“When I go into the studio, sometimes I have an idea in mind, like something I recorded into my iPhone’s 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.” —Chris Eberlein, on his inspiration
As the celebrated indie pop artist on the DL prepares to release his seventh album Boy., Chris sat down with us to talk about what being seven albums in means to him, his discoveries over 10 years of original music and what he’s been up to.
QM: You’ve been pretty busy, especially since you released three albums in 2018. Was that period of time between albums and new music warranted?
CE: I think those years were really wasteful, honestly. I can’t do anything about it now, but most of that time was spent drinking too much, sexing 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. It wasn’t until I finally stopped everything that I was able to recenter myself, which I actually wrote about.
QM: You’re referring to “The Fire,” correct?
CE: Yes! That song was the first upbeat song I’ve written in a long time. It wasn’t about losing out on love or anything sappy. It was really straightforward. Lyrically, it wrote itself in an hour. I knew I wanted something positive musically that was about change and becoming better than what you used to be. That’s what that song is about to me.
QM: You’re a confessional songwriter, but more often than not you refrain from being overly specific. Is that something you're aware you do?
CE: I’ve been told a lot of my songs are personal, but they can fit lots of other people’s situations. 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. For example, 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, 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 amazing artist that no one really knows about?
CE: It’s funny, because people at my office are starting to hear through the grapevine I am a musician. They’re like, “What, Chris? Chris?!” And they get this response, “Yeah, he put out some stuff that was on somewhere and did this and that.” There's a separation there because I don’t go around pushing my brand or my music much. I’ve never been one to take compliments very well, which I've been told is something I need to work on! I'm also a diehard introvert, but nobody thinks so—I have all these different facets to what makes me who I am.
QM: What’s your favorite song on your new album?
CE: I love “It’s Okay” because it's about something I learned we all need: breaks. It's about me, it’s about my sister, it’s about friends. This world is such a whirlwind that we don’t take enough time to enjoy moments or play catch up. Everything ends the same for every human because we die, but it’s what you did that is what matters. I also love “The Story,” which I wrote on the guitar just as it is on the album. “Inside of Me” also is very inspiring to me because it’s about acknowledging where you’ve been and that you really just need to believe in yourself. "Boy." really turned the record on its head and helped it move into concept album territory. And who can't not love "Who We Are"?
QM: Your music is an amalgamation of many genres and styles. Is that intentional?
CE: Pretty much. I used to really try to be like others, which was just shit, or sound like certain artists I admired, but it always sounded hollow and disingenuous. I’m pop, but I’m indie. I loved late 90s country pop and I love folk. I like some modern beats, but I really enjoy all genres of classical 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 how others artists wrote their catchiest stuff almost shockingly fast as well, so I can definitely attest to the fact that a lot of my best stuff was written probably under 30 minutes. I don't know why, but it's probably because 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: How does it feel to be on Album #7? Did you think you'd make it?
CE: I went through this really, really long period of writer's block and I thought I was washed up. I had gone from 0 to 60 in a period of a few years, from being pushed into the performing spotlight to cutting my musical teeth to getting into Berklee to writing my first two records...it was such a crazy time! Then when I had no time to do anything but work I went quiet and I couldn't think of any good melodies or lyrics, so I was definitely scared I'd lost my abilities. I think putting out three records in a year and all these singles really was me just being super duper excited to show the world that I was back, so to be putting out a seventh record feels really triumphant for me.
QM: What do you need to have with you in the studio?
CE: Caffeine of any kind. The drinkable type.
QM: You’ve made a name for yourself as quite the do-it-yourselfer. Do you like to work alone or collaborate?
CE: I think it all comes down to money. 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 perfectionist 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: If you don’t mind our asking, do you make enough money from music to survive?
CE: Not really because it varies. One month it could be $200, then it’ll be nothing for months until the royalties rack up. I didn’t even know I had a song in that Jersey guido TV show until I received my year-end statement from ASCAP. And even then it wasn’t more than a few hundred dollars. That’s why artists like myself have to know how to hustle and work in other ways to earn a living so they can create music in their free time.
QM: As an artist, what is your advice for the next generation of up-and-coming singers, songwriters and musicians?
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.