Des Moines, IA native Christopher The Conquered has a new declaration to make with his most recent release, I'm Giving Up On Rock and Roll: he's, well....giving up on rock and roll. But in the pursuit of this act, he's gone and created something beautiful: piano laden tracks, an unbelievable vocal range mixed with soulful melodies, and meaningful lyrics. We had the pleasure of speaking with Christopher a little while ago, prior to the release of his new record (which is available now!) Read the full interview below.
Where are you driving through right now?
I’m in Dallas right now. I just got back from tour in Europe, and I came down here because I played South By Southwest last night.
Oh fantastic, how did it go?
Oh it was incredible. Last year was my first time playing at South By Southwest. It was kind of a shit-show for me, and this year…let’s just say it was much better for me. It was a really nice show. I’m playing there again tomorrow, but my Dad lives up here in Dallas so I came to visit him.
Out of curiosity, what was it that made it a shit-show last year?
Well, last year my producer (who also makes music) and I had a show prepared. Basically, it was this hour-long combined show of our music. On the way down to Austin, he had a family emergency come up. This terrible thing happened, and he had to cancel and leave. So I had to do something completely on my own, which I hadn’t prepared for at all.
I mean, it was fine. Within the last year, I’ve had a lot of experience playing shows. I was just a lot more confident going into the show last night. It was a really nice audience, and it was super fun. Great music loving audience there.
With you saying that you had someone playing with you, at least as the original plan, have you been playing your shows solo thus far, or have you added a band element into it? If so, is there one method that you prefer when playing live?
I’ve had a lot of different musicians play with me. I mean, I do consider myself a singer/songwriter, so I’m very capable of just playing a show on my own. I tour a lot on my own, like I just did a month of solo shows in Germany. But then, I picked up a band for my shows in Italy, who are guys that I’ve played with already.
Generally, I’m totally fine being solo. and I may even prefer it in a lot of ways. But that’s really just because it’s been so hard to maintain a really solid band. But when we get into those phases where I have a great band, and everybody is feeling it and on the page, that’s really beautiful and amazing. In Italy, for example, there’s not a lot of people that speak English particularly well. It’s nice to have the option of having a band to communicate through groove more than lyrics.
In that sense, what was the writing process like for you in terms of the I’m Not That Famous Yet EP? Would you say that was a very collaborative process, or was it more of you writing on your own and trying to figure out how to bring your thoughts through life?
I mean, I write everything on my own at a piano. That’s how my songs are written. I envision and demo out a lot of the stuff. I’ve created really raw demos that show the style of what I want to do, and then I get the musicians that can make that happen. [The process] of fine tuning and arranging it, bringing it to life is what could be considered the collaborative aspect. What you hear on the record is really a collaboration with my producer and the musicians who bring a lot. I’ve been lucky to work with really great musicians.
I love talking to singer-songwriters about the process because it’s just usually one person. Sometimes you’ll talk with a person who has a producer or songwriting partner, but I always find it fascinating when I talk to singer-songwriters about the process because it’s literally just them. What was it that you set out to accomplish with these four songs on the EP?
I’m going to answer that question in the context of the album that’s coming out, because the album is coming out in May. A few of the songs on the EP are from that, and all of the songs are from the sessions that we worked on the album for. The EP is more of a teaser for the album, and the album is more like what I was, artistically, envisioning working on.
I wrote a lot of songs over the past two years, maybe forty songs. My producer helped me find the theme, which is the theme of what Christopher the Conquered is about. The project, thematically, is addressing the two people that live inside each of us. We struggle with fear and self-doubt, and we get worn down day-to-day trying to figure out how to be a good person and live your life. That’s where the name [Christopher The Conquered] comes from. People ask me, “why not the Conqueror?” My theory is that you have a “conqueror” and a “conquered” inside of you. My goal is to help people take down the king, free the conquered, and be themselves. That’s what my songwriting is about, and that’s what my performance is about. On the existential level, that’s really what this album is about.
When you’re writing a track then, particularly for an album like this with a theme like that, is that pretty much you trying to conquer whatever problems you may be going through?
Essentially, is songwriting your way of-
Absolutely. Yeah! I feel like what I’m explaining to you is sort of a new revelation for myself, in terms of what the purpose of my art is. I hope to accomplish that by writing as sincerely as possible and by making my words very clear, and when I perform, to perform as sincerely and presently as possible, and connect with people on that level.
What’s so interesting to me about songwriting is that you can say “I’m going to go and be as honest as I can possibly be”, but the majority of people I talk to who say they’re going to do that have the hardest time actually doing it. Was writing for the album a bit harder than writing the material on the EP, or was the difficulty level with being honest about on-par?
Typically, I don’t sit down to write songs. They come to me when I need them emotionally. In that regard, it’s always been pretty easy for me to write songs, but I don’t write that many because of that reason. When they come to me, they come, because that’s just my way of expressing myself.
But now, as I get more serious and have begun to work more professionally, there’s requirements to write songs. Charlie Parker said, “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.” If you can’t feel like there’s anything you can write sincerely about, then maybe you need to go live life a little bit (laughs).
