Christian Lopez, a singer-songwriter who hails from West Virginia, feels right at home playing what has been defined as Americana music. However, he grew up loving classic rock ‘n’ roll (especially AC/DC), learned mandolin from a bluegrass artist, and was inspired by David Byrne and Tom Waits.
If he doesn’t fit the mold of any specific genre, that’s just fine with him. He’s busting his tail these days to get heard and cranks up the volume for The Other Side, the third full-length album of his career but first in four years. With 12 songs he wrote or co-wrote, the mostly soaring, electric guitar-driven record produced by Robert Adam Stevenson will be released Friday (8 October).
Back in Nashville for AmericanaFest, his fourth appearance at the event featuring more than 200 artists this year from 22-25 September, Lopez was congenial, charismatic, funny, and quietly self-assured during a sit-down interview in a room adjacent to the 27th-floor rooftop lounge at the Westin Hotel. Yet after recording an album that “was sort of a rebirth for me,” he still wonders where his career is headed.
“If I were to describe the album in a nutshell, it would be [the title track],” Lopez offers near the end of the interview, believing that folksy ballad “really hones in on the heart” of the entire record. “And I’m glad that I found the spark to keep it going. Because it’s easy to want to give up, especially when you’re not making a ton of money. So I’m just glad that this album was like a recharge for me to just keep pushing. Because I don’t know what else I’d do with my life other than make noises.”
As far as where those types of noises figure into his musical pursuits, Lopez likes his wide range of options. Regarding his connection to so-called Americana, “I have a lot of pride being able to feel like part of the community in any sort of way,” he proclaims. “But at the same time, I definitely do not have any barriers in my head when it comes to making records and making my songs. These days, if it got pushed into country or if it got pushed into rock, I could give a damn. It’s one of those things where just if that’s where they put me, I dig it. But I don’t have any urge to make sure that I’m this Americana guy.”
Those sounds on the album, and during his showcase at City Winery Lounge on a late, late Saturday night that was one of AmericanaFest’s final official events, can shift seamlessly. Hear him go from forcefully rock-solid (“Sick of Me”) to beautifully serene (“Tanglin”) or aggressively head-banging (“Finish What You Started”) to earnestly anthemic (“Braver”). Just be prepared to check out Lopez as he looks back on his early start and ponders how his would-be wunderkind identity got him from there to here. Then see how he does as the first artist in an “Americana-Fast” series of lightning-round quizzes for PopMatters.
Primed for Stardom
Born on 1 August 1995 to Lesley and Jamie Lopez and raised in Martinsburg, West Virginia, Christian fit in between an older sister (Ana) and younger brother (Kennedy). By age five, he was taking piano lessons from his music-teaching mom, then later had a goal in mind: “I want to learn every string instrument,” Lopez remembers telling himself. Starting with an acoustic guitar, he eventually accomplished that, though the mandolin gave him the most trouble. Yet, he found a place for all these new string fellows.
“I had a small studio set up in my room when I was 13,” he recalls. “It was very crappy. But I had a nice keyboard and I had a bunch of instruments that my brother and sister had gotten from grandmothers and things, and I just took them all. …
“I think I had an urge to impress my parents, looking back. … I mean I loved it. But at the same time, I was like, ‘OK, what else can I learn?’ It was sort of that mentality. It just came in handy when I got older.”
He discovered — and identified with — artists like Byrne, Waits, and Johnny Cash through his dad Jamie (“a huge rock guy”) and other family members. “I just always was kind of a loner,” admits Lopez, who hopes “to get off the grid” after recently moving to “a little casita” on 20 acres in the New Mexico desert. “And it’s hard to listen to more watered-down mainstream music when you are finding ways to inspire yourself on your own.”
Then the Avett Brothers and their 2009 album I and Love and You became a “life-changing” experience that really left an indelible mark. “Listen to the great songwriters; they remind you that. ‘Oh wait, these guys were also like loners who kind of didn’t really fit in artistically, but they found their thing,” Lopez maintains. “They pushed through so guys like me could hear it. And that could push me through. So I think I was luckily led to that.”
The Avetts became his most beloved band. He later met Scott and Seth at MerleFest (“They know I’m a mega-fan,” he confesses) and auditioned for the pair’s new musical Swept Away, featuring their tunes and now scheduled for a January premiere in Berkeley, California. “I had to sing their songs to them,” discloses Lopez, who got a callback but didn’t get the part. “It was terrifying. But also the most amazing experience of my life because they’re my favorites. So much of what I love about them is the mystery.”
Putting together the pieces of his own puzzle, Lopez shares that he was known as “the harmonica guy” at Martinsburg High School after learning the instrument from “a really good bluegrass player” in West Virginia. “I’d hide out in the bathrooms [at school] and play harp because it had such good reverb. The whole school would hear it.”
En route to graduating, he earned two “golden tickets” to Hollywood for American Idol, auditioning that first time for judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler, but was eventually eliminated during Seasons 11 and 12. Lopez used those experiences to his advantage, though. Launching a music career that included recording his first EP (2014’s Pilot) at age 18, he made his full-length album debut with the Christian Lopez Band — 2015’s Dave Cobb-produced Onward. His “stunning degree of songwriting sharpness” was noted in a full-album stream premiere at PopMatters. “They’ve been very sweet over the years,” he notes.
Lopez also made a name for himself at his AmericanaFest debut in 2015 as a 20-year-old playing in front of a packed house at the High Watt. Prepared with four guitars to cruise through a 20-minute set, “I broke the strings on every single one,” Lopez recollects, needing to use another band’s instrument to close out.
His over-exuberance, though, got the attention of Rolling Stone, which named him best newcomer. “So that was like this moment for this young kid playing and like, ‘Oh my God, we had some sort of impact.’ And it really was because I destroyed all those guitars, and they watched us plow through it. You know, that’s what did it for them. So that was a great moment.”
After signing with Red Light Management (his managers are Christina Dunkley and Bryan Fisher), Lopez began preparing for more prime times. “I’m one of those kids right now who’s like scooped up by Red Light thinking that they’re gonna do something great for me,” he reflects. “So I’m like in that phase of life right now just, you know, holding on and hoping.”