By Cristina Schreil
“Do some futuristic stuff. Do something we haven’t seen before.” I’ve asked the Brooklyn-based violin-viola duo Chargaux what advice they offer younger players. This guidance from Jasmin “Charly” Charles, the violinist of the pair, seems a tall order considering Chargaux seem as futuristic as it gets.
Since Charles united with violist Margaux Whitney—the “gaux” of the equation—the two twentysomethings have turned heads. It might have something to do with their vibrant style, soulful musicality, and diverse tastes. For instance, they’ve racked up YouTube hits with vivacious covers of pop hits and visually stunning original music videos. They perform live with a Velcro-tight connection, riding the vibe of their spirited sound by often dancing, improvising, and laughing along. They’ve offered their talents to Grammy-nominated albums by hip-hop artists Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole. Their personal style, which morphs often and mixes bold hairstyles, chic silhouettes, and a panoply of patterns and textures, feels plucked off a runway. Perhaps the biggest draw is their category-transcending music. They craft unique soundworlds fusing vocals, hip-hop beats, bluegrass, Eastern tonality, folk, classical, and more. Chargaux’s Facebook page puts it in intriguing terms: “It’s hard to describe a color you’ve never seen before.” The two are classically trained, yet, as Whitney offers, they urge listeners to see strings as incredibly versatile.
Recent high points seem to indicate that Chargaux is hitting it big. They’ve performed at the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Center, National Sawdust, New York Fashion Week, Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and music festivals South by Southwest and Roots Picnic. In 2014, they played at the White House for Michelle Obama’s Reach Higher Fashion Education workshop.
They phone from their Brooklyn apartment a couple of weeks before their second album, the independently produced Meditations of a G, drops. In still more happy developments, Whitney is a new mom; her son’s laugh rings out in the background.
But when speaking to Charles and Whitney, tales of doubt and grit come into the picture. After meeting in Boston in 2010—not in the womb as one might suspect—they launched into a climb that feels quintessentially that of the New York artist. With unabashed humility, they speak about hustling for rent money, the dark side of busking, and how balance was key to Chargaux’s creative method.
Chargaux assumed a very hands-on approach to Meditations of a G. Where previously, they often directed producers to provide a certain sound—over which they’d layer melodies—Meditations highlights works they crafted from the ground up. Whitney wrote a love song, “Five Four,” a play on its time signature, and her height. Another, “Sosha Media,” stems from real experiences. A telling lyric: “People act like they don’t see you ’til you make the money.” An ending track composed for a scrapped documentary soundtrack project is cinematic and, as Charles explains, “sounds like the birth of the earth.” Meditations is also much more string-focused, with most tracks balancing Charles’ and Whitney’s vocals and string arrangements. Only the title track features a bass.
Recording was a journey within itself. Craving inspiration, the pair traveled. In April 2015, coinciding with Whitney’s birthday, they landed in Toronto. They recorded in several studios there, and months later in September, for Charles’ birthday, they recorded more in Houston. They finished in Brooklyn. Whitney says each studio had its own vibe, which infused the recordings with diverse characters. It was a “crazy creative process,” she recalls, explaining it’s also a testament to how their sound has evolved. Charles adds that they learned to be more fearless and maximize their time in a creative space.
The project also encapsulates Chargaux’s refined editing process. Charles explains that in the past, limited resources led them to “go with whatever we had the time to create.” Collaborating with more artists and producers inspired them to fine-tune in a deeper fashion. They tried songs ten different ways, sometimes toying with lyrics, stripping vocals, and boosting strings before declaring it finished. Take “Two Stars”: While working on it, something nagged at Charles. She pared away, removing lyrics to emphasize strings. It ended up minimal in design—Whitney’s mellow pizzicato grounds a sparse poetic verse about questioning and comparing themselves.
