Christian Lopez Talks Aiming High with Sophomore Record Red Arrow

Singer-songwriter Christian Lopez is passing through Virginia this week for two shows: one at Staunton’s Acoustic Tap House this Thursday, and one at Vienna’s Jammin Java on Friday.

The West Virginia native released his second album, Red Arrow, earlier this year, produced by Marshall Altman and featuring an all-star cast of collaborators. Lopez is a talented writer, and here he continues to grow as a performer and vocalist. You can hear him flexing his falsetto on “Swim the River,” the wry and rootsy opening track, which also features the formidable fiddle stylings of Stuart Duncan. Other tracks like “Someday” and “All The Time” are tinged with the melancholy of life on the road, given greater depth by piano and synth player Mike Rojas.

It’s a radio-ready record through and through–sometimes in the realm of country pop, and often roaming elsewhere, to great effect.

Ahead of this week’s shows, Lopez talked to The All Scene Eye about life as a young songwriter in the Nashville scene and his love of the Avett Brothers.

It’s been a couple months now since the album came out in September. How has it been touring with these songs?

It was kind of surreal originally. You work on a record for a year, and you put your heart and soul into it, and then one day it’s out and available. That’s how it goes every time, but I love the freshness of a new record. I love having new songs develop their live entity on the road with me and the band, and that’s happening right now. We’re in an interesting place, but a very fun and raw sort of place. It’s awesome.

You were originally billed as the Christian Lopez Band, and now just as Christian Lopez. How has the live band element changed over time?

That switch in particular was because of the lineup. I grew up with friends, and people who I had spent years with, in my band. When they decided to move on amicably, to go to college and settle down, it dawned on me that I’m the one putting the gas in the tank and driving the steering wheel. It was one of those moments when I knew that was the right thing.

But I think it’s the best it’s ever been now–the lineup particularly, and also the musicians and the overall sound. We’re in a good place. We have a clear path, and we have a clear goal.

This album was more co-written than your previous work. What is that dynamic like?

I had been in Nashville for the first time a couple years ago, and since then I’ve spent my time there making friends, and working with a publishing company whose goal is to introduce me to other writers and to develop those relationships. So naturally, I made friends. I hung out with them, and we had guitars around, and we’d end up writing songs. After I’d written, like, 50 songs, that was when I went to the studio, and my producer [Marshall Altman] and I picked what would be best, rather than writing for the record. It was a much more friendly, organic way those songs came about.

I feel like cowriting helped me step outside my comfort zone, explore new styles and genres, and do things I wouldn’t normally do. And that’s a great thing. At first, I was uncomfortable with it, but I learned to love it just because I loved what it did to my songs, and I continue to today. Of course, I still write certain songs on my own. When inspiration strikes, you’ve gotta go after it.

The first track on this album is “Swim the River.” Can you tell me about the inspiration of that, and the image of the “red arrow” that became the album title?

The whole song is about not being afraid to acknowledge that you’re not perfect, but you can do everything in your power to live a life with no regrets. That means throwing yourself into every situation with all you’ve got to give, and that’s what the arrow symbolizes. It’s me, who I am, what I have in my heart, my passion. Throwing myself, or shooting myself, appropriately, into every situation I’m presented with. If I do that, I’ll come out the other side happy. That’s all that matters. I wrote that song with a buddy of mine named Jordan Lawhead, just talking one day about money. I told him I wasn’t good at saving, and that ended up being our first line. Money kind of rules the world nowadays, and I sure ain’t got a lot of it, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is your goals, your art, and being happy.

In another interview, you made a point of saying that the people you were collaborating with weren’t part of the Nashville Music Row songwriter scene. Was that a deliberate move on your part?

Well, you know, I paid my dues on the Music Row scene. I sat down with a lot of those guys. I’ve written songs on the record with guys who have written number one hits in mainstream country. But naturally, the guys I vibed with the most were the guys who lived outside of town, like Jordan Lawhead, who lives in a farm town outside of Nashville. And then, of course, whoever is available, and whoever you can become friends with. That means sitting down more than once. It’s not that I was necessarily trying to get away from it, or avoiding it. It’s just that the guys I vibed with the most happened to be those guys.

I ask because you see a lot of folks like Sturgill Simpson being pointedly anti-establishment that way.

Yeah, and I love that. I thought Sturgill’s move the other day at the CMAs was ballsy as all hell.

“Caramel” was a track you wrote more individually. How did that come to be such a stripped down acoustic number?

I wrote that song about losing sleep over falling in love with someone, but not wanting to reveal that secret, so you have to come up with an alibi, which is the chorus of the song. I wrote it as a very stripped down, western-style song, and that’s where it ended up. But when we got Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids to play on it, he has a beautiful, almost jazzy flavor to the way he plays the song that was best rooted in two guitars and two voices.

As a songwriter, what kinds of stories inspire you the most?

