We’re featuring New York singer-songwriter (and McLean, VA native) Chris Ayer. For Chris Ayer, learning the guitar at 18 would eventually change his world, leading him into the path of becoming the musician he is today. He awaits the release of his upcoming record “The Noise”, composed of tracks he has worked on for almost two years now. We spoke to Chris about his roots, inspirations, his upcoming record, and more! Get to know Chris Ayer below.
When did you realize that music was the path you wanted to take?
Music was always a big part of my life growing up, and I definitely remember fantasizing about the possibility that I could perform and write songs that people would ever listen to. When I started playing guitar at 18, I became pretty fixated on writing songs, and I would go to open mics throughout college whenever I could, eventually leading into playing shows around campus, and the bay area in California. By the time I graduated, it was completely the center of my focus, and I knew I wanted to keep at it, and see if I could make a go at it. By then I knew I’d be writing and playing for the rest of my life, whether it payed the bills or not! So in that sense, the more I did it, the more I knew I wanted to keep doing it.
What musicians inspired you to become the singer-songwriter you are today?
Paul Simon, Bob Dylan, James Taylor, Leonard Cohen and a whole bunch of bluegrass have been big influences ever since I can remember my parents playing music around the house. Those folk, songwriter, and bluegrass traditions are definitely the musical dna that I aspire to, and that kind of subconsciously sneak into my writing and choices, in that way that you can’t really control. On a more contemporary level, Amos Lee, Josh Ritter, Ray LaMontagne, The Weepies, and Ollabelle have definitely been among recent acts that have been very inspiring to me as writers and performers. And beyond that, the community of musicians I have met both in New York and on the road have been major inspirations to me, either through collaboration, or just seeing them play their tunes. Friends like Matt Simons, Adam Barnes, Sierra Noble, John Schmitt, and Nathan & Becky in Barnaby Bright have all taught me a lot, and there are so many others.
Brooklyn, NY and McLean, VA are considered your hometowns – does location at times influence songs you write or compose?
Definitely! It’s hard to track exactly what effect each place has, as the influence of the song is usually equally sourced in some old experience that is coming to the surface.. but where I am definitely has a lot to do with that. And in terms of style, I think maybe being in New York sometimes brings about songs that have either a more alternative or rock vibe, or more complex musical elements.. and being in Virginia brings a lot of the folk stuff out, which just feels really natural as a style to write in… I have no idea why that is! Hmmm…
You have an upcoming record coming out called “The Noise.” Could you talk about it a little and what fans can expect from the album?
Yes! This is a record I can’t wait to release. It’s been a project i’ve been working on for almost two years… I decided to produce it myself, with my friend Will Hensley who also mixed and engineered it. He was assistant mix engineer on some of my favorite sounding records of the last 10 years, including 2 Coldplay records, 2 Regina Spektor records, and John Mayer’s Continuum, and I trusted him so much in his approach to mix, and how that influenced both of our arrangement choices… and we were able to get Bob Ludwig to master the album, who is just the godfather of all mastering, it was crazy exciting.. all that freed me up to spend a good amount of the album’s budget on building a home studio, where I basically could just experiment with instruments and arrangement choices for months and months, seeing how to build these tunes, that had mostly been born on acoustic guitar. We could also take the rig to peoples houses, so for instance we were able to record my friend Todd Caldwell, who plays with Crosby Stills & Nash, in his apartment in the west village, where his beautiful grand piano and hammond organ are taking up most of his living room – it set the tone where we could really take our time, and then trust ourselves to take our hands off of the song or part when it felt finished.. I love the last 2 albums, that I made pretty quickly with some wonderful folks in Nashville, but it felt great to do it differently this time, and try to get more specific about the influences and sounds I wanted to bring into my music. that’s a long answer, but basically, I feel like I got a more folk, rooted, sometimes theatrical vibe, with a whole bunch of elements that bring little odd moments of personality to the tunes.. I also got to record vocals in my apartment, which made for an honest feel that I’m really happy we were able to reach
What can you tell us about the creative process – from songwriting and recording – for “The Noise”?
I think the last answer covers the recording part, and then some! But for the songwriting, most of these songs were written after I got off tour for my last album “Don’t Go Back To Sleep” in 2010. It was weird process, where I worked and worked , and drove a few 100 thousands miles, and kind of wondered where I had ended up by the end of it all. During the two years of making, releasing, and touring behind that album, I had a full team of people come together to work with me, and then all disappear over the course of about 5 months. Some were my fault, and some where a natural progression, but the net effect was pretty surreal and hard to swallow. I definitely learned a lot in that time! Add a difficult end to a relationship, and a whoooole bunch of songs come out pretty quickly! A good friend of mine somewhat jokingly said to me during that time, that he’d love to hear what happened if I didn’t hide behind words, and tried to tell the truth in as scary a way as possible. That actually was a huge influence for me on the writing of this record – it feels like the direction the songs took – I hope that shows to people when they hear it!
You post weekly youtube videos of songs you perform live in one-take – what inspired the idea to do these as often as you do?
I had the idea to do something like this for a while, where instead of hyper-producing the tracks in protools, we went with an essentially uneditable style where we have a stereo microphone, that captures whatever happens in the situation.. so you get all the background sounds, and the way that one time I played it sounded.. It took a while to find a filmmaker who was into the idea, and could really nail the camera style I was hoping for, and just make it their own.. But Sacha Cesana has done that in a really beautiful way, and i’m so thankful he’s into the project longterm, and keeps coming up with video styles and shooting and editing choices each week, mostly on the spot! The reason I went with weekly, was to try and make a whole bunch of content that i felt strongly about creatively.. as much as we all like to complain about how it’s hard to get seen or heard, and how much distracting silliness is involved with self-promotion, especially on the internet, I really felt like just making stuff and trying my best to share it,felt like the best way to spend my time, in the in-between phase between finishing the album, and being able to release it. I will switch to every two weeks in january or february probably, and focus more on each video, bringing in a band, and different friends singing, maybe do a music video or two for new songs, over the course of early 2013.. I don’t know!
You play at our new venue Foundation Gallery & Liveroom, this Saturday in Kensington. What do you look forward to most coming to area to play a sort of hometown show?
Yeah, I’m excited about this one! I love any show when people come out to be a part of it actively, and get involved in the songs and the show, but it’s especially exciting and surreal to come home and play to folks who have known my music in some cases for over 10 years, mixed in with people I went to High School with, or lived next door growing up… it’s kind of a ‘this is your life’ type moment, and I’m excited to play at Foundation for the first time, and get to share this type of acoustic night with new and old friends in such a cool space.
Who are you guilty pleasure musicians at the moment?
In the poppier realm I have been listening to a LOT of Fun. and any dance-pop song that Sia sings the hook on. But I think she’s amazing, and so are Fun… so it’s not really guilty I guess!
Thanks for talking to us at Pick-Up! Any last words for the readers?
If you got this far through all my talking, you deserve a prize! Unlimited high fives at Foundation Saturday, we can even make up a high five dance. It’ll be a thing.