As in their debut album, Broke & Baroque, blending many styles is still central. There seemed to be no alternative. “I love the orchestra kids I grew up with—for some reason they would separate the worlds of music,” says Whitney. “They’d say, ‘I play in orchestra and when I’m not playing in orchestra I listen to my favorite Top 40 songs,’ like they’re two separate things—this music belongs in this world and this music belongs in this other world. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
She says they’re sometimes asked for sheet music for their pop covers, but she advises players to just use their ears. “That’s the tried-and-true way to try to start to find your sound and find ways to explore your instrument,” says Whitney. “The same way you’d practice what your teacher gave you, or a concerto, also practice popular music.”
A search for Chargaux’s sound occurred the very first time they played together. It was one day after Whitney first encountered Charles busking in Boston’s Copley Square in 2010. Barely knowing each other, they opened their cases to an already gathering crowd. “It’s show time, damn it,” Charles remembers thinking. She says that created electricity, just by leaping into the unknown. Their different musical backgrounds surfaced immediately. Whitney, who attended chamber-music camps and played in orchestras and string quartets from elementary school through college, fell in love with Romantic repertoire—that’s where the best viola parts are, she asserts. She likely started playing something along the lines of Bartok, Ravel, Debussy, or Shostakovich.
Charles, who is better versed in Baroque music and sometimes has a twangy inflection due to a teacher’s bluegrass influence, probably played Bach. They cycled through their repertoire until hitting something they both knew. “Every time we got together we found more songs like that. We created more vibes where her personality and my personality showed and now that’s just how it is. It’s super intuitive,” Charles says.
They moved to New York in 2011. Whitney describes it as a natural step in their artistry. Charles adds they followed a blind wisdom. “When we first moved out here we also knew that we wanted to be in a city where if we [messed] up, nobody would hold it against us the next day,” Charles says.
“You can constantly reinvent yourself here.” Still, upon arriving, they got cold feet. “We immediately got jobs at a pizza place,” she admits. “I think we trusted ourselves enough but we were like, ‘We can’t play in the subway right now. We have to get real jobs until we understand how this city works.’”
They say breaking into the city’s connections-based music scene was rough. They embarked on months of supporting each other, creatively and financially, through bartending and waitressing. Whitney took jobs on commercial shoots, wardrobe styling, and as a production assistant. Eventually, they mustered the courage to descend underground. Still, even with confidence came challenges. Not having permits sometimes got them handcuffed. They found that other musicians claimed territory rights at certain stations. The risk of being pickpocketed was everpresent.
One day, in winter 2014, Charles was pickpocketed while busking and didn’t have subway fare. It was around midnight when she jumped through an emergency-exit door and was immediately caught by the police. After passing her violin case to Whitney on the other side of the turnstiles, she sat in NYPD’s Central Booking, surrounded by women destined for Rikers Island or deportation. Now, Charles laughs about her night spent in a frigid jail cell, but back then was tight-lipped. “Of course I’m not gonna speak because I don’t want anybody to beat me up,” she recalls.
For all that Chargaux has accomplished since, they still perform in the subways for fun, now with the luxury of a lifelong permit. There, they try new material and have some of their most cherished interactions with commuters. One favorite station, Hoyt-Schermerhorn in Brooklyn, is a hub where Williamsburg hipsters, Queens residents, “deep Brooklyn” commuters, and finance workhorses mix. Charles and Whitney say it encapsulates the urban diversity they love.
The 180-degree turn in busking fortune echoed how Charles and Whitney worked around getting performance gigs. Channeling an entrepreneurial spirit, they created their own events, acting as curators, producers, and marketers. Close friends in fashion lent them clothes that caught attention. More luck came when Charles, who’s also a visual artist, met an art dealer via Instagram.
Chargaux performed at bigger venues, released an album, and grew an audience.
After years of making ends meet, a turning point revealed it was time to nurture their creative needs.
After a rare fight this summer, Chargaux was about to call it quits. But, a turn of events led to an unexpected vacation, where they witnessed two other creative partners break up. They realized splitting was the last thing they wanted to do—and that their union is special.
“We’ve taken turns over these years of being partners, really taking these crazy risks. I want to cry right now!” Charles says, sparking laughs from Whitney. “How did we get through that? We did it through art.”