Photo courtesy of Christopher J. Essex
I’ve done many fascinating interviews for Think Country, and every time I would come away from one of those standout chats with someone, I would want to beg anyone I encountered to please read my piece, because I was so passionate about it. It’s been some time since I’ve had one of those serious gems, until the other day when I spent more than 90 minutes talking to Christopher J. Essex on the phone. Do I think we could have talked longer? Absolutely. His story is incredible. My jaw was actually lowered in awe during much of the time he was speaking. What a guy!
I’m going to fluctuate between telling his story and allowing Essex to tell it himself. In other words, at times, I’ll condense what he told me, and in other places, because I believe I can’t possibly say it better than he did, I’ll transcribe our conversation directly. I’ve used this method before when I’ve stumbled upon subjects that simply blew me away. Sometimes, authenticity wins. I’m a firm believer in that.
You may go to your favorite digital music platform and look for Christopher J. Essex and wonder why you aren’t finding his songs. There’s a good reason. He’s very new to the country music world, but he’s not new at all to the entertainment arena. You see, Essex, in his previous life, was an actor. A really good one, it turns out, but you’ll hear about that shortly. So, take a moment to grab your beverage of choice, find a comfortable chair and settle in for some good, old-fashioned storytelling.
Once upon a time (three days ago), there was a phone interview scheduled at 3:00 PM Central Time. The interviewer watched the time carefully and the very second the clock struck that magical hour of 3:00 PM, she dialed the interviewee’s number. It rang and rang and then, it went to voice mail. She waited a few minutes and tried again. Voice mail. This time she started to leave a message, only to be interrupted by her better-informed husband that it was not 3:00 PM Central Time, but 2:00 PM Central Time. The interviewer, who had spent the last two weeks in New York, was still living on Eastern Time. Awkward. What can I say? This is me. I am an imperfect specimen in so many ways. This was my introduction to Christopher J. Essex. I apparently live in a forward universe, but clearly, as a human being, I’m highly backward. The great thing is, he took it completely in stride and laughed right along with me about the mix-up.
I had done some research on Christopher J. Essex prior to our interview and learned that he likes for his fans to call themselves “supporters” rather than fans. After some initial small talk, this was the topic I brought up first. I really liked that concept and wanted to know more about it.
Patti McClintic: I like how you have that “supporter” idea. That’s brilliant, actually.
Christopher J. Essex: Well, thank you. It’s funny with Instagram and its weird workings, you know? I want to make connections. When people come up to me and say, “I’m a big fan,” or “I’ve been a fan of yours for a while,” I’m just like, “Let’s just call each other ‘friends’ and keep ‘fan’ out of it.” I started growing a social media presence back when I was an actor and I was covering country songs. That’s kind of when I started realizing there were enough people interested in me going down this career path, that it could be an actual job opportunity for me, that I could have a happy and successful life as a country music artist. Plus, it’s interesting to watch the people that have been there since day one, and I made the point of connecting with them on day one when they were interested. I know what’s going on in their lives. They know everything about me and I get to know what’s going on in their lives. I’ve always liked that. “Supporters” rather than “fans”.
PM: They’re kind of like the “sub-basement” (Essex likens his supporters to the foundations of a building).
CJE: Yeah. Exactly! Before the house was even thought about, they were the support system that laid the ground that built that support system.
PM: That’s brilliant, but it’s genuine. It doesn’t come off as phony or anything.
CJE: Thank you, I appreciate that. I hope the only hokey, phony things that come off about me are my puns and my dad jokes, which I make so many of (laughs). If you’re gonna be my partner, one thing you’re gonna have to know is the person behind the artist is super goofy, and just loves really dorky jokes. So, you’re gonna have to hear dorky jokes every once in a while.
