Thriftstore Masterpiece’s Charles Normal on Working With Frank Black + Isaac Brock to Revive Lee Hazelwood Gem
A forgotten collection of demos from the 1960s is getting new life thanks an imaginative producer and his famous friends from the Pixies, the Dandy Warhols and Art Brut.
While living in Oslo, Norway, American musician Charles Normal happened upon Lee Hazelwood’s 1962 debut, ‘Trouble Is a Lonesome Town,’ while browsing a local record shop. Though the album made little impact at the time of its release, Normal took a gamble on this record of outlaw characters and sparse arrangements.
Having worked as a session musician and producer for artists ranging from Pixies singer Frank Black to Guns N' Roses, Normal knew Hazelwood as the man behind hits like ‘These Boots are Made for Walkin',' but beyond that, he was new to the Oklahoma-born singer, songwriter and producer. Still, he thought 'Trouble Is a Lonesome Town' might be worth a listen, and upon first pressing play, he says, it was "like watching an old '50s cowboy T.V. show about a hot, desert-y town in the Southwest." And because he was in Norway, the songs seemed that much more exotic.
“I don’t think it could’ve impacted me in the same way if I would have found it in, say, L.A.,” Normal tells Diffuser.fm, speaking by phone from his home in Oregon.
After a few listens, Normal started fleshing out Hazelwood's barren acoustic record in his head, stitching together a stage play with narration and full accompaniment. After moving back to Oregon, he tapped some local musician friends to join him in the studio, and thus was born the indie rock supergroup Thriftstore Masterpiece. Black was the first to sign on, followed by Pete Yorn and Isaac Brock of Modest Mouse, among others, and their version of 'Trouble' dropped earlier this year via SideOneDummy Records.
Although Normal wasn’t under any strict deadlines and recorded at home whenever friends were in town, he put the album on hold after his brother, Larry Norman, died in February 2008. Norman was a pioneering Christian rocker who lent vocals to title track.
“Obviously, he wasn’t able to finish his parts or be there for the release, so I had some rethinking to do,” Normal says. “I lost interest for a little while until Isaac brought it up.”
Rehearsing one night at his house, the Modest Mouse singer talked Normal into continuing the project. Spurred by Brock’s words of encouragement, Normal went home, dusted off the tracks and got to work with a renewed sense of interest.
“Once I got back to the idea, everything started falling into place,” he says. “Art Brut were in town staying with me, so I asked [their singer] Eddie Argos to sing on ‘Soon You’ll Die.’ It’s a weird song, and he’s a weird guy, so you know, it made sense.”
Normal continued taking advantage of opportunities as they presented themselves, asking visiting friends or local musicians to guest on the record. Courtney Taylor-Taylor of the Dandy Warhols, Black’s son Julian Clark and Norwegian singer Kristin Blix -- Norman's wife -- all performed on ‘Trouble.’
But one of the most unexpected contributions came from Normal’s mailman, Jerry, whose husky, Southern drawl connects the album through a sinister narrative.
In keeping with the Pacific Northwest theme, Normal began thinking about possible voices to tie the songs together in the folk tradition. After speaking with actor Ernest Borgnine, who lived in the area but declined to participate because of his failing health (he died in 2012), the musician realized that Jerry the mailman was the perfect fit.
“It was very serendipitous that, around that same time I was looking for a voice, I received a package that was too big for my mailbox,” Normal says. “He's just a mailman, but that voice needs to be on audio recordings.”
Since finalizing the first installment of Thriftstore Masterpiece, Normal has taken to Internet to elicit suggestions for other little-known works. Fans can submit suggestions through the project's website with the possibility of inspiring the next record. And though Normal hasn't come across the next forgotten masterpiece just yet, he's willing to wait until the right one comes along.
"I want to find something I've never would've come across otherwise, and just play it with my friends " Normal explains. "It's rare a career musician just gets to play as a hobby, which is how I want to approach this again."