“Sip of Mine” and Wine
Once a songwriter for Concord music publishing company in Nashville but feeling “a little burned out” during his days in the Music City, Lopez mentions that his return to AmericanaFest in 2021 “made it nostalgic seeing everyone again. It’s just running into all the old friends. It’s a nice feeling.”
One of those pals coincidentally was an acquaintance I met and interviewed during my first AmericanaFest in 2014 — singer-songwriter Justin Wade Tam, who founded the folk-rock-roots group Humming House in 2011.
With his group just releasing a pre-pandemic-recorded EP called Change Comes Slow and coming out with solo single “Roof of the World” on Friday, Tam replied this week to an email seeking his thoughts about Lopez at this stage of his career.
“Christian Lopez has been an inspiring songwriter since I first met him through Rock Ridge (former label for both of us) years ago (2014 or 15?),” wrote Tam, who currently works in a fundraising position with Centennial Park Conservancy for all its programs that include Musicians Corner, an outdoors venue he booked from 2011-14. “He’s opened for Humming House multiple times over the years and is such a compelling performer. I’m amazed at how he can quiet an entire room and bring them in as a solo performer. That is not an easy task for anyone, and it appears effortless for him. I’m really excited about his new record!”
While Humming House’s raucous midnight showcase in 2014 following the awards show on opening night was in a comfortably sparse setting at the Basement, Lopez attracted about a couple of dozen folks to a much tamer venue. They included his fiancé — actress Skyler Shaye (Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, Ray Donovan, Lopez music videos) — in addition to his parents (also in town to meet their son’s managers) and a few friends and fans at a lovely, cozy lounge a floor above the City Winery’s main stage.
“I don’t know if I should say, ‘Good evening,’ or it’s almost ‘Good morning,'” Lopez joked to the crowd about 30 minutes before 25 September became 26 September. “You guys are a bunch of soldiers.”
Opening with Onward’s “Morning Rise,” perhaps a fitting title for a song played a few hours before sun-up, the commanding officer performed eight tunes in front of a small but attentive and enthusiastic bunch of troops during a set he accurately described only days earlier. “I have a feeling the wine-sipping audience likes my solo show,” exclaims Lopez, who still tours with his Nashville band whenever he and they decide the time is right. “I think [AmericanaFest] placed me in the right venue. I love telling stories. I love talking to the crowd. I’m the kind of guy who has no shame to embarrass myself in front of those people.”
There were no uneasy feelings evident this night for the cool cat with a new haircut. Relying on his sumptuous tenor vocals and acoustic guitar (with no reported broken strings), Lopez’s set included a John Prine cover (“That’s the Way That the World Goes’ Round”) and three other numbers from The Other Side besides the title track. At times, it was heartfelt, sensuous, and — in the case of “Finish What You Started” — downright snappy. With traces of Sun Sessions rock-ability, it gave off an Elvis vibe from this charmed guy who once walked around Graceland with his sweetheart and their poodle puppy (“the luckiest dog in the world,” he contends) as the lone tourists on the property just after the holiday season.
His AmericanaFest showcase concluded with “Sip of Mine”, another crowd-pleaser from The Other Side with lyrics that hint at his professional challenge.
Finding “That Kid in Me”
Lopez calls The Other Side his “most honest record yet, for sure.” Recorded at Sonic Ranch Studios in Tornillo, Texas, and Revolver Studios in Thousand Oaks, California, he played all the instruments (that early music education did pay off) other than the drums, which he says, “I leave up to the professionals.” This time, Carl Thomson handled those duties.
“I’ve been working on it slowly up until now,” divulges Lopez, who was just 21 when he recorded 2017’s Red Arrow (produced by Marshall Altman). Taking 2 1/2 years to complete this latest project and “the last four or five years” to write the songs, “There was no team in place, there was no business happening, which I think is the reason why this happened, in my opinion. This is my favorite and the best that I’ve done yet. There was no pressure around who to work with; there was no one sort of suggesting anything in my songs. I found people that I liked, and I just went in headfirst and chased the good feeling only. It definitely is more spiritual than the last two albums. It’s definitely more inward-looking, less romantic.”
He credits Stevenson, who recently worked with Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck on a John Lennon cover, as “the special key” to help make it happen, which they agreed to do two days after meeting at a party. “My last couple records have been so, ‘We’ll find a big-time producer,'” Lopez adds. “This was the opposite of that. But the beauty is that Robert is so good at what he does. He’s an English guy. I like working with people with British accents, too. It’s kind of nice. It makes you feel like you’re doing better work than you’re doing.”
Though he may be kidding about how his producer speaks, the album cover image is no joke. It shows a three-year-old Lopez swimming in their community pool, his wide smile expressing a look of pure joy and innocence. The Lopez family sent him the photo, considered among several childhood clips and shots for his wistful music video “Tanglin” (one of three album songs he co-wrote with his buddy Jordan Lawhead). Calling it “an incredible capture” taken by his sister, that picture helped the youthful-looking entertainer express the theme he contemplated while making the album.
“And finding the enthusiasm and energy to keep doing what I’m doing,” Lopez points out. “So I had to sort of reconnect to that kid in me that was the reason why I loved [doing] it in the first place. So I love the baby picture of me. I think it works great in the water. I think it goes so well with the [album] title, you know, that rebirth.”
Once he comes up for air after Friday’s release, perhaps all will go swimmingly for Lopez in his attempt to make a splash with The Other Side.
Christian Lopez plays Americana-Fast
In honor of your appearance at AmericanaFest, let’s see how many random questions you can answer in 60 seconds. Ready?
I’m ready. We need a buzzer.
1. Which Americana artist would you like to hang out with for a day?
Jason Isbell. I just love his songs so much, and I want to get in on some of that magic.
2. Favorite singer other than yourself and why?
Ooooh! Man, I’d have to say Amos Lee. His Mission Bell album was a life changer for me. And I’ve played so many of his songs over my life, and when I was young, he was the guy that was really like, “OK, I’m gonna sing his songs to learn that I’m a singer myself.” He was like the first guy that I started to cover and learn.
3. What song on your Spotify playlist would surprise your fans?
Oooh! I have a great playlist on Spotify. I would say, aw man, Stephen Bishop. I love Stephen Bishop. Got a lot of yacht rock on there. To me, he’s the king.
4. Worst social media app?
That’s a toughie. (Alarm goes off) Is that it? Aw, let me answer this one! I’d say Instagram, but I find myself deleting Twitter way more. I delete it off my phone. Just because it’s, you know, you look at what’s trending, and you go through it, and it’s just, it gets your thoughts racing, but it’s not always the best thoughts. Instagram, it’s more vital. Like we have to participate even if we don’t want to. But Twitter, I feel like you don’t have to participate as much. And it’s a little darker. (laughs)
This is the first in a post-AmericanaFest series of interviews with artists who appeared in Nashville from September 22-25. See photos here, and read the wrap-up and more AmericanaFest 2021 coverage at PopMatters.