Jen Charlton
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Jen Charlton


Band Americana Singer/Songwriter


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"One of the best new things I’ve heard in a while"

Jeff Cotton's Review in 'Comes with a Smile':

''Jen Charlton arrived in London in 2001 (from New York via Spain) and has been playing around the capital since then, from the Spitz to the Swan in Stockwell, in her short-lived band The Lovers and, more recently, solo.

Don’t let the unprepossessing cover lower your expectations - or rather do, and then like me you can be even more blown away by its wonderfulness. From the sparky lyrics of Other Girl, on which our Jen sends her flaky lover away back to his real girlfriend, this one holds the attention with its words and music and the woman’s clear, sweet and ranging vocals. There’s no direct and obvious debt being paid - Charlton’s voice and the minimal, mostly acoustic, instrument-ation just do the business in their own sweet way. She sings from the piano on a lot of the songs here, and that might evoke memories of Queen Joni, along with her enviable vocal range (especially on the closing Old Fashioned Radio, on which she does some fine and tasteful Joni-style vocal swooping). There’s a bit of Kate & Anna McGarrigle quirkiness going on too, especially in the more waltzy tempos and the delivery of the more wry story-telling lyrics. Tomorrow, downloadable from her website should you want a taster), even has a bit of the Bob Dylans about it.

One of the best new things I’ve heard in a good while.''

- Comes with a Smile

"You do feel that an artist with all this talent must get a break soon"

James Clark, Review of Wasted, (CD Reviews June 2005)

Jen Charlton is from a long line of Canadian singer/songwriters to have decided that the UK, rather than Canada, is the place to hunt out that break. She arrived in London in 2001 and has since become a regular at Americana venues like The 12-Bar, The Borderline and “Come Down And Meet The Folks”. Charlton’s name on the bill usually means a good night. It’s impossible to listen to a Charlton song without being immediately struck by the beauty of her vocals. A crystal clear voice, wonderfully pitched, ranging from a high-flying top to a lower end which (and this has to be a great trick if you can do it) reminds you of someone whispering in your ear. It’s so good, in fact, that there’s a danger of it taking over and obscuring the songs themselves, which seems a little unfair. It would be unfair too, if her vocal talents took anything away from her lyrics and her song-writing, both of which are getting better and better. The opening track, “Other Girl”, will chime with female listeners the world over who’ve found themselves attracted to the wrong man, but the mellow guitar picking and delivery will work for everyone. Ditto “Funny Thing Called Life”, in which Charlton’s first instrument, the piano, appears. Her earliest musical influences were in church choirs, and then in classical music, and if her voice is testament to the former, the orchestration of some of the tracks reveals the latter. It’s strongest on the beautiful final track “Old Fashioned Radio”, which is genuinely one of those tunes which could make you stop the car to listen. All that said, to get the most from this record you’d need to be a big fan of both the female vocalist, and Charlton’s style, as she is what she is. There’s a new album in the pipe, apparently, and you do feel that an artist with all this talent must get a break soon – although music is, sadly, littered with Jen Charltons who didn’t. Whatever happens, if you see her name in the Americana UK gig guide and you get the chance, take in a show.
- Americana-uk

"The Anti-Star"

I recently met the Canadian born singer-songwriter, Jen Charlton for coffee, at London's Royal Festival Hall where we watched the daylight fade over Charing Cross station and discussed life, art, the music business and pretty much anything else.....

For those who haven't seen or heard of Jen, she's a performer very much of the old skool. No frills, fizz, or gimmicks. Just a piano, a soaring voice and some proper, good old fashioned heart and soul, done the way it should be.

I was privileged to see her perform at this year's Limmudfest outdoor festival in England's Peak District. A couple of hundred people sat, in the early hours of the morning, enraptured by her melodies which, in their eclectic sweetness, seemed to have an unexpected way of touching everyone. She may perform in a style that's as familiar to us as our parent's generation, but she isn't part of any nostalgia industry. Accessible yes, middle-of-the-road, no. This is not the musical wallpaper we have come to expect of a lot of contemporary singer-songwriters, but a consummate artist who has the power and edge to genuinely move an audience.

