Frank Ockenfels

Charlie Hickey's Songs About Family Love And Middle-School Enemies

The 'Nervous At Night' artist talks creating his debut album and writing love songs that predate his current relationships

Charlie Hickey’s “Seeing Things” is a delicate crusher of a song. Throughout the somber ballad, the 22-year-old artist begs for a stagnant relationship to be enlivened by friction, motion, or meaning. “I wish you’d fuck with my head, sneak up right behind me, scare me to death,” Charlie gently confesses over soft guitar strumming. It’s a plea for any kind of emotional action — because to feel something, even fear, is better than feeling nothing at all.

The tune has caught fire as Hickey’s most-streamed song on Spotify, and when it was first released in February 2021, it seemed the strongest signifier of his massive potential as a singer-songwriter. What could read as an earth-shifting breakup or a knee-bent request not to be abandoned, the track imagines the possibilities of an unrequited crush. This kind of love is fleeting, yet Hickey illustrates how massive it can feel when you're in it. “That song is about that feeling of building something up in your head so much and going on this whole journey,” he tells MTV News, “and then realizing that nothing has even happened yet.”

While his lyrics document all-encompassing periods of love or heartbreak, they tend to emerge from observations of everyday life and casual conversations with Hickey's friends. “How much you can feel about something that is really such a small deal — I feel like it’s kind of a theme in a lot of my music,” he says. “It’s the thoughts people have when they’re not trying to say something interesting.”

“Seeing Things” has since found its way onto Hickey's first full-length album, Nervous at Night, out today (May 20), which is a kaleidoscope of dovetailing themes. It skates over relationships both romantic and platonic, while also engaging with the universal experience of growing up and becoming the person you’re meant to be. An overall emphasis on the transitory spans the project, as Hickey navigates the spaces between where he’s been, where he is, and where he’s going. There is anxiety, too, that he might not get there. On the apprehensive “Gold Line,” he muses: “I think feeling things is too hard / I’ve got this feeling I’m not gonna get what I want.”

“It definitely is a feeling I have a lot,” Hickey says. “Whether it's about a romantic situation or a career situation or whatever, it's just like, I'm putting so much on this and this could just totally just not work out at all.” Below, Hickey talks with MTV News about the process of creating his debut album and the catharsis of finally releasing it into the world.

MTV News: When did you know you finished the album?

Charlie Hickey: A few of these songs date back to before some of the songs on my EP [Count the Stairs]. So in that sense, the process has been going on for three years, but a lot of newer songs on there were finished right in time to record the album. It was sort of an untraditional process in the way that Marshall [Vore], who is the producer of the record and also did a fair amount of writing with me, would often be writing and demoing stuff as we went. I guess we knew we were done when the label was like, “All right, you guys really have to be done now!”

MTV News: What inspired the title track, “Nervous at Night”?

Hickey: I think it's not unlike “Seeing Things” in that it sounds like it's about some tumultuous relationship dynamic but it's really just about having a crush. It's like a slightly more mature cousin [to “Seeing Things”]. There's a little bit more lightness to it, or awareness, which I think is just something I have gained as I've gotten older. Just a little more perspective on those feelings, even though they still come up and they're still really big.

MTV News: The album opens with “Dandelions,” which gives this small-town nostalgia: I loved the line, “Saying sorry to my sister for taking up space with my little feelings.”

Hickey: I mean, I wrote that song during the pandemic, and I was living with my mom and my sister for the entire pandemic. So it was quite literally just what was going on. Maybe it sounds like a childhood memory, but it was two years ago.

MTV News: The song opens up the album’s themes of growing and transitioning, and the uncertainties of relationships. Was that your aim?

Hickey: I don't think it was really an aim. I've actually talked about this with Marshall, but some of the best relationship songs are not about romantic relationships, and sometimes you can't tell or you don't even need to know. There actually are a lot of platonic or familial love songs on this album or songs about middle school enemies. I think it can be interesting to write about, a relationship that isn't romantic, but you don't even necessarily need to give that away.

