Del Osei-Owusu interviews Charlie Tophill, aka Bar Pandora…
Hello Charlie, how are you?
Hi! I’m great thanks. Having a pretty good Summer so far. The new track’s just come out and that’s been going down really well and I just got back from a tour in The Netherlands with The Howl and The Hum, so I’m riding pretty high at the moment – having lots of fun.
Congratulations on making the Fresh Faves with Ultramess, how does it feel?
Thanks! It feels great. I’m a big fan of FOTN and there was a lot of great stuff on the Listening Post alongside Ultramess, which makes it extra delightful.
What’s the story behind the song?
Well, I’ve been increasingly aware over the past few months that most of the songs I’m writing at the moment are part of an unpicking process for all the tangled threads that have made up my life so far. This track is unraveling a romantic thread. To be completely honest I’ve got a bit of history of charging headlong into absolute romantic disasters. And for the most part it all ends in heartbreak and misery, but there’s a period at the beginning when you’re just so irrepressibly magnetised that you just go ahead and do it anyway. Ultramess is my ode to that moment – when it’s alluring and exciting and completely senseless.
Tell us about Bar Pandora, how did this project come into being?
Bar Pandora came about as a kind of a musical rebirth when I decided to take control of my own music and start enjoying the hell out of it as much as I could regardless of the results.
Before that I’d spent years getting increasingly frustrated as a solo artist – particularly as a female solo artist in an industry predominantly populated by men, where their idea of what I should be usually won out over my own, often repressed, instincts.
To cut a long story short I got fed up and killed off my solo artist. I started making fun little demos at home and, assuming no one was ever going to hear them, I felt totally at ease to do whatever I wanted – to play around with stuff I’d never had the guts to do before and, surprise surprise, it was way more fun and the stuff I was making was so much better!
So I decided that was how I was going to work from now on – crank whatever weird shit I wanted and if there was something that I found challenging or scary, then I would make myself do it. I even wrote a manifesto. It was basically: “Fuck It.” I mean, it was a lot wordier and feminist oriented than that, but that’s what came down to. If you wanna do something but it scares you, or it’s not what’s expected of you then Fuck it, just do it. And thus, Bar Pandora was born.
You have a unique approach to your songwriting, how does a typical writing session begin for you?
I record and produce everything at home and the method varies, but I try and start off by playing around with a very small nugget of sound and seeing how much mileage I can get out of it. I use field recordings, samples or little snippets of music that my co-writer, Simply Dread, has sent me. I like giving myself these limitations to begin with and building the song up from there.
The collaboration with Simply Dread is pretty unorthodox too – almost wilfully illogical. We work remotely – living in different parts of the UK – we use different DAWs and so can’t even do fine edits on anything that the other one has written, so it’s a logistical nightmare really, but that’s what makes it so fun. It becomes a matter of musical collage as much as anything, and if there’s a particularly odd or jarring thing that’s emerged I work really hard to try and find a way to keep it in the track. I’ve found that if my immediate response to something is “What the hell is that? Get rid of it!” usually that’s the bit I really have to keep in.
You are a singer songwriter and it seems a fair bit more, how did it all begin for you?
It all began with my Spice Girls tribute band when I was about 5 years old. I can’t remember which Spice I was (though I know I was one of the dark-haired Spices – because that was how the Spice roles were allocated back in the day…). But I do remember that I insisted that we do some original numbers, which I duly wrote and taught to the other tribute Spices. That was the beginning. I never really stopped writing after that.
So it went from Spice Girl to singer songwriter, then to frustrated singer songwriter and that’s how the ‘more than’ came about. I had to learn how to be and do more so that I could be my own boss and call my own shots. I had to learn to play different instruments so that I could write the parts I wasn’t getting from other people, and I had to learn to produce and, to an extent, mix so that I could draw the things out of my music that I couldn’t always put into words well enough for someone else to get it.
What did you listen to growing up?
Quite a lot of sixties stuff. My parents were a bit older than my friends’ parents and they didn’t really listen to the radio so I had quite different musical tastes to a lot of people my age. But I listened to The Beatles, Scott Walker (my Mum liked the avant-garde stuff, but I was into the bubblegum big pop sound). I really loved Blondie too – the first song I learned to play on the piano was “Dreaming”. We also watched a lot of musicals as kids – The Sound of Music, Calamity Jane (I loved Calamity Jane!), Summer Holiday, Guys and Dolls and – different era but equally loved – Labyrinth.
Bar Pandora is named after a literary cafe in Madrid, what are your top three books?
That’s right, Bar Pandora was the name of a bar I used to go to for my feminist book club when I lived in Madrid. And my favourite books – that’s a tough one. If I HAD to choose (and I will probably remember another one later and kick myself for the omission): “I Capture the Castle” by Dodie Smith; “Hangover Square” by Patrick Hamilton; and “Where Do Wicked Witches Live” by Juliet and Charles Snape, which is a children’s book that I would recommend to anyone at any age.
COVID impacted the creative industry in a big way, what kept you motivated?
Honestly, the pandemic was an important timeout for me, creatively. I know it was awful for so many people, and there were definitely shit times, but apart from that the pandemic was a catalyst for me to change the way I made music. I couldn’t gig any more and I couldn’t go to the studio to record and you know what, it was such a relief! I hadn’t realised how miserable I’d been doing those things until the world closed up and those things were taken away and I was GLAD. That was the beginning of the change that’s led me to where I am now.
The last three years have been a time to reflect, what did you learn about yourself?
That I’m braver than I thought I was, and I’m more capable than I thought I was and that so many of the things I thought I needed other people’s help with were things I was already doing myself without realising it. Those were important lessons. I also learnt that I can work really fucking hard if I’m into what I’m doing. Possibly a little too hard – sometimes I can be a workaholic, but I’m getting a better at balancing things. Albeit slowly.
Did you pick up any new skills?
Yes! I wrote and illustrated a children’s book. It’s in a drawer in my house somewhere. I also got a lot better at playing bass and have started learning drums, so I can start playing around with IRL-drums instead of just programming beats. I started learning German too but I didn’t really have time to do it properly.
It seems fizzy sweets may have been integral to the creation of Bar Pandora, what’s your favourite?
Hardest question yet! Oh man. They’re all good. But I think my favourite are those fizzy ribbon things – the sour ones that turn your tongue blue. Do you know those?
What are you listening to at the moment?
Grace Ives. She is brilliant, I love her.
What’s next for you?
I have an EP coming out later this year which is very exciting. It’s my second release and it’s partially funded by Help Musicians (shout out to them). That’s coming out in the Autumn. Then next year I’m going to get on the road and start gigging as much as I can. I work with some amazing musicians now and my band is so much fun to play with. I’m back in love with touring again and I can’t wait to do it more.