'Ayering On The Side of Soul & Old Americana'
Chris Ayer grew up in McLean, Virginia, and got his start singing along to old cassette tapes of Elvis and Paul Simon on car rides. When his dad got him his first guitar as a teen, he started writing songs that same day. After moving to northern California, he started sharing his songs locally, while studying philosophy and music at Stanford University.
Though his songwriting started as a hobby, it quickly became his main focus. Though studies in music theory & history at first informed his songwriting, the dry academics of a regimented music department became increasingly uninspiring for him. It was Ayer's interest in philosophy and his affinity to the lyrical elements of poetry that ultimately gave voice to his writing.
After spending some time out of school writing and playing local gigs, he left the comforts of northern California and ventured east to the manic excitement of New York City. Over the last six years, Ayer has been writing and recording new material on a regular basis. His independent releases include Static (2003), New Songs (2005), This is the Place (2006), Live Sessions (2007), and The Center Ring (2007).
Ayer’s musical experiments on the brand new release, 'Don't Go Back To Sleep' compliment his lyrics with sounds and styles that go beyond his familiar territory of folk, pop and rock.
Exclusive Magazine recently caught up with Chris and asked him all sorts of wonderful questions - including one about penguins!
Your music has it’s roots in rock, blues and country. Who were your musical influences growing up and how many still factor into your music today? "I think my biggest influences from the very start have been Paul Simon & Bob Dylan, just because my parents were playing that stuff since I was a baby, and it was always around me. I grew up absorbing it, so much so that I think they both have an influence & affect on just about everything I write."
"As I kid I would also listen to all the random stuff that was popular at that time, anywhere from Pearl Jam to Boyz II Men, to a few other not-so-great records I will go ahead and not mention! Most of it came and went, but the songs of a few bands, like the Counting Crows, really stuck with me. The 60s & 70s folk/pop songwriters have definitely stayed with me though, more than anything else."
As an up-and-coming artist, how would you describe the sound and style of your new album Don’t Go Back To Sleep? "I think it's an upbeat hopeful group of songs, with a lot of sounds & influences mixed in there together. I love the directness of folk music, the melodies of pop, the energy of rock, and the rooted urgency of soul & old americana country... I try to mash all those things together, and I think that's what my sound ends up being. This record was a lot of fun to make, really getting to experiment both in the writing process, and in recording it with music friends in Nashville. I think that openness to different ideas comes through in the range of sounds & styles on this album... I feel like each song has it's own unique voice on the album, and I hope it'll make for a good listen!"
You’ve made a name for yourself touring the country and playing in coffeehouses, small music halls and even street corners. What has been the most memorable moment for you so far while touring? "When I was starting out, I was looking to play just about anywhere, just to get another show under my belt, and some new folks to play for. The first time I played in my hometown of McLean it was in an old friends living room. Such a fun night, and really encouraging start to the touring. This February I got to play a local theater back home.. it was my first headlining theater show, and it was so surreal and cool that I got to do it with all my old friends and family there. I was definitely more nervous for that one than any other show I've played. But it felt really wonderful to be on that stage, after moving all over and working at this for these past few years."
You started out singing and songwriting as a hobby while studying at Stanford University. Tell us a little bit about your decision to give up college life and pursue a career as a musician "While I was in school I was always playing shows around campus & in San Francisco. The whole time it was at the back of my mind that what I'd really love to be doing this full time, but I think I was probably waiting for someone to tell me it was okay... at some point along the way there I guess I just realized that nobody but me could say if it was the right thing to do. I was studying a lot of philosophy, and I think that not only helped my songwriting, but it helped me muster up the confidence to say that I was going to go out and play music, and really own the choice. As soon as I said it out loud, I knew it was the right choice. I'm glad I did."
You’ve now independently released five albums; Static, New Songs, This is the Place and the most recent releases Live Sessions and Center Ring. Which album do you feel says the most about you as an artist? "I think the new one Don't Go Back To Sleep gets the closest to saying what I'm about. I think a few songs on This Is The Place got to the heart of it, where the melody & the arrangement & lyrics all came together just right. But in many ways I think that album was kind of making way for this new one. I was also really happy with Live Sessions since most of my shows are solo acoustic, so I got to put something out there that showed what those live stripped-down versions of songs were sounding like."