This was more or less a prequel to our actual formal interview. At this point I hadn’t really stuck to my prewritten questions. Now, I got to it. We began with his early life. Christopher J. Essex was born and raised in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He spent the first 18 years of his life there, raised by a single mom. With no siblings, but an ample supply of friends he considered family, he never fell victim to any sort of stereotypical, negative only-child syndrome. He attended an Episcopalian elementary and middle school, moving on to the exclusive American Heritage School in Plantation, Florida in eighth grade. Essex received a full-scholarship to American Heritage each year, from grade eight all the way until graduation. When it came time to attend college, he had his eyes firmly set on one school, thanks to a talented upper classman.
Photo courtesy of nplinkedin.com
CJE: I think going to American Heritage gave me the confidence that I was good enough to continue being an artist as a career, because that’s tough. Especially growing up, it’s one of those things you always wonder, are you good enough? They made me good enough by challenging me to work harder in high school. Then I got my Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree in Theater from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That was my dream school. At the time I went there, it was the number one university for musical theater because it’s such a great program, and they only accepted 12 students into their musical theater program every year. I remember in my sophomore year of high school, a guy who was a senior got into Carnegie Mellon. I looked up to him. He was everything I wanted to be as an artist. He still has the most beautiful voice you will ever hear in your lifetime. He can just open his mouth and sing and it’s painful how beautiful it is!
CJE: Yeah, and he’s such a nice guy from a humble family. He was on tour with the show Les Misérables, the Broadway National tour, for a little while. From the time he was on the tour, he saved up enough money that he bought his mom and younger brothers a new home. He’s just an amazing person to admire, especially as a young teen, not just an amazing artist, but a good artist, someone who has a ton of attributes you’d want to have. So, he was great to look up to, and when he got into Carnegie Mellon, I was like, “I have to get in.” That high school grinded my gears into someone who would get in, and did get in, and actually they made the slot. I was the 13th out of the 12 they were supposed to accept.
PM: Wow, 13 was a lucky number!
CJE: Yeah, they told me, “We think you’re great. We think you have a long way to go,” which they were so not wrong about. I mean, I had so much growth that had to happen, but you know, they were like, “But we think that you’re going to grow here, so we’ll have another spot, so we’ll have 13 and not 12.” I spent four years trying to prove myself, which in some ways wasn’t the best, because I constantly felt like I needed to be better because I needed to be someone that deserved to have that spot added. You can never look back and change something, but I wish at that time I had earlier in my college career come to the understanding that the spot was mine, and I didn’t need to prove I deserved it. I came to learn that around my junior year, and my growth really started to come. I’m so glad for everything that school taught me, more than just about being an actor, it helped me, I think, become confident in who I was as a man. I definitely had some tough stuff going on from when I was growing up. There were things, I was a dorky theater kid, you know? I got bullied. I wanted to be someone I wasn’t so I couldn’t be bullied. I shut down parts of me that I think are the best parts of me.
Photo courtesy of backstagechatter.com
PM: That’s unfortunate, but I think that’s a typical kid response, you know?
CJE: Yeah. I was raised by a single mom and there was stuff with my dad being in and out of the picture. As an adult he’s now back in the picture and things in my past are now in my past, but that’s reality. There were a lot of things that happened in my life that caused me to want to shut down and not want to let people in and not show emotions, but rather a closed wall. When you’re an actor, you can’t be that person. You can’t be a closed wall. On stage, you can’t convey emotion honestly if you can’t live your life like that, because you won’t have an understanding of what it’s like to feel what that person feels up on stage. So, it was like four years of therapy (laughs).
PM: It’s cheaper than therapy. It’s like you got two things for the price of one. What year did you graduate?
CJE: 2018. It will be three years in May. It taught me so much and I think it helped me be who I am as a county music artist today, which is just someone who wants to open himself up and tell real stories that connect with people. I just hope that whether it’s a sad story or a funny story, I just hope whatever story I do tell, it always has a connection with someone and they can have that moment with me. That’s been my life up to this point.
Well, now, not so fast Mr. Essex. You said you were an actor before you gave this country music thing a whirl. How am I supposed to just skip over that? Obviously, I can’t. Especially since there isn’t a whole lot of your music to be found anywhere just yet. We’ll be getting to that music situation soon, don’t you worry. It actually transitions from the acting world so seamlessly, I probably won’t even have to do any kind of introduction.