MTV News: Tell me about “Thirteen.”

Hickey: That song is just about being in middle school and being friends with boys who were mean to you. I've actually had a lot of conversations about that song with people because it's a really mean song. I don't know if this even comes through, but I do have this awareness that we were all just kids and it's not that deep. But this narrator in the song is definitely working through some stuff and is maybe angry in a slightly irrational way.

MTV News: Well yeah, they’re not that big a deal now, but when you are in those spaces, those scars can be deep.

Hickey: And I think there are moments that you realize things as you get older about relationships that make it harder for you to stay angry, and then there's sort of this letting go. It's almost disappointing, because anger can be such a thrilling emotion in a way, or a more palatable emotion than sadness. It’s kind of hard to let go of, and I feel like, in that song, there's sort of this struggle with grasping at the last straws of that angry feeling.

MTV News: I want to talk about “Mid-Air,” which does talk about a relationship, but I’m not sure if it’s platonic or romantic. I loved the line: “I think we're two sides of the same coin spinning in midair / Looking for somewhere to land or some face to show.”

Hickey: That song is about my sister actually, so totally not a romantic song. I was describing this to someone recently — I think it's about a relationship where there's mutual caretaking.

MTV News: There's one song I thought sounded particularly quirky in relation to the rest, and that’s “Springbreaker.” You have the bigger songs and the ballads, and this one just stands out.

Hickey: I knew you were gonna say that! I think it's funny: that's actually the oldest song on the album, so maybe you can tell that I wrote it in a slightly different place in my life where I was in a little bit of a different writing mode. But I do think when I hear it back, it still feels cohesive to me. It does kind of read like a wild-card song, maybe just because it's musically a lot more complex and there's a little bit of an R&B, soulful thing to it… which honestly, none of that was really intentional. But I really like the space that it holds on the album.

MTV News: On the song, you're singing about having an infatuation or affection for someone who maybe has a more charmed life than you might, but also doesn't seem to give you any attention, or the attention that you would like. Is that modeled after someone in particular?

Hickey: I think that's another sort of crush song. It's weird: like, a lot of these songs were written before I had experienced a lot of the relationships that I have. So they're a little more in my imagination in some ways, but I think that one's just a combination of different people. I think it's more about a feeling rather than a person.

Frank Ockenfels

MTV News: Throughout the album, there are these tension points between relationships and, as a closer, “Planet with Water” feels like the one where you're giving in to them.

Hickey: No, it totally is. It's definitely in the same universe as “Gold Line,” but maybe it's further down the line past that “uh-oh, what's going on,” feeling and more like, “yeah, I'm fucking in it.” It’s definitely the folk song, or the “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”

MTV News: Which songs on the album were the easiest and hardest to write?

Hickey: “Dandelions” came out pretty quickly. I think I wrote that song in a few hours in my bedroom, and then Marshall and I picked apart a few things about it, but that one was pretty painless. “Planet With Water” was very involved. We spent a lot of time on the lyrics. Strangely, “Nervous at Night” I remember being a really, really involved process as well.

MTV News: Why was that?

Hickey: I don't know. Sometimes it's just like, something doesn't feel quite right. Marshall has the tendency to sort of be like, “OK, this is good, but you can do better,” which I really appreciate. And I've started to be that voice for myself a little more. It's not good to labor over things endlessly, but I do like that feeling of being like, I think this was the best I could do.

MTV News: Are you nervous for this to finally be out?

Hickey: A hundred percent. I mean, just the fact that it's been such a long time coming, it's sort of like, now I've really put out all that I've got, I've got nothing else to give for the time being.” It’s kind of a scary thing.

MTV News: You’re just releasing it and having no idea what happens next or how it's gonna be received.

Hickey: Yeah. I mean, I'm feeling really excited. And I have to remind myself occasionally that it's a really good, happy thing.