The Brave Explosions Of Charly Bliss
The Brooklyn pop-rockers counter darkness by going even brighter on 'Young Enough'
(Trigger warning: this article contains discussion of sexual assault.)
In 2015, Charly Bliss had self-released a three-song EP called Soft Serve and were more than content to play tiny Brooklyn venues whenever the opportunity arose. “We were crushing it,” says drummer Sam Hendricks. “Spike Hill on a Tuesday.”
“We were like, ‘Holy shit, we’re about to reach 100 fans on Facebook,'” adds singer-guitarist Eva Hendricks, smiling as widely as possible.
When they were selected to open for recently reunited grunge-poppers Veruca Salt, they left nothing to chance. “It was the first real tour with another band, so we showed up at the venue like eight hours before,” says guitarist Spencer Fox. “Everyone at the bar was like, ‘Why are you here five hours before load-in?'”
When their first attempt at recording their debut, Guppy, didn’t feel right, they re-did it, despite being mostly cash-strapped students. And when it came time to make their second album, Young Enough, they knew they wanted something bigger and bolder, something unapologetically pop, something that wouldn’t sound quite right unless you listened with the windows down, singing along to every chorus. And it would be nice if they could get it right the first time. To ensure this, Charly Bliss recruited Joe Chiccarelli, a veteran producer who has given U2, the Shins, and My Morning Jacket a polished yet idiosyncratic shine, and proceeded to trap him in their self-described tiny, windowless, drab cell of a rehearsal space for several days of practice sessions while working through new material.
“Joe is this legendary producer who is a very well-dressed man, and we had him trapped in a folding chair, basically,” says Eva. “We non-stop played, I think, from nine in the morning. We didn’t get food. No food, no water, nothing. No breaks. My voice was destroyed by the end of it. But we really loved having someone involved who was that committed and that devoted that they would forego food and water for eight hours.”
In the world of Charly Bliss, nothing is worth doing unless it’s done with 100-percent commitment. “I think we’re people who are very hard on ourselves as musicians,” says Eva. “We wanted to one-up ourselves, really badly.”
And indeed they did. Young Enough feels like the sort of album one might always have around in their car or on their playlist, one designed for maximum replayability. It’s both contemporary and timeless, with Eva dissecting millennial burnout and toxic relationships atop the sort of ascending melodies, crunchy guitars, and purring synthesizer hooks that would sound welcome in any era. We’ve gathered at the Bushwick bar Tradesman on an early April Friday when the weather can’t decide if it wants to be an overcast late-winter day or a windy spring one, so it settled on both. Some light day drinking has commenced, and in-between singing the praises of one of Eva’s formative films — the 2001 music-comedy romp Josie And The Pussycats — and recounting how they got extremely wasted on a band trip to Disney World, they reflect on pushing themselves to be good enough to make something like Young Enough.
Eva and Sam Hendricks grew up in Westport, Connecticut, the children of devoted music-fan parents who always secretly hoped their kids would form a family band and would tell Eva things like, “‘Just get a C please, chill out,’ when I would be freaking out about my grades.”
Before her parents got their wish, “Sam taught me how to harmonize, which mostly meant teaching me how to stay on a melody while he harmonized. It didn’t come naturally to me. I can’t believe Sam was that down to hang out with me, because it’s not like we were close in age, I was really his dumb little sister,” Eva says. “Growing up, our oldest brother played guitar, and Sam always played drums. So I would go down in the basement while he practiced and I would make up dances to the beats he was practicing, and we would laugh and laugh and laugh.”
Eva was a self-described musical-theater kid who sang jingles for local commercials, but she also had tastes outside the jazz-hands realm. She met Fox outside of a Tokyo Police Club show at New York’s Webster Hall while he was drinking whiskey out of a Sprite bottle. Fox would move to Westport “midway through junior year,” he says.
“Spencer came to me and was like, ‘I heard that you’re really good at writing songs and I bet you’ve secretly been writing them and you totally should do it and I want to help you,'” says Eva, looking a bit wistful at the memory.
“I had a feeling,” Fox explains. “And I was right.”
