Eva Hendricks of Charly Bliss on karaoke, maturity and the invincibility of pop music

Thursday, February 21, 2019 - 4:03pm

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Eva Hendricks, the lead singer of Charly Bliss, tells me over the phone that she recently went out to do karaoke — I tell her I already know, because I watched her performance of the Spice Girls’s “Wannabe” over Instagram live. It was around the same time as the release of lead single “Capacity” from Charly Bliss’s forthcoming album Young Enough. Hendricks goes on to say that she hates karaoke and, as a side note, that she doesn’t remember broadcasting herself.

“I am someone who hates karaoke — not only do I hate it, I am, like, afraid of it,” Hendricks said.

“My sister-in-law, Kathy, is obsessed with karaoke. The same day that ‘Capacity’ came out, she got a huge promotion at work.” There was only one way to celebrate, according to Hendrick’s sister-in-law: karaoke.

Between singing lead vocals and hating karaoke, there is a friction. Both in musical style and as a performer, Hendricks commands and pushes forth. Her voice, elastic, resonant and feminine, is matched by her brio. On Guppy, Charly Bliss’s debut album, she shrieks, she coos, she belts. On stage, Hendricks moves like she’s working something out from the very depths of her spirit, like those lyrics she and bandmates Spencer Fox, Dan Shure and Sam Hendricks have been singing for years bear original and new weights. In a word? Dynamic. Hearing that karaoke isn’t her forte, then, maybe isn’t a surprise. Maybe there’s not enough at stake with a prerecorded track you didn’t write yourself.

“I must say it is a really great way to celebrate and really like, I’m someone who loves dancing so much, but I’m not someone who would go to (she pauses for emphasis) the club. I don’t even know what that would look like for me,” Hendricks said. She says all of this with good humor and tacit acknowledgement of her own contradictions. Sociable, fun and energetic, yes, but on her own terms.

“I went to NYU and my first night living in New York, my friends and I paid a $20 cover to go to a shitty, gross club,” Hendricks said. “We accepted shots from a stranger and danced on a table and that was the last time I ever went to (she pauses briefly, again, for emphasis) a club. But, that being said, if you’re someone who loves to dance, and you don’t like to go to the club, really, the only time I get to dance is if someone in my life gets married, and so like, I think that the great thing about karaoke is that you can kind of go nuts and satisfy that craving without being surrounded by scary strangers.”

“Or getting married,” I suggest.

She laughs. “Yeah, or being like, please somebody get married, I need to have a cathartic freak out in front of all of my relatives.”

The portrait of Hendricks that Guppy paints isn’t that far from the person I’m talking to over the phone. Guppy is a sketch of maturation and the many, many attempts it takes to get what you want from the world, especially in love. Striving (and failing) like this on the record takes countless forms: giving yourself over to something without heed, settling for less, internalizing conflict so you can try to fix it instead of letting it fester. And, through all of it, realizing that sometimes life can seem like blow after blow. Hendricks knows that part of life is taking what the world gives you and cobbling it into something that resembles your desires. Using karaoke as an outlet for dancing as well as singing fits right into the scheme.

Hendricks recognizes the difficulty in answering that vast question: How do I get what I want in the constraints of my life? Songs like “Scare U” approach writing these answers directly: “I don’t wanna scare you / I don’t wanna share you.” A few others, like “Westermarck,” are drawn from Hendricks’s own experience: “From across your room I saw / Second cousins kissing on the lawn / We will never speak again.”

“The thing about pop music is that, I think it’s actually the hardest music to write because it has to sound deceptively simple,” Hendricks said. “Writing in a way that sounds effortless and comes across as being effortless is really difficult.” Hendricks gets at a point for which many pop songwriters, especially those that are women, are harangued: the supposed “mindlessness” of lyrics about love. There is often an implicit sexism in this criticism, one that tries to pick on women as overemotional, sentimental and fickle. Sure, love is a well explored topic in art and music, but does anyone ever really get tired of finding the right song for that loving moment?

“When people criticize artists like Taylor Swift, like oh it’s just crap, she’s writing about her relationships,” Hendricks said, “It is actually so difficult to write lyrics that are communicative and evocative and feel as though, oh my God, this person must have read my diary because I have felt exactly this way before.”

Part of what makes Guppy such a strong album are the band’s efforts to write lyrics that are just that expressive. “DQ” is a track that combines the worry of wasted youth with that dirty, shameful jealousy that spikes when somebody steals the attention of a lover: “I laughed when your dog died, / It is cruel, but it’s true, / Take me back, kiss my soft side, / Does he love me most now that his dog is toast?”

At the same time, the members of Charly Bliss aren’t just writing songs that express things directly. The opening track on Guppy, “Percolator,” is a clear parody of the “overemotional songwriter” trope: “I cry all the time, I think that it’s cool / I’m in touch with my feelings.” What Hendricks does on this track, and a couple others, is a classic method to kill a feeling: Act it out with exaggeration. The sensation becomes small, almost comical in comparison to the set of new clothes you just dressed it in.

“I think that’s because pop music makes me feel strong,” Hendricks said. “It makes me feel invincible, and I kind of needed that shield in order to write lyrics that felt so vulnerable ... I think in a way, and I don’t think I realized this when we were writing (Young Enough), but a lot of the songs that are filled with darkest content are the ones that sound like bangers on the album.”

