Sometimes we're all lucky enough to hear a piece of music that hits us right in the heart — a collection of songs that linger with you, etching themselves into your memories with their honesty and passion. Such is the case with Tall Friend's Safely Nobody's, out now on Exploding in Sound Records. We are lucky enough to present a series of interview questions that Charlie Pfaff answered for us via e-mail. Dig in below for their answers and for their amazing release.
The Grey Estates: I wanted to start by asking about your songwriting process. So much of the album is very visual and vivid, especially on the closer, where you're talking about blood on the ice and wearing this shirt of someone else. What's songwriting like for you and do you have a certain place or time that you set aside for writing or does it all just come to you?
Charlie: Songwriting, for me, is just like crying. Sometimes I can’t do it at all and then other times I can’t stop, and words just overwhelm me! I have never sat down with the intention of writing a song. I’ve tried, because the people around me/the musicians I admire do this from time to time, but that mostly consists of me going through old journals and taking phrases from past entries. I’ve always had this mentality where I have to take in absolutely everything around me, really soak it up, in case something bad happens and all I have left is memories. It’s always the little things that stick with me and come out in my songs later.
With that aspect of songwriting, this album is very personal and moving. Is it ever hard to revisit those periods, both good and bad? How long have you been working on putting together this album?
Thank you so much. It’s definitely really difficult, but I think I’ve become desensitized to my own experiences by now. The hardest part of writing this album was looking back and realizing that I was rarely ever happy during my childhood. I was usually just surviving and having good times here and there.
But through writing and processing, and learning more about my family, I’ve forgiven a lot of the things I’d refused to before. I’ve developed a healthier relationship with my mom. This feels good for me, personally, but that’s not to say that a survivor’s capacity to heal depends on their ability to forgive those who abused them.
I’ve been working on this album for two years I suppose-- I started writing it in 2015, we recorded it in 2016, and now we’re releasing it. There’s a definite love-hate relationship there, because I’ve listened to it and scrutinized it so many times, but I’m so glad to have it out there in the world.
What drew you to music and songwriting? Is it helpful or what does it mean to you to be able to use music as a vehicle to express these periods?
Music is in my blood I suppose! My grandmother and grandfather had a band together, and my mom and dad met at a show my dad was playing. I picked up guitar and violin when I was little but it was very much out of boredom. However, when I was 13 or 14, I was going through a rough patch-- my dad got legal custody of me, and so I had just been forced to transfer to another school district where I didn’t know anyone. I was alone a lot. My dad (maybe out of annoyance that I was always borrowing it) gave me the acoustic guitar he’d had since he was 17, and I felt so honored. I started teaching myself how to play songs I loved, and suddenly I had a purpose. Songwriting has been extremely helpful, because it’s how I have been able to process everything and learn about how I’m truly feeling. It’s even more special when the things I write have the power to reach other people and help them feel heard or seen.
Is there a track in particular that you really fell in love with or has an interesting backstory that makes it particularly significant?
The closing track is probably my favorite. Lyrically, it’s just a feral combination of a lot of different things I’d been wanting to write about-- having the mentality that I don’t deserve to exist, experiencing PTSD, leaving home at a young age, and finally being free + feeling safe for the first time. The “blood on the road” part is actually about a friend of mine that got hit by a car and passed away when we were 13. For so long, I was afraid to go to the part of town where she died, even though it was a central road that you couldn’t help but drive on at some point. I think a lot about what would have happened if she’d just kept on growing and living with us. “Small Space” is basically about me learning bravery in various forms, whether it be walking on that road where my friend died, or growing despite a harsh environment, or learning how to love and appreciate the world around me.
I wanted to ask you about the track "Radio." I love the line - "goodbye's a swear word," and wanted to ask about that track and also what you meant by that?
I wrote that song about a story an old friend told me! We were in the car at like five in the morning and they were talking to me about the nostalgia they felt as a kid listening to radio commercials in the car. It was such a beautiful sentiment that I related to a lot, the notion of feeling something as big as nostalgia when you are so small. The “goodbye is a swear word” line is one I threw in there about how goodbyes can feel a little like betrayal sometimes. I take them too personally and overthink them, when really I should just come to terms with the fact that someone is leaving my life and be at peace with it.
"Oats" has this really amazing ending that is so strong and beautiful! How do you and your bandmates collaborate on things and how did that track come together?
Thank you! Jesse and Cale are really attentive, and they have this way of being able to make my songs a lot bigger, sonically. I wanted the ending of that song to be kind of pedantic, but we ended up being able to build this song together, which made it so much stronger.
Usually I’ll write lyrics to a song and then try to figure out a riff/chord structure before approaching Jesse and Cale with it. This makes me feel a little more confident and directed than if we were to all just try to sit down and write a song. Cale is an excellent guitar player, so he’s really good at embellishing the simpler songs I write and turning them into something a lot more complex. Jesse knows more about structure than I do, so it’s been great to have him suggest things like adding another verse or making a certain part longer.
I love on your Bandcamp about how you have a bit about wanting these songs to perhaps provide solace for someone listening. Is there any music or art that provides you that comfort? How would it feel to think that maybe someone might listen to something you created and feel like they're not alone or maybe someone else understands what they're going through?
Oh, absolutely. I grew up craving that comfort and validation and seeking it out in the art I consumed. In particular, artists like Kimya Dawson and the Mountain Goats guided me through the hard times I was having by showing me that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel-- Kimya was a kind of maternal force for me, and John Darnielle’s lyrics ensured me that it was possible to survive trauma. For a long time, I avoided themes of parental figures and family in the things I listened to and observed. These things had betrayed me and made me feel small-- why acknowledge them? Why give them power? After a while, though, I was able to find solace in the idea of a makeshift family, or finding familial comfort in things like lyrics and nature and comic books. The thought of someone else feeling like they get this sensation from my own music is really astounding, and it’s honestly all I want!
Now that this album is out, what do you hope for next for your music or what are you working on now?
I’m currently working on the lyrics for the second album, which we hope to record next spring. Next month we’re going on tour with one of my favorite bands, Palehound. Lately I’ve been trying to put more energy into my visual art too, and for a while I’ve been drafting a graphic novel that I will begin work on someday. Overall, I’m trying to decompress and begin a chapter of my life that involves a new living space, new projects, and a new headspace. That’s been really nice.