Chris Merritt almost seems a man born in the wrong era. The 27-year-old Virginia native has spent the last decade writing, producing and recording some of the most innovative indie-pop you’re ever likely to stumble upon, complete with full stereophonic vocal and instrumental arrangements. He’s capable of drawing comparisons to artists as disparate as Rufus Wainwright, Ben Folds, Coldplay, Snow Patrol or just about anyone else you could think of who dabbles in at least some form of piano-based pop.
He’s also willing to admit that he’s a man with strong opinions, and his willingness to share may be a big reason why he’s still struggling to find an audience and the ability to “sell out.” Still, the audience he has found is a dedicated one, and, even with his third solo album, Virginia Is For Hoverers, being not even a year old, he’s already on his way to further develop that album’s winning sound for a new record due (“if it doesn’t kill me,” he jokes on his website) sometime within the next week.
Chris sat down with me to talk about songwriting as a craft, why musical taste is really more objective than subjective, and how he came to be known in Utah as “the Mormon Ben Folds” despite being an atheist.
Jonathan Sanders: What would you say is “meaningful” in music to you?
Chris Merritt: I would say meaningful music is anything that’s genuine. And while a lot of people talk about good music being subjective, I don’t really think that’s the case. I think that what’s objectively “good” music, is just really hard to define. But you can define it. It’s hard to define things in nature like life, but there is such a thing as “good” music. The key is being genuine. As soon as you start to become superficial, the music becomes less meaningful.
Jonathan: So you as a songwriter, can you describe your process, how you construct a song?
Chris: Here’s what usually happens. I sit down at the piano, I start playing and it really sucks . . . everything I play sucks . . . and that goes on for about an hour. Then maybe after a while I’ll hit on the right chord progression. But it has to do something for me, it’s tuning into that objective “goodness” that I fucking love. It comes down to finding a clever melody or a clever chord progression that really hits my gut deep. It’s almost like a real pain, a good and bad feeling at the same time. So I have go off that, because that’s what all good songs do, they hit that feeling, whatever it is.
So once I find a melody that I like, even if it’s just a few seconds, and that’s the fun part. Sometimes it has a lyric with it and other times I just have the melody. It’s great when it all falls together and I can write a whole song in ten minutes. But the rest of the time I have to keep that melody around for a few days, then come back to it to develop it into a full song. Then it becomes more of a tedious left-brain thing.
Jonathan: You’ve been very active in the world of music-based social networking. Do you think social networking sites create all-around music fans, or does it tend to fuel the “celebrity seeking” culture?
Chris: It’s such a weird thing, all that stuff. The cool part is I’ll get fans at shows who’ll say “I heard your music on The Sixty One [www.thesixtyone.com], for example. That can be cool in a way, but at the same time it’s very hard to track how many people are actually listening to you on those sites, versus how many people will end up actually buying some music, or coming to a show. Most of those people you never even hear from. Five percent, maybe, are the really vocal people who comment online, and they’re the ones you hear from. The other side of it is that people can more easily get out there via such sites, a lot more mediocre musicians . . . not even musicians, people who got some recording program on their computer and thought it would be cool to make a recording. There’s such a huge mound of music that, as an artist — and this may be an ego thing — you almost feel like a bit of a whore. You’re just one of the millions of little artists on here.
Other times I wind up feeling wistful for “the good old days” before all this internet marketing. It’s almost like there’s been a cheapening of music. I’m anxious to see where it ends up being in ten years.
Jonathan: Your song “Try To See The Good” lashes out lyrically at a critic who lambasts an artist’s solo work while gushing over their work with a well-known band. Do you feel critics still play a role in how music gets heard?