When I first got on the phone with Christopher J. Essex, we talked a little bit about music and what he liked to listen to growing up. He said there was a lot of 90’s and 2000’s country, especially in the car. He also enjoyed rockabilly and 50’s and 60’s rock. He never got into rap until high school and college and never much listened to 70’s or 80’s rock, but those other genres that he loved apparently foreshadowed something.
CJE: My mom always wanted me to be a country singer. It was a long-time coming, but I had never played guitar growing up. We just didn’t have the money for a guitar or lessons. My junior year in college, I found myself at an audition for a regional production of a show called Million Dollar Quartet. I had gotten a call back for it and they were telling me about the show and how they were interested in me playing Johnny Cash. First of all, background on the show. The show is about the Million Dollar Quartet, which is Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. The four of them were called the Million Dollar Quartet because on December 4, 1956, they were all at Sun Records in Memphis and they were hanging out that night. It was the first and only night that all four of them were in the same place at the same time, and they basically had a jam session. An A&R guy at Sun Records ended up recording the session. So, you can find the actual session where you hear all of them in a room hanging out, singing some gospel music and shootin’ the shit with each other. Nevertheless, someone found that recording, turned it into a Broadway show, and that’s where my story about the show in the regional production and them looking at me to play Johnny Cash comes in. I kind of matched the description of what they were looking for. I was 6’2″. Johnny Cash was 6’2″. I had the deep voice like Johnny Cash did, all of that. They were like, “You’re great, we want you, but do you play guitar?” Obviously, Johnny Cash played guitar and played the songs and everything. At that point, I had never played guitar, but I knew they didn’t know what I would do to learn, and they would pass me. So, I said, “I’m not the best.”
PM: Well, that wasn’t a lie. Right?
CJE: Right. There was enough truth that I could get a call back. They said, “Alright, go home, learn the chords, learn the song, any Johnny Cash song and send it to us.” So, I was like, “How much time do I have?” They were like, “If you could have it by the end of the week that would be great.” This was Sunday. I was looking at a week.
PM: So, you just crammed.
CJE: Pretty much. I spent about three hours every single day that week learning how to play “Ring of Fire” and learning it so it sounded passable so that I could be a guitarist. So, I did that, and I can look back at that tape now and think, “Wow, how did they ever think that was good enough to be passable?” I did the whole song with two-finger picking because I couldn’t hold the pick. I messed up a couple chords, but I basically sent a message saying, “Y’all don’t know me, but I see that this show could be something for me and I think I’m right for this. I promise you by the time it’s day one of rehearsals, I’ll know everything. I’ll be able to play it. I’ve got this.” They took a chance on me. There were 27 songs…
PM: No way! No way!
CJE: Yeah. 27 songs on guitar, and I had to be able to sing them and know all the lines to the show. I just spent three to four hours every single day. I would wake up and play for an hour to an hour and a half. I would try and jump on at lunch and eat my lunch while learning to play. For the next few months I got from never playing guitar to where no one ever knew I had never played before that show.
PM: If you could see my face right now, my mouth is like, totally wide open. I’m flippin’ out here.
CJE: There are moments in life where you have a chance at something and if you don’t do what it takes to make sure that opportunity comes to you, then you’re just wasting that open door. It felt like the right time. I was at that point in my musical theater career where I wasn’t really sure where I belonged, just because at that time the storytelling aspect had faded. Those things that I had fallen in love with, those parts of the art form weren’t the ones that I was being looked at for. I think part of me kind of hoped this would open up country music in my life. I always thought, “I can’t be a country music artist if I don’t play guitar. You have to play guitar.”
Video courtesy of Christopher J. Essex and YouTube
PM: Where was this regional production?
CJE: Macon, Missouri. If I ever got to do a one-off, I’d love to go back to Macon because I still have supporters there that have been following me since back then.
PM: You know what? It’s a place like that where they know Johnny Cash.
