Charlie Hickey is a 21-year-old singer-songwriter from South Pasadena, California. Raised in a musical household, as a child he would watch videos of his parents on tour, obsessing over lyrics that he couldn’t yet understand. Growing up in the same neighbourhood as Phoebe Bridgers, Hickey was around the age of thirteen when he covered a song by her – then an up-and-coming artist – and the two quickly became friends and collaborators. In fact, Bridgers is now technically Hickey’s boss, having signed him to her label Saddest Factory Records, which will release his debut LP, Nervous at Night, on Friday. Following last year’s promising Count the Stars EP, the album was produced by Marshall Vore and features contributions from fellow LA musicians like Harrison Whitford and Christian Lee Hutson. Much like his collaborators, Hickey has a knack for diaristic, vulnerable songwriting, but his debut also displays a keen pop sensibility and playful self-awareness. Careening from understated guitars and subtle vocals to driving hooks, it tells a vivid coming-of-age story in which nothing stays the same and nothing really changes, especially the weight of teenage emotions. “I could stay here forever if I didn’t know better,” he sings on ‘Planet With Water’.
We caught up with Charlie Hickey for this edition of our Artist Spotlight interview series to talk about his upbringing, his debut album, working with Marshall Vore and Phoebe Bridgers, and more.
Your bio mentions that you started taking music more seriously after moving to college, but you put out your first EP when you were 14. What role did music play in your life at the time?
I’ve been writing songs my entire life in some shape or form. I think the time when I started really writing songs intentionally was when I was 13 or 14 and I just kind of had a group of songs that I had been working on. I got a family friend that had a studio to produce it, so we just put it out totally independently. I sent a bunch of emails – I was like my own publicist and sent essentially like a press release out myself, this 14-year-old kid that’s just like, “Hey, Pitchfork…” But yeah, I went to college for one year, and it was during that time that I think this current batch of songs started being written. Like ‘Two Haunted Houses’, which is on my EP, I wrote when I was at school and we recorded that song while I was still at school. So that was the beginning of this chapter, and the first song where I felt like Marshall, my collaborator, we kind of felt like, “Okay, we’re onto something here. Let’s lean into this.”
When you look back on when you first started making music, does it feel like a more innocent time?
Yeah, I mean, it’s funny, I feel like it actually doesn’t feel all that different. I’ve always felt the same in relation to whatever success or failure or anything that I’m having – it just sort of happens on different scales throughout my life. When I was like 15 and I played for a room of like 30 people that were mostly my friends and my parents’ friends, you know, I felt like the biggest rock star in the world. [laughs] So I don’t think the feeling changes all that much, just the scale of it changes.
I thought it was funny that in the song ‘Thirteen’, someone describes your music taste at the time as whiny.
Right, yeah. [laughs] Lots of Bright Eyes and stuff.
What’s your relationship with the music that grew up with?
I’ve actually been returning to a lot of music that I grew up with and listened to in middle school. I listened to a lot of rock music in middle school, stuff with a little more darkness or angst because that’s how I was feeling at that time. I don’t know, maybe Nirvana was like my first real favourite band. And it’s probably not an influence you can hear in my music. I was listening to a lot of like nu metal, like Incubus and System of a Down and stuff. My first favorite mellow singer-songwriter was Elliott Smith – my guitar teacher showed me Elliott Smith when I was 13 or something, and I just kind of flipped out. I felt like it was sort of a bridge between the more folky and the darker rock I was listening to, because it was mellow but it had the same teeth to it that a band like Nirvana did. It felt like it had the same ethos, so I was attracted to that.
Even though they exist in that mellower realm, I get why you’ve described your songs as pop music. As vulnerable and intimate as the lyrics are when it comes to the theme of growing up, for example, in ‘Thirteen’ you also sing about having succeeded at that better than the other person. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but there’s a confidence there that’s more in line with pop music than some of the artists we’ve mentioned.
