Feeling the Compulsion
There’s a school of thought that says stars are born, not made. When an artist’s music addresses the universal search for truth and love, people can’t help but take notice. With the right opportunity to reach a waiting but unaware audience, New York City-based singer/songwriter Chris Grace could well set things on fire.
An astoundingly gifted songwriter and dynamic live performer capable of harnessing an arena rock sonic intensity, Chris Grace comes on like a darker side of John Mayer. With his powerful, charismatic voice blending the emotional vulnerability and spiritual essence of Live’s Ed Kowalczyk with the seductive undertow of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan, Chris Grace is, as they say, the real deal. Once you’ve heard Grace’s music, as it unfolds on his debut album, Compulsion, or witnessed one of his band’s live shows, his magnetism and star power is impossible to ignore. It is cause for excitement.
The songs of Chris Grace’s Compulsion run a taut emotional gauntlet, touching heavily on a myriad of relationships, life experiences and scattered ruminations on people and places he carries around in his head. Whether addressing the dualities inherent in living a life of any real consequence or plumbing the depths of a difficult adolescence in order to clear the blur of painful reckoning, Chris Grace demonstrates a truly artistic lyrical bent. With an engaging ability to turn a phrase, his stories of love (“Sunbeams”), spiritual quests (“July”) and personal triumph (“Like Your Father”) unfold without burrowing into self-indulgence. Grace’s lyrics are completely unadorned and on the surface, and it’s easy to imagine your way inside his head. With its explosive rock riffs countered against hauntingly beautiful melodies, Compulsion is a staggering first effort comparable to albums such as Live’s Mental Jewelry and Joseph Arthur’s Come to Where I’m From.
I recently spoke with the enigmatic yet approachable Chris Grace in his NYC home about the evolution of his music and his own personal compulsions.
How were you first inspired to start writing your own songs?
I always loved music. My Dad took me to my first real concert when I was maybe ten, which was Michael Jackson’s Reunion tour, with his brothers. That tour was massive • it was the coolest thing. I loved Michael Jackson’s voice and his melodies. My father has been in the music industry forever, so I’ve been around music since childhood, going back stage at concerts, meeting the artists and going to lots and lots of shows. I’m not sure if that environment was necessarily the thing that turned me on to being a musician, but I understood that world and it was exciting to me. I just always loved singing– “Stand By Me” by Ben E. King was my favorite song when I was a kid.
As an adolescent, I was kind of a loner, as some writers are. When I began to write songs, it was more reflexive, like something that just had to come out of me. I didn’t really have a choice. When I was 14, I took guitar lessons for less than a year, then at 16 I decided to pick it back up again. I re-learned what I’d been taught up to that point and tried to push it further. I immediately began writing music. I tried to learn the music of other artists, but I always preferred to write my own compositions [laughs]. I feel influenced by a lot of the bands whose music I really love — like Tool or Tori Amos, Peter Gabriel or even guys like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson — but I don’t necessarily sound like them. What I find I can relate to is how much emotion they put into their music and how much sincerity and truth they really add to it. I appreciate how vulnerable they’re willing to be in how they express themselves to an audience. That’s what I share and that’s what I respect about those artists.
Your songs are so heavy and your lyrics often seem really tortured, but meeting you, you’re such a nice, happy guy. Where do these songs come from?
That’s always been an issue. There are several different sides of me and, depending on where you’re seeing me and when you’re catching me in the day, you never know what you’re going to get [laughs]. I have had periods of depression in my life. I was hiding out a lot and also had some issues with religion and my family. These are things that I now deal with in a different way. I don’t want to be an immediate downer and act like the things that are getting me down have become me anymore, like they used to. That person is still there, and when I’m writing is when that stuff shows itself. Part of me wants to get away from it though, and refuses to believe I was that person, first of all, and that it still could be inside of me. The thing is, it catches up with you if you continue to run away. You have to deal with it, otherwise you’re just going to get angry and freak out one day.
When you’re performing, are these songs painful at all for you to sing and is there a great deal of catharsis involved in the whole writing/recording/performing ritual?
There is. First of all, there’s a great deal of catharsis in the writing process. To record and see the music become fully realized is definitely another release, in that you feel like there’s a little more distance between what you were talking about in the song, and how it is you now feel. So yes, I do find a sense of healing in writing songs and performing them. One thing I’ve noticed about my personality right now is that I’m not fully letting go. I could tell you that I do hold in a lot of the emotion surrounding the things I talk about, simply because if it were to come out, it could be very explosive. There are moments of self-control and there are moments where I won’t be able to contain myself.