CJE: Oh, yeah they do. The summer of my junior year, which was 2017, when I finished doing the show on the Norwegian Cruise Line, it was right after doing that show, pretty much every theater that was doing that show was contacting me. I had found something I was really good at and people saw something I was really good at doing. That’s just where it started, that summer of 2017 until November of 2019, on and off for over two years I played Johnny Cash. I spent every day learning anything you can know about Johnny Cash. He’s from Kingsland, Arkansas. I know how many brothers and sisters he had. I just played a writers’ round at his Hideaway Farm with his nephew, Mark Alan Cash. He had invited me out because he’d heard about my history with his uncle, and he and I spent, oh, man, we talked for about three hours about the Cash family. We played the round and then hung out for a few hours. He had this look and said, these were his words, loosely. He said, “You’re saying things I’ve only heard people in our family say about Johnny, because not many people knew him other than his typical image to the public.” I don’t know, just emotional things about Johnny. Things I was kind of picking up after watching hours and hours of video of Johnny.
Photo courtesy of Chicago Tribune
PM: You are a wonder, Christopher J. Essex. This is impressing me a lot.
CJE: I wish I could tell you how many Johnny Cash videos I’ve watched. I think I did a good Johnny Cash. I spent as much time as I could learning about Johnny Cash, but I was also trying to learn the show and learn the music and the plot and stuff like that. I think I did a good job of that, but once I was reached out to again to do the show, which that time, was for the Marriott Theatre out in Lincolnshire, Illinois, right outside of Chicago, and the Marriott, is the theater talked about in the off-Broadway world. It’s one of the best theaters you could hope to work for when you’re traveling as an actor. When I found myself in that position, I knew I had to be the best there is, because I knew I should not play Johnny Cash until I knew everything there was to know of his person. When I go out there, there are people who knew Johnny Cash, that they saw him live on stage. We had a lot of people come to that show that had seen Johnny Cash live and I wanted to make sure when they saw me, they saw Johnny, the man from 50 years ago that they had seen when they were a young kid. That was what I wanted to make sure I provided when I did that show. So, it was a little bit of an obsession, but it was cool learning everything that he was.
Video courtesy of The Marriott Theatre and YouTube
PM: You wanted to represent him in the best possible way you could do it.
CJE: Absolutely. I also don’t think everyone always knows what’s so amazing about who he was. One of my favorite songs of his is “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”. It’s not a song many people, other than Johnny Cash fans, know about, but Ira Hayes was a Native American man who was also an American soldier. He was one of the men, you know that image of the soldiers hoisting up the American flag?
Photo courtesy of usatoday.com
CJE: He was one of those men, and Johnny Cash wanted to learn more about Ira Hayes, and Johnny Cash being a big advocate for Native American land, became invested in learning about Ira, and then wrote and recorded that song. He’s just someone that, no matter what, if he believed in something, he stood by his beliefs, and I think now, more than ever, he’s a great person to look up to. Someone who can truly and honestly stand up for what they believe in. He wasn’t a political man. His ideologies weren’t political. They were about people. He got invited to The White House by good old “Tricky Dick” (Richard Nixon) to sing there, and this was at a time when there was a push for Johnny Cash to receive potential representation from the silent majority in the south. Johnny Cash certainly wouldn’t have found himself aligning himself with the silent majority in the south. There were certain songs that were identified as the rebel stronghold songs they would want to hear so they would know he had identified as one of them. Not only did he not sing any of those songs, but when he did get to The White House, no one knew, the day of, what he was going to sing, like his band wasn’t even sure what he was going to sing. He ended up singing, for the first time, “Man in Black“. It’s a song about all of the good that comes from evil, and saying until the world isn’t this way, I’m going to be the “Man in Black”. It was amazing. You couldn’t be mad at him because he never said anything political. He basically just said, “I want people to be decent to each other and until they are decent, I’m gonna be the ‘Man in Black’ supporting the people that need to be taken care of.”
PM: Yeah, he wasn’t picking a side, he was picking people.
CJE: Yeah, and even at the end, June (Carter Cash) dies before he does. That broke him up inside. That was so much of him because she was always the perfect person. She should have been around.
