Inside Cocoa Cinnamon it’s lively with conversation, but outside, where Charles Latham sits at a table sipping herbal tea, it’s quieter and quite a bit colder. But the songwriter, clad in a denim jacket, is properly prepared for the moment and very much in his element. It hasn’t always been this way.
Latham spent years seeking his place by running away from it. Now, two years into his second shot at living in the Triangle, he's happier than he's been in a long time.
Thursday at the Pinhook, he plays an early release show for Little Me Time, his first LP since moving back to North Carolina in 2014. (The record won't see full international release until January). Appropriately, it's a richly textured record dripping with local talent, a remarkable curveball given Latham's long predilection for the lo-fi, the homemade and the self-produced. Much of his history and cred lies in anti-folk circles, yet on the new album he's gone full-band, he's gone hi-fi and he's gone personal.
Latham has come home, and Little Me Time exudes the comfort and vulnerability of a songwriter firmly on home soil.
"I think I was restless and unhappy and dissatisfied a lot of the time. Because I was transitioning out of my youthful years, out of my twenties into my thirties, I didn't want to admit that I had been wrong," Latham says. "It's a weird feeling to admit the stuff you had been looking for was here all along."
Latham, now thirty-four, first came to the Triangle in his early twenties. He'd grown up in Virginia and gone to college in the UK, where a roommate had introduced him to the Boss BR-1180CD, a home recording studio with a built-in CD burner. Armed with the then-cutting-edge technology to record one of his songs, press a button, and have the machine spit out a ready-to-play disc, Latham was already making inroads as an anti-folk artist when he moved to Chapel Hill.
"The feeling of it was everybody was supportive and it seemed like things were happening in a great way. I was meeting people," Latham recalls. "Now it seems like a blur."
It only took Latham a few years to feel restless. Though he loved Chapel Hill, found excellent friends, and he fit in nicely with the local music scene, he'd convinced himself he needed to move somewhere bigger and faster. So he headed to Philadelphia.
"All that time I was gone I kept coming back," Latham says, gesturing to the surrounding city. "My friends in The Wigg Report, I would stay with them and see other friends or play a show. I was always coming back."
Still, Latham had two more stops to make before he returned to North Carolina. He was looking for a place to belong, he admits, and when his girlfriend landed teaching work at a historically black college in Jackson, Tennessee, he thought that might be it. He loves country music, a taste he'd refined during his four or five years in Philadelphia, and the Tennessee mythos captured his imagination.
"I pictured living in, like, a holler," Latham says with a laugh. "It was affordable, so I went out to Jackson and we were there for a couple of years. "
The town is between Nashville and Memphis, and he could conveniently play shows in both; he considered life in Nashville, but it didn't feel right. Still, he took the opportunity to dive deep into country music history. He toured Graceland and visited Nashville's legendary RCA Studio B. He read Peter Guralnick's exhaustive two-volume Elvis Presley biography.
But he wasn't in Tennessee to stay. He found himself returning to his home state of Virginia.
"I had some personal problems, so I stayed at a relative's place down there in the Northern Neck," he says without elaborating. "And then I came here."
Most of the songs on Little Me Time were written during this rough patch, but Latham recorded the album once he’d returned home, abetted by a dozen talented local players, including Omar Ruiz-Lopez, who was responsible for most of the record’s string arrangements, and Catherine Edgerton, who provides backing vocals.
Even when Latham's down and out, such as on the intimate "The Letter/Blank Pages," his lonely admissions are nestled within warm string-section swells. On the ramshackle honky-tonk "Dressed up for Nothin,'" Latham playfully zeroes in on defeatism. Opening track "American Traditional," a scorching condemnation of the father-knows-best mentality, is an enormous roots-rock steamroller. "There's a dawn coming like no dawn before," he sings in its apocalyptic chorus. "It's a dawn that's no dawn at all."
These songs were written as self-therapy in a moment of personal darkness, Latham says, and he never meant to share them. Accordingly, there was little self-censorship. When he returned and settled in Durham, he realized he liked how they sounded, and he realized he had the right studio and the right collaborators to properly bring the songs to life right nearby. "With the exception of the plastic it might be printed on with the CD, everything is local," Latham says.
Looking back on all of his continual movement, Latham says he was trying to replicate something he'd already found in North Carolina. He'd kept coming back to see friends and to play shows, but he didn't want to admit his inevitable return to himself. And maybe, he thought, all this restless relocation would lead to a sort of songwriter's epiphany. That's how it's supposed to work, right?
"I think that's what I was hoping would happen, but the thing that I learned was you can't get away from yourself," Latham says. "Whenever I sit down to write a song, it's all kind of me anyway."