“That’s really nice,” I say, “because sometimes young boys aren’t very encouraging of their female peers in that way.”
“We were ahead of the curve,” Fox says.
“Don’t make me cry, I know that’s true,” Eva says. “That’s totally my experience.”
Eva and Spencer moved to New York for school, and began Charly Bliss in earnest. Sam had recently graduated from Ohio’s Miami University’s music department. “That school weirdly has one of the best steel-drum programs in the country,” he notes. Spencer adds that “Sam was in Connecticut, so anytime we had to practice or play a show, we would take these long MTA rides and it was just sort of a drag.”
Bassist Dan Shure was directing some off-Broadway productions during this time. He’d met Spencer at theater camp, and was one of Charly Bliss’ earliest fans. “I was always coming to see them, and then the old bass player was thinking about leaving and they asked me to do it,” he says. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to have to put some of this theater stuff I’ve been doing on hold,’ but you only get one chance to be in a rock band. But back then, it’s so funny, it’d be like, ‘Oh, we have a show in Boston,’ and I was like, ‘Whoa. Like… a different city.'”
Shure had joined the band right before its first, rushed attempt at Guppy. Later, the members began to feel like he hadn’t had enough time to make his presence felt on the recording. And also, the version of Guppy they made didn’t really sound like them.
“The number-one thing I can point to was that we didn’t know who we were as a band yet, and that was the biggest problem. I think so much of that was, we didn’t get that we were a pop band,” says Eva. “So I feel like the first time we made Guppy, we were really highlighting the aspects of our sound that make us a garage band, or a punk band, or an indie-rock band, and that’s fine, but it’s not who we are.
“And it’s funny because Weezer was our touchstone for such a long time, but there’s different aspects of Weezer’s sound that you could latch onto,” she adds. “I think at the beginning, we were only latching onto one part of their sound, which was the huge guitar sound. We realized, it almost needs to sound like a Weezer record, as if a pop producer is producing an indie rock record, which I think is what we eventually achieved with Guppy, but we didn’t even know to ask for that.”
The second time was the charm for Guppy, which was greeted with enthusiastic reviews. (It was Stereogum’s seventh favorite record of 2017.) The album was filled with effortlessly memorable guitar hooks and lyrics that examined heartbreak and the sneaking suspicion that no matter what you do, you’ll probably be stuck working in the service industry for the rest of your life. It earned Charly Bliss comparisons to nearly every ’90s guitar band with a female singer. Some of these comparisons were lazier than others.
Sam says that people would tell them, “‘Oh, you’re like Letters To Cleo,’ and it’s like, ‘Are we?'”
“And no shade to Letters To Cleo, we love them,” Eva adds. “I think a lot of the time we get compared to ’90s bands, and that’s cool, but if we’re being totally honest, it’s not very accurate to what has inspired us. The bands that have actually inspired us are more like Fountains Of Wayne and even like All American Rejects and the Killers.”
When Eva was studying at the New York University’s Clive Davis Institute Of Recorded Music (she decided against pursuing a degree in musical theater at the last moment), she was an intern for the music journalist Lizzy Goodman, as was her friend and classmate, the aspiring pop star Maggie Rogers. Together, the two helped to transcribe some of the interviews that Goodman used for her 2017 oral history Meet Me In The Bathroom: Rebirth And Rock And Roll In New York City 2001-2011. Since the events chronicled in Goodman’s book, New York and Brooklyn have receded as the centers of American rock music, as rising rents and gentrification have made it difficult for young artists to survive in the area. Most young rock bands are now based in cheaper cities, such as Philadelphia, but Charly Bliss stuck it out to become the first significant Brooklyn band to come along since Parquet Courts. “Because we are stubborn, because we want to be the best, and because we want to work that hard,” Eva explains, “we will tough it out in a dank-ass practice space that is disgusting and has mice everywhere.”
Thanks to her time working with Goodman, Eva is well-aware of the attitudes, influences, and affectations that go into making a cool New York band. And she’s well-aware that her band doesn’t have any of them.
