it - and do it honestly.”

(Image: © Tatjana Ruegsegger)

Cunning tricks

Charlie’s take on flamenco rhythm

“‘Golpe’ is a tapping technique that flamenco guitarists use to accentuate [strums],” Charlie tells us. “It basically just means ‘tap’, so they’re tapping on the board and using that to accentuate certain beats in these rhythmic patterns. It’s a right-handed technique, where one finger is doing the strumming and one finger is tapping at certain points - a simultaneous movement. 

“I love the strumming patterns. You’re doing this rubber-band release type of thing with your index finger. The power and the economy of movement in that was really amazing for me. The whole point of learning any technique is so you don’t knacker yourself out and your hand doesn’t give up on you.”

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