Chris: That song was specifically about Frank Black’s band The Pixies, and specifically the Pitchfork review of Frank’s solo albums, which get negative reviews even when the Pixies get mentioned in those reviews so favorably. They get so negative about his albums, which are quite possibly my favorite albums of all time. So I was thinking how a guy like Frank Black really doesn’t get the credit he deserves. It upsets me to see people at these sites who are obsessed with a band like the Pixies, and then as soon as someone goes off to do his solo thing . . . for whatever reason . . . even as he’s maturing as a songwriter, and he gets hammered by these 22-year-old snobby music critics.
Jonathan: Yeah, I’d missed the Pitchfork train when it first got started, and when I started hearing references to it, the site had already become the juggernaut it is today. But it’s crazy how they’ll promote a band like Vampire Weekend, out of nowhere, until they’re huge without even releasing a CD. And by the time the CD does come out, they’ve moved onto the next big thing.
Chris: That might be another issue with the spread of technology’s influence in music promotion. It’s like Tom Petty was talking about recently, back in the seventies it wasn’t all about “criticism” when you wrote about popular music. It was like, “lets listen to this and love it,” everyone was so psyched about music. And now it’s become very critical.
Jonathan: It was so new back then, too, the whole idea of rock-music journalism having come out of that generation.
Chris: But the weird thing is, you had so much great stuff back then. I mean, you have great stuff now, but sometimes I listen to the Beatles’ music, or the Beach Boys, and I think “is anyone really making music like this now?” I just don’t know.
So I have my views on criticism, but I’ve become kind of biased by having seen what critics have done to guys like Rivers Cuomo. He released Pinkerton and it was slammed by all these people so he retreated into obscurity for years, only to come out writing poppier and poppier songs. I hear an album like Pinkerton, which I think can be called objectively better, you can point to certain melodic things he was doing there, lyrical things he was doing, that make it objectively cooler. It is a better record. But I remember the first Pitchfork review I read was for Ben Folds Five’s third album, Reinhold Messner, which was a great record, and they said something like it was “the muppets trying to do Radiohead,” some kid who thinks he’s clever. But those negative reviews were part of the reason the band broke up!
I’d just like to see more positive reviews. I want to see more people out there finding good music, and writing about how good it is so the rest of us can find it. The negative stuff, you honestly don’t need someone to be able to tell you what sucks.
Jonathan: Let’s get back to your music for a moment. I’ve been listening to it in great volumes lately, and I noticed a lot of your songs deal overtly with the topics of science-fiction and fantasy. What inspires you when you’re writing about those subjects?
Chris: I’m just a huge nerd, I guess. I just love those things, it’s part of something new I like to do with music lyrically. I’m interested in taking lyrics to a new place. I want to write about these totally obscure, but important, things like great physicists, or great moments in history, or where the future of technology is headed. These are the things I’m constantly thinking about, while everyone else around me doesn’t think about it. I like to get people looking at all this crazy physics stuff that’s going on, look at this society we’re living in! Evolution is accelerating all around us! What does it mean to be conscious? Have you ever thought about that?
The other thing I like to do is hide those lyrics with music that sounds like your traditional pop love song.
Jonathan: There’s a lot of AM Radio in your music, particularly on songs like “Arizona.”
Chris: I like doing that. I want my music to be “good,” and a lot of people seem to think I focus in on music that’s weird because I like creating weird music. I like to write a song that kicks you in the ass a little bit, a good melody and a good rock song, so I’m not trying to do anything so weird you can’t enjoy it. But I like to use things like odd time signatures and make the melody more awesome, at least it is to me.
With lyrics, I often write them after the melody. But sometimes I’ll have a little bit in there of lyrics which came with the melody. Like, for this song called “She Wolf,” I had that lyric with the melody: “I would do anything just to see you / I would do anything just to find you.” So then it’s like, okay. I can take that, and now I can make it as obscure as possible. The chorus makes sense, the melody’s fun, but with the rest of the lyrics, I can go anywhere I want to. That’s what’s so much fun for me, because I hate writing lyrics.
