With great storytelling, a mesmerizing voice, and 88 keys brilliantly played you can create musical magic. A San Diego favorite, Chris Carpenter does it cleanly with only his vocals and an acoustic piano sound. Based in Normal Heights, Chris Carpenter spent many campfire nights as a child listening to his mom write and play music while they traveled across the U.S. when he was age 4 to 14. In Autumn 2010, he won Humphrey’s songwriter competition,
I have to start the interview with a confession – though I am a guitarist, I’ve always had a musical soft spot for singing piano players. So this chat should go very well indeed.
You have this ‘tag’ story as a bio of you traveling around the country with your singing/songwriting Mom. It seems more important than just an endearing intro story to a bio. Can you expand on the story?
This is where I can trace the beginning of my fascination for music. Mom picked up the guitar, and a Joan Biaz Songbook, in her early teens for $50, against her parents wishes, and proceeded to learn every song. She was deep in music and I know that I was growing and experiencing the thrills with her before birth. She tells me music constantly activated movement from me (especially The Beatles Sergeant Pepper’s Album, of which I would dance almost violently to). As I grew up, seeing her play and sing was a natural part of life, and I believe that is how it has ultimately become an embraceable, natural part of my life. So she goes on the score card.
Tell us about your life’s journey.
I grew up to age 4 in a quaint brick house in Savannah, Georgia. The only white kid in a African-American neighborhood. My parents were married young, Dad was a star basketball player for his High School and mom was Ms. Teen Savannah. But alas, it was not the dream relationship they had hoped for. My parents broke off after my turning 4. I saddled up with mom for the next 10 years on a long, bizarre, flower child journey. We traveled through Canada, Mexico, lived in Hawaii, walked for 3 months across Arizona, and New Mexico, following railroad tracks, trails, and refusing to ride in automobiles (another story). Finally after starting and contributing to 4 or 5 naturalist communities across the US, we bought some land and settled in Northern California’s Trinity county, near the Trinity South fork river. We started a self sufficient community called “River Spirit” and proceeded to hand dig two acres of land, and put up fencing, with hand-split pickets.
We had no power tools, electricity, running water… you know, the things you don’t even think of doing without on a day to day basis these days. The winter brought isolation to our community as we had no way to leave…even in an emergency. The Trinity South fork river was 10 feet deep in the shallows and no bridge. The mountains on the other side were snow-packed and towering. One day, when I was 14, I ran away. This was not an easy feat when you are 50 miles from the nearest town, and 3 miles from any road. I hitched a ride all the way to Mendocino, Ca with someone I was familiar with, and stayed with them for a few weeks, before plotting the next move. So at age 14, I approached the Mendocino high school and explained my situation. The staff made a radical move, and took me under the wing of the school. And there I lived while attending classes – to get an education. Eating meals in the cafeteria, living on barely any money.
This school was also unique as it offered college credit programs (ROP’s). So they had a full recording studio, A video equipment lab, a large Apple I & II computer lab, Music instruments, etc. I had a master key and would sleep on the library floor at night and attend classes by day. I turned their small kitchen in to my own cafe, and sold donuts, coffee and BLT’s to the other kids.
I started to learn drums at 14 and became the school drummer for football games and school event’s. Then stealing into the studios at night and recording heavy metal, or hard rock pieces, with other musician friends. A liquid diet of Iron Maiden, Judas Priest & Rush. Holidays would come, and the school would become very empty and equally lonely. The entire experience of living there was about as bizarre, and unique an experience as you could have at that age. It of course, couldn’t last forever.
The principal pulled me aside, after we had been doing this dance for almost 2 years, and said it was just becoming to difficult to cover for me and we needed to make a shift. He introduced me to a friend of his, named Ira that wanted to start a foster care program at his home. Ira was a master jazz pianist that had played for over 35 years, and was known around town for it. He also was working on a psychiatry masters and a book. Now, seeing the door starting to close on me at the school, I reluctantly said I would try Ira’s for a couple of weeks. It ended up working out great and I lived with him until I was 17, and graduated high school. I played drums for 7 years, but while living with him, witnessed many days and nights of his amazing piano playing. This was a new inspiration and a natural evolution to another musical world.
You are a masterful pianist, when did you start playing?
Oooh, Thank you! At age 21 I sold the drums and drove from Santa Cruz to New York City in 3 days. One day shortly after, I wandered in to a small music store in Arlington, Virginia. I rented a room, with a piano for an hour. I started to try to write a song with it. I then came back every day, more excited to engage it than the day before. This continued for a couple of weeks, until I walked in and finally bought the piano from them. The very one I had been practicing on. It was a DENON keyboard. As I understood, they had only made it one year. The production cost was too high for the profit and they stopped making the model (so said the music store that sold it to me). So at age 21, I began my personal journey in the music world with 88 keys by my side. I had always loved to sing in private and my band mates used to claim my voice was better than our band’s singer. But I still couldn’t make the leap of faith to sing in public.
Where along the line did you get the performer/songwriter bug?
