“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.” —Chris Eberlein, on his inspiration
As the celebrated indie pop artist on the DL neared the release of 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 lately.
QM: You’ve been pretty busy, especially considering you released two albums and one extended play in 2018 alone. 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: You wrote about that in “The Fire."
CE: Yup, "The Fire" was the first upbeat song I’ve written in a long time and the core of it was written in about an hour. It was as if I just needed to put it out there and get it out into the ether. I wanted to release something that was positive, that was about change and that was about becoming better than who you used to be. That’s what that song means to me.
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 a talented artist that no one really knows about?
CE: It’s funny because I'm not someone who pushes myself out there. People kind of eventually discover I have this whole other persona and they're usually totally shocked and, occasionally, angry I didn't tell them earlier. Even though nobody believes me, I'm actually a diehard introvert, and I don't take compliments very well, so I put this separation up between Chris the Guy and Chris the Artist. They're both Chris, but they're different facets of Chris. And apologies for speaking about myself in the third person.
QM: Do you have any favorite songs on the new album you'd care to mention?
CE: There are definitely a few tracks here that are really thematic and represent what Boy. is about. The title song really changed the direction of where the record was going in a way that it's basically about publicly coming out through music because I really never used the word "boy" or "he" when I wrote about someone. I wasn't really comfortable putting myself out there in that way, even though privately everybody knows I'm a hot dog kind of guy. "It's Okay" is really poignant because it's about knowing it's okay to sometimes take breaks, or to be confused, or to be scared about not knowing what you want to do. It's as much a reminder for people I care about as it is for myself. "Inside of Me" is personal and people have told me how powerful its message is, and I've got to thank my dear friend (the incredible actress Shellye Broughton) for inspiring me over a coffee date to write it.
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: How does it feel to be on Album #7? Did you think you'd make it here?
CE: I went through this really, really long period of writer's block when I seriously thought I was washed up and everyone kind of forgot I was a singer/songwriter. I had gone from 0 to 60 in a period of only a few years and then burned out hard, so I was definitely scared I'd never be able to create and be a professional artist again. I think putting out so much new music lately is really me just being super excited to show the world that I was back. I feel triumphant to be on my seventh LP for sure.
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: 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 a hundred dollars, 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 show until I received my statement from ASCAP a year after the fact. 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 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.