That song, for example, the chorus makes it sound like a typical love song, but I wrote it about Queen Isabella, who was known as the she-wolf, known for these murderous rages she’d go on. Her husband got caught with a gay lover, and it’s just crazy how when you’re reading the story you know that all went on among royalty, all these murders and wars fought over a couple’s marital problems. So I’ll decide to write my lyrics about that, and wrap it up like a poppy love song.
Jonathan: As for all your influences, at first the biggest thing you hear is the Ben Folds sound, but if you listen a little closer you hear other sounds sneaking out, like Rufus Wainwright or The Fray, Snow Patrol, even a little Cake thrown in.
Chris: Oh cool! That’s great to hear you say Cake, because Cake is one of my favorite bands ever, but they’re the kind of band where I always feel I don’t show their influence enough. They have such a different lineup, such a different sound, but I think Fashion Nugget has got to be among my top three records of all time.
Jonathan: But I was wondering, because you’ve never hidden that you like all these bands, how do you go about creating a “Chris Merritt Sound” out of all these rival influences?
Chris: I haven’t really ever thought about it consciously until recently. We’re working on this new record, Virginia Is For Hoverers, Part II, and I think it’s the first record where I’ve actually set out to develop a sound. We’re doing it on a tight budget, just a bunch of friends making a record.
Jonathan: Does it help that you went to college to learn how to do this kind of thing?
Chris: (Laughs). We were talking about that the other day, me and the guy producing the new record – he used to play in Paperface, and we went to school together. But the funny thing is, technology is changing everything so fast, and with recording you can get better sound now, with more tools available, for practically nothing. If you can afford a computer, spend $400 on a recording program, and since just about anybody can use these programs with a minimum of training, you can learn just about as much as anyone with a college degree in music engineering with just a few days on YouTube.
The thing that I really do miss about school was that I just wrote all the time. I had classes in the music building, and I’d sneak into practice rooms to just write. At one point I was writing three songs a day, spending sometimes nine hours in a room playing and writing. So during that time I think maybe I was able to write out a lot of the crap that was in me. I wrote something like 450 complete songs, and that’s helped me now in paring down and finding what really works in my music.
Jonathan: It’s funny when you talk about having written that many songs, because I’ve had musicians when you call out a song request at a concert from a few albums ago, they honestly don’t remember it unless they’ve rehearsed it recently. I always wonder how you can keep track of anything but the most recent few albums of songs.
Chris: A lot of it comes down to practicing, and I always could use more practice time. I do get a lot of requests of older songs I just have no idea how to play anymore. It’s always really embarrassing because I know if I spent just half an hour at night working on some random old songs, I’d be able to handle more of those requests. It’s still flattering that people want to hear them, even when I can’t actually play them.
Jonathan: There’s been a big discussion on your site recently about how to characterize your music, and people were suggesting things like “Idio,” for idiosyncratic music. And I started wondering if there’s a limit to how far we can fracture genres before people forget what music “is” in the first place.
Chris: I think the idea of a genre is arbitrary anyway. The human mind loves to categorize, and that makes sense biologically, but it can also lead to stereotyping. With music it can be really detrimental, because you get people who will associate themselves with a specific kind of music, and they miss out on the rest because of arbitrary borders. I get that same gut-love feeling when I hear Beethoven as I get when I hear something on a pop record. I think there are only two categories of music: good music and superficial music. Then again, I can be too opinionated, I think maybe it comes with the territory of being a musician, I have to know I’m right.
Jonathan: You’ve self-produced all your music to this point. Have you ever thought about pitching your songs to a label in today’s climate?
Chris: Part of me moving to New York has been that I want to find new people who are doing interesting things, to become part of a scene from the beginning. I think artists would have to be stupid to want to be jerked around by these big labels anymore. We have the internet! We have the ball in our court. You’ve got to be a little masochistic if you go with a label at this point.
