“When I go into the studio, sometimes I have an idea in mind, like something I recorded into my phone. 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 an organic experience.”
Reclusive indie singer/songwriter Chris Eberlein talks about music, life as a musical savant on the down-low and his career retrospective Wormholes, out now.
Q: Twenty years. What does Wormholes mean to you?
CE: It's hard to believe that it's been that long, because so much has changed! I started out in 2001 singing everybody else's songs, and singing the way my coaches or people expected me to sound. I was too shy and introverted to do anything else. There's been so much growth and life since I was that 16 year old kid! We put out the Deluxe Edition, which has SO much more music than the standard version, in chronological order to really showcase how much my sound and my music have evolved since those early days. It means the world to me to be able to share what I believe is my musical legacy to whomever listens.
Q: How did "Clingy" come about?
CE: Putting out "Clingy" really opened doors, both for myself as an artist but for my co-writer/co-producer. I'd wanted to collaborate for years, and Akin sent me over the beat and I was like, hmmm I get this, I hear something, I'm feeling something. I literally sang that intro line, the tag "Less woke folk call it clingy," and I knew that's what it was going to be titled. The rest just flowed out of me. I think we had the basic outline of what the overall track was going to sound like in a day or two. The lyrics were super easy for me because, and I get it, when the pandemic hit people were kind of saying how they couldn't go anywhere, but for me and my partner it really was a blessing in disguise. I was so fortunate because I got to spend lockdown with my favorite person. And some people got on each other's nerves, but we pretty much enjoyed every second of it.
Q: "Clingy" became a viral hit for you. Were you surprised?
CE: I knew it was a bop, as the kids say. It had that vibe that you know is something great from first listen. It was just so effortless, and the lyrics came to me so quickly, that iconic bridge was a happy accident...everything just came together on the song. I knew that if we got it to the right people, the ones who love summery pop songs, they'd appreciate it.
Q: You’re a confessional songwriter, but more often 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 intentional. 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: What's something you need to have with you at all times in the studio?
CE: Caffeine. And lots of it.
Q: Are you a singer who writes songs or a songwriter who sings?
CE: Both. Do I have to choose? I don't think so. I started being known first as a singer, but I've been writing songs since I was 12 years old.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.