Interview: Charlie Hickey, on anxiety, his debut album ‘Nervous at Night’ and writing songs ‘like no one is ever going to hear them’

Charlie Hickey (Photo by Frank Ockenfels)

Charlie Hickey isn’t quite sure what state he’s in. That’s not a metaphor — the 22-year-old South Pasadena native literally doesn’t know where he is when Buzz Bands LA reaches him by phone a few days ago. “Wichita?” he guesses. “We’re on the road right now, nearing Kansas City.”

It’s Monday, May 30, and the singer-songwriter and guitarist is in transit with his current bandmates Zac Coe (drums) and Kaylee Stenberg (bass and “whatever else I throw at her”), plus his tour manager Jake Nelson. He’s excited to be supporting his longtime friend, Saddest Factory label boss and current tourmate Phoebe Bridgers for a few dates, but he’s also excited to be plugging his own debut full-length, “Nervous at Night,” which was released last month.

Hickey fans already know the beginning of this story: A scrawny, curly-haired kid covered an early Bridgers’ song, “Radar,” and posted it on YouTube in 2013. Years later, Bridgers would bring Hickey — less scrawny, just as curly-haired – onto the label she launched via Secretly Group. Through Saddest Factory, Hickey’s now linked to fellow artists such as Claud, Sloppy Jane and MUNA, but his most important collaborator is producer Marshall Vore, another close Bridgers connection.

Hickey will be the first to tell you that the songs on “Nervous at Night” exist in the same world as the songs from his debut EP, 2021’s “Count the Stairs.” That world is shaped in large part by Hickey’s hyper-specific-yet-universal, anxiety-fueled songwriting. “I have really bad OCD and that is something that I talk about a lot about in my songs, my OCD and my anxiety,” Hickey once told an interviewer. He later added: “I mean, I don’t know what else there is to talk about besides the things that are hard and the things that are complicated.”

Anxiety, things that are hard, things that are complicated – these are still Hickey’s lodestars as a songwriter. “I think feeling things is too hard,” Hickey sings in “Gold Line,” one of the standout tracks on an album full of hard feelings — specifically the ones that make up adolescence: shame, fear, hope, desperation, tenderness, uncertainty, frustration. “I feel so haunted and I feel so loud,” Hickey sings in the spare “Springbreaker.” “It feels like you died / if I don’t see you tonight,” he sings on the anthemic title track. “I feel dumb / I look stupid in front of everyone,” he sings in “Choir Song.” “I’m all wound up again,” he sings in album opener “Dandelions.” Many of these songs tell stories featuring searingly specific characters, details, events. It’s tempting to read all of this material as autobiographical, but Hickey says the narrator of his songs is not always himself, even when he draws on the particulars of his own experiences and memories.

Musically, “Nervous at Night” is, in Hickey’s own words, “all over the place.” But this is a folk-pop record crafted by a singer-songwriter whose two primary modes are sentimental, acoustic guitar-folk (“Mid Air,” “Planet With Water”) and rousing, Americana-inflected indie rock (“Gold Line,” “Month of September”). Hickey’s reverence for the likes of Elliott Smith and Bon Iver is made explicit on Bandcamp, where “Nervous at Night” is tagged — unironically — with “Elliott Smith” and “Bon Iver.” (Hickey, whose sly humor peaks through in his songwriting, seems to resist irony.)

||| Watch: The video for “Gold Line”

Hickey spoke to Buzz Bands LA about his debut album, his approach to songwriting and his evolving live show. Check out the full interview below and stream “Nervous at Night” here.

Buzz Bands LA: Was putting out the record a meaningful milestone to you, or did you feel like that was just the next thing you had to do?

Charlie Hickey: No, I think it was a meaningful milestone. I mean, yeah, it’s funny, ’cause in my mind, I’ve been making music for a long time, so in some sense it feels like just the next thing, but I know to everybody else it’s the first thing. So in that sense it is for me, too. But I also think it’s my proudest work, for sure. It feels like the first thing that I’ve put out that I really feel like I can stand behind. I feel like each time I do something it feels a little further, or more developed, which I guess is natural for anyone.

Did you feel that same sense of pride around “Count the Stairs?”

Charlie Hickey: I definitely did, but I do think it’s like that but to a different degree. A lot more time was spent on this, and this was a lot more intentional. “The first album” was sort of a topic of conversation for a long time. This conceptual, “What’s the first album gonna be?” – Marshall [Vore], my producer, we would talk about that a lot. So it was a very long time coming.

