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Charlie Parr embraces a new approach on 'Little Sun'

Minnesota-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Charlie Parr’s new album, "Little Sun," released March 22, 2024, via Smithsonian Folkways.
Minnesota-based singer, songwriter and guitarist Charlie Parr’s new album, "Little Sun," released March 22, 2024, via Smithsonian Folkways.Shelly Mosman

by Joel Swenson

May 22, 2024

Charlie Parr’s latest album, Little Sun, opens with a fade into a drum groove already underway. As some twinkling piano joins the mix, the subtle effect creates the feeling of stumbling into a bar mid-set. The band’s playing full bore and the crowd’s dancing. It welcomes you in as if to ask, “Where ya been?” By the time Parr’s familiar gritty voice sings the first line of “Portland Avenue,” you’re exactly where you belong.

Little Sun was released at the end of March via Smithsonian Folkways. The album marks a distinct evolution in Parr’s unique blend of Americana, Piedmont blues, and folk-country. It’s also a notable departure from his usual creative process, as it’s the first of his 18 albums not to be recorded in one live take. Instead, Parr took his time in the studio, enrolling the help of close friend and collaborator Tucker Martine (Sufjan Stevens, the Decemberists, My Morning Jacket) to handle the album’s production. The result is eight lushly layered stories shared through Parr’s lamenting troubadour perspective.

“I wanted to do something different for a while,” Parr recalls while speaking on the phone with me about Little Sun. “I don't know if you can just keep doing the same thing over and over again. Personally, I'm not satisfied with that."

Part of doing something different meant trading in his familiar Duluth stomping grounds for living in St. Paul. The change in scenery allowed Parr even more opportunities to feel inspired while writing Little Sun.

“The inspiration’s always there for me,” he says. “I feel inspired all the time. The last record that I did (Last of the Better Days Ahead) was super personal and kind of bleak. I was inspired by personal worries and terrors in my own life. Once I got that out of my system, I was able to just write from a different perspective. On this record, I was more inspired by the external world and nature. I was inspired by the city. Moving to St. Paul is much different than living in Duluth, and my eyes and ears were just always open.”

“I just turned 57, and to still feel like a creative person makes me really happy,” he adds.

In some ways, Little Sun feels like Parr’s most creative endeavor yet. He added a full backing band and Martine’s influence on the album’s grandiose sound design and crisp production quality gives it richness for a more complexly layered listen. It’s chock full of ear candy that you simply can’t achieve with a one-take live play-through. Parr says taking a multitrack approach also allowed for more experimentation.

“In my mind, the songs were done, but I also left room for unexpected things to happen, and there were kind of a lot of those,” he recalls. “They were fluid enough that once we got into the studio and I heard somebody do something that I liked, we could stop and talk about it. And that's just what we did. We ended up with sounds on the record that I hadn't really planned on. I played harmonica on two different tracks which I wasn't expecting to do. It worked well, and I'm really grateful that we were flexible.”

For this record, Parr says he put himself and his songs “in Tucker’s hands.” Little Sun was recorded at Martine’s studio, Flora Recording and Playback, in Portland, Oregon, during the worst snowstorm to hit the city since World War II. 

“I was grateful because Tucker is a producer that I really admire, and he was enthusiastic,” Par says.” He listened to the songs and picked musicians that he thought would complement the kind of music that I do, and he did, too. Everybody who was involved in the record was great. They were sympathetic, good listeners, and creative, brilliant musicians.”

Joining Parr and Martine for the sessions were Victor Krummenacher (electric bass, upright bass, bass VI), Andrew Borger (drums, percussion), Asher Fulero (piano, Hammond, keys), and Marisa Anderson (guitar). While Martine picked most of the musicians, Parr himself invited Anderson.

Charlie Parr wears a flannel shirt and holds a guitar
Charlie Parr
Shelly Mosman

“She's kind of a guitar hero of mine, and she lives in Portland, so I really wanted her to be on the record,” he says of Anderson. “She’s become one of my very favorite guitar players and a huge influence on the way I think about guitar. I have to imagine that the way the record sounds has a lot to do with her. Long before we started recording together, I was thinking about the kinds of sounds and shapes that she gets out of her guitar and almost subconsciously included them into my own guitar playing.”

Anderson’s influence is most apparent on Little Sun’s two longest tracks: “Bear Head Lake” and “Pale Fire.” Each clocking in at more than seven minutes long, both songs meander with the kind of improvised expansiveness that Anderson is known for. “Bear Head Lake,” in particular, with its nearly two-and-a-half-minute wandering fingerpicking intro, lets Anderson shine. Vocally, Parr channels the late, great Jason Molina (Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co.) on both songs in his strongest and most powerful performances on the album.

Parr says his two favorite songs to play live so far off of Little Sun are the title track and the album’s jaunty closer, “Sloth.” However, he cautions fans not to get too attached to any of the songs as they appear on the album.

“Songs are never done,” he explains. “As I've taken them on the road since the record came out, they've changed again. I've been messing with those songs a lot, so they're different now.”

When I ask Parr if he could describe Little Sun in one word, he initially responds with “upbeat” before reconsidering.

“Maybe ‘Hopeful’ is better,” he declares. “A lot of people told me how bleak the last record was, but this one feels a lot more upbeat. Even the low moments are hopeful, except for ‘Stray,’ I guess. But even that one has a bit of hope in it. So I think ‘hopeful’ is a better word.”

Catch Charlie Parr performing at Grand Old Day at The Grand Stage Powered by The Current on Sunday, June 2. Little Sun is out now via Smithsonian Folkways and is available in stores and on all streaming platforms, including Parr’s Bandcamp.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.