Charlie Winston: Our newest export

He is a No 1 star in France, but Charlie Winston is virtually unknown back in his native Britain, writes Nick Hasted
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The Independent Culture

France's favourite Englishman could walk down any street here without being recognised. Charlie Winston's smooth handsomeness and Harlem jazzman suits will always attract stares, of course.

But news of his second week at No 1 and several months in the Top 10 in France with his second album, Hobo, and Le Figaro's breathless adoration of him as the heir to Dylan and Tom Waits, is only now crossing the Channel. Even his close support from Peter Gabriel has escaped attention. Winston, 30, may still be a prophet without honour here. But his confidence never wavered. Suffolk showbiz was in his blood.

"I remember when I was very young, people saying to me, 'Don't forget me when you're famous,'" Winston tells me, backstage after a rapturously received set at Womad. "I knew it was going to happen, but it wasn't something I chased. In the generation that I've grown up in, there's too much chasing for success, without thinking about what it is you're giving as a person – what you're contributing spiritually to people. The 10 years I've had without success gave me a pool of experience, and time to create a character, as well. I'm a big fan of Chaplin and Fred Astaire and Bogart, all those cats. And I like these kinds of clothes," he says, slipping his hands into his ragtime pianist's waistcoat, "because they symbolise for me a period when people cared about what they did."

Winston seemed fated to be an artist from the age of two, when his parents – who met on East Anglia's folk circuit, and travelled with a circus – settled for the relative stability of owning a hotel, the Kings Head in Bungay, Suffolk. Actors, rock bands and other showbiz itinerants passed through and performed all the time. "I'd often go down to the bar in the hotel," Winston remembers, "and pull up a chair and order a coke and crisps, and start talking to people, usually called John. It was chaotic, there was no family life. It was quite traumatic, in that way. It does develop a passion for the arts. That's why I went at it so fully. It's a great way to find your own world; a place of safety."

Winston dreamt of real escape, not just the one he found in his head. "I was so desperate to get out of Suffolk. I felt strangled there. But I also remember when I was 12, we moved to Southwold, where I developed real love for the big space of Suffolk. I'd come back from walks down the beach with mum making me a bacon sandwich on the Aga, while also cooking for all the guests. There's a quietness from that time that I hold very dearly. But anyone who had any get-up-and-go, went."

After Winston got to London, aged 16, he formed a band with his brother, Tom Baxter (a near-success on Sony a few years back, with a Tim Buckley-style voice Winston matches), and an eight-piece reggae outfit. With the iron will of someone who only feels fit for one thing, his decade-long apprenticeship also saw him write and arrange for prestigious theatres and orchestras. "Like a Hobo", the song which would one day make him France's darling, set him on his own path.

"The idea of a hobo and being free was inspired by Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha," he recalls. "And then people kept coming up to me after gigs saying, 'So tell me – what's it like being a hobo?' I was still living in Stoke Newington. So I thought, I need to go travelling. I phoned up everyone I knew in other cities, and filled my MySpace up with gigs all over the world. There'd be two people in the crowd, but I looked like I was doing well. It was a self-made illusion of success. I created this life for myself, by the song that I wrote."

When we meet, Winston is talking to an attractive young woman, who turns out to be Peter Gabriel's daughter Mel – vital in his ultimate success. "Mel and I became really good friends," he explains, "and I went on holiday with the family. But I held off giving music to Peter for a long time. Eventually I baby-sat for him, and that's when I gave him my CD, and he wanted to help me. I made an album [Make Way] in his Real World studio, and he took me on tour all over Europe. And then at Midem [a music-industry conference in Cannes], he was asked to invite three acts to play one song each. I played "Hobo", where label CEOs from all over the world heard me. Peter was key."

A quarter-century after taking to the hotel stage to get his parents' attention, France's instant capitulation when Hobo was released would seem a shock to the system. "It wasn't, because I've been going there for the last three years, doing gigs like this, winning them over. And so many French people were coming up to me after every gig saying, 'This is going to be a hit!' The French record company [Atmosphériques] was so enthusiastic, and certain. They nearly folded in November, but took a massive gamble to put my record out in January."

Watching Winston at Womad, his well-trained voice vaults effortlessly as he shimmies across the stage, the image of a showbiz trouper. Don't look to him for rock rebellion, or the Dylanesque wisdom the French have somehow detected. He is a case study in raw desire, not a misplaced genius. But he is honest, and still hungry to grow. The hobo Paris adores may yet wander into greatness.

"People want to say, 'Are you blues, jazz, classical? Who are you?'" Winston says. "I want to have universes of alter egos, not define what I do. It takes away the mystery."



The single 'In Your Hands' is out on 10 August and the album 'Hobo' in September, both on Real World Records. For more information visit www.charliewinston.com.

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