“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. …