“New York is my favorite place in the world, I think it’s the best place in the world, but as a place for fostering a music scene, I think it almost can’t work because it’s almost too competitive here,” she says. “There’s a way that this could come across as ‘boo hoo,’ and we’ve met so many wonderful people. But we never felt like we were necessarily welcomed into a scene, if there even was one. We never felt like we were part of what was cool.”
“As hard as we try,” adds Spencer.
“As hard as we tried,” Eva continues. “There have been pockets of it that I’ve seen from the outside and I wished we were part of it. But we’re not.”
Charly Bliss aim for a trend-agnostic power-pop sound, and if they had been around a few decades earlier, one can imagine the Buzz Bin videos directed by Sophie Muller they would have accrued, the Spin and Sassy magazine covers they would have graced, the cries of sellouts they would have endured. But even with their more modest success, they’ve still attracted their share of detractors. And those detractors tend to focus on one thing.
“I went through a long period of time where I felt I was the reason that we weren’t progressing, because we weren’t playing with any bands that had women in them. I was like, ‘Oh, everything I’m singing about is wrong, my voice is wrong, my voice is hyper-feminine,’ she says. “I felt it was so not what everyone else was doing. We would play with these all dude bands, like every show we would play would be like us, four white dudes, five white dudes, six white dudes, and then like me. Then I think lyrically, too, I write from a very feminine perspective and I’m not at all ashamed of that, but when I first started with our band I felt really ashamed of that. I was like, ‘Maybe I am the problem.'”
Eva is unfailingly positive throughout our conversation, but a tinge of annoyance starts to bleed into her tone, as she continues discussing her pet peeve. “I do feel like my biggest gripe with how we are written about is how people describe my voice; I can’t help but see it as they are trying to undermine what we do. Not everyone has to like my voice, that’s not the point. Not everyone has to think my voice is amazing and if someone doesn’t like it that means they’re a misogynist. That’s ridiculous,” she says. “But I feel like there’s a lot of ways that people have described what we do and tried to infantilize it, or describe me as shrill or screechy, and I think when people are saying that, I can’t help but see it as they don’t like to see a woman succeeding. I’m not saying I have the best voice, but as a writer, I think someone could do better than that.
“I come from a musical-theater background, it’s a shift for me to get older and make my own music with my band, and the music I gravitate towards now isn’t necessarily the people with the best voice, but people with the most memorable voice,” she continues. “Discovering Kathleen Hanna was a breakthrough for me, Kate Bush was a breakthrough for me, I care about hearing people who have voices that I can hear and I immediately know who’s singing, and that’s more important, rather than being pleasant to somebody. We’re not in that game. We want to make music that is memorable, and part of that is my voice is really polarizing to people, and that’s OK too. But I would so much rather have a voice that falls into that category rather than one that is traditionally good.”
For Young Enough, Charly Bliss gave themselves permission to be as unapologetically pop as possible. They were inspired in part by Lorde’s Melodrama and their pre-show playlists, which are typically loaded with Carly Rae Jepsen jams, as well as the fizzy synth-hooks of the Cars. And while the music on Young Enough is as big and gleaming as possible, Eva is, in turn, going deeper than ever. The album’s first single is the jaunty “Capacity,” which opens with the line “I used to think/I should be good at everything,” then digs into millennial burnout and the nagging sense that you’re always letting someone down.
“I’m a total people pleaser. Growing up, I was a very outgoing little kid. So I think something that’s weird about being a kid who feels that way is when you get older and you kind of have to start working at it a bit more and you start to overthink how you are in every situation; how you’re coming across to people, and you think, ‘Oh, this used to be so easy to me.’ And now I go home and all I can think about is, ‘Did I offend this person? Did I say something weird? Oh my God, should I have made that decision? Am I disappointing my parents; my boyfriend; my family?’ I don’t know — that’s been such a change for me as I’ve gotten older and I think the flipside of that is that if you are always trying to please people, I was just respecting myself less and less,” she says. “Like, I was making decisions and I couldn’t figure out if they were something I actually wanted to do or cared about doing or if I was just doing them because it would make people say, ‘Good job!’ But that doesn’t serve you forever. I think that realizing that part of growing older and part of growing into yourself is that you might make decisions that even the people closest to you don’t like. Or aren’t comfortable with. And I think, weirdly, that is mirrored with this decision to put out “Chatroom” and talk about it and be honest about it.”
