Track-by-Track: Charlie Kaplan Meets Grief with Light in Debut Album ‘Sunday’

Sunday - Charlie Kaplan
Sunday - Charlie Kaplan
Office Culture’s Charlie Kaplan charts his own course of reflection, reverie, guidance, and grief in his debut album ‘Sunday’, a record that longs for love and connection while seeking meaning in this chaotic world.
Stream: “California Days” – Charlie Kaplan

Music is, for so many, a vessel for release and recovery, actualization and introspection. It is how we calm our nerves, and how we process difficult emotions; how we find inner strength or balance, and where we turn for sustenance in times of need. For singer/songwriter Charlie Kaplan, music was his tool of rekindling light in the wake of the loss of his father; the bassist of soft rock band Office Culture charts his own course of reflection, reverie, guidance, and grief in his debut album Sunday, a record that longs for love and connection while seeking meaning in this chaotic world.

Sunday - Charlie Kaplan
Sunday – Charlie Kaplan
So it came out of the middle of his range
And pulled to the side of the road, off the main
Laying in a ditch, at the bottom of the hill
That’s where he stayed, staring into the mud
Knowing what he did
Taking visitors out from town in a van
Reading everything ever committed by the hand of a man
“Is everything that’s good for me something that’s shared?”
Never feeling like I am really prepared
For what he always meant to do with his life
Take him down, take him around
Have all the love your father forfeited in his youth
Make a living on the road, giving it away
Singing everything you never could say
To the ones you loved and knew
They only mean to put you through
All of the things that’ll keep you safe
And make your mind a sort of way
– “Small Business,” Charlie Kaplan

Independently released November 13, Charlie Kaplan’s Sunday is an unassumingly gentle exercise in music therapy. Developed over a three-year span with producer/multi-instrumentalist Andrew Daly Frank and drummer Ben Wagner (alongside a slew of other friends new and old), Kaplan’s eight-track debut finds the New Yorker slipping neatly into a classic singer/songwriter role. His songs, ranging in style from Americana and folk to soft rock and psych, all wrestle with inner demons and existential ponderings.

“I wrote these songs in order to counteract the darkness I felt in bereavement,” Kaplan shares. “Each song was an exercise in conjuring light, warmth, insight, guidance, release – my life’s absent emotional palette. I used music as a way to induce feelings that no longer occurred naturally.”

From the slow-building, sweeping grace of opener “Small Business,” to the somber depths of “Evening Out” and the poignant finale, “Hey Young Man,” Sunday is uncompromisingly intimate, honest, and raw. This rawness speaks to unveiled truths without pretension or assumption, but it by no means makes Sunday a “dark” album; on the contrary, though it may be bookended by sober ponderings, the majority of the record strives toward the light. Tracks like “California Days” and its follow-up, “In California” both shine with summery grace. The effusive “Light of the Day” makes a mantra out of life’s perceived mundanity, with an intoxicating classic rock groove and breakdown that would make The Rolling Stones proud.

All the while, Kaplan searches for meaning and valuable insight through lyrics that plunder the depths of experience, existence, and purpose. Whatever conclusions he comes to are ultimately his to share: For just like you and I, his big rhetorical questions tend to go unanswered in song. Sometimes it’s more important to ask a question, than it is to receive an answer.

Charlie Kaplan © Emma Racine
Charlie Kaplan © Emma Racine

If there is anything to take away from Sunday – other than its scattered good times – perhaps it’s a taste of the maturity that inherently comes with loss. “Death makes you an adult,” Kaplan says in describing his album’s closing song. “I don’t have the support and guidance anymore I yearned for in the depth of my loss. I used to want someone to tell me it was going to be alright, until I realized time was my only healer. I’ve seen enough now to urge and encourage people to love their time and possibilities while they have them. I want to give the feeling I longed to get, that things are hard, you’ll get through this, things will be better if you stick this through, and perhaps that summarizes the purpose of the album overall.”