At 21, I was there to open the first East Coast Nordstrom store in Va. I became top sales and eventually a manager. But during my first year with them, they had a talent show featuring Nordstrom employees. I signed up, to give it a shot. Of course, I had no idea that over 500 people were going to be there to watch at a rented theater in Washington DC. After playing straight through my fears, my reservations, and breathing the applause in. I realized I had found a new calling. I started writing, and singing, as much as possible.
There is a classical feel to your playing, is there a tension between writing contemporary lyrics to what your hands do on the keyboards?
I am locked in, a little, to my piano style. I am self taught. Self taught everything. My old school structures in melody still needs to give way to the current lingo of our time. Sometimes I even love to practice my dictation with hip hop rap. The language is often more socially connected to a youthful music community and it helps me come up with bizarre word patterns, and ideas, that work in my originals.
There is a distinct difference in the way a pianist writes and someone who writes with a guitar, particularly in the movements within the piece. My sense is that you write the music first and then the lyrics – do I have that right?
Well, I can’t make you right or wrong on that… the truth is, I never know which direction it’s going to hit me from.
Can you give us a little workshop on how your songs come together?
Sure. The song can start with a concept, or an idea for a story, maybe a word flow or hook, and then I look to write a small instrumental melody to fit that, and then I branch off from there. Or sometimes it will start with an Instrumental/melody hook and I attempt to spread the lyrics over it like marmalade. Afterwards, flushing it out with the story structures I am familiar with. Bridges are often the last part of a song to be written. Words are more important to me than the music. I really don’t want to hear lazely written lyrics, or cliches.
You have no doubt been told this before – your voice, playing, and lyrical style are reminiscent of the great 70’s and 80’s piano folk. Who are your musical influences?
When picking up Piano, I started to teethe on Genesis and Phil Collins. He popped for me, because he was not only on fire as a songwriter at the time, but he was going through the transformation I was and wanted to go through. Drummer to Singer/Piano/Songwriter. That rocked to me and definitely was an inspiration. Elton is an amazing melody writer. I looked to his and Billy’s structures after Phil’s. And if someone tells me the song sounds like an Elton John song, I will take that as a giant compliment as it took 2 legendary people to write one song (Bernie Taupin wrote all the words). If it sounds like Billy’s writing…please, please, stop inflating my ego. These cats are everlasting Icons in music. Nuff’ said.
You’re playing with a great drummer, could you introduce us?
Bill Ray. He is a new player coming on board, new for me as I have always been a solo artist. I have won multiple Songwriting contests in San Diego… And a prize for one of the contests about a year ago in addition to the $150 and recording studio time, was to perform a set of my originals at Humphreys in San Diego. When I completed the set, this tall, smiling, and enthusiastic guy greeted me. He proceeded to tell me he had been looking for someone that wrote music like me, for a while, and he really wanted to play with me. He proceeded trying to explain his background, and he was well… kind of a big deal. Not in a big ego sense, but just so I could grasp what his skills were and why I should be getting excited also. It took a little while to sink in, but half a year later I reconnected with him and we hit the studio for a couple of rehearsal hours. The next day he asked his Facebook friends to congratulate him on being my new official drummer. In which I turned around shell-shocked and asked my friends to congratulate me on finding my New drummer – that already had a Grammy. We are currently creating the percussion structures for my originals and we will see what the future paint for our collaboration. I am truly excited to work with this drumming genius.
I can remember another keyboardist from the 70’s, rocker Lee Michaels, playing with Frosty (Bartholomew Eugene Smith-Frost). I make no musical comparison, but that you play with only a drummer accompanying. Is there a reason for that decision?
No decision actually, the drummer is just the only one that made it past my security check point. lol There will be more players.
You also play with a clean acoustic piano sound – little or no processing. What is your thinking there? When I listen to you I’m touched pleasantly that it is very intimate, as if you are playing in your living room and I am a guest. A part of me would like to hear the songs fully produced. Is that something you will eventually do?
Yes, some will remain “intimate”… but truly as time moves on, I will harness other instruments into a full studio production on some of the other songs. I had hopes of throwing some pieces of acoustic bliss out there, in order to snag interest from some important someone, to have it produced. And even so, part of me has a a nostalgia for the clean, pure acoustic sounds of the 60′s and 70′s.
I’m sure seeing you perform in smaller venues is a treat, have you performed in larger venues?
Probably the largest was the Largo Cultural Center in Florida. I flew out a couple of years ago just to perform an 1 hour original show on a beautiful grand Piano, and 5 curtain stage. It was advertised a month in advance, and was a wonderful experience! San Diego has some challenges, a lack of venues, in order to showcase it’s large pool of talent. Do you know what a challenge it is to find a great place with a piano in this town? lol Wherever it is, there’s probably 5-6 of them total and 5 of them are next to the liquor bar in a restaurant.
Your lyrics, wonderful by the way, are very personal. You have a storytelling gift – what is it you want the audience to get from your lyrics?
Thank you so much! I care about what I write down and what they hear. I want it relate-able, memorable, and emotionally invoking.
‘I can’t find the words to write a love song
Every verse reminds me that you’re gone – gone – gone.