The form may be redolent of earlier masters of melody such as Carly Simon or the Carpenters, but what she is doing is of this moment. It would be a mistake to try and pigeon-hole Jen Charlton in the past.

"I hate trying to fit into a box. I guess it's pop music. I don't much like the term singer-songwriter. there's a lot of bad stuff that gets that name
but I have so many more influences....I went through a jazz phase, and I love opera, Carol King, Burt Bacharach: I just love classic sort of melody songs, It doesn't really matter where or how it comes from necessarily, it's a mixture. Even country music. It's not cool to say that but there is great country music out there."

If her musical influences are broad, so has been her life experience. She read Middle Eastern Studies at McGill University in Montreal, has worked for the UN, done desk jobs in New York law firms, and served time in a TV production company. (She is teaching now.) When not writing and performing, she now she teaches music in a secondary school, a job she says keeps her grounded and also stimulated. She says, "I'm just a normal person," - but she has the power to move people with her music, as I witnessed.

And if it's pop music she is doing, then to her, it's also art. She sees no conflict in this:

"music and art can be a way of dealing with pain - you don't have to look very far for this. As a person I know how to have a good time, but I also have a tendency to be a bit of a deep thinker, all art is a way of dealing with life, proper art is a diary, as I've heard painters say, some of my songs are a diary, autobiographical"

Untroubled by notions of fame or fashion, Jen's work has something we don't much associate with contemporary pop music: heart and soul.

"If you are choosing to make art, if you are choosing to paint paintings in the fashion of this year are you really being an artist?. No"

"I am not necessarily concerned with stardom. But I feel it would be an abdication from duty if I didn't try to develop my career. People do respond and I do have something to offer and I feel it's a duty. I think if you have something to offer, then you should offer it. It's lazy to not to try to share it."

I ask her what her impetus is in her writing and performing and we get talking about a Jewish sensibility; one that has given rise to so many performers and entertainers engaging in music or in comedy; both of which, we muse, can be ways of mitigating, escaping or healing pain. It's no secret that many an artist and performer have been driven by the after-effects of a painful loss or set of circumstances. As Jews, certainly as much as any other human beings, we know well what that means. She puts it in context:

"I don't think my music spreads Jewish ideas necessarily, but people like it as art and it's as part of the human community as a whole."

So I ask if this may contain any grains of a sense of duty towards tikkun alam, or 'repair of the world',

"I guess it's all part of the whole and giving joy to people. Anything that helps people and maybe lifts them up and encourages them to go on. Ok, our generation now doesn't have war-time privations, or rationing, we have a lot of benefits but also things like AIDS,'s not the lightest of times. In some ways, the boomer generation of my parents in Canada had less to worry about. The world was a simpler place then. Even though we have a lot more choice now, that in itself can cause a lot more pain. In practice it can make life harder. People always need art."

If Jen uses familiar and accessible song forms, I asked her, how does she keep her writing fresh?

"Picasso said everyone's an artist when they're a child, the trick is remaining one as an adult! We have to nurture it, we have to make time for it, to have fun things that inspire us...Often when I'm on a trip or back from a a trip, or going through a transitional state that's when I come out with my best ideas"

Age 30 now, she left Canada 7 years ago and came to London via Seville, and then New York, singing with the band 'The Lovers'. Since going solo in 2004, Jen has become something of a veteran London folk circuits. She says that although playing live gives her a terrific lift and contact with her audience, which can be very exciting, the live circuit can be a lonely one.

"I would love for everyone to be able to listen to my stuff and for it to be popular. But I've had such mixed experiences with the music industry and the whole scene. There's so many difficult people to work with. It's a really unwholesome world and I'm actually quite wholesome!

So if Jen can't and won't be pigeon-holed. If she won't be filed under 'M' for MOR or under 'S' for singer-songwriter, I ask 'what is she'?

"I'm the anti-star!" she says with a wry smile.

"I'm just a proper person, not manufactured".

And if people get to hear her work, I think they may just connect with it, with no hype needed.