For the way I’ve been writing a lot lately, I’ll have a poetic idea for a song, like a single line. Something that seems like, “oh that’s a beautiful idea”. Then, I put that in my idea book, with all of these other ideas. When I then go, “okay now I’m gonna try and write this song that I have this concept for”, the thing I’ve found [that has worked for me] is to dig into [these memories of]: who have I met? What’s the shit I’ve done? What are the weird things that have happened in the middle of the night? What are the mistakes that I’ve made? What are my regrets?” And then I’ll make that the lyrics.
I’ve had more opportunities in recent months to write demos for songs and publishers and stuff like that. The new thing that I’m just starting is that for the first 365 people that order the new album, I’m writing a personalized song for every one of them. (laughs) I’ve got to write 365 songs, so I’m going to have to do it on a schedule.
So the first one I did was for this guy who, a year ago, had a kid with his wife, but she was born about nine weeks premature. They thought she was not gonna make it for weeks and weeks, and she spent an incredible amount of time in the Intensive Care Unit. The doctors had said she wasn’t going to survive, and now she’s celebrating her one-year birthday while being super healthy. I wrote a song for her, their daughter. I don’t have a daughter, I’ve never had a kid, so I can’t really pretend to resonate with that from the perspective of the father or the mother. But the way I wrote that song, and the way that I wrote it sincerely, was by thinking about my own longing to feel like I really actually loved somebody in a really intense. That’s something that I don’t have in my life, which is fine, but I’ve never really felt that kind of thing. In that way, I was able to make it sincerely by me, for them.
I loved the song and the title “God Plays The Tenor Saxophone”. I’m very curious as to where that song title came from. (laughs)
Basically, there is this woman that’s this great singer, and she’ll sing with me sometimes in Des Moines, Iowa. One afternoon, she sends me a message that says, ‘hey, I’m playing at this bar around the corner from your house. You should come and sing this Neil Young song with me.’ I didn’t know the song, but I was familiar with it. I memorized the words, got up on stage that night, and did the song. It was great and people loved it.
After the show, this older guy comes up to me and says, ‘hey you’ve got a really good voice, and it was cool to see you singing up there, I love that song, but I just gotta tell you, you shouldn’t sing songs if you don’t know what they’re about. You don’t know what you’re actually singing about’. And I was like, ‘honestly, you’re right. I don’t know what that song is about.’ He kinda called me out on it.
We talked about it for awhile. He was telling me what it was about to him, because it was a song that resonated very deeply with him. It was very connected to his life story. He was like, ‘next time you come down here, listen to that song, learn about it and think about it, and then sing it again, and we’ll see how it goes. I want you to promise me you’ll come sing it again once you understand it.’ I was like, ‘I’ll try to do that.”
Strangely enough, two months later, I was down at that bar. That woman was there with her band again, and I was like, ‘we’ve gotta do this! You’re here and that guy is here!’ He’s there like every night or something. I got up and did the song, and I really felt like I did understand it. I felt like it really did make a difference. I talked to that guy again after, and he was like, ‘I never thought that was gonna happen! That was so beautiful!’ I said, ‘thank you for calling me out on it, really!’ We were talking more, and he goes on telling me that he’s a mechanic. He says, ‘I can fix anything with my hands, I’ve been able to fix things my whole life. But I would trade the ability to fix anything to be able to play an instrument.’ I asked him what he wanted to play, and he said the tenor saxophone. I was like, ‘oh that’s amazing, why?’ He looked me straight in the eyes, and said “because God plays the tenor saxophone.”
I was like, “….okay what do you mean?” (laughs) He was just like, “you listen to that instrument, and it’s just the most beautiful sound in the world. If God played an instrument, it would be the tenor saxophone.” I immediately was like “This is a song! I’ve gotta write a song!” (laughs)
It was so easy [to write]. If you listen to the lyrics, I describe the lady giving me a call and all of that. In the song, I make that guy a physical character that sort of appears out of nowhere and gives you a life lesson. In the song, he is God, and he is standing in the dark corner of a bar, looking out for who needs his advice. But in my song, God also plays the tenor saxophone, and that guy gets his wish. When he gets it out and plays, it helps people. In my fictional retelling, I was there, he pulls out the tenor saxophone, plays it, and it helps me become a better person.
That’s such a great story! I’m really glad I asked that question now! So we’ll wrap this up. Final two questions: what kind of message, if any, would you like fans to walk away with after listening to your music?
Simply put? If you’re happier at the end than when you started listening, that’s my goal. But the other answer to that is what I was talking about earlier, the idea of people being inspired to be one person.
What does music mean to you?
For me, it’s pretty much everything. I almost feel like I wouldn’t really even care that much if my hands got cut off and I couldn’t play piano anymore, because then I’d have more time to listen to other peoples’ music. (laughs) I love music, and there’s a reason it’s one of the most popular, meaningful art forms in the world. It’s been around even before musical instruments existed. We had the voice, the sound of the winds in the trees, the sound of birds, babies crying and cooing. That’s what music is rooted in. To me, it’s one of the most essential parts of being human, and hopefully people will continue to recognize the value of it.
I'm Giving Up On Rock And Roll is available now.
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