Yeah. I was discussing this with a friend recently, one of my favorite things in songs is when people will say things that are sort of shocking – not to get a rise out of people, because obviously people do that, but when people don’t hesitate to paint themselves as a flawed or even bad person sometimes in songs, not leave out the ugliness. I feel like ‘Thirteen’, you can interpret it a lot of different ways: you can interpret it like, “Oh, this guy is an asshole, actually.” I feel like both characters in that song are equally as sad and insecure. I also like songs and stories in general where there’s no real villain, it’s really up for interpretation.
What’s your perspective on the song now that you have some distance from it?
I think the narrative arc is reflective of, like, my changing view on it. As you get space from something, it’s harder to remain angry. And sometimes you sort of want to cling to anger because it’s in some ways a very comfortable emotion. But it’s just hard to stay and at some point, if you are, it’s like, maybe you should work on it. [laughs] I like angry songs, but I feel like my favourite angry songs also kind of have this acute awareness that like, actually, anger is kind of silly, but they’re sort of indulging in it anyway.
I feel like that acute awareness might get distorted against a heavier rock sound, but if you’re working with a sparse musical backdrop, it comes through more easily. This is more of a funny observation, but the album starts with ‘Dandelions’, where you sing about “Saying sorry to my sister/ For taking up too much space with my little worries.” The song ends with a line about trying not to apologize, and then I believe your sister is the third person you thank in the credits.
Yeah, that’s funny. She pops up a lot on an album, actually, in different songs as a character. She’s right in the next room.
It kind of comes full circle, the fact that you express gratitude – obviously, you wouldn’t apologize in the credits, but…
It would be funny if in the credits I was like, “I’d like to say sorry to…”
What was her reaction to the songs when you first showed them to her?
Oh, I think she loves being in songs. [laughs] I don’t think it makes her uncomfortable or anything. I have had experiences where people have been in my songs and they’ve been uncomfortable with it, but for the most part, I feel like people don’t mind it or they even think it’s fun.
Was that something that you were concerned about with this album, given personal nature of the lyrics and the fact that they often reflect on the past? Did you feel the need to reach out to people before releasing them?
On a few occasions I actually did, but it was kind of after it was too late. Luckily, I didn’t have any problems with anyone or anything. But that is something I’ve always thought about because it is something that I’ve ran into trouble with before. And I know with a lot of writers, it’s kind of just part of the deal. I know some people have a very “fuck it” mentality about it. They’re just like, you just can’t worry about what anybody else is going to think. And I think that’s true, but I also I don’t want to hurt people. And if I am hurting people with things I make, I don’t think that’s a good thing. That’s sort of an interesting question, like: What is the place of morality in writing songs? How much is it just to serve you, and how do you think about how it’s benefiting others?
The first two people that you thank are your parents, who are also musicians, and you’ve talked about growing up watching videos of them playing together in their band Uma. Were you directly inspired by that, or did you feel like you wanted to do something different at any point?
I always wanted to do music. When I was watching those videos of them, I just thought it was the coolest thing ever. And it made it feel a lot more tangible, too, something I could do. It didn’t feel so far away. I was definitely really fascinated by it. Even before I really was any good at making at all, I was really fascinated by, I guess like the lifestyle. I don’t know, I was just drawn to it, even based on really nothing, being three years old or whatever.
As you became more serious about making music, did you feel the need to have conversations with them about that lifestyle or what it’s like to live as a musician? Or was it too late for that and you’d kind of already started figuring that out on your own?
Well, there was never any moment where it was like, “Mom, Dad, I think I’m gonna do this.” It became clear very early on. I was just obsessed for my whole life, basically. I think they kind of always knew, so there was never really a moment where I decided, really. But I have talked to them a lot about in terms of their wisdom and stuff. They’ve experienced it too, so they have a lot of empathy for the things I might be going through or the challenges. Luckily, they understand what it’s like to be largely an unknown artist that is trying to have a career in music. I feel like it’s a rare thing for your parents to truly understand what that’s like.
Did you feel comfortable reaching out to them, or were you more likely to talk to your peers about these sorts of things?
I think both things have happened. I’ve definitely turned to them a lot. But then also, I’ve probably had a little thing of rebelling a little bit and being like, “Well, I can figure it out, I don’t need you guys.” [laughs] I’ve been through both phases. And I hope I find the right balance at some point.
