On June 14, Carrboro musician Tim Carless passed away at the age of 55 after a month-long battle with an aggressive esophageal cancer. He leaves behind a family, including two daughters, Pema and Seraphina.
Born in England, Carless was a professional musician for many years before settling down in the Triangle, 15 years ago, where he worked as a producer and music teacher.
He frequently performed live scores for silent films at The ArtsCenter and played in tributes to the likes of Leonard Cohen and Emmylou Harris, though he also worked alongside actual icons like Paul McCartney.
Though I did not know Carless personally, his lasting impact on the Triangle’s music scene is undeniable, shining through in remembrances from the many area musicians whom he called friends.
“I may not have stayed in the music industry if it weren’t for meeting Tim,” says music veteran Jeff Crawford, who was shifting into engineering and production when he met Carless. “He always encouraged me to just start without getting overwhelmed about whether I knew enough or how I compared to someone else.” Like many I spoke with, Crawford mentioned Carless’ numerous, personalized recommendations of music, art, film, and literature.
“I have so many emails for books and records and movies that he’s recommended to me over the years that were tailored to my relationship with him,” says Casey Toll, who often collaborated with Carless on silent film scores. “He had such a broad knowledge and love of art that he shared with so many people, and I think that’s one of the things that connected us all together.”
Toll was one of the organizers, alongside co-organizer Joshua Busmanan and a crew of local musicians and friends, who had planned a memorial concert at Cat’s Cradle, “Tim Carless Among Friends,” that would celebrate Carless’s life—in conjunction with an exhibition of his abstract paintings—on August 29. Due to the resurgence of COVID-19, the event has been postponed indefinitely. But those close to Carless still have plenty to share.
“The way he perceived the world was inspiring—whenever we would spend time together, I left feeling rejuvenated and creative,” says Daniel Fields, who remained friends with Carless after taking lessons with him for a couple of years, more than a decade ago. “I frequently feel like I am still learning from him. To me, Tim was more than a guitar teacher—I always felt that his presence alone was instructional.”
Casey Toll says that Carless had a “special talent” for keeping connections going with his friends, often sparking a conversation back to life with another recommendation. If weeks or months had passed, some gentle ribbing from Carless could revive a conversation, leading to a catch-up in person over coffee or walk.
“I’ll remember Tim as a generous, open-hearted friend and a legendary conversationalist,” adds Brad Porter, who managed The ArtsCenter during many of Carless’s performances and was razzed by Carless for his distaste of Dire Straits. “He could pull from any array of arenas to frame his take on your or someone else’s work, but he could also deftly undercut your opinion on a matter with his dry, sardonic wit—which may have been my favorite part about his personality.”
The day after Carless laid down guitar for Rachel Kiel’s 2016 album, Shot From A Cannon, he followed up with an email recommending more than a dozen artists for her to explore and listing his five favorite songs, the first of which—American Music Club’s “Johnny Mathis’ Feet”—he declared would be played at his funeral. The pair bonded over Bob Dylan—whose name graced Carless’ vanity plate—and planned an Oh Mercy tribute last March that was derailed by the pandemic.
“Tim created community by finding others who loved music as much as he did, then by being unafraid to reach out and connect with them in a truly open-hearted, curious, and enthusiastic way,” Kiel says. She credits Carless for helping inspire her to write “Ava Gardner,” thanks to his persistent recommendation of a Paul Buchanan solo album. “It’s one of the songs I’m most proud of and I don’t think I could have written it without hearing Mid Air—something Tim knew I needed to hear and kept bugging me until I did.”
Over the past year, Carless released a pair of songs—including the particularly poignant “I Want To Grow Old With You”—and Toll is hopeful that the rest of Carless’ solo recordings from the pandemic will be able to be released.
“He was immensely generous with me, giving me lessons in recording music, playing piano, and appreciating music, film, and art,” agrees Angela Winter, whose 2018 album, Hollow, featured production and contributions from Carless. She remembers Carless insisting that she play as many live shows—particularly in hostile rooms—as she could.
“As painful as that was at the time, I think he wanted me to find my wings and my own way forward,” she says. “He was forever encouraging me to skirt the edges of what seemed impossible until it became possible.”
The memorial concert would have served as a public celebration of Carless’s influence in the community. An outdoor gathering will still be held on August 29—it’s set for 3 p.m. at Martin Luther King Jr. Park—and concert organizers hope to also celebrate Carless’s life at Cat’s Cradle one day soon. When that happens, Toll says, “Johnny Mathis’ Feet,” the song that Carless told Kiel should be played at his funeral, years before his diagnosis, will be on the setlist. A GoFundMe to raise money in support of Tim’s daughters is ongoing.
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