“Independent venues provide local artists with places to hone their show skills,” Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood once said. Grassroots venues have to get performers early on in their career, which means taking a punt on artists and relying on people going to listen to them.
What does that mean from the artists’ point of view? To find out, we spoke to singer-songwriter-guitarist Eva Hendricks from Charly Bliss. The Brooklyn-based band have picked up a following with their brand of vibrant alt-rock, and their recently released album Young Enough has seen the band start adding pop sensibilities to their guitar sound.
Hendricks says independent venues allowed Charly Bliss to experiment and take risks. She also says that’s allowed them to take risks with their new album. The band had just played at the Mercy Lounge in Nashville for Independent Venue Week, and followed that up with perhaps their biggest date so far at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, supporting CHVRCHES. So, the timing couldn’t have been better to ask how grassroots venues have been instrumental to their success.
What made you get involved with Independent Venue Week?
We've been a band for about eight years at this point. We wouldn't be a band if we hadn't gotten to play so many independent venues who took a chance on us. The Mercy Lounge in Nashville is such a special venue to us because it marked the beginning of a new moment in our career as a band. The first time we played at the Mercy Lounge we were opening for Veruca Salt, and up until that point we had never played to a crowd that wasn't mostly comprised of all our family and friends that we had begged to come see us play.
It was the first time we ever really played in front of total strangers. The crowd was so enthusiastic and sweet, it felt like a really, kind of like a magical milestone in our time as a band.
How important have independent venues been to Charly Bliss?
So important. Some bands have an overnight trajectory, where they put a song out and everyone responds to it, and suddenly overnight they skip 10 steps and have gone from playing a crappy venue to Bowery Ballroom all in the span of six months. That’s not how it was for us. We slowly worked our way up from playing the smallest, most DIY venues to playing a lot of the venues we could only have ever dreamed about playing some day.
The reason we were able to work our way up was because of independent venues who took a chance on us and let us play there. It can be really intimidating coming into a big city like New York and thinking, "Where would I even start?" I was in college when I first moved here. I had barely ever played a show before, and just feels like we are really lucky to have a network of independent venues who let us grow, and let us make mistakes, and try new things and work stuff out in real time, and support us.
How have you seen the independent venue scene change?
It's sad. Shea Stadium is a DIY venue in New York that meant the most to me, so it was really sad to see it go. But then again, part of me thinks there something about New York in general that's kind of cyclical. I have to hope that when these venues close that it's not the end of this facet of music venues in New York. I have to hope that they'll keep being new venues and new people running them, and that it will keep growing and changing and getting better and better.
But, it's also really hard. Rent is a really hard, harsh reality in New York. I hope that New York continues to be a city that can foster a DIY community because it's super important. There's been a huge change in that scene since we started. When we started as a band it felt like there were really very few women making music, or very few women being featured and being included on bills. And I really think that there's been a huge change.
There's been such a huge influx of female-fronted and more diverse bands in the past several years and I think that started in that community. I think that it's so important to have a community like that where people are supportive and really care, because that has the power to change music.
You said Shea Stadium was the venue closest to your heart. Can you tell me why it meant so much to you?
I think Shea Stadium meant a lot of me and to our band just because when we first started it still felt like a reach for us to get to play there. For a long time, all of the coolest bands that we really admired were playing there, and I remember just feeling like, "Oh some day, some day we'll be cool enough to play at Shea Stadium.” Once we finally did play there, the first time we ever played there, there was like nobody, maybe like 20 people were in the audience.
I remember talking to the people who worked at the venue, and they were so supportive even though we didn't pull in the numbers. And they continued to be supportive even though on paper we weren't a safe bet at that point. That means a lot when you're just starting out. It can feel really cold when you feel like people are just looking at you based on your Facebook likes, or how many Instagram followers you have, or how many people come see you play a show.
When you finally play somewhere where you can tell that the people hear your music and they get it, and they believe in it despite that stuff, especially in a city as big as New York, it just really means a lot.
People were visibly supportive, that must mean a lot?
Yes, it does. It really does.
You talked about how the Mercy Lounge is an important venue for you because you felt as though that was a step change in the band. You’ve gone through another one with your latest album, Young Enough. What's been behind that change in sound?
It's been really just a total joy putting this record out and writing it and getting to perform it every night. I'm really proud of Guppy, our first record, but by the time Guppy came out we had written some of those songs five years before the album came out, and had been performing them for a really long time at that point. And we went through a lot of ups and downs, a lot of frustrations. It felt like no-one wanted to put us out. We sent it to every label, and got turned down by every label. It was really a long road to get that record out. It's no secret that we recorded Guppy twice and the first time it felt like we were having a little bit of imposter syndrome. It took us a long time to find our voice, but going into Young Enough it felt that a lot of that self-doubt was gone. We definitely did a deeper dive into the pop spectrum... It felt like a really natural progression for us in some ways, but in terms of the song writing we definitely went into it wanting to challenge ourselves and to not make the same record twice.
It sounds like you've also challenged yourself lyrically too?
Yes, definitely. I think one of the major reasons for that was I heard an album like Lorde's Melodrama, and I was super inspired by the honesty of the lyrics. Also, listening back to Guppy I feel like a lot of the time I would get really close to saying something honest or something that was really embarrassing or that scared me to say, and then I would kind of swerve and instead say something that was like a funny joke or something. And I really wanted to push myself to say everything on this record, admit to everything and not just resort to my first instincts, but push myself a little bit further.
As a songwriter, how did you find that experience?
It was so gratifying. It's a better way to write a record. I am really proud of the lyrics on Guppy but Young Enough touches on my experience with sexual assault, my experience with depression, my experience with self-hatred, and struggling with insecurity. In a way, it felt very easy to actually write it, it was just figuring out how to talk about it and give my family and friends a heads up before the album came out.
Figuring out how to talk about it in interviews was really the part that was most difficult for me. That said, I think it forced me to have a lot of tough conversations that ultimately brought me a tremendous sense of freedom. With something like sexual assault, it was something I really struggled with knowing how to talk about it and I resisted talking about it. Even with the people closest to me. And I think that what's really awful about doing that to yourself is that when you try to bury something, it has so much power over you.
When you're afraid of something that happened to you, or you feel ashamed, it has so much more power over you than if you just confront it and take control of the narrative. That felt really scary for me, but now that I'm on the other side of it I feel really proud and really at peace with a lot of that. I don't feel like it has that tremendous sense of power over me anymore. I feel like I'm in control, and there's nothing I'm afraid to talk about or for someone to find out about me. I feel proud of my choices and proud of the fact that I made it out the other side.
Have you noticed a difference in response from the audience?
Yes. I feel like it's changed everything at our shows. When I look out into the audience, I can tell that this record really, really means something to the people. And specifically, when we play a song like Young Enough or a song like Chat Room, I can become so honest about what the record is about. I think the people at our shows connect with this show even more, and to me, it feels like, I feel super connected to everyone in the audience and there's this huge energy exchange that feels really powerful.
I get the sense, too, that the people coming to our shows know what the song's about, and they know that it might be hard for me to sing about or cathartic for me to sing about, or whatever. Or it’s hard for them to listen to. I think that because of that I feel this huge sense of support from the people who come to our shows. I feel like they dance and sing along and are there to really experience it fully.
What a special outcome, you truly value that interaction with the audience
Thank you. Yeah, it's been really special.
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Music, Culture, Capital, Future and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.