“When I go into the studio, sometimes I have an idea in mind, like something I recorded into Voice Memos. But most of the time I just plunk myself in front of the piano and start playing, sampling beats, creating drum patterns and fooling around on the mic. It’s really that organic.”
Reclusive indie singer/songwriter Chris Eberlein talks about music, life as a musical savant and his new album (HOME, out July 2020).
QM: You’ve been pretty busy with releasing batches of new music since 2018. Was that lengthy period of time between your first albums and new music warranted?
CE: I think those years in the middle were really wasteful, honestly. I can’t do anything about it now, but I spent a lot of it drinking too much, making horrible decisions, being in bad relationships, working for awful people and just not being true to who I am. I really had no time to do anything but work, and it really didn’t get me anywhere in the end except physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted. It wasn’t until I finally had a hard stop that I was able to begin to recenter myself and figure out what I wanted and who I am as a person and as an artist.
QM: What does this new album mean to you?
CE: It's been an eye-opening, serendipitous journey. It sounds cliche, but I found the love of my life after chaos, and that's what Home is about. It's a concept record about meeting this person who made me feel something I didn't know existed when I least expected it, then how life evolved after that wondrous moment. That's what "Boston" is actually about and why it's the first song on the record: there was this amazing, actually palpable synergy happening of lyrics meeting melody from the get-go. It developed into this wonderful song about recognizing what I was feeling and how I was torn between apprehension and taking that leap, which I did. And the rest of it followed as I fell deeper and deeper in love. I also finished the record while quarantining during the pandemic with my person, which is what inspired both the title and the cover art because I was at home with the person who represents home for me. It fell together so perfectly.
QM: Tell us about "Mondays" because it's startling in comparison to the rest of the album.
CE: I experienced this internal conflict when deciding whether or not to include it on the track list. I didn't want that song to be heard as something that was happening in the present tense, but I definitely was watching my partner battle an alcohol addiction at the beginning of our relationship, which is why I decided to write about it because that's my form of artistic therapy. It was heartbreaking because there was so much pain deep down when the drinks would break the levee holding it all in. I wanted him to realize that the act of drinking, that coping mechanism, was actually the problem. I've had issues in the past with alcohol myself, so I know what it's like. But, at the end of the day, the song felt like it needed to be included because it was a part of our journey to now.
QM: "Laundry" is adorable.
CE: I actually do love doing laundry. It's never, ever a quandary.
QM: What does "Subawuwu" mean?
CE: It's essentially a term of endearment for my partner and me: a kind of catch-all word for "love." It means "I got you." It means "I'm proud of you." It means "I miss you." It means "You're my favorite." It's our thing we came up with and I wanted to write a song built around it.
QM: Is there a statement track on Home or is it a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts?
CE: I knew Home was going to be a concept record from the start. What I love about concepts is the story behind them and what they're conveying to listeners as things that are whole and complete. There are some songs that are better than others, but the fact of the matter is it's still a concept record you're supposed to listen from start to finish in that order. I'm not a control freak or anything.
QM: You sound really confident and comfortable on the album.
CE: It's been a long, windy road, but I've never felt more like who I was always supposed to be. I got lost along the way like we all do, but I wouldn't be who I am or where I am today if I hadn't been on this road.
QM: The cover art is beautiful. Can you explain to us what it is and why you selected it?
CE: It's a picture of the wallpaper that's hidden behind plaster in our home. I love old wallpaper in general and I've really been taken by it ever since I saw it. The fact it was hidden behind a facade, slowly revealing itself after years of being covered up, also felt like a perfect metaphor for what the record is about. I consciously chose not to include any verbiage on it, just the image itself. It's one of those pictures for me that speaks so much without any words. It's probably my favorite album cover I've done.
QM: You’re a confessional songwriter, but often times you refrain from being specific. Is that something you're aware you do?
CE: A lot of my songs are personal, but they can fit lots of other people’s situations too, which is what I intend. I get where songwriters who are extremely personal are coming from, and I’ve definitely written songs that can only apply to me, but I think going too deep really limits your potential audience. I love Imogen Heap, but her lyrics can be so out there that, even though it's flowery, pretty poetry, most of it isn't digestible by the general population. Not that I have tens of thousands of fans or anything like that, but being too hard to get into can be a tough nut to crack sometimes.
QM: Speaking of, what does it feel like to be this artist on the down low that no one knows about?
CE: It’s funny because I'm not someone who pushes myself out there. People eventually discover I have this whole other persona and they're shocked. I'm actually a diehard introvert, and I don't take compliments very well, so I put this separation up between Chris the Person and Chris the Artist. They're both Chris, but they're different facets of Chris.
QM: Your music is such an amalgamation of genres and styles. Is that intentional or a natural extension of your artistry?
CE: Absolutely. I used to try for so long to be like other artists I admired, which usually just came off really half-assed since I wasn't being authentic and true to myself. As a music fan, I love to listen to all sorts of songs and genres, and I think that's really important as a musician to be inspired by it all. Naturally, elements of what inspires me trickle down into my own music. That’s why there are so many quirky instruments and sounds on so much of what I do—because it’s just me, holed up in my studio, just being weird and 100% authentically me, just trying to make music with all these sounds in my brain.
QM: You've said many of your best songs were written in short periods of time. How does that work?
CE: I've read about other artists who wrote their catchiest stuff shockingly fast too, so I can definitely attest to the fact that a lot of my best stuff was put down in some way, shape or form pretty quickly—usually under an hour. I don't know why, but it probably has to do with the fact they've essentially written themselves in your subconscious, so by the time you sit down to put them into the ether they've been ready to go for awhile.
QM: What do you need to have with you in the studio?
CE: Caffeine. And lots of it.
QM: You’ve made a name for yourself as quite the do-it-yourselfer. Do you like to work alone or collaborate?
CE: It comes down to money, mostly. I don’t have major label backing. I have some funds that I put toward my budget for my music and craft, but I’m not rolling in dough. I can’t afford to outsource violins to a professional violinist, even though live instruments almost always trump studio ones, which is why, if you listen carefully, lots of the basic instruments are slathered in layers of reverb or effects to make them more interesting, less vanilla. I’d say most of it is because I can’t afford to pay other musicians to play on my records. But there’s also a percentage that is me being a control freak in that I know exactly what I want something to sound like and sometimes, as I’ve seen from past experiences, relying on others doesn’t always mean you achieve the vision you’ve set out to achieve with a song.
QM: Do you like being an independent artist?
CE: Right now it’s probably the best thing to be if you want to create and be an artist without feeling beholden to "The Man." It sucks to be independent in the marketing and publicity departments, but things go viral now because the Internet has helped create inroads into getting yourself known on your own terms. I probably wouldn’t even sign a major label deal these days if I was approached with an offer—it’s just not necessary anymore. I would look at major label distribution, but the old model of the label essentially owning you and your own music is done, thankfully.
QM: As an artist who started in the early 2000s, do you have any advice for the next generation?
CE: Life is about the journey, not the ending. Always have a destination in sight, but the moments are what matter most. Learn to work hard and believe in yourself. It won’t be easy, but if you have a solid foundation you’ll be harder to be pushed over. Value your time, don’t waste it. Practice your craft and never stop moving forward. Trust your instincts.