+ By Leah Weiss + Photos by Larry Melton
“There was never, ever, any music in the house,” says Angela Charles, reminiscing about her childhood. It’s a few hours before a Friday night gig. Her shock of curly platinum blond hair explodes out of her trademark black felt hat, and her broad smile contrasts sharply with what she has just said. She seems like someone unfettered, on the cusp of a grand adventure.
A rising presence in the local singer/songwriter scene, Charles debuted in Annapolis in 2013, at a Stan & Joe’s open mic night, singing “Linger,” the 1993 hit by the Irish rock band The Cranberries. She had nearly given up on playing music but decided to come out and sing. Her performance caught the attention of some local musicians, and she soon found herself surrounded by a community that helped her rediscover her musical passion.
Growing up in a strict household in Upper Marlboro—the fifth of twelve children, with Native American and French Creole parents—she attended Annapolis Area Christian School through seventh grade. The radio was on only during a religious program that aired before her father left for work. Charles secretly watched television, and movies were her first conduit to popular music. She sat with the video controls, constantly rerunning credits to listen to the songs at a movie’s end. Commercials enthralled her, and she dreamed of writing and singing jingles. She connected with harmonies upon hearing her brothers performing madrigals (polyphonic Renaissance songs) in their school chorus.
A seminal moment occurred in 1996, when Charles was twelve. While in the backseat of a car, she heard two songs on the radio: “Ready or Not” by The Fugees and “Don’t Speak” by No Doubt. “It really made my hair stand up, and I was just frozen,” she says. “I actually felt guilty for liking it.” She became secretly obsessed with making music, learning to play a guitar that she persuaded her mother to buy at BJ’s Wholesale Club and kept in her closet. She began writing songs shortly thereafter.
The Internet gave Charles unlimited access to music, and she downloaded anything and everything, listening without any social or commercial context or accompanying baggage. “I’m actually very happy I was raised the way I was, because everything I get now—even if it’s from someone fifty years ago—is new to me.” One of the reasons she loves singing cover songs is because they provide a bridge to a past that she has missed.
Charles gravitated toward folk music with its storytelling aspects. “That’s the kind of music I started writing without even knowing that it was a genre because I hadn’t been introduced to it yet,” she explains. “I love the [apparent] simplicity, doing a lot with a little.”
While working and living in Crofton, she began playing with musicians such as Levi Stephens and lined up a recording project. But after a crisis of confidence, she stopped playing altogether.
“When music is in your soul, you can only bury it for so long,” she says. After the Stan & Joe’s open mic night, Charles dove back into music, playing with Charles Kavoossi, Thomas Beall, and Ahren Buchheister, among others. She secured crowdfunding for her recording, but her producer took a job in Los Angeles, stopping the project in its tracks. Through Alex Peters, she eventually met the right producer in Bob Novak of Red Bridge Studios in Savage. Her album of original material is planned for release in April 2017.
Charles’ songs are reflective and personal, and her voice has an emotional, airy quality. She aims to express the gravity of situations while maintaining some lightness. When performing solo, she plays with texture through loops—recording percussion, harmony vocals, and guitar lines, and then layering, bringing them in and out during the piece—creating them live and then erasing them. “Every single gig, it’s starting fresh,” she explains. “I think it’s more fun for the audience, adding an element of surprise and anticipation.”
She fulfilled her jingle dream with “The Angela Show,” a series of online video shorts that she creates with her sister Anne. Some shows are musical performances; others are humorous skits or reality pieces. Charles scores, records, and edits the soundtrack, and penned the catchy theme song. The project maintains her Internet presence for her fans and crowdfunders. “I give them something to show that I’m still doing music, something to look forward to.”
Drawn to and inspired by Simon & Garfunkel, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, and Coldplay, Charles is comfortable with her cross-genre tastes. “Music is music. I grew up in an interracial household. I’m a bit of everything.” She stood up to those who first questioned her musical choices with an elegant retort: “I don’t understand the question. Did you enjoy it?” After a while, the questions stopped, “I think because I got so comfortable with it,” she explains. “This is the right music. And if I sang stuff just to please, they would question me again.”
Charles smiles as she reflects on growing up with eleven siblings. “[It] put me in a place where I always want to stand out,” she says. “Get comfortable with what you do and roll with it, because there’s no other way to do it.” █