Cornish musician Charlie Harris talks gigs, guitars and hard graft

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It’s a hot sunny day in Cornwall. Very hot. And BTN is sitting in a garden chatting and laughing with singer and musician, Charlie Harris.

Her growing success, and reputation, means she’s played gigs overseas and in the UK capital where she was a support artist for American singer, Jessica Sweetman.

‘I was only 16 and couldn’t drive yet so my dad took me up and back in one night,’ recalls Charlie. ‘It was a paid ticketed event, the crowd were seated and entirely focused on me, you could hear a pin drop.’ 

‘It was incredible. It was one of the best gigs at the start of my music career as I had only played in places where people were chatting at a bar. But here and everyone was eyes and ears on me. It was a real show. I felt very professional.’

Gibraltar. Spain. Glastonbury. All locations have hosted the 25 year old over the past few years. And that’s not even counting her auditions for Britain’s Got Talent, X Factor and The Voice (the last being her favourite experience of all of the three). 

And then there was Exeter’s ‘Beautiful Days Festival’ and the ‘Looe Music Festival.’ These were significant ‘dates marked on the kitchen calendar’ for any serious music connoisseur.   

Her popularity means she’s in constant demand. Weddings. Pubs. Clubs. Commercial work. It’s tiring. What makes her story truly incredible is that she’s entirely self-taught.

‘That’s what I want to do’

‘I was about 14 or 15 and watching Britain’s Got Talent and this young girl, aged six or seven, was sitting on a stool playing guitar,’ she recalls. 

‘She was singing beautifully, and I thought, ‘Bingo, that’s what I want to do.’ So I went out and bought a guitar, watched some YouTube videos and just learnt song after song. I couldn’t stop. It was an addiction. I learnt three or four songs in the first week.’ 

‘I still can’t read music to this day, but, by listening to a song and Googling the chords  I could make up my own strumming patterns. It was all very non-traditional.’

Charlie built her confidence at ‘open mic’ nights and quickly found her popularity grew both at home – and overseas. Her Facebook page, Charlie Harris Music, currently has nearly 1500 followers. 

It’s an amazing achievement when you consider she started her business with an idea, a guitar and a passionate desire to succeed. Her first audience was her immediate family before she began to play in front of the public. 

‘The first time I ever played in public was at the Smugglers’ Rest Cafe, right next to the beach in Talland Bay. I was 16 years old.’ 

‘There was a band playing and I asked if I could play during their break. It was terrifying, I had knots and butterflies in my stomach, wanted to bail out, but I went through with it. It was the kickstart I needed to get out there and play to the public.’

Her story is one of hard graft. Playing for free in holiday parks. Learning what worked – and what didn’t. Trial and error. The two classic ingredients which create success for lots of the best known performers.   

‘I had to play a lot for free to get to where I am. You have to be relatively known to be successful, so there were lots of open mics and lots of freebies.’

A huge boost came in her mid-teens when Charlie went along to the Livewire Youth Music project. The Saltash based charity encourages creativity through music. 

‘It really brought me out of my shell’

‘It’s a place where you could chill out or have a lesson for free. You could even learn how to be a sound engineer. It was helpful for young people to get into music. It really brought me out of my shell.’ 

‘They had a big venue there where you could perform and the crowd were all friends. It was a good experience for people who hadn’t played in front of an audience, to be able to build their confidence.’

By the time she was 17, Charlie was beginning to enjoy success as a guitar player. She had a plan. It was a simple plan. A good plan. Her friends would do the singing. She would do the guitar work. That was the plan. 

The problem was that her friends had just discovered boys. And that led to a sudden cancellation, which meant Charlie had to do the guitar playing AND the singing. 

Her plan was torn up – just as she was setting up. She was basically thrown into the deep end.

‘I was let down at the last minute but had to do the gig. It was a paid gig. It was awful. I was not born with a singing voice but had to keep on. I was very self-critical but did the show nevertheless.’ 

‘I got paid. And I thought, ‘Now, I’m a soloist’ which works out better as now I get all the dollar! Being let down was the push I needed. It’s also a lot simpler to organise gigs as a solo artist.’

Back to back gigs

Fast forward eight years and the person who felt she ‘wasn’t born with a singing voice’ is now in high demand. Her debut album was released a few years ago and the bookings keep coming in. Jubilee weekend was busy with five shows in a row.

‘The first out of the five gigs was good. The first half of my set went well. My voice had warmed up by the end of the second half and I ended up playing for an extra 25 minutes!’ 

‘The number of back to back gigs meant that my voice got better and better. The audience wouldn’t have noticed the difference, but I could tell, and it was amazing. I had thought my voice would get tired or weaker but it only seemed to get stronger.’

‘The entire gig depends on the audience. If they’re all singing along, participating and dancing, that makes me feel good. It 100% depends on the vibe I get from the audience.’ 

‘The perfect gig is either very quiet, where everyone listens which means I can hear what I’m doing, or it’s one where everyone is screaming, jumping, the place is rocking and everyone is involved.’ 

‘If they’re involved, then I feel I sing better and it ends up being one of the better shows.’

It quickly becomes apparent that Charlie is constantly looking at new ways to develop her performance. Much of her inspiration comes from one particular artist.

‘I find it incredible that Ed Sheeran can make such a massive sound, as if it’s a huge production when it’s just him, his guitar, and a loop pedal.’ 

‘I now have a stomp and it has made such a difference to my whole performance. I’m thinking about getting a tambourine for the other foot!’

Self-taught success 

‘I’m riding the wave and enjoying what I’m doing. It’s all about living in the present. I don’t have an end goal but things lead on from other things. It’s like branches on a tree.’ 

‘And opportunities keep popping up. I’m quite happy where I am, when I’m relaxed then I find I provide a better performance. I guess I need to start writing some bangers soon!’

The number of famous self-taught musicians is, quite frankly, astonishing. A quick internet search for who taught themselves what, and when, will pull up names ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Jimi Hendrix and from Kurt Cobain to Louis Armstrong. 

All of them have the same things in common: determination, hard work and a drive to never quit. Keep an eye out for Charlie Harris. BTN thinks she’s destined for great things.

Photography by Billy Rickards and images kindly supplied by Charlie Harris Music

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