Be Charlotte: Dundee's new pop revolutionary

Feature by Claire Francis | 29 Jun 2016

It's a long way from Dundee to Austin, Texas, but that's just one career milestone that Charlotte Brimner has already taken in her stride. We talk to the innovative young music maker about her effervescent alias Be Charlotte, and why legitimacy matters in pop music

“The thing that’s always the same with my writing is that I always want the songs to be authentic,” explains Charlotte Brimner. “About real things; things that are real to me, but that can also be real to other people.”

It’s an admirable mission statement for any musician who genuinely cares about their craft; in Brimner’s case, it’s a creative vision that’s even more prescient given the teenager’s relative newcomer status.

As the vivacious, unique and refreshingly original Be Charlotte, the talented Brimner is poised on the cusp of a big-time breakthrough. Since her first major show at T in The Park’s T Break stage just last year, Be Charlotte’s trajectory has skyrocketed.

Supported by her manager Louie – himself better known as a founding member of the SAY Award-nominated hip-hop group Hector Bizerk – the 19-year-old singer-songwriter now counts a further slew of festival appearances, a debut single launch and not one, but two SXSW invitations as early career highlights.

With the kind of musical résumé that could induce uncomfortable levels of inferiority among her much older peers, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, the tenacious singer-songwriter was a single-minded school kid frequenting open mic gigs around her native Dundee.

"I’d listen to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. I love his music, but I couldn’t actually relate to anything he was talking about – it just wasn’t what I was up to as a 14 year-old girl in Dundee" – Charlotte Brimner

“When I first started writing my own songs I was about 14,” she says, leaning in over the loud rap music pulsing from Glasgow’s Art School cafe. “At first I was learning to play the violin, but I was pretty shit at it,” she laughs. “I swapped my violin for a guitar and started getting guitar lessons, and when I knew the basic chords and that sort of stuff, I just started writing my own songs.”

And what songs they are. Blessed with a naturally elastic, expressive vocal range, and possessing a preternatural ability with melody, Brimner crafts modern, witty, and irresistibly catchy indie-pop compositions. Incorporating spoken word, rap, and beatboxing alongside her beautifully lofty vocals, Be Charlotte songs combine traditional instruments with modern day audio technologies. The result is a rare glimpse of individuality and independence in a genre oversaturated with cookie-cutter pop vignettes.

Of the songwriting process, Brimner explains: “Sometimes I have a vocal melody first and then I kind of build the rest of it around that… other times I’ll have loops that I made on Ableton, that I maybe forget about and then go back and write a song around. Sometimes I just write on guitar.”

The fluidity with which Brimner marries analogue and digital sound technologies is exemplified by her aforementioned involvement in SXSW, where the singer played a part in a groundbreaking audiovisual showcase.

“I first went in 2015, I’ve been working with this technology company in Cambridge called Novalia who create interactive products. I went and did a panel with them last year just to kind of demo their instruments,” she recounts. “This year, I went back, and they had installations around the festival, like there was a 50ft wall that you could touch and it was interactive. So I went and did the music production side, like remixes of different artists and some of my own songs, which was cool.”

The only downside to such a formative career experience being, of course, America’s strict enforcement of the legal drinking age. Bar-goers in the States must be 21 years of age to enter a licensed premises – a law which saw the singer unable to actually enter the venue to witness the reactions to her hard work. “I was just standing around outside, tanning juice,” she laughs.

The SXSW collaboration certainly confirms Brimner’s affinity with digital technologies. As part of a generation to whom analogue is virtually an archaic word, she is eager to emphasise the importance of a modern approach to her music.

“After October, we stopped gigging until the Discover single launch in April. I just really wanted to focus on the live show and kind of figure out the best way to mix the digital and the live stuff, and make sure that it came across in the best way. So that’s why I’ve got the laptop on the stage, to kind of show that that’s part of what I'm doing now. But I’ve always wanted to bring guitar back into it. I think we just had to try it this way and see how it worked, and then we can just gradually bring it back in.”

Along with her SXSW commitments and the release of the Discover single in April, Brimner has been busy fine-tuning her live show across a string of local festival dates, including recent spots at Brew At The Bog, Kelburn Garden Party and Stag & Dagger. “We’re doing T in the Park,” she adds, “so that’s a wee surprise.”

In the flesh, the pastel-haired, bespectacled Brimner favours a playful, ironic approach to fashion, with brightly coloured ensembles that could be described as ‘Scottish kawaii’. The Be Charlotte live aesthetic is similarly captivating; an electric, eclectic three-member orchestra of thudding percussive beats, keyboard, and pedal loops. The gradual metamorphosis of Be Charlotte from a solo project to a live festival band appears to be a relief for Brimner, both creatively and logistically.

“When I was still doing my solo shows, it kind of just got to a point where I couldn’t enjoy it as much anymore, because there was so much going on – loop pedal, live instruments, laptops… it was getting a bit too much, I think,” she laughs in mock exasperation.

“It’s definitely a permanent sort of band. When you feel like you get on with people and people understand what you want the band to be about, then it feels like a natural way to do it. It’s so important, I think, that when it is your whole life and it's quite a personal thing, to make sure that everyone around you is on the same page.”

Brimner sagely credits the years of Dundee open mic nights as having equipped her with invaluable playing experience, despite the demands such passion placed on those crucial years of teenage socialising. “A lot of the people that were my age at the time were just at school, or they’d be going out – but I kind of just made the decision. I was either going to go and do that, and have a social life, or go and gig. I decided to gig,” she explains of her impressive dedication.

“It took me a long time to build up confidence on stage, even to be able to speak on stage. I could sing, but I couldn’t really say, ‘Hi, my name is Charlotte,'” she laughs.

Unsurprisingly, Brimner admits that her musical influences are drawn “from a range of different stuff,” and cites British funk and soul singer Lianne La Havas is one her current favourites:

“I just love her album, I think it’s amazing – it’s pop music, but her voice is amazing, and it’s subtle, she’s not trying too hard. I really like Milky Chance too, I saw them at SXSW last year. Because I’m all about mixing digital and live, I just love the way they do that.”

And Scottish bands? “Oh, I like Ded Rabbit!” she exclaims after a thoughtful pause. “I just like what they’re singing about, it’s totally real and they’re singing in their own accents. It’s cool to see that.”

The concept of authenticity is one that recurs frequently over the course of our conversation. It’s clearly an ethos that underpins Be Charlotte’s sound, and is perhaps what best embodies Brimner’s unique brand of challenging, creative ‘intelli-pop’.

“I don’t just want to write songs that are just about things for the sake of it, you know what I mean?” she muses. “Like pop music, people sing about things that I just don’t relate to, and I think, like, I never want to look back and think, ‘Why did I sing about that? I’ve never done that in my life.' For me, being younger, I’d listen to a lot of Kendrick Lamar. I love his music, but I couldn’t actually relate to anything he was talking about – it just wasn’t what I was up to as a 14 year-old girl in Dundee.

“I just always want to write and gig and play songs that mean something to me, and that I can kind of share a message with people that is a bit different. Whatever happens in my career, I’m always going to do that."

Playing Kelburn Garden Party on 2 Jul; T in the Park on 9 Jul and Audio Soup Festival, East Lothian on 23 Jul