Tell me about how Compulsion was written.
Somebody once said to me after a show, “You took me a lot of places during your set,” and I said that I wanted the show to reflect the different emotions that I was going through. That’s the way I like to describe Compulsion. I’m not always feeling the same way. There are times of shame, passion, fear and happiness. There are times of contemplation about something political or social. I wanted to really reflect that, emotionally, I’m not always linear. Some bands just rock: that’s what they do and it’s straightforward. Some bands are very mellow all the time and some are hyper. What I like to represent is that I — everyone — can be all of that at some point.
A&R guys have said to me, “I’m not sure how to market this or to who,” because they notice the record has a softer side and a harder side, and that there’s a distinct difference. I think that’s okay; it’s like two different movements in an opera. Human beings are not just one way, so I think people can relate to my music with their spirit, with their soul. I would [suggest labels] just count on that as opposed to saying, “This is the only way we can go, this is your market.”
I get 14 year old kids coming up to me and I get adults in their fifties, and my peers, who all find something in my music they can relate to or appreciate. I don’t make a conscious effort not to alienate anyone, but because I know myself, I feel like I can know other people as well. There’s always something that holds us together, a unity and emotion that human beings have. If people were not afraid to accept that, we could find some common ground.
Do you have favorite songs or ones that you enjoy performing more than others?
“Hush,” means a lot to me because the relationship that inspired the song is still fresh. “Offering” is another song that I look to as being powerful lyrically, and “July” is definitely one I love. Whenever I sing that, I get quite intense about it and also aggravated at times. When I sing those songs, I do feel pretty intense about them.
“Sunbeams” is another song I was really excited about writing. I must have written those lyrics in twenty minutes. It just flew out of me and I really enjoyed that — then we had to record it in ten minutes [laughs]. It’s funny, that first line, “Lovers have said they will stay true / but we realize it’s not always so,” came up after a relationship I’d been through. There was also a willingness to find perfection or to find comfort in a specific place: in this girl’s arms or with God or with myself. Just the idea of, “The sunbeams would shine all around me and I disintegrate into the light / warming all the world / and all the faces searching for holy truth / and searching for love.” You know, [it was like searching for] something that felt needed and felt perfect and felt… like home. I guess that’s what was so exciting and what I felt like I wanted to express. It was more of a poetic stab than I think I’d taken in any of my other songs. What maybe instigated that too was that I’d just listened to Leonard Cohen for the first time. When I listened to his songs, I understood the risks he took and the types of pictures he tried to paint. It inspired me to try and be that expressive.
I definitely think you are a gifted lyricist.
That means a lot to me, because that’s something I really focus on. I won’t feel comfortable with my lyrics •- and comfortable singing them — unless they’re ‘right.’ I can’t be afraid of myself, or who I am, or else I’ll exist in fear all the time. I don’t want to do that. If I can express these dark places through my music, then I can get past it and bring on some healing.
Who do you see as your audience and why do you think people connect with your music?
I think people connect because they can understand the roller coaster of emotions that we can all go through in the day. Sonically, we can talk about just a feeling of aggressiveness or intimacy. I think people can relate to both of those emotions and can hear which elicits a violent reaction or a desire to be calm or quiet or in love or peaceful. We’re all over the place and different events in the world can make us feel different ways. People can relate to that. I think there’s something that I’ve said on Compulsion that anyone can relate to: whether it’s a couple of lines or a word.
As far as the audience I’m focusing on, it’s funny because I know people are suppose to think about that, but I just want everybody to like my music (laughs). I want them all! I don’t mind playing for adults or young kids. I’ve played these shows at malls — like Tiffany! — for this charity organization called Shine, which is against youth violence. It gets kids into a setting where they can discuss their problems and read their poems and stuff. I enjoyed that, because I want to be active with the social scene and try to affect some change in my own way. I had these 14-year-old kids come up to me and go, “you’re so great!” They still email me, and I email them back. I enjoy talking to those kids. I had one kid who came up to me and he goes, “Let me ask you one question: Why do you suck so bad?” He was the punk kid with the colored hair and the chains and all that stuff. His buddies were in the corner giggling. I said, “You know what man, we just like to suck sometimes. But that’s alright, I remember what it was like to be your age.” I knew why he was doing it. All these girls were around him and I guess he felt like he wanted to impress them or get them to notice him. After I said that, he had a smile on his face and he shook my and then walked away. It’s times like that were I could have just said, “Fuck you! Get the hell out of here!” [Laughs] But you’ve got to know better around these kids because they’re looking for somebody who can give them a little bit of insight on themselves and what it’s like to grow up. At least I could relate. I’ve been there before; I’ve said the same fuckin’ thing, but I can’t return it to him anymore. I can’t say, “fuck you!” I’ve got to know better.
