Introducing… Charlie Burg: Michigan’s own “blue wave boi”

The rising singer-songwriter on keeping the human element alive in music, his six-stringed piece of Syracuse history and his educational lockdown routine.

Charlie Burg

Image: Jonathon Hunter Duncan

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While Charlie Burg’s music exists in the current tradition of bedroom-recorded indie, the soul and R&B greats that he grew up listening to have a hand on the steering wheel. They come across not just in his heartfelt delivery, but also in his sparse and deliberate guitar playing. His numerous EPs go even deeper for inspiration, taking parts of Ralph Waldo Emerson poems and transforming them into a trio of releases, each summing up a neat poetic idea: One, Violet, Two, Moonlight and Three, Fever.

We begin by asking about the setup Burg uses to write and record: “I got into gear much, much after I began playing instruments. My approach to instruments for my whole life, and it’s still pretty true, is to try to make sound, make beauty, make art with the lowest budget setup possible,” he says.

“So I’ve only got four pedals for my guitar, five if you count the one that I don’t use anymore. I’ve got a Nord keyboard that I record and play on, I have one synth and I’ve got my bass. It’s never been a very extravagant setup. That being said, I’m particular about what I do bring into my little gear family. When I was looking around for an interface, I made an effort to avoid getting the Focusrite Scarlett that everyone has.”

When it comes to guitars, Burg’s approach remains stripped-back: he’s only got an acoustic and two electrics, but his go-to Fender Strat has quite a bit of history behind it. “I went with a few friends to the local mom-and-pop music store in Syracuse, where I went to college, and they had this ‘89 Stratocaster Deluxe. It belonged to a music professor at Syracuse who couldn’t play it anymore after he got Parkinson’s, so he sold it to the shop,” he says. “It’s from the 80s but it’s beautifully set up, it’s got new tuners and a new pickup as well. I feel like every time I play it I’m playing a little bit of Syracuse history.”

“I wanted to learn the language of the industry, so that labels and publishers couldn’t screw me over”

Burg’s college degree was in the music industry, but his academic journey did not start out that way: “For the first two years of college at Syracuse, I was pursuing an English and Humanities degree. And then I realised I was spending all my time doing music rather than writing papers, so I transferred,” he says. So he moved over, but chose to do an industry program rather than something performance-based, as he wanted to learn “the vocabulary of the business.” He also wanted to avoid being “pigeonholed into being a songwriter.”

He explains, however, that he bears no grudge with those who do pursue performing academically, but it’s just not for him. “I don’t mean to pass judgement on any path, but to me a degree in performance seems so narrowing – what are your options? Teach, or play in an ensemble, often,” he says. “I wanted to learn the language of the industry, so that labels and publishers couldn’t screw me over.”

Charlie Burg
Image: Painting by Ana Leovy, editing by Corinne Fermna

And the experience, it seems, has paid dividends in Burg’s own career. Speaking to us about the search for his current label, it’s obvious he knew exactly what he wanted: to keep things as personal as possible. “When I was pursuing the idea of a record deal with my managers, who I also went to school with – we all graduated last year – we made sure to sign to a person, rather than a whole label,” he says. “We wanted it to be about the people we met rather than the brand association. I’m very lucky, I carved myself out a very fortunate label setup, but I’ve definitely heard some horror stories.”

And, speaking of horror stories, Burg has of course been affected by the one that’s consuming the news schedules, our daily lives, and any plans we had to go to any gigs in 2020: COVID-19. He remains optimistic, however, taking the opportunity to hone his craft further, likening these bizarre circumstances to being back in school. “I’ve been diving in, watching performances of some of the greatest artists who ever lived, learning about stage presence, vocal improvisation, guitar chops, lyricism,” he says. “I feel like I’m in school again, but I’m in charge of the curriculum.”

“I feel like I’m in school again, but I’m in charge of the curriculum”

Like many others, he’s of course been part of some live streamed gigs – including a Beach Boys tribute concert, and one being broadcast today (26 May). “It’s different, performing to a screen,” he says. “But I still get kind of nervous. I get nervous before every live show, until I strum that first chord, then it goes. And that’s still the case. It’s strange that when streaming, it’s still real life – if I play a wrong note, everyone’s gonna see me. But we’re in a time where we have to blur those lines, we’ve got to be comfortable with it – as it’s the new normal, as of now.”

But Burg’s been wary of overextending himself with live-streamed concerts, not wanting to contribute to the arguably oversaturated landscape of living-room shows. And that’s something that plays into his whole approach to music and building a fanbase. He grew up with an affinity for the core “human” qualities of music, listening to soul singers and acoustic singer-songwriters, and so as he came into the world of streaming platforms and social media, he wanted to “find little subtle ways to defy the modern game.”

“Playlists bother me, I’ll be honest – I don’t love catering to big streaming services. I think they’re trying to make the world think that they’re synonymous with music. When you think of an artist, you kind of gravitate towards the numbers you see on Spotify or wherever.”

“I try to find ways to really remove myself and my music from that whole thing, trying to use the internet to pull people away from the internet.”

Charlie Burg
Image: Jonathon Hunter Duncan

And that, in the end, is something that informs his approach to recording – making a deliberate effort to keep that human element, and a sense of identity, alive within it. “There’s hundreds of thousands of those Focusrite Scarlett interfaces, but there’s only one room that you’re sitting in right now. No one could recreate the acoustics of your room if they tried. My philosophy is to use the unique sonic qualities of your space to colour your music, it makes it real. I always have room mics all over the place.”

Looking to the future, to whenever we hopefully come out of lockdown, Burg hopes musicians and fans alike will have a renewed passion for good old-fashioned in-person live music. “I hope that people come out to concerts with a vengeance now, that they buy concert tickets remembering when they couldn’t. The live space is sacred, and it’s never been taken away like this. I hope that people don’t take a good live performance for granted anymore.”

Watch Charlie’s latest live stream here. For more interviews, click here.

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