Check her out at
- Rooftop Magazine


1) 'Jen Charlton' self-released (2000)
2) 'Lovers Live at the 12-Bar' self-released (2002)
3) 'Wasted' first official release (UK & Ireland/ Proper Music, 2006)



‘It all started in rural Ontario with a piano and classical music. The only pop music I heard growing up was the odd Cat Stevens or Joni Mitchell record from my older sister’s room. My parents liked Simon and Garfunkel so I heard a bit of them but they weren’t hippies. Instead we were raised on classical composers, and Bach was one of my favourites.’

Charlton always loved singing and was encouraged to develop this at school. But she was too busy passing her piano exams, being a fastidious student and riding her horse to think about singing seriously until she left her hometown and moved to Montreal to study at McGill University.

There she studied religion and the Middle East and found herself opened up to a whole new world of people and ideas. She was also learning how to play the guitar and with the help of one of her boyfriends at the time – being introduced to music she had never listened to before.

‘I became very close to the family of one of my boyfriends - Jonah. I was like a daughter to them. And his parents were real hippies. His mum used to make her own clothes and she had two long braids. They had the most incredible record collection. It was huge and they as a family, because they were all music buffs, helped introduce me to all the greats from the 60’s and 70’s, Dylan, Leonard Cohen, CSNY, Ry Cooder.....and slightly lesser known artists like Kate and Anna McGarrigle who are still a big inspiration for me. My boyfriend was friends with Martha Wainwright (who had grown up there) and other musicians and film-makers. I felt so small-town and innocent around that crowd. They’d lived in New York and gone on tour….’

Borrowing her boyfriend’s classical guitar, sitting with a stack of songs and recordings beside her was how Charlton first learned to play. ‘I learned folk song after Dylan song after folk song. I loved the picking and the fact that there was a story to each one. I love it when music becomes almost like story-telling.’

It was in Montreal she recorded her first album in one night, with a bottle of wine and a bass player at the Music Faculty recording studio. The songs were earnest and perhaps naïve, but the odd one has since been picked up by other folk singers, for example ‘Wandering Case of the Blues’ by Emma Tricca.

She started playing at open mic evenings in Montreal but it wasn’t until she moved to New York that she really started taking her song-writing seriously. ‘I would queue up for these open stages in the East Village and Alphabet City, and for a while it was fun. It was my first taste of what performing can be like, what the whole industry is like. It was desperate but exciting all at the same time. Then my boyfriend and I broke up and I didn’t think New York really suited me. I felt so Canadian there, so I decided to go to Europe.

After working on an organic farm in Portugal she settled in Seville for a few months, living with Spaniards, hanging out and watching a lot of Flamenco. ‘I even played the odd gig at this funny little place called La Carboneria. I would get paid 7000 pesetas a night. I’m sure they couldn’t understand a word I was saying but they enjoyed having visiting American musicians and they liked my voice.’

And it was her voice, months later after she had landed in London that attracted peoples’ attention. ‘I’d penned all these terribly aching delicate songs, and I used to go to the Golden Lion in Camden on Sunday afternoons to ‘Come Down and Meet the Folks’ where they had a really excellent open mic - and sing a couple. It was through that scene that I met some later collaborators and was again introduced to a whole new musical universe: Grams Parsons, Neil Young, Townes Van Zandt and that laid-back West Coast layered sound. I loved it.’

After playing as a duo with a dobro player for a while, she very quickly met and moved in with Russell Palmer. They formed a four-piece band aptly called ‘The Lovers’. They had a a wonderfully distinct sound, recorded an arresting live album and quickly landed some promising gigs but, the band was doomed to break up.
Eventually every one of the relationships broke down, not just Charlton and Russell Palmer. The bass player and Palmer were old friends and they had a tremendous falling out. ‘Russell was great to be with but never easy. We had one of those relationships that challenges and shapes you, but he was jealous of the attention I got on stage. It was too I got out.’ But Charlton had been working with producer Sean Read (Beth Orton, Graham Coxon) for a while and despite their problems Palmer still added the odd bit of backing vocals and lead guitar to complete what was Jen’s second solo album ‘Wasted’ (distributed by Proper Music).

‘Wasted was the name of one of the songs but I also liked the playfulness of a title like that. It could mean drunk or misspent… I think I also felt pretty numb after the break-up. When I finally picked myse