Every verse reminds me that my heart is not that strong
I can’t find the words to write a love song’
Although every song you posted on your sites is easy to listen to, one of my favorites of yours “I Can’t Find The Words To Write A Love Song’ just screams to me to be produced with a band – I think it would be a hit. You hit every songwriting element ‘right’ on this one – great hook, on top vocals, catchy melody, cool keyboard work. Tell us about writing this one.
This song was birthed one night with the same struggle and lament in the song. I had a upbeat melody I had started, but I was so bummed about someone I wasn’t seeing anymore that I couldn’t find romance in my language. So it ended up coming out as a “Upbeat, but I’m depressed” song.
I had to laugh with “Sex”. I was reminded of a class I had taken years ago where the instructor made sex very easy for us – he said that whatever was happening around you when you had your first profound sex act was going to be your kink all your life. Tell us how this clever ‘Love song’ came into being.
Sex. I had the thought to myself one night, after hearing a R & B song talking about getting with a girl…making love, etc. You just don’t hear that kinky talk in a folk song. So I decided to take my left fist full of R&B sensuality and my right fist with upbeat Folk and proceed to mash them together to see what happens. Then the song just grew naturally from there into to the playful dialog that puts you slightly on the edge of your seat. It didn’t come out either Folk or R & B though.
I also noted that though the adroit lyrics are maybe a bit ‘tongue in cheek’ the music is masterful – big arrangement and over the top keyboard work. What had you decide to put so much into the music?
My songwriting journey combined with my percussive background gives my a giant appreciation for dynamics. The ability to pull and audience through a song, slow them down, and lift them up again. Push and pull them, and challenge them to remember the lyrics, and melody, and make them feel something. So many times I listen to songwriters and walk away barely remembering a bar from the song, or a melody. I don’t want my art to be forgettable, at the least… ever.
‘Up All Night’, for me, a very poignantly written song; having big musical movements, with very dynamic arrangement. This piece connected me to you as a performer; I would imagine your audience gets this one. What do you see working in this song?
You’re right about that song. It was a powerful brew the night that was concocted. The melody hit perfect with the bleeding heart on this and I couldn’t have been more happy about the results. I definitely see this as a big song in the future, as it has been in the past.
‘School Boy Crush’ Great lyrics, catchy hook, and I loved the Beatle-like lift in the bridge. This one is so assessable and really captures that intimacy you create. Tell us about this song lyrically and musically.
I was dating a schoolteacher for a few month and came up with the idea of just becoming a kid in love. I wanted a dreamy feel to the loving lyrics and then lend something more exciting to the bridge. I think the two parts were almost written at different times and then merged. Sometimes that works great – but I don’t try to force them! lol
I know there are a lot of songwriting performers and there are a lot of songwriters who don’t perform. The singer/songwriters pitch their music to their audiences and songwriters who don’t perform look for someone to perform their songs. In the end it is in all of us to have our songs heard. There is no doubt that you are a terrific songwriter- do you also write to pitch your songs to others, or are you content to have your songs stay with you?
I do not write to pitch to others. The passion that comes across in my lyrics, and style, is just how I am naturally. Now, if Justin Timberlake came to me and wanted to sing and record “Sex”, I’m sure we could come to an arrangement.
What has to be in a good song for you?
A connected flow to the melody, the words have to make sense, I don’t want toothpaste verse fillers. Dynamics are very important to me. and became an obvious ‘must’ back when I was a drummer. Sometimes you get done with one and you just say; Damn, I think i have something!
This is going to be a tough question and one I have asked myself as a singer/songwriter all my life. What will it take in you to be a successful singer/songwriter?
Successful to me, and successful to other, are two different beasts. I’m very successful for myself and in my self centered songwriting satisfaction. Me looking successful to other will look like I’m getting paid big to do what I love. So my outside success is being prepared. Whatever I dream up won’t fly, if when the opportunity presents itself and I’m not ready. Inside success is knowing that my ability to express my art has comforted me in the past and will comfort me in the future. I can’t ask for more than that from my music. Whatever else happens is nothing short of a miracle.
What do you want your fans and future fans to know about Chris Carpenter
that they don’t know now?
Great question! Well, they may know this or maybe not, but ‘I’m here for the long haul’. My art has only gotten better every year and it just makes me excited about where it’s going. So perhaps they can be excited about that!
This has been wonderful. Where is Chris Carpenter going from here?
As far as I know right now, to get a cup of coffee, and then find a great recording contract under a major label. Thank you so much for this opportunity. I hope my fans, and my soon to be fans, enjoy the music and can get excited with me in the amazing journey that creating new music can be.
A good cup of coffee always works for me, a dark Colombian roast, and as far as I can tell may even be necessary for good songwriting. Thanks Chris for a wonderful interview. Dave and I wish you the very best.
Thank you so much for letting me share my story.
| 1. Without You
2. School Boy Crush School Boy Crush
3. Up all night (live) Up All Night
5. No Truce No Truce
6. Every now and Then
8. You drive me crazy
9. I cant find the words to write a love song I Can’t Find the Words to Write a Love Song
10. Our apologies
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