It's final exams week at Appalachian State University, and Charlotte native Charles Walker Austin-Zimmerman is sleep deprived. Not only has he had to cram for his finals, but he's had to deal with the mastering and artwork for his debut EP, Whole Again. It's a remarkable set of music — five songs detailing the anxieties and insecurities of moving away from home and starting college, where Austin-Zimmerman, who performs under the name Charles Walker, studies communications and sociology.
The topic could be a stone bore if Walker weren't such a good songwriter with a nuanced melodic sense and an ear for detail that finds him looking for inspiration in artists as far-flung as the alt-country band Pinegrove, singer-songwriter Julien Baker, the late Jason Molina of Songs: Ohia and the Magnolia Electric Co., as well as more mainstream names ranging from Sturgill Simpson to Run the Jewels.
Walker, 19, gets his ear for music honestly. His mother, Jill, fronted Charlotte roots-rockers the Jill Austin Band. Charles began playing guitar at 10, and released his first EP at 16, when he was still living in Mint Hill and attending Independence High School. But he recently took his first recording offline because it doesn't reflect his current work.
"The first singer-songwriter I really liked was Jack Johnson," he says. "But in the last few years I've fallen in love with this dark, emo-style, country singer-songwriter stuff."
Walker will perform his new, darker, emo-style country at Crown Station on December 16. We caught up with the teen singer-songwriter to talk with him about his very adult sound and style.
Creative Loafing: Why in the world did you put out a record during final exams?
Charles Walker: The issue with being a college touring artist is that the only times you can tour are during these little gaps at certain times of the year — summer is the main one, but then you also have spring break and winter break. So I planned it this way because I have an eight-show tour over winter break that starts next week, and I wanted to put out the record right before then. [laughs] I haven't slept much lately.
- Charles Walker performing live. (Photo courtesy of the artist(
Your mother was in bands all your life. How much did she influence your music?
I actually have a funny little anecdote about that: When I was maybe 6 or 7, I was talking about the Jill Austin Band one day, as I did constantly when I was little, and somebody asked me, "Who is Jill Austin?" I didn't know. To me, my mom was just Mom, and the Jill Austin Band was my favorite band. So I said, "I don't know who that is, that's just my favorite band."
So you graduated from her music to Jack Johnson's and eventully found your own voice in this hazy blend of emo and dark country. Listening to Whole Again, I wouldn't have guessed you ever liked Jack Johnson. What inspired you to pursue this new direction?
I've always loved Jason Isbell, the Drive-By Truckers — southern stuff like that — and then I discovered Julien Baker, and my biggest influences over the past year have been Songs: Ohia, who later changed their name to Magnolia Electric Co., and also Daniel Romano. That's why I'm taking down my earlier record that was so influenced by Jack Johnson — the music I make now is just very different from what I was influenced by before.
You call your music emo-country, and that term's been tossed around a lot recently. What does it mean to you?
Well, the stereotypical emo is stuff like American Football, but there's also been this surge of twangy emo that's happened recently with bands like Pinegrove, who've kind of made twangy stuff cool. There's this notion, especially among people my age, that country music is just this dumb southern music that talks about the same two or three topics all the time. When people think of country, they think pop country, but when you take some of those classic country influences and add them to this dark, honest southern songwriting, it creates this really nice blend.
Some of your arrangements on the EP — the unusual melody of the song "Reason to Doubt," and the unconventional horns, strings and background vocal parts in "All That You Need," which transitions nicely into "Detox" — seem to echo Sturgill Simpson's A Sailor's Guide to Earth. Is he someone you've listened to?
I'm glad you mentioned that, because that record has influenced me — especially the production, and that transitional element that you mentioned, as well as the Autotune at the beginning of "Detox"... I don't think I realized that was where that stuff came from until right now. It's funny, I got the idea for that transitional element from the rap group Run the Jewels. On every record they've put out, every song transitions into every other song. I loved that idea, so I wanted to make use of it, and I realized that those two songs were in the same key, so it worked out.
You use the language of recovery in your lyrics, particularly in "Detox." Is addiction something you've struggled with?
No, I personally have never struggled with addiction, but I have spent a lot of time with people who have gone through detox. I basically took their stories and tried to write a song around it. Insecurity is a huge theme in my music, and I think that's something a lot of people my age feel as they move on to college — a lot of anxiety about going to parties and feeling like, "Is everybody talking about me?" You know, just stuff we go through.