Moon Songs: A collaboration between local icons Josiah Whitley and Charlie Haskins
By Derrick C. Parker
Scioto Voice Writer
Charlie Haskins and Josiah Whitley are both well known names throughout Southern Ohio. Haskins owns his own art studio and record shop called Haskins House. His artwork is unmistakable, featuring unique, quirky, and delightfully cartoonish elements. Perhaps his most famous series portrays famous Portsmouth locations (such The Scioto County Fair, Port City Pub, and Portsmouth Little Theater) in his own style. Whitley on the other hand is successful recording artist known for telling both stories and tall tales at his gigs. The singer-songwriter has released fantastic alt-country records such as ‘Lay me Down in Roses’ and ‘Sounds Before the Slumber’; all while touring the country playing his original music.
Now, the duo is preparing to release a very special collaboration entitled ‘Moon Songs’. ‘Moon Songs’ is an album of 11 tracks recorded by Whitley with an accompanied lyric booklet featuring the original artwork of Haskins.
“One day, I went to Haskins House to buy some records,” explained Whitley. “Charlie and I had became friends because he had started carrying a lot of my favorite artists in stock. That day, I was buying some Bob Dylan and Tom waits when Charlie approached me. He asked if I’d be interested in him painting the gate fold for my record. I loved the idea, but I had just finished a record. Well, I went back about a week or two later and Charlie approached me about a real collaboration. He came up with the idea of him doing a few paintings, and allowing me to get inspiration from them. At the same time, I could write a few songs and he could create some paintings from them.”
“I thought, ‘Oh my god! That is a great idea!’ I jumped all over it. We started talking about ways to do it and set up a system.”
The two started the project in May 2017. From there, they met every first Monday of the month to swap songs, paintings, ideas, and make adjustments.
“We would meet, talk about what worked and what didn’t, swap ideas, and go our separate ways,” explained Whitley. “And we held each other accountable.”
Early on in the project, Haskins invited Whitley to his home. There, they listened to an album that would forever change the course of the project.
“Charlie took me to his studio and put on a record called Nebraska by Bruce Springsteen. I loved it! It was so sparse. The background was literally a demo tape. He (Springsteen) had sat on the edge of his bed in his tube socks and underwear and tape recorded the songs on the album. I thought, ‘that’s what we needed!’ It was something lo-fi and hard hitting. That’s what we went for. And thank God for Charlie, I give him all the credit.”
Whitley says the album is also influenced by legendary folk singers such as Tom Waits and Bob Dylan. Haskins explained he drew inspiration from legendary artists Wayne White and Dr. Seuss.
“I attended a workshop with Wayne White,” explained Haskins. “He is finally getting noticed for his paintings…but he is best known for his set work on Peewee’s Playhouse and for the Smashing Pumpkin’s music video ‘Tonight, Tonight’…but I also gravitate towards any folk art. Anything handmade. Sometimes you just have to do something wrong on purpose to make things look interesting.”
The album features 11 tracks, all with complementing artwork, including ‘Man in the Moon’, ‘Hard Knock Living’, ‘The Killing Tree’, ‘Graveyard Waltz’, ‘Drunk Driving Blues’, ‘Wall Eye Willie’, ‘Northern Star’, ‘Little White House’, ‘Hang em High, Swing em Low’, ‘You are all I Need’, and ‘Prayers Went Up’. The album gets its name for Charlie’s gravitation towards the moon.
“I had already painted the moon before we started,” said Haskins. “I’ve always liked songs about the moon, too.”
“I remember thinking about a theme,” said Whitley. “The first EP I put out was ‘The Sounds Before the Slumber’. I had written the whole album before bed. And I noticed how Charlie’s theme in many of his paintings is the moon. We discussed it, and one of us suggested Moon Songs, because all the songs and paintings happen at night. ‘The Hanging Tree’: people get hanged at night. In the song about a DUI, those all happen at night. In ‘Hard Knock Living’ a guy is sleeping out of his car. Nighttime is really when all the magic happens.”
Haskins favorite song from the album was ‘The Killing Tree’.