Do you have a particular objective about what you’d like to accomplish with the release of Compulsion?
When the album was released, a lot of people were promising me that, “this will do this, and we’ll get it here,” and many of those people didn’t come through. I was constantly trying to push and it became a very anxious time. My intention with this record, honestly, is that it be a stepping-stone to the next record, which I’m already deep into recording. That next record is going to just blow minds, because I’m so happy with the new stuff that I’m writing. I want Compulsion to be a way to attract interest; get people coming to the shows, checking out the website, and get some kind of infrastructure going where I can start making records as I come up with material, you know? [Laughs]
I want to “weigh in” with this record. If it does something on its own and a label picks it up at some point that would be great. If a song off this record would do well, I’d be really happy about it. But I know, especially right now, that there’s no sure thing. I just want it to get in front of people and let people have chance to hear the band and me. Everybody I worked with on Compulsion is really talented and I’ve learned so much. That, in itself, was worthwhile. I’ve learned a great deal about myself, how to create music and how to be effective with it, too. I’m really excited about how I’m writing and changing.
What did your co-producer bring to the project?
I think what Malcolm Burn (Iggy Pop, Emmy Lou Harris, Better Than Ezra) afforded us was the space to be creative and to let our energy just happen. He wasn’t quite as hands-on — almost to a flaw in some ways — but I appreciated him pushing us to be creative and to be the breath of the record. As soon as we entered the studio, we were doing live tracking. He might not even be in the room, so that gave me a lot of control over what happened. The most important thing he afforded us was the environment to be creative; to wake up in the morning, roll out of bed and just pick up the guitar and press record. I learned a lot in that experience about myself, and I let go of a lot of insecurities.
When you’re writing a relationship•type song, is it one girl who’s inspired them or is it many different relationships, or is it a symbolic thing?
There is “all of the above” in the answer. There are a few women who’ve influenced the songs on the album. It’s funny, this guy wanted to manage us and he was going through an amazing break-up himself. He goes, “Song one, two and three; who was she?” And I was like, “I never thought about it, but it’s who were they.” There’s one girl, specifically where on the back of the CD it’s says, “With love to Diana” she inspired the song “Love D.” She inspired a few of those songs to be honest with you, but there were other relationships. “Offering” was a different relationship and “Conversations” was a different relationship. Also, symbolically, in “Sunbeams” I tried to engage more of a symbolic feeling of relationships, though a specific person inspired the song. There were definitely a few relationships I’ve had that were quite powerful that I wanted to reflect on and get down on paper.
I have a certain sexuality about me that I can’t repress, ever. Women are like my vice, if you were to say I have one. I like women, but I have self-control about it, which I’m also pleased with. Even female energy, I just really love being around women. There’s a soulfulness in women that men lack and I think women, in general, can see the soul of people. Women aren’t afraid to be in love and they can see meaning and quality in people that men kind of deny, or just are too afraid to acknowledge because they think that kind of vulnerability will mean that they’re less than masculine, you know? I appreciate women’s and…I just love women [laughs].
Are you comfortable being so intimate with your audience?
Absolutely, I don’t even think twice about it. You could ask me the most personal question you could think of and I don’t really have a problem with it. I’ve met the toughest of motherfuckers on the planet and they respect what I do, because they may not be able to admit to themselves that they have felt some of what I’m expressing. Just by hearing that I’m not afraid, maybe it makes them a little less afraid to express themselves. I don’t mind being vulnerable at all. I’m just being who I am. If you start putting up those kinds of barriers, it’s only going to affect your relationships with the people that are close to you and important to you.
What band or artist currently on the scene do you consider to be a personal inspiration?
There are bands where I appreciate their careers, but the one that comes to mind is Tool. I find it so refreshing that they can have a career, make an album whenever they want, have it sell platinum when they put it out, play any place in the world and sell it out • and they do it on their own terms. That’s amazing! I’ve never felt like I’ve compromised myself at all, and that was one of the hardest things to avoid. When I first started out, producers wanted to write with me and I felt really uncomfortable about the formulaic attitude they had towards music. It was very much about “What’s hip right now? Let’s try to write something in that vein.” That never seemed natural to me.