I’ve talked to some label people about my music, and I have a friend who’s always getting upset with me that I won’t just sell out, but I can’t do it . . . it physically makes me ill talking to these guys. I shouldn’t name names, but I’ve talked to a few people associated with bigger labels. I can never hold my tongue with these guys, because they’ll all tell you what you’re going to need to do to impress the label. We played this song of mine called “Mimic,” and we just killed it, it’s one of my favorite songs I’ve written. Then we played a song called “Cruise Elroy,” and this guy hated both songs. He kept claiming they were changing key signatures. And after I argued with him for a while, I figured out he really meant he hated the fact that the songs used shifting time signatures. And I had to wonder, does it bother someone like that to work in the music world and not know anything about music? But he told me to never play that kind of music for anyone in the music industry again. They will immediately switch off when they hear the time signatures changing.
Jonathan: Is there one question you wish no one would ask you again?
Chris: Yeah, I have one. I guess it would be hearing about how much I sound like Ben Folds. A lot of people ask me: “So what do you think of people calling you a second Ben Folds?” And I think that’s got to be my least favorite question.
Jonathan: That’s got to be a little better than “So, what kind of music do you play?
Chris: That’s another! I never know how to answer that, no matter how many times people insist on asking it. I need to come up with something interesting to use.
Jonathan: Is there anything you wish people would ask you about but they never do?
Chris: I like when people want to talk about where music is going. Or physics. I wish someone would start randomly asking me physics questions.
Jonathan: I’m interested in where “Arizona” came from. I’d swear there’s the line in there about how you’re “living with my cousin / gonna be a Mormon.” Is that what you’re saying?
Chris: Yeah, I wrote that song while I was moving from L.A. to Salt Lake City, which is a really long story. This guy was managing me, and he’s this Mormon guy, so I put that in there as a tongue-in-cheek thing.
Jonathan: If you’re going to be in Utah, you might as well fit in, right?
Chris: Yeah, it was my way of saying “gonna be a Mormon” in the way that I’m just moving to Utah. I’d never become a Mormon for real, because I’m an atheist. But that’s another weird subject, because while I like to talk about atheism, a lot of people don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to offend anyone, and oddly, a lot of my fans now are Mormon. And it’s funny, that whole Mormon thing being tongue-in-cheek and all, but when I play that song in Utah I get this huge reaction. There was a paper out there covering my music once that actually referred to me as “Utah’s own Mormon Ben Folds,” which is on multiple accounts so awful for me.
Jonathan: You could always throw them off by playing “Bitches Ain’t Shit.”
Chris: But people actually request that song at my shows! Seriously though . . . I don’t think I’m ever going to escape the Ben Folds comparison, since he’s the one who inspired me musically to listen to more rock and pop rather than just jazz. But there have been fifty other artists who have influenced me as much or more, guys like Frank Black, or Radiohead even and Weezer. It’s just funny that because of the piano thing there are certain chords and ways I play that I’ll never escape that.
We keep getting more and more away from that sound, especially on what we’re working on for our next album, which I think finally shows me overtly trying to get away from certain sounds. I think this next record is going to be the first record that totally fulfills my vision as an artist. We’re putting everything we have into not compromising. I think it’s going to be really good.
Jonathan: Well, it might make you feel better to know how I accidentally stumbled on your music. I was searching for an instrumental version of “Rain King,” by Counting Crows, so I could do a vocal audition at a theme park, and I found your “Rain King” by mistake and got hooked.
Chris: That’s a great sentence right there! (Laughs.) But that actually illustrates a point I’ve tried to make before, that it’s so hard right now because you have to almost go person to person to get your music heard. And though the response to my music has been wonderful, and people really seem to enjoy the songs, I feel sometimes like I’m just going door to door: “Hi, my name is Chris. Will you listen to my album?” There are so many avenues for musicians to get their music out, but you still have to find listeners and get them to hear your music. And it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds.
Listen to Chris’s music at Chris Merritt Music.