Solo Wren Bissell Lands in Champaign

Many a music snob will consider only the earliest and “youngest” work of an artist as the best. But what if you started making music in your post-college years and found yourself releasing some of the best music of your life at 40? For Charles Bissell, singer, songwriter and guitarist of the Wrens, this came true with last year’s Meadowlands.

“Something’s going on if you’re 38, sitting on a park bench thinking about how you don’t have health insurance, making 13 grand a year and trying to be in a rock band,” said Bissell, who is now 40. “At what point do you stop doing what you want to and take a regular job? All of those thoughts affected us deeply and came out on the record.”

Meadowlands stands as a triumph for these musicians, who range in age from mid-30s to early 40s. Although it is only the third full-length record they’ve released in their 14 years as a band, it has such a pristine sound of pure passion and emotion for their music that it surpasses the work of many of their contemporaries.

“The whole record is about the band more than anything,” said Bissell. “It’s about trying to do what you want to even as you get older and face more challenges. Everyone evaluates things as they age.”

In 1996 with the release of Secacus, they received much critical praise and were being offered a semi-major label deal. It appeared good on the surface, but after more thought the band decided against it, and their former label went on to release Creed’s debut. They went on without a label to record (in their living room) what would become Meadowlands in the spring of 1999, but something wasn’t right.

“We were all having problems at the time,” Bissell said. “We were exhausted, suffering from a lack of focus (and) motivation, and some mild depression was taking hold.”

From 1999 to 2003, many of the songs from Meadowlands saw numerous incarnations that will never see the light of day, since several of the master tapes were erased ritualistically by the band. The released version (on Absolutely Kosher records) is a wonderful collection of guitar-driven rock songs with contemplative lyrics of heartbreak and failed dreams. The album received much critical praise, being dubbed the best album of 2003 by Magnet magazine and placing toward the top of the list in many others.

“The reality is that it took us four years to release the record because we all had to overcome our exhaustion and disillusionment with the record industry,” Bissell said.

Today, the band still finds time to tour and create music, although a few of the members have families and “real” jobs. But for Bissell, music is currently his only occupation and he is even taking on some smaller venues with his solo performance, which features mostly Wrens’ material. He plays his solo set with the aid of looping his guitar parts, preventing his songs from becoming too stark and maintaining their layered qualities.

“It’s more fun to play everything live and put it all together in front of the audience,” Bissell said.

Although Bissell is only one member of this amazing band, seeing one is more than enough reason to make it to Wednesday’s show at The Highdive with Mike Watt headlining.

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