(photo by Jacob Little)
Buffalo-born and Boston bred, songwriter Chris Trapper has had an amzing career from his early work with the Push Stars (a band he still occasionally plays out with) to having his songs included in several films and TV shows. We had the opportunity to converse via email after his recent Buffalo show about his career and inspiration.
You’re five albums (seven if you count the Christmas album and odd n sods collection) into a solo career after several with the Push Stars – how have you grown as a songwriter?
I don't know that I necessarily have grown as a songwriter. I think I may have evolved a bit, but then, occasionally I'll hear a song I wrote when I was 19 years old and I wonder "how did I come up with that?" What evolves, if anything, maybe is the way I see the world, what concerns me, what doesn't...but as far as growing, I think that's arbitrary. At my show last night in Maryland, I played a song called 'Wild Irish Rose" (off my first album with the Push Stars) that I probably wrote twenty years ago, and next to my new material I thought it held up just fine. I think one small change in my writing is that I'm less willing to write totally abstract lyrics nowadays. I think the fact that I have a bit of an audience makes me want to communicate in a simpler, straighter and more complete way, although I will always submit to a lyric that sounds good versus a lyric that makes perfect sense. But I try harder to have both nowadays.
Who are some of your influences as a writer?
I think my biggest influences as a songwriter would be John Prine, Paul Simon, Paul Westerberg and Sam Cooke, all for different reasons. John Prine is a good barometer for how to have the most impact within a simple format. His songs are usually three or four chords maximum, and the words are all very straight forward, yet clever. With Paul Simon, I draw from his sophistication and experimentation. He was my first influence, I would cover Simon and Garfunkel songs. I can still play most of them. But he jumps styles, and uses words very playfully at times. I love his sense of melody, and also his love of 1950's music. Paul Westerberg, well, I've admired his honesty and delivery. His songs tend to document his life and times, and you get a sense you know him as a person, though you've only heard his music. With Sam Cooke, well, that's the holy grail to me. His goal was to write songs that every age group could enjoy, and he did, on a regular basis. Simple, beautiful and powerful all wrapped up into one. Grandparents and little children can both get it. I kind of think that's what every songwriter’s goal should be, although it's very hard to do. Another songwriter who has started to influence me is Colin Hay. I toured with him a lot last year, and when you hear someone's songs every night, it's hard not to borrow a bit. He, to me, is one of the only songwriter's capable of writing an anthem and then an intimate, heart wrenching ballad with equal brilliance.
Your albums are usually fairly lushly produced (the notable exceptions being your debut and the “Gone Again” collaboration with the Wolverine Jazz Band), yet oftentimes you tour as a solo act. Is this a matter of economics? What freedoms does it allow you as a performer to bring across your songs with only your guitar or piano as accompaniment?
I think with a record your only concern is the song. What is the best treatment for a song? If you're going to dress a song up, what's the best outfit? So, when I record, the only rule I try and abide by is have acoustic guitar somewhere in the mix, because that is what I'll eventually bring on the road. It becomes a bridge from the record to the road. In terms of economics, I've tried very hard to never have that dictate the way I make music. I'd like to think if I wanted to tour with a twenty piece jazz band, I'd figure out a way. Although there's something to be said about the challenge of moving people with one guitar and one voice. Making them laugh, making them cry. That challenge is my inspiration. I toured with Martin Sexton a lot and I've seen him, with one guitar, rock a crowd much harder than a five piece rock band. John Prine made me cry more than U2 ever did. As a frontman for a band, I thought I could be anywhere from fair to good. As a solo act, I've had musicians I respect a lot tell me I put on the best solo show they've ever seen. Do I suck from time to time? Absolutely! But the challenge of being good literally keeps me up at night, and that's what I love about it.
I imagine your songs are like children – it’s tough to choose one above the others. But let’s say you are asked to make a “Sophie’s Choice”; is there one that you are particular proud to have written or one that is particularly special to you?
I think 'Keg On My Coffin' might be my Sophie's choice, because it embodies a lot of what I try to do as a songwriter. There's a message underneath the melody, and the message is pretty succinct. It has almost become my signature song, which is all the stranger when you realize its subject matter is death. I can usually gauge a song's quality from how fast I get sick of playing it live. I've played 'Keg' every night for nine years, and I still feel something every time I sing it.
What are some of your musical touchstones, those things that you heard and loved and go back to? Who inspires you musically?
Gosh, that's a great question. I have a turntable in my office, and during the summer, when I'm off the road, I'll go down and play records, many of them obscure, a lot of 50's doo wop, or old blues. Charles Brown is really my most played artist when I'm in a blue mood. And it occurs to me that most of these artists are long gone from this world, and yes, music is a fleeting thing, yet, at the same time no other art form can reach into a soul so deeply, so quickly, and so completely. I literally am transported into another time, another era, and am connected to these musicians I never met. I feel their love, their dreams, and their sadness. There is nothing more beautiful.
You’ve been given one “musical wish” – to work with any musician/songwriter/producer – who would you choose and why?
Actually, One guy embodies all three of these in one...a San Diego based musician named Gregory Page. He is a rare gem in a world of people motivated by money and soul sucking success. He is motivated by music. He makes great records, produces them, arranges them, and is an elevated musical stylist too. Jason Mraz is a huge fan of his, and has him open a lot of his shows on the road. So I'd want to make a record with him as a producer, just to find out how he does what he does. He makes records the old fashioned way, as far as I can tell. Most records today, you can feel the computer grid mapping out every note, but not his records. They sound like the musicians might have actually been playing in the same room together. Imagine that.
You’ve done sporadic dates with the Push Stars over the years? What musical “itch” does playing with the guys scratch? What’s on tap next for you as an artist?
I really don't get musical itches. Playing with the guys is special to me on a whole different level. It's more like not seeing your two favorite brothers for a couple years, and then you all meet up and take a really cool road trip, and have people clap for you at the end of the day. Musically, it's very natural playing with them, because we ate, slept and breathed together for nine years. And saw the world. So the music is just the soundtrack to what is already a really good time. I'm just finishing up a new album, so I'm in the very intense mixing stage, where you obsess over details that no one else will ever notice.