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The Insightful Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows

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Charlie Gillingham c. 2016

By Christa T. for Accordion Americana Charlie Gillingham, a bright guy born in Torrance, California, graduates from The University of California -Berkeley with a degree in Artificial Intelligence and is quickly hired as a software engineer. He makes a good living for nearly a decade. If not for the fact that Charlie also happens to be a very talented musician and songwriter, it could have been a sweet, but predictable ending to a pleasant story. But, when an opportunity materialized in 1990 to join and help launch an emerging group, Counting Crows, Charlie Gillingham took a sharp right turn and added “Keyboardist and Multi Instrumentalist” to his resume.

“We started around Berkeley, CA, Adam Duritz, David Bryson and I,” Charlie said. Lead singer, Adam Duritz and guitarist David Bryson had been playing together in coffeehouses in and around San Francisco, CA. The name they were using, Counting Crows, was derived from a nursery rhyme, One for Sorrow, about the superstitious counting of magpies,  members of the crow family. “One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy, five for silver, six for gold, seven for a secret, never to be told.” As members were added,  they decided that Counting Crows remain the name of the band.

Gillingham employs an impressive array of musical instruments. Whether he’s working with the Hammond B3, the piano accordion, mellotron, guitar, clarinet or oboe, he says, “I’m usually looking for an atmosphere, a texture….and lean more towards playing an instrument that I can improvise on and play really well…..piano is great…. You can make a “Whirly” (Wurlitzer’s early electronic piano) sound magical because it’s got a lot of effects on it. But it’s kind of more interesting to do that with your hands.…I’ve been playing a Hammond B3 for a long time, and I know how to do a lot of different things with it. I know how to shape the sound, how to move it somewhere, make it go. My hands know what to do.”

With regard to the piano accordion, Charlie says,  “It’s been around….I like playing accordion because I like the way it makes you feel. I don’t play it like an accordion player. I play it like I play it…. I use it as an instrument way more than I would ever use it as a hammer—as a rich, emotional pad, like the way someone might use strings.”

Charlie explains about the creative process of songwriting with members of Counting Crows, “So Adam is the writer. All our songs are lyric-driven….All of us, everybody in the band, are musicians in various ways by bringing home chord changes, coming up with new parts, moving things around. There are a few songs of ours that grew almost entirely out of recordings that I made….Then again, the lyrics and melody are all Adam. I think at the end of the day, a song is a lyric and a melody. The chord changes and the instrumental stuff that we do help that melody and the lyrics go.”

In 2004, Gillingham’s song,  “Accidently in Love” along with his co-writers, Adam Duritz, Jim Bogios, David Immergluck, Matt Malley, David Bryson and Dan Vickrey,  was nominated for The Academy Award for Best Original Song,  used in the film, Shrek 2.

Charlie Gillingham shares his insight into the process of using an instrument in his work “..there’s a learning curve in an instrument… If you’re just scrolling through the sounds trying to find something good, you’re not going to find something that can play the subtlety…..You can make an instrument sound great by the way you play it, or you can make it sound great by the way you orchestrate it. There are two sides to it.….You could find something to carry a melody, which might be what you want. If you just want to carry a melody, that’s fine…..But if you want to shape the song, shape the mood of the song, make it feel like something, you have to play well.”

He adds, “….there’s two sides to playing….say you have a Stradivarius violin, you have the best violin in the world. But it’s how you play it. It’s a big thing.  It’s just the nature of electronic software instruments that you don’t get a lot of practice time. You can’t practice some sampler. But there are people who learn certain samplers and synthesizers really well.”

And with the wisdom of a long time professional musician, Charlie Gillingham sums up his experience with this insight, ” It’s not what you know. It’s how much you practice.”

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All quotes from “A Conversation with Charlie Gillingham of Counting Crows”, Reverb, Published Aug 17, 2016 by Matt Biancardi

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