“I did this painting of a white, gnarled tree that really made up its own story when it was done. All this red was throughout the piece, and it looked angry. And the way its written, the tree sounds like its talking. It’s clever, and it seems so natural. Josiah managed to take it to a whole new level. It seems so natural I almost forget it wasn’t planned from the start.”
Whitley pointed to ‘You are all I need’ as his favorite track.
“I’ve never told Charlie this,” he laughed. “But the artwork has been the background for my phone for a couple months. He sent it to me and it absolutely hit my like a MACK truck. The painting portrays a couple looking up at the stars, while its raining…but its OK because you have someone you love. At the time, I felt that same way about somebody. But as it turns out, it was also the hardest painting to write lyrics to.”
“So, I ended up writing two songs about it that I wasn’t crazy about. I took a shower, put on Pandora, and a song by Wilco came on that had a really weird chord. I said out loud ‘Holy SH**!’ I ran out of the shower, into the bedroom, and wrote the song in 15 minutes. It’s true: the best songs come from the shower.”
The two talked about other tracks, including ‘Hang em High, swing em Low’ which details a family of outlaws called the Boneyfiddle gang. The song ends in a shootout leaving the father, mother, and daughter dead.
“I had a reviewer come to one of my shows and say it sounded like Steven King wrote a spaghetti western” laughed Whitley. “And someone told Charlie it was liked Dr. Seuss on cold medicine. I played it live on the Blue Plate Special (a prestigious Knoxville radio show) and it scared them to death. I knew were were on to something when people are giving telling us how unique it is- we take it as a compliment!”
Another track, ‘Prayers Went Up’, details the 1937 Portsmouth flood.
“So, with this we tried to avoid stereotypes,” said Whitley. “I did a lot of research and I was really drawn to when the City Manager decided to let the water through because he feared the flood wall would collapse and kill everyone on Water and Front Street. So, an hour before every brick yard, foundry, shoe factory, and church blew their whistles and rang their bells to let everyone know they had 1 hour to get to high ground. This happened on 3:30AM on a Tuesday. So, this guy was coming home when it happened. He heard explosions; the rivets were coming off the manholes and water was shooting up. He ended up swimming down 6thStreet into his house, got to his porch, went up his stairs, and the water came in pouring so strong it shorted out his electric. He was quoted as saying ‘it’s awful nice for old man river to ring my bell before he enters my house.’ That lyric is in the song.”
The album will be released on Saturday, November 24thon Small Business Saturday. It will cost $20 and be available at Haskins House, on Whitley’s website (josiahwhitley.com), Spotify, iTunes, Amazon Music, I Heart Radio, and more.
“If you don’t get the artwork, you aren’t getting the whole experience,” said Whitley. “I urge you to get a physical copy or download the full version from my website. It’s like, pork and BBQ are really good but they are nowhere near as good without each other. Same thing with Corona and limes. That’s how strongly I feel about it.”
The original paintings and prints will also be available at Haskins House. The two also plan to go on the road together, as well as host local events showcasing ‘Moon Songs’.
“I sincerely trust Charlie. He’s become more than a collaborator, he’s a friend. I admire his work so much,” said Whitley. “And his stuff is recognizable! He’s got such a strong identity. All I hope that comes from his project is my music gets him more exposure, and his artwork gets me more exposure…we love what we do but at the end of the day we still have to pay the bills. I hope people buy the album and I hope they love it.”
“Watching how much Josiah works, how hard he works, I knew we should do something together,” said Haskins. “We worked so hard on this…I can’t wait for everyone to see the lyrics and imagery together. I put a lot of Easter eggs in this project to find, too. And it’s been so much fund- we went from recommending each other records to telling stories to one another, to becoming friends.”
Charlie’s wife, Crystal Haskins, helped the duo edit their work and solve and roadblocks along the way.
“Their work has been so cool to witness,” said Crystal. “I’ve loved seeing it come together. The moon and themes of night tie the whole project together in such a unique way.”
Both men stressed the importance of Crystal’s involvement to the project.
“She was the tiebreaker,” said Whitley. “We trust her anytime we’d need an opinion. We are the brains and she is the sense.”
“Thank God for Crystal and Bruce Springsteen. Without them, this album wouldn’t be what it is.”