Beguiling debut from London-based singer-songwriter
It’s a cold, dark and extremely wet November night in central Holland, where a host of locals and two Irish blow-ins are shivering in a tent that’s been erected in the back-yard of an exhibition space off Prinsengracht. We’re wondering if we should give up the ghost and retire to one of the warmer, brick-built venues that host the Crossing Border music/literature festival. Ten minutes later, any thoughts of moving are forgotten, as every eye in the tent is drawn to the tiny stage, where a scarily young man from Oxford is slowly, sinuously creating a deft tapestry of plucked guitar and vocals that may appear fragile, yet bolts every bottom to its plastic seat with an iron grip.
The rain, a pest mere minutes before, now adds a depth of percussion to these heartfelt songs of love, friendship and growing older. The singer is Charlie Cunningham and he is to remain Britain’s best kept secret no longer, as his wonderful debut, Lines, emerges blurry-eyed and blinking into 2017. It was in Seville that Cunningham honed his guitar playing, adding percussive elements of Flamenco to his finger-plucking, and there’s often a classical Iberian feel to his fretwork, as he casts his spell on the listener. Its effect is not always immediate and some of these songs may take a few spins to work their charms, but they do gradually slip under your skin.
Most of the instrumentation is made up of a gentle swirl of acoustic guitar and sweet vocals, with the occasional incorporation of electronica (‘An Opening’), piano (‘How Much’) and brass (‘You Sigh’). ‘Minimum’ is slightly more urgent; the stop/start guitar of ‘Lights Off’ recalls Passenger in his less frenetic moments; and ‘Breather’ is breath-taking, with Cunningham at his most strident and confident.
He saves the best ‘til last, though, with the magnificent ‘While You Are Young’, a gorgeous two minutes and 42 seconds of delicate melody and soaring vocals about not being afraid to make mistakes in your youth: “Time is gonna come when the nights grow long/ And you won’t know what’s missing, but you’ll know that it’s gone/ While you are young, let your poor heart break/ It’s a beautiful morning, don’t throw it away”. It’s gorgeous yet understated, like everything about this supremely talented but unshowy singer.