Chartreuse are ageing like a fine liqueur

Photo by Pooneh Ghana

The origin of the word Chartreuse is from the Chartreuse mountains in the region of Grenoble in France, but it’s more commonly associated with the liqueur that’s been created there by the Carthusian Monks since 1737. Often being described as sweet and spicy due to its mixture of herbal and secret ingredients. The same could be said for Birmingham based four-piece Chartreuse; sans the herbal part. Their music is at it’s core sweet, tender and vulnerable. It has a tendency to become spicier in moments of emotional outbursts or driven guitar leads, but the secret ingredient behind the band is well kept; but the darkness of it seeps through into each pore of their sound. We caught up with the band to learn about their brand new EP, touring life and lockdown projects.

Forming in the summer of 2014 with just originally singer’s Harriet Wilson and Michael Wagstaff, writing indie folk ballads, they then joined forces with brother Rory Wagstaff and Perry Lovering on the drums and bass respectively to form the unit that is known today. Their circumstances of meeting weren’t anything out of the ordinary, “We met through college and by circumstance we were all like “We all like to play music” so we just made a band and that was kind of it. We knew pretty quickly that we gelled quite well, it was something we all enjoyed doing together so we stuck at it. It’s not a great story!” explains Harriet. But the music that came out of the coming together is something more.

Originally I first saw Chartreuse perform in 2016 supporting Matt Corby at the O2 Institute in Birmingham in (where I still have one of their old posters on my wall from the show). But after the show nothing was to be heard from the band until three years later in 2019 when they released their debut EP Even Free Money Doesn’t Get Me Out Of Bed. The time in between was a time of embracing who they were, “We were just maturing, getting some songs ready. We didn’t want to release anything at that time as we didn’t think it was up to scratch really” explains Michael. “So then we came out with the Even Free Money Doesn’t Get Me Out Of Bed EP, and it’s all just carried on from there”.

They’ve now returned with their third EP Is It Autumn Already?, a collection of songs that focus on the realities of passing time, realising you’re not getting any younger and embracing the challenges that you’ve faced up to this point. The title is a line from “Things Are Changing Too Quickly”, “That song is about getting a bit older and things are starting to get a bit faster” explains Michael. “The older you get the years seem to go by a bit quicker in my opinion and don’t last as long, so it’s that fear of going through summer and then you’re watching the leaves fall and you think “Shit that’s another one gone”. We’re all in this weird rushing rat race that’s never-ending but also does end. It’s also realising that you’re not going to be young forever so making the most of your time. It’s not a negative but realising that you’re not here forever and appreciating the time you’ve got”.

Photo by Pooneh Ghana

The sound that Chartruese encapsulate on the EP is one they’ve become accustomed to; dark, ambient textures blended with jazzy piano’s and groove filled drums, but this time they’ve added a certain magic within each track that encapsulates on every listen. This force of mystique is one that flows out of the band naturally, “We’ve never spoken about it or said “We need to make it a bit darker” explains Harriet. “I guess just from working together for so long then that’s just what we all gravitate towards. When it’s the four of us in a room we’ll hear a song and then naturally we’ll go towards those darker tones because we’ve just worked that way for such a long time”. Being produced entirely by Michael in his home studio cabin, the band are in charge of every aspect of their sound. “This was the first one that we did completely ourselves” he explains. “In the other EP’s we did bits and bobs in the cabin and then we would take it to the producer Luke who did the first two EP’s”. It was a welcome challenge that looked to further his already formed abilities as a producer. “I loved doing it, i’ve always done it ever since I was in bands when I was 17. I was always the one with the computer ready to record because no one else would haha”.

The band credit John Martyn’s ambient works as an inspiration for the atmospheres they build, but when it came time to record the EP there was no direct influence feeding into the band other than themselves. “I can honestly say that I didn’t listen to any other music when we were making the EP” says Michael when asked if any influence creeped in during recording. “I think because it was the lockdown we were just trying to work as much as we could to keep our minds occupied. We were all working about 6 days a week so on that day off I didn’t really fancy listening to any music”.