It’s constantly changing, and I’m constantly searching for new things to talk about. For me, I have to keep it honest, I have to keep it real, because that’s what’s truest for me. If that’s the case for me, it’ll reach and resonate with people more deeply.

It’s the sacrifice of being on the road at a young age, and having to deal with family, the people you love, the struggle with relationships on the road, and things like that. Then, of course, the angry things of being a kid, like the song “Say Goodbye.” Also trying to have a good time, on the other side of things. That’s what’s what’s on my mind. I’m a young man, and that’s what I’ve been writing about, just those things that are real to me. That’s what I’ll always write about, and if it ends up being something different down the line, then that’s what I write about.

“All The Time,” for example, is a song about people in general, not anyone specifically around me, but my family, my relationships. Having to deal with being gone, and am I doing the right thing? It’s a constant question, and people question me. It all stems from that place. We live a life not many people live, of living a dream, which is a lot less glamorous than it sounds. You sacrifice everything you have, and put all your eggs in that one basket. That’s all I can write about, because that’s all that’s happening in my life.

You hear that on other songs, like “Someday,” where the lyrics are reckoning with that lifestyle. Also, arrangement-wise, there’s this cool spacey background melody.

We have a great organ/keys/synth player on the record, Mike Rojas. We gave him free rein, just because we like getting a little weird in the studio. This time around, we had the time and resources to do that, so we did. We sat around and experimented and tried to make weird sounds. We definitely loaded this thing up with that kind of stuff.

What was it like working with producer Marshall Altman? How did that compare to making your debut record with Dave Cobb?

It’s a big difference–Dave works very fast. It’s a lot of first takes, first reactions, we’re in the studio for four days, and that’s it. But that’s how he captures the magic, and that’s where the juice is. For Marshall, I chose him specifically because we take our time. We took a year, and seven months of that was just pre-production, sitting in a room, going over all 50 songs, finding out what was best for the record as a sequence. Eventually, we made the record, and we worked real hard. Up until the final touch on the last master was done, it was a thorough process. I like being able to dig in and experiment, and take my time on it, so it was wonderful.

With this record, what did you feel was most successful, and what would you want to do differently on the next one?

I felt like I was a leader in the studio, which I haven’t felt yet, partly because I was younger on the last record, and I was new to recording in general. This time, I felt like I got the sounds that I wanted, and that’s the most successful thing. I had a happy experience, and I was happy with my record. That’s a success for me. That’s huge.

Going forward, as a songwriter I want my songs to get better, I want the recordings to get better, and I want the album as a whole to be better; I don’t know if I can pin it down to one thing. Every artist, no matter what you do, you just want your next step to be better. That’s always what I’m aiming for.

I’m a piano player originally, and I’d love to do more with that. I’d love to do more with the electric guitar. Our live show is a big rockin’ show with the electric, and I’d like to demonstrate that more on the records. We have songs already planned, so that’s definitely going to happen. I just want it to be more of what I can do, which is piano, electric guitar, and of course always the bluegrass-y elements. And then whatever else happens. The horns on “Mexico” were a last minute decision because we thought it needed it. That stuff can just pop out of the woodwork when you don’t even expect it. Having time in Nashville, and amazing musicians, you never know what can happen. 

You’ve said in the past you were heavily influenced by the Avett Brothers, and that comes through on this record as well. Do you have any favorite Avett Brothers songs?

I would never ever be able to name my favorites. [laughs] The Avett Brothers were the band for me that I can imagine Led Zeppelin was for kids who were playing guitar in the 70s. It was the band that demonstrated you can play meaningful songs that stem from folk and country, but you can rock your ass off and give energy like it’s a punk show in the 90s. They’re the reason I picked up an acoustic guitar and started caring about my songs, and also caring about my live show. They take it to a new place.

When people ask me my influences, am I supposed to say the old greats? Because they are the old greats. I could go and list them. But at the end of the day, I’ve listened to everything the Avett Brothers have ever done. Because they’re current–they’ve been around the last 15 years, and they’re still in their prime–I always get nervous to say this band is my main inspiration. But no, because I think to myself, what about the kids playing music in the 60s and 70s who loved current bands, and bands that we still love in my generation?

Are there other contemporary artists that you feel that same way about?

These days it’s keeping up with my friends. I love Parker Millsap, Jason Isbell, Jamey Johnson, Sturgill Simpson, The Stray Birds. I keep up with what’s going on. I like to hear what’s coming out of the world that I’m placed in, which is the Americana world, but I love the greats as well.

If you could tour anywhere, where would you want to go?

My dream would be Red Rocks, Colorado. That would be incredible. But playing west coast states is wonderful, and I’d love to do that. We’ve done most of our touring in the Midwest and the east coast. We’re always trying to get new places, and I’d love to go to Europe. I haven’t done that yet, but it’s definitely on the docket, and It’s a conversation that I’m currently having.

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