There’s a line on ‘Mid-Air’ about being “born to a family of neurotic musicians.” When you sing about that dynamic being the other side of the same coin in the chorus, did you have something specific in mind?
Yeah, that’s also another song about my sister and family, and that line is sort of about being different from someone, but being so fundamentally the same.
A lot of the album revolves around feeling small – you use phrases like “little feelings” and “little worries,” even if, at the same time, it can feel like they’re taking up too much space. I wonder if music helps you reconnect with your younger self in the way that you experience the world.
I think that’s a great observation about the big and small theme. Because I think a theme that pops up in my music is exactly what you said, like, feelings that are disproportionately large to what they’re actually about or what’s actually happening. Which is having anxiety or depression – you often feel feelings that are bigger than what’s actually happening. And I think something that’s happening in these songs is trying to hold space for these big feelings, but also being aware that they’re not necessarily the truth. But yeah, growing up, I struggled a lot with these sings, so I guess it is interesting to reflect on them and have a little more wisdom about certain things.
Have you found that music is therapeutic for you, or is it more about just laying down those feelings?
Therapeutic is never a word I would really use. I know a lot of people say it, and that’s just never how I thought about it, I don’t know. I guess sometimes music can be a really good release, to write about something. But I feel like when I’m really experiencing something or going through it currently, I never want to write about it, just ‘cause it’s too raw. I want to turn away from it. I usually write about things with a certain amount of space from them, I find it a lot easier. Songwriting is not necessarily the most therapeutic thing for me.
It’s interesting, how that varies with songwriters, even when their music is similar in terms of its vulnerability.
I think it’s funny the different ways people relate to music, whether it’s writing music or listening to music. Like, I know people that, when they’re going through a breakup, they like to listen to Taylor Swift and cry. And I’m just like, I would never do that. When I’m sad, I want to not consume anything that has anything to do with my emotions, you know what I mean? [laughs]
You mentioned Marshall Vore, who produced the album, and there are also contributions from Phoebe Bridgers, Harrison Whitford, and Christian Lee Hutson. What was the dynamic like, working with people that you grew up admiring and grew up around?
It was awesome. It felt like a real privilege to be able to be surrounded by that community while I was making the album. Marshall is someone I’ve always really looked up to and trusted as a songwriter, and we’ve been working together since I was like fifteen. Obviously, Phoebe is another person I’ve looked up to for a while, and Christian and Harrison, all of them. It both feels very comfortable and we’re all peers, but then I also will always look up to all those people. And it can be inspiring and force you to be better to be surrounded by those people, but it doesn’t feel like being an imposter.
Do you see them more as mentors or peers, particularly in the context of Nervous at Night?
I think of it as Marshall and I’s project in a lot of ways, just because he’s been so invested in it and did a lot of co-writing with me. So I think in some ways, he kind of cares about it as much as I do. We’ll talk about it in terms of stuff beyond just the music – we’ll have ideas of what would be cool visuals for this. I think in general he’s just a person that I just trust his artistic vision and we often see eye to eye and are able to bounce off each other. He’s just a really smart guy. Same with Phoebe, obviously she is in a literal sense involved on the business side, but her role also extends beyond that. She was listening to the early demos from the beginning, and she helped us decide which songs to put on the album and had a lot of great feedback about production and stuff. It’s just good to have lots of different types of voices in the mix that make you think of things that you otherwise might not.
Beyond things like production, did you learn anything from your collaborators during the making of the album that changed the way you think about songwriting?
Yeah, I mean, now I’m just blowing smoke up their asses, but Marshall and Phoebe – Marshall, I think the ethos that he has that I’ve kind of adopted is that things being good is just not good enough. Which kind of sounds harsh, but like all my favourite songs, they just have that special sauce. Something being good doesn’t make you want to play it over and over again. Marshall’s good at like, I’ll play him a song and he’ll be like, “This is awesome, but it could be better.” And I think I’ve started to just do that myself now: not as easily thinking something is done just because it works.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Charlie Hickey’s Nervous at Night is out May 20 via Saddest Factory Records.