You were awarded the 2006 Lennon Award in Folk for “Evaporate” during the ’07 John Lennon Songwriting Competition. What did this mean for your musical career? "Getting the Lennon award was such a ridiculous honor. John Lennon is obviously one of the most masterful & innovative songwriters of all time, and getting that kind of recognition in his name was a huge compliment. And that song "Evaporate" was one of the songs that I feel the closest to, so it meant even more that some people felt that they connected with it. Moving forward with the music has been a series of many little victories and setbacks, but more than any other time, that award was like an overnight boost... shows got a little bigger, audiences seemed like they listened a little more closely. It was a real honor."
How easy or hard is it to create a new, vibrant, wanted-by-the-public sound that both builds on and surpasses the musical wonderments and accomplishments that preceded it within the industry? "I think it's always the challenge to write a better song that feels both fresh and new, and also honest. It's easier to try to do something weird just to differentiate, and it's also pretty easy to imitate what's been done, but getting to songs that are something new and also resonate with some kind of honesty is the challenge for any of us I think. But that's exciting to me. There's always another song to write, and that process of letting the songs find their own voice has been a really interesting one for me lately. I don't know how it all ends up comparing or stacking up, but I don't think that stuff should come into your head when you're writing anyway."
You cite writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Robert Frost and Rumi as inspirations in constructing your meaningful and poetic song lyrics. Is there a particular lyric you’ve written which you feel holds a special significance for you more than others? "Some of my favorite lyrics on the new album are in the song "In The Silence"... Influences like Frost & Emerson come into all my songs, but "In the Silence" really talks about a very peculiar feeling that I felt, and saw a lot of my friends feel, and it came up a lot in some of my favorite poets & authors... the feeling of growing up, feeling the stakes raise, and maybe losing touch with some of that pure joy you were able to feel as a child. The lyrics really get at it for me, and are lyrics I feel okay about reading, that maybe hold up separate from the song ...
"in the silence
you want a place to settle down
but your old heart keeps moving on
and somewhere inside you know
the reason why you want to go
is the hope your absence makes their hearts grow fond
and you bide your time with pretense
dreams of green lawns and a strong fence
and the truth is in the silence
the sunlight slants a warning call
this city makes no sense at all
and you can’t tell if you came
here for wisdom or for fame
so you sit there with your back against the wall
outside are children playing
where the daylight is the only thing
as you sit there in the silence
and oh, do you dare
to head out towards the day
as the day fades everywhere?
and oh, do you dare
to climb that hill
when, oh, there’s too much everywhere?
now your driving past the rows
of all the haunts you used to know
and you hold in every breath
think of all the ones you left
and wish sometimes the memories would go
but you know the night is patient
there’s time for wondering where the time went
as you sit there in the silence"
Your Myspace Music page has over 260,000 plays with your single “Evaporate” having almost 52,000 plays alone. How do you think the internet has helped to boost your popularity with fans? "The internet has been the whole reason I've gotten to go out and play music full-time. Getting to communicate directly to the few people who started seeing me at coffeehouses and bars, and then putting songs up on a page that they could pass along to their friends... none of that required a label or any kind of PR other than word of mouth. It's definitely made the competition harder, but I think it is doing great things to music, and the opportunity for anyone to get their songs out there."
If asked to record one for charity, what '80s (and possibly cheesy!) pop/rock song would you love to cover today and why? "I cover Michael Jackson's Man In The Mirror some already, but I actually don't think that's nearly cheesy enough for this question... I'd probably say John Waite's song "Missing you"... It's one of those high energy pop/rock tunes from that time that I think can take on a whole different personality if it's played from a different angle and style. Such a good pop song."
Lastly, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, Exclusive Magazine loves Penguins ...do you? "Hah, yeah, I've always liked penguins. And that Happy Feet movie definitely helped me like them even more... I know they don't actually tap dance.. yet. Also, one of my roommates is from Pittsburgh so I have an apartment alliegance to the Peguins team. So yes, definitely."
Interview: Erin M. Stranyak
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