Sat barefoot in jeans and a loose shirt in the corner of Mt Pleasant’s Dog and Duck, local musician Thomas Champagne could easily trick you into thinking you were somewhere else. His unique acoustic style and unusual syncopation fuses a myriad of genres, from his country and Cajun roots to reggae and Caribbean influences.
At times there is a pendulous sense Champagne’s innovative renditions of familiar songs will trip and fall. But while you’re not sure where you’re being led, there’s bearing and assurance the journey is somewhere positive and fun.
“The number one thing I want to convey is a positive message, but it’s the ability to catch people off guard I think that is the biggest present I can give to any audience – because that’s how you amaze somebody.”
Champagne achieves this with ease so when he segues into an original song it’s often overlooked because his sets flow seamlessly together. However, this didn’t come naturally to Champagne when he first arrived in Charleston from Austin, Texas. It was a challenge he says he had to grow into and work hard at developing.
“The biggest difference coming to Charleston is it’s primarily a tourist capital. While the thriving tourist scene here is awesome for the economy it can take over a musician’s directive by having to play more cover songs than one would normally like, or have to do.”
Champagne says he embraced the twist to what he was used to because he found ways to present cover songs in his own style. Being patient with this change has seen him over the past summer receive a great deal of encouragement and positive feedback.
The result is a breezy and soulful marriage of sunburnt earth, salt and the sea which could have you convinced you were in some surf shack on the Californian coast. However, this is just one side to the constantly evolving and innovative artist, which began to emerge when Champagne relocated from Austin to Charleston.
“I’ve always been Champagne with Friends and I’ve had over 100 different friends on stage. But when I left Austin I stepped away from having a band back me up and I now play all these solo shows, which I wasn’t doing before. It definitely made me stronger as a musician and as a person by having to say, ‘Hey guys, I love you – I miss you, but I got to go and step into this by myself.’ And I think here in Charleston is the first time Thomas Champagne came out – with friends as my audience.”
Born and raised in Beaumont, Texas from strong Louisiana ancestry, Champagne is proud of his heritage. He also appreciates the truth and irony that comes with journeying into the unfamiliar, admitting with a chuckle that he became more of a Texan by leaving Texas. Champagnes sees the move to Charleston as another chapter, both as a solo artist and his recent full-time commitment to his profession.
Two weeks prior to the Dog and Duck I first saw Champagne with Friends by accident when I entered the Blind Tiger on Broad Street on a Friday night to catch up with my own friends. With two local musicians in support they belted out an infectious breed of classic rock tunes, and made the old floorboards at the Blind Tiger pay the price as everyone got caught in the rhythm and groove.
For me it evoked the great Aussie legacy of pub rock offered any weekend night in a beachside bar on the Indian Ocean in Perth, or a St Kilda pub in Melbourne. Continuing this prominent theme of evolution is the rotation of local musicians Champagne uses at every show.
“When you see Champagne with Friends it’s always different players so while you may have seen the show before it’ll be different every time.”
Champagne cites the generosity of Charleston’s music community as being invaluable in helping him gather new musicians to play with when he first arrived.
“The openness of the musical community here is awesome first of all. It’s nowhere near as competitive as it is in Austin, Texas which has advantages and disadvantages. Competition is a primary way to motivate an artist and make them grow, but it can also hurt you in the end.”
Not that Thomas Champagne is leaving Charleston anytime soon, but as someone not prone to taking time off he’s looking forward to opening up a new chapter in his artistic journey. After recording his last album with producer and former Hootie and the Blowfish guitarist, Mark Bryan, Champagne is due to head back to Austin to record another album at the end of the year. He then plans to tour the ski resorts in the Rockies before heading home to Charleston.
*Originally written in 2015