Kaplan shines brightest in his darkest moments. Highlights off this record include the aforementioned finale “Hey Young Man,” the opener “Small Business,” and the 11-minute mostly instrumental piece, “Snow Walk” – a sort of grandiose, intrepid injection of musical wonder that, like any instrumental piece, is as therapeutic and giving as the listener wants it to be. Needless to say, we can’t wait to hear what Kaplan does next.

Experience the full record via our below stream, and peek inside Charlie Kaplan’s Sunday with Atwood Magazine as the singer/songwriter goes track-by-track through the music and lyrics of his debut album!

Sunday is out now.

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:: stream/purchase Sunday here ::
Stream: ‘Sunday’ – Charlie Kaplan

:: Inside Sunday ::

Sunday - Charlie Kaplan

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Small Business

This song opens with a meditation exercise I do on the guitar: Droning on the low E string with my thumb, and looking for musical ideas with my other fingers on the higher strings. It’s a way for me to let go of incumbent thoughts when they feel oppressive. Getting lost in this exploration helped me escape the grief I felt about my dad dying. By allowing my mind to be idle, I could let loose a bit and start to accept the hard feelings of loss I was in. I had been doing this for months when one day, after a bad day at my old job, the exercise became a whole song that tumbled out at once, more or less fully-formed.
The lyrics are about reckoning with concessions we make in life – the amount of good you do or things you learn, the closeness and openness you let yourself have with the people you love, the opportunities you let yourself seize or deny – in light of how little time you have. It voices my sadness and frustration at how easy it could be to never tell friends or family that I really love them, or to hear that from them myself, now that I know how bitter it is to never be able to say it to someone’s face again.
The cast of players on this song is amazing: In addition to Andrew Daly Frank and Ben Wagner, it has members of Office Culture (Winston Cook-Wilson and Ian Wayne), Caitlin Pasko, and members of Cuddle Magic (Alec Spiegelman and Cole Kamen-Green). Winston plays a piano part on this that is so beautiful that I almost couldn’t bear to listen to it while he was tracking. Jack McNutt, one of our old Office Culture bandmates, once suggested we name that band “business”, and that came back to me when I was naming this song. I thought of the idea of the business we do in life ultimately being very small in the scheme of things, but how cherished the work you do here is. It seemed like a beloved little shop, your life’s work. I wanted to turn my feelings of loss and regret inside out, into encouragement and advice. The final refrain, “Everything that you can do / take your time, it’s only you” is a twisty way of saying seize this moment, because it’s all you have.

California Days

I wrote all the songs on Sunday in order to counteract the darkness I felt in bereavement after I lost my father. I relied so much on my partner Emma and my family at this time, but everywhere I looked I saw a reflection of death. I needed to make my own tools to find the light, lightness, warmth, and ease absent from my life. I found an escape to a fantasy world in sound, and became attracted to music that had a radiance I wanted to be cast on me: early 70s Bob Dylan, All Things Must Pass George Harrison, Kacey Musgraves, The Grateful Dead, Talk Talk. I would lie in bed and, to try to balance myself out, look for sounds from the guitar that helped me feel like I had sunlight on me. It didn’t always work, but once in a while I would find something that gave me solace. That’s where I found this song.
As I heard the chords for the first time, I thought of a trip I took to LA in 2016 for a friend’s wedding. This song became a symbol for the light I wanted to shed in my own life. Its predecessor, “Small Business”, is based on the droning E string, and this song is similarly built on a chord progression that constantly lets the low and high E strings ring; the continuity of these two songs means a lot to me symbolically. Those drones on the root note took on a centering idea in my work, like the concept of “om”. When I felt unmoored or unstable, being able to return to their centering “one” was a way of regaining my balance. I owe a lot of the beauty of these recordings – and especially this one – to my friend, producer, and guitarist Andrew Daly Frank, who plays the opening chords, the beautiful / weird MIDI tuba parts that swell through the end of the song, and who had the idea to do the false ending. This song has many metaphors for our collaboration – his voice harmonizes with mine on the second verse, and my guitar harmonizes over his in the outro.