The keyboard-driven, pogo-inducing “Chatroom” and the power ballad “Hurt Me” were inspired by an abusive relationship Eva was in, one in which she was sexually assaulted. “The way ‘Chatroom’ started was I was trying to write lyrics to a song that Sam had written. But I was really struggling. I was sitting on my couch and I suddenly had the entire verse idea, lyrics, and melody for ‘Chatroom,'” she says. “I think in that case, subconsciously I needed to figure it out. It was messing with my head, and making me feel awful.”
“Chatroom” pivots around the lyric “I was fazed in the spotlight/ his word against mine/ everybody knows/ you’re the second coming.”
It was difficult for her to write those words, Eva says. “I think I really had the opportunity on this album to write how I was feeling into songs before I was actually able to verbalize it to anyone in my life. So the decision to talk and be open about it to me is totally separate from that, and that came right after the holidays this year. To be honest, I was really depressed. It was a really really hard time in my life because I felt like I had written these songs and I hadn’t thought that far ahead of how it would feel to talk about it and share with people, but I also felt this huge responsibility of ‘Well, I’ve written it.’ Especially on a song like ‘Chatroom.’ I wouldn’t know how to talk about it if I didn’t tell the truth and say what it was about. But I’m really lucky that I not only have really wonderful bandmates and my brother is in the band with me, and Dan and Spencer might as well be my brothers as well. I have a therapist I really trust and a supportive group of friends and kind of came to it slowly. Now that it’s out and I’ve talked about it, I feel really good about it.”
Charly Bliss were finishing up the album last year, right around the time that Stanford and Palo Alto University professor Christine Blasey Ford came forward to accuse now Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when she was a teenager. Writing about her own experience with sexual assault during the ensuing, and quite ugly, national fallout was especially taxing for Eva, she says.
“Living through that was brutal. We were in the van when that was happening and I was just crying in the car because it was so awful to watch,” she says, her voice growing as soft as it will during our entire conversation. “I think with every sexual assault story that comes out I feel… not more pressured to talk about it, but more like I feel grateful to women who are putting themselves out there in this way, and speaking so honestly, and being so brave that I feel like in order to display how grateful I feel, I also have a responsibility to do the same.”
The title track and centerpiece of Young Enough is a slow building torch song inspired, Spencer says, by LCD Soundsystem. In a cooler alternate universe, it would be a prom song go-to, as it is a sweeping and nostalgic look at innocent, young love.
“I think going through this experience and coming to terms with what had happened to me in this other really abusive relationship forced me to look back at the first time that I fell in love with a lot more kindness and a lot more compassion and to see it for what it was, which was a relationship where both of us really loved each other but neither of us could really get it together at all,” Eva says. “I felt kind of lucky that that was my blueprint for relationships rather than this really dark and sinister thing, and kind of looking back on that and saying the major lyric of that song is ‘we’re young enough to believe it should hurt this much.’ Which always makes me think of like a Twilight movie; ‘Oh, if something’s really painful, that means it’s worth it.’ And kind of looking back on that and thinking, I’m so grateful I don’t feel that way anymore, but I also feel really grateful for that weird first try at falling in love with someone.”
Young Enough is paradoxically one of the heaviest and lightest albums of the year, wrapping hard truths and vivid pain in layers of bubblegum. I asked Eva if this was on purpose, if having such effervescent pop melodies and climactic hooks gave her cover to dig deep. Or, conversely, did she feel that she to prove once and for all that Charly Bliss were no mere pop lightweights? But, it turns out, that wasn’t her intention at all. It turns out that of all the people who love Charly Bliss, the person who needs it most in their life is Eva Hendricks.
“When I’m talking about something dark or difficult to talk about, it helps me to frame it in a song that feels really strong or powerful,” she says. “Like an explosion. Because it makes me feel brave enough to talk about it.”
Young Enough is out now on Barsuk. Stream or purchase it here.