Pop music and conjured invincibility go hand in hand. Take Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” or “Call Your Girlfriend.” Take Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” or, to take a turn, the entirety of Lemonade. Take Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab,” Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” Leonard Cohen’s now-standard “Hallelujah.” I’ll even be generous and include The 1975’s “It’s Not Living (If It’s Not With You).” Pop music doesn’t have to mean “synth,” “dance,” “club” or “femininity,” as audiences often assume. Think pop as in popular, for the people, accessible. The mission of a pop song, under this definition, is to get to that just-read-my-diary feeling without being so broad that the song collapses under the weight of itself.

It is easy, though, to get caught in the mire of feeling, and never work it out. “I am someone who loves young adult TV, so that means that I love difficult relationships, you know, Buffy and Angel, the ‘Twilight’ series, ‘The OC,’” Hendricks said. “I love all that stuff, and I think I really believed in a way, at a certain moment in my life, that means it’s worth fighting for, if it’s so hard and this person is really pushing you. And it can mean that, it also can just mean that you and another person really love each other a lot but are just never going to be able to give the other person what they need.”

Her comment turns my attention to my own relationships — how they come together, then apart. There are times that feel meaningful, but are nothing more than an intersection of two lives over one summer. Other times that lead to “just being friends,” and then feeling like a toy when they tease you for wanting more. And then, those times where it’s attraction, but neither is scratching the other in the right places to make it go anywhere.

“I think on Guppy,” Hendricks said. “I felt so frustrated about that, whereas on this album, you know what, that’s not the worst experience you can have with another person. That’s sweet, something that everyone goes through, there’s a universality to that experience. And it doesn’t have to be horrible, and you can kind of look back on it and laugh and be like I remember what it felt like. And in a way like that was kind of really sweet, that we both really believed that. While also recognizing I’m so happy that I don’t believe that anymore. I’m at a place where I know that I deserve something different and that I want something different and that something different doesn’t feel boring or flat to me.”

That something different came sonically, too. “Capacity” begins with a slick beat and synthline, complete with other synth notes and a crescendoing bridge with the massive, soaring chords of a power ballad. “No matter what it was going to be a transitional record and we wanted to honor that. That being said, I think that the songs that are more rock leaning, I still feel that we really pushed ourselves, and they don’t to me they sound like they could have been on Guppy, which is important to us as well,” Hendricks said.

“With pushing ourselves to a new sound, it wasn’t necessarily something that we were totally conscious of, like oh, we were a rock band, and now we’re a pop band,” she continued. “I always talk about how special it is that the four of us are really close and we really value our time together.” She tells me about how she and her bandmates were listening to Lorde’s Melodrama, Superorganism’s debut album and Taylor Swift. “We did an interview recently where Spencer was like, ‘We were inspired by our own pre-show playlist.’”

For what it’s worth, the freshness of Young Enough seems like just the right thing. Guppy was recorded twice, with a handful of those songs being five years old. So, naturally, outgrowing the things that don’t make sense anymore makes room for exciting, new things. “When we were writing Young Enough, it served as a really perfect barometer for how much I had changed from the past couple of years,” Hendricks said.

Another new element to the process of creating Young Enough stemmed from the success of Guppy and touring frequently — more room in the budget and a broader network. For the video for “Capacity,” Charly Bliss reached out to Adam Kolodny, frequent collaborator with Japanese Breakfast, of House of Nod. Before they knew it, Michelle Zauner was on board as director for the video. “Working with Michelle was a dream come true,” Hendricks said.

Hendricks herself is not a stranger to creating music videos. For Guppy, She and director Andrew Costa created videos for over half the album. While she doesn’t have such an active hand on the videos for Young Enough, Hendricks still has some say in the process. “For an audience, it’s kind of like coming in on the middle of a movie, and I kind of wanted the album artwork (and music videos) to feel that way, like you’re coming in at the middle of this dramatic feeling,” Hendricks said. “It’s just that you don’t know what came before or what’s coming after it but you’re in it.”

I can’t help but think that the members of Charly Bliss feel a little relief to have passed through that period of arrested development — recording an album twice, playing the same songs over and over, having such a stake in your own creative affairs that it becomes a burden. “Capacity,” at least, shows a maturity, that at some point, it’s time to not call yourself accountable or available. Hendricks says, “The lyric on (the title track) is: ‘We’re young enough to believe it should hurt this much.’” I guess looking back on your own naivete hurts in its own way.

As our chat over the phone wraps up, Hendricks tells me how she lost her voice at karaoke to a young adult classic — “Party in the USA” by Miley Cyrus. “(It’s) a deceptively high song, she is really like hitting the high notes on that song,” Hendricks said. “(My sister-in-law and I) were both like midway through, panting like, looking at each other like, this is hard.” She pauses, and without warning, confesses: “I could talk about Miley forever.”

Part of me wants to ditch all responsibilities for the day and stay on the line to talk about Miley, but it’s freezing rain and I have class in a couple minutes. Hendricks is easy to talk to. She tells me how she loves her house, her boyfriend, sharing recipes with the other members of Charly Bliss and watching reality television with them, too. We talk about “Vanderpump Rules” for a hot second, and I ask her which character she most identifies with. (The answer: Present day Stassi, but hopefully one day, Hendricks will evolve into Lisa Vanderpump herself.) When I put the phone down, I feel that I’ve made a lasting connection with somebody, and with such ease. I get my stuff together, tie my boots and walk outside. As I step through slush and ice, I imagine which drawn out “yeah” of “Party in the USA” Hendricks lost her voice on.

Young Enough will be released on May 10 via Barsuk Records.