In California

This is my fake tourism map of California. If any of these places are real, I wouldn’t know, because I thought of all the names sitting on my couch in New York. I hope when people listen to it, it exudes positive energy and appears to cohere, but when they focus in, it suddenly makes no sense whatsoever and turns into a goofy, uncanny fantasyland. Some of the locations are strange or grotesque (“New Enola Gay” “El Placebo”), some are absurd parodies of how California place names sound (“La Belle Montagne”, “Los Berlin”), some sound more like places in Pennsylvania or Vermont than in California (“Old South Stonewall” “Friedrichsburg”), some aren’t even plausible as place names (“Glycerin”, “Keratin”). Some are just winks to people I know or things I like: My brother’s childhood stuffed animal was named Elwood; the engineer on my favorite album’s surname is Elevado; Kevin Seraphin played in the NBA. It makes no sense but I like the sound of the names so it feels like a love letter to my usefully-fictionalized analogue of a real place I barely know.

The Light of the Day

I was surprised when I thought up the bouncy riff for this song. It seemed too classic for me personally to pull off, like it was handing me a pair of Mick Jagger’s pants to try on: they’re right for this, but am I right for them? I was in a dark period, but I had this riff that reminded me of songs that describe an easy, fun life – “The Boys Are Back In Town”, “Takin’ Care of Business”, “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, etc. That turned into an interesting feeling to play with. As the lyrics came together, they described how false life can feel when you’re grieving, how you go through the motions and try to act normal as things are breaking inside you, and that makes normal things seem meaningless and absurd.
The first verse presents mundanities that, when set against this instrumentation, seem like they’re being celebrated. Some of them are so dumb that you wouldn’t believe a narrator could extol them, like watching the time pass, collecting paychecks, or paying taxes: takin’ care of business! Listening to the first chorus in that context, you might wonder, “does this idiot think spending his life like this is ‘Living in the light of the day’?” The duality turned into an interesting way to make the lyrical choices. I’ve always thought that “taking it” is a funny term to use, because it can mean “going with the flow” or “enduring a hardship”, which is why I use it here and in a similar way on “California Days”.
Because the song is leaning into its own dissonance, I felt comfortable letting loose and having my band do lots of things I’d imagine we’d otherwise be uncomfortable with: Andrew cooks up big classic rock riffs, my drummer Ben Wagner did a whole take of cowbell we didn’t use, Ian, Andrew, and Caitlin sang a goofy “You know you gotta promise me you’ll be free”. The very Bobby Keys closing saxophone solo was played by Alec Spiegelman in one take and blew my wig off. But I also attempt to resolve the theme the same way I do elsewhere on the album, but turning the pain and confusion into what is hopefully some guidance and reassurance. The second verse reveals more doubt and uncertainty, which hopefully makes the closing chorus feel less parodically self-satisfied and more like advice or encouragement.

Snow Walk

My dad was never disabused of wonder; he found something like a full moon or a walk in the snow awe-inspiring. One day, a few years after he died, I got out of the subway near my apartment and noticed it had started to flurry. It was after work and I was tired. On the sidewalk ahead of me were two people walking arm-in-arm, making it difficult to pass; to do so, I would’ve had to step into the street, which was slick from the snow. I started to steam and, when I ran out of patience, slipped by them. Rushing by, I felt angry and frustrated by their selfishness to put everyone around them in that position. And then I started to think about it – two people happily savoring a walk in the snow had made me think about death, feel flummoxed and mad. I could have reveled in the beauty of the moment, but instead I became scared and resentful. It was the opposite of what I loved and learned from my dad. I turned on a side street and started humming a melody with lyrics to calm down and articulate some of my fears; not just about the moment, but about the bruise it revealed on my heart.
It was just a few months after David Bowie died. Bowie meant a lot to me when my dad was sick; I used to listen to Ziggy Stardust on the M68 bus on the way to visit him in the hospital, and the apocalyptic imminence of “Five Years” became an important soundtrack for me. I was thinking of Britt Daniel’s beautiful acoustic cover of “Never Let Me Down”. I used that chord progression with the melody I had written on the way home and finished the song with second verse lyrics that try to calm the first one. This song was originally just three minutes, but once in a rehearsal I had the idea for the band to continue jamming on the riff that originally ended it, which turned it into the odyssey it became. Andrew starts the solo out, and then I join him on lead a few minutes in. I love the way our playing weaves together, until it finally mushes into the secret language of drones that closes the song. This jam, like the intro on “Small Business” and “California Days”, is a therapeutic – hopefully great space-out music for anyone who wants to turn their brain off and just feel sunny vibes for a while.