Although recorded during the lockdown, this isn’t the bands lockdown project, “We had already planned to sit down and record during that time no matter wether lockdown or not, it just happened to be the perfect time” explains Harriet. A project that did occur of that time however was the Relaxation Tape For Nobodies Instrumental EP that saw the band push their sonic boundaries to the limits through folky guitars and ambient pianos. Songs on the new EP were written during the recording sessions but tracks like “Deep Fat” have been a part of the bands catalogue for quite some years with Michael originally penning the track when he was 18, but finding the right fit for the song proved difficult.”Every year we would try to record it and it sounded shit but then eventually we got to it and thought “Oh actually this sounds alright so we’ll carry on with it” he explains. “There are a few different recorded versions of it where we just thought “No this doesn’t work” and in the end we went back to the original version that we were trying to do after spending ages doing a new version and thought “Oh no actually, the first one was better” adds Harriet. Sometimes the original form of a song is it’s purest.

Opening the EP is “Feed Be Fed”, a groove driven and subtly alluring track that focuses on the side effects that being on the pill can have on someones mental health. “When I felt ready to talk about the topic it came out of me really quickly after having the initial chorus line. Within an afternoon I was able to get everything off my chest” explains Harriet when asked wether talking about such a personal topic was challenging or relieving. “It’s also important to talk about things like this, as much as it’s important for me to have said it myself, I would hope that people listen to it and find comfort within it. Because as soon as you release a song it’s instantly for other people. So I think that’s quite an exciting thing, on a subject that isn’t really spoken about at all, but it affects so many women. I felt empowered to release it and be able to talk about it”.

Their music isn’t always designed to inspire however, but often used as an outlet to express themselves the way they know best, “Selfishly I write for myself and we do it as a unit when we’re in here, so the songs are ours for quite a long time until they go out. So it’s not something that crosses my mind about comforting somebody else, but when they come out all these people are listening to what you want to talk about and how you felt so naturally as soon as it’s out you’re gifting these people what you want to talk about” says Harriet. “I feel the same but I also do have in the back of my head that eventually i’m going to be sharing this” explains Michael. “For me it’s always been what is the point in doing it if you can’t share it with anyone. It would be a nice hobby but I wanna feel something with it with people”.

The best outlet of sharing their music with people is of course the live show, a platform that has only recently become a part of the bands life again. Playing festival slots over the summer and a headline tour coming in December, the band are slowly finding their way back to normality from having to solely pander to a digital audience. “It’s great to actually see people again. We’ve been to a couple of gigs over the last couple of weeks and even that is really exciting, just to see people enjoying music” says Harriet. The thought of getting back on stage doesn’t phase Michael however, taking it as it comes, “Weirdly enough I don’t even think about it. When you’re on stage you just go into that ether of not thinking about anything, and that’s the feeling I like to get, to just be able to feel the energy coming off people. It’s why we do it”.

Finally we ask the band to reflect on the music industry as a whole, asking if there’s anything they’d like to change about it. “I think basically pay more streams” simply puts Perry. “People should support music more, if you really like an artist to support them by getting merch or going to a show instead of just listening to them on Spotify” says Harriet. “To be fair if streams paid more they wouldn’t have to. It’s just a byproduct of how people consume music these days” says Rory. “I think it’s very different depending on where you go. Birmingham is a lot different to London and I feel like they all have different ways of consuming music and audiences are different within each” continues Harriet. “It’s also quite hard in the fact that everything’s so online now, even with how we are as a band. You fully have to sell yourself online and it’s such a different ways of consuming music now compared to when we were kids. It shifts all the time with what people want and what you should be doing as a band, but it’s just something that you have to get on with and move with. There’ll be constant things that people want to change about the industry. For us right now though it’s not too bad”.

Is It Autumn Already? EP is out now. Purchase / listen here.