That makes sense. If you think of “Nervous at Night” at this development or advancement, how does it compare to “Count the Stairs,” thematically and musically?

Charlie Hickey: I actually think the songs themselves don’t really live in such different worlds. The production is obviously more involved and all-over-the place. But some of the songs on the album even predated some of the songs from “Count the Stairs.” So they kind of are, in a way, all one batch of songs, but I think we just chose ones that felt cohesive together. There are some that are a lot newer, and there are some that are older.

What are some of the oldest ones?

Charlie Hickey: “Springbreaker” and “Choir Song.” “Nervous at Night” and “Month of September” are also from that same era. And then the rest of them are a little more recent. Yeah, those four are definitely from the same era as the “Count the Stairs” songs.

Do you hear any difference in those eras?

Charlie Hickey: I think so. I mean, they might not be things that other people can hear. But to me, thematically, there’s a bit more of a unified theme with some of the newer ones. I think maybe the older ones were written [when] as a songwriter, I was a little less self-conscious at times. Or, like, less heady about it. I didn’t overthink as much. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes that’s bad, but I definitely can hear it. I think some of the newer songs are a little bit more intentional in some ways.

You’re saying they’re more overthink-y or less overthink-y?

Charlie Hickey: More overthink-y. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I definitely like to really think about what I’m saying in a song a lot, and make sure it’s coming across exactly how I want it to.

Do you think there’s any relationship between overthinking and anxiety?

Charlie Hickey: Well certainly.

I caught you guys at the Troubadour and you said, when you introduced “Nervous at Night,” that it’s “a song about being nervous about nothing.” When did you realize that was a throughline?

Charlie Hickey: I guess that’s another distinction between the older songs and the newer ones … I think a lot of those older songs are about that theme of letting your mind kind of run away with something and getting really anxious and worked up about something in a way that’s disproportionate to what’s actually happening, but then there’s songs that are about more real-life things, like relationships. I think that’s a thread in the newer ones. There’s the side of the album that’s more about the mind, and then there’s the side of the album that’s more about the world around you.

What are some of the “world” songs?

Charlie Hickey: “A Planet With Water,” “Mid Air,” even “Thirteen” in a different way than those other ones. They’re a little bit more about people and relationships — less inward.

I’m curious about “Thirteen.” You said, at the same set, when you introduced the song, that it was about mean boys. Did I hear that correctly?

Charlie Hickey: Yes, that’s correct.

Can you say a little bit more about how that came together? It sounds so specific and seemingly autobiographical.

Charlie Hickey: It’s pretty much literally all out on the table. It’s exactly what it sounds like. It’s about a bunch of boys I was friends with in middle school.

Not a specific person?

Charlie Hickey: I think a few different characters got blended together. If anything, it’s not autobiographical, that song. The characters are real, but looking back, I feel like the narrator might be somebody different than me, if that makes sense.

Does it feel weird to reference people you know might hear these songs?

Charlie Hickey: Yeah, it does. I think that’s something that anyone who writes songs, we’ve all had to contend with that. And I think at some point you just have to not worry about it. You have to write songs like no one is ever going to hear them, ’cause you can’t be self-conscious while you’re doing it.

Which of the songs from the record have been your favorite to play live?

Charlie Hickey: I really love playing “Gold Line” live. For whatever reason the crowds seem to get hyped on that one. There’s something about the chorus and the whole band coming in.

I had written in my notes, “‘Gold Line’ feels very Pinegrove sing-along.”

Charlie Hickey: Yeah, for sure. That’s a big influence on me for sure.

What are some other influences that have been in your orbit the last few years?

Charlie Hickey: The National is one of my favorite bands. Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes. But then also The 1975 and The Japanese House. All sorts of stuff, really.

Has anyone brought up any comparisons around the record that have resonated with you?

Charlie Hickey: There were a couple funny ones in the Pitchfork review of the album. I think Jimmy Eat World was brought up, and also Taylor Swift. Both of those I’m stoked on.

How has your live show evolved since you built out the band?

Charlie Hickey: It’s funny, in the past two months I’ve played with three different bands, just for logistical reasons. I actually think it’s fun to play with different people.

Is there anything you want to share about what’s next for you or what you’re looking forward to right now?

Charlie Hickey: Just continuing to get the record out there and hopefully have more people hear it. Definitely play live more and hopefully do a little small headline tour maybe later this year or something.

||| Stream: “Nervous at Night” in its entirety