Evening Out

In my mind, Sunday is like a full day, with the intro on “Small Business” the glowing pre-dawn, the long jam on “Snow Walk” a beautiful waning sunset, and this song, “Evening Out”, a fading twilight.
This was the first song I started for this album and the last one I finished. Its first demo is from two and a half months after my dad died, in mid-February 2014; I completed writing it in 2018. The title plays with a double entendre of “if all evens out in the end” and the evening, the end of a day. In both cases, it’s about feeling the curtain come down. At the start of writing, the very idea that my dad’s end had come was too painful to reckon with in reality, so I used this song to create a twilight man, someone who is both there and gone at the same time – “He’s a wanted man, gone but always inside you.” The imagery throughout is partly what I imagined his youth to be, and partly my own memories of visiting his childhood home and driving back late at night on the highway, a beginning and an end. I allowed this mix of memory and imagining to become, as the verses progress, warped by his death like a picture left out in the sun.
In the original iPhone demo, I hummed a solo that sounded uncannily like a trumpet, and I feel that Cole Kamen-Green’s layered performance here fully realizes all the magic I wanted this song to produce.

Pete Williams

I was in my childhood bedroom when the house was empty an afternoon a year and a half after my dad died and I found my high school transcript. I thought about all the drama and shame I felt as a teenager, trying to make myself into a person I wanted to be, and to live up to the standards I set for myself. That world and its concerns seemed so far away, like a hometown I could never return to. I saw the name of my guidance counselor, Pete Williams, at the top. He was a wonderful guide to me; calming, kind, strong. He couldn’t help me love myself in that moment, but he didn’t join me in my impossible expectations or self-criticisms. He just lent me belief and a vision of a brighter future. I needed that kind of centeredness and direction from someone, anyone, after I lost my dad, but I couldn’t find it at that moment in the world.
The verses of “Pete Williams” describe how broken my life felt after I lost my dad; how much pressure I felt and put on myself to be a rock for my shattered family and having no idea how to do it; how much I wished I had someone who could point me in the right direction when I didn’t know where to turn; how disfigured my world seemed now that I was an adult.
I wrote the chorus first. I was on vacation with my stepmom and two brothers trying to figure out what our new lives were going to be like. It pleads for guidance and reassurance, and I think is the counter to other parts of the album (“Small Business” for example), which are focused on whether life is about seizing the moment or learning to be present and enjoy what you have. It doesn’t try to say everything is going to be okay one day, it commiserates how broken things felt in that moment. The verse came later and fit perfectly. I used to play this song with my old band, which was a trio toward the end, and because we didn’t have a lead instrument I would scat the written saxophone solo. Suffice it to say Alec did a much better job with it on his baritone saxophone.

Hey Young Man

This is the only song among these I don’t remember writing. I don’t even know where the original demo is, all I know is it was finally finished in 2015. Like a lot on this album, it’s a double-image; I’m both talking to myself and talking to someone – maybe the younger me in “Pete Williams”? – with more of their life ahead. Some days it’s hard to know which one I am. The first verse is my feelings of insecurity, and the second is about finding beauty and little signs of life among that uncertainty and chaos. As the second verse approaches, Andrew sails in over my piano with a whalesong of feedback guitar, I add mellotron, and Alec and Cole grow a lush meadow of wild horns.
Death makes you an adult. I don’t have the support and guidance anymore I yearned for in the depth of my loss. I used to want someone to tell me it was going to be alright, until I realized time was my only healer. I’ve seen enough now to urge and encourage people to love their time and possibilities while they have them. I want to give the feeling I longed to get, that things are hard, you’ll get through this, things will be better if you stick this through, and perhaps that summarizes the purpose of the album overall.

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:: stream/purchase Sunday here ::

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Sunday - Charlie Kaplan

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? © Emma Racine

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