PM: And he died so soon afterward.
CJE: Yeah, but not before. But, anyway, I could talk about Johnny forever.
Video courtesy of Johnny Cash, VEVO and YouTube
Our little side trip down Johnny Cash Highway (and for those that might care, there actually is a road here in Hendersonville, Tennessee designated as Johnny Cash Highway) was fun and informative, but it was time to pack our bags and head on to our next destination. Essex arrived in Nashville in December of 2019, specifically to record some music. Everything was pre-planned, but he was still nervous enough. He knew exactly one person, his producer, Kent Wells (Dolly Parton). He was, after all, at this point, known as an actor and he had a lot to learn about becoming a country music artist in a city that churns hopefuls in and out on a daily basis. It’s not very forgiving.
CJE: I had spent the better of 20-plus years knowing I was going to be an actor. I had gone to one of the best schools you could hope to for acting and musical theater. I started building credentials at the best theater companies. I started doing all these things that you should want to have at my age going into this field, but I just knew whatever I did as an artist, that the one thing I most wanted to do is to be a father. I’ve just always known I couldn’t wait to be a dad, and though I’m hoping I still have a couple more years before I am one, I’d like to make sure I’m ready when I am. I’d like to think that right now I’m setting up the groundwork and the support group, so that my child has the life that I could have only imagined. So, I knew that being an actor came with moving to different states and cities. You’re only as good as your last show or the last audition you did. You’re constantly vying for that work and strangely enough, music felt like the potential for an opportunity for settling down.
CJE: I know that seems kind of strange because with music I know you’re taking a chance on it because you certainly are, I certainly am with this, but there was at least opportunity as a country music artist out here, to settle down with that. When you start building up your support system as a musical artist, they’re supporting me. They’re not supporting a song, they’re not supporting a role that I play, they’re supporting me. When you’re an actor, you have to constantly be someone different. You have to constantly be going out and playing someone different, and sometimes people are only interested in a specific TV show, or if you’re performing in their area at a show they’re going to. I just sort of felt like I didn’t want to raise a family in New York, and with the difficulties of raising a family as an actor, I knew I had to make this change. I left everything that I’d known up to that point.
CJE: I have this thing called, “hold on tightly, let go lightly”. It’s this thing of hold on tightly to your expectations, but let go lightly of those expectations that are different from what comes to be. When it comes to being an actor, I had held on tightly to those expectations of being one for so long, but then when the idea and the actual opportunity for me to have a career in country music opened up, and now it’s something I feel I’m more on the right path with, I had to let go lightly of everything I’d known before so I could hold on tightly to my new path. Then there will come a time when something will probably put something else in my life, that I have to make a decision about letting go lightly to whatever project I’m working on, to hold on tightly to the next thing. I love living my life by that. If there’s something that gives me confidence in what I’m doing, and sometimes when I feel nervous about what I’m doing, that’s what makes it the hardest. It’s hold on tightly, let go lightly, because life’s always gonna throw something at you when you’re not ready, so let go lightly and hold on tightly to the next thing.
PM: Great life philosophy, I think.
CJE: I hope so, because that’s the one I’m living by. So, I came out here with the expectations of what was gonna happen. I was gonna record my music. I was gonna release, probably by April, my debut track. I was then gonna go play in writers’ rounds and get to meet everyone. I was gonna walk into label interviews. Someone was gonna love the song that I had. All these dreams and expectations of the best situation of what would happen when you move here. Then life 2020 threw something different and I had to let go of all these plans. That’s what gave me the confidence to come out here and hold on tightly to what was actually happening, then figure out what could I do about it to continue my journey here.
PM: I don’t know what to say. It sounds like you have your head on completely straight. Did you have any misconceptions about Nashville before you got here?
CJE: Yes and no. I don’t know if I thought of life in Nashville. I’m cautious about the decisions I make because I know that every step about what I’m currently doing could add up to the opportunity for me to raise a family, have kids and have them have the life that I could have only dreamed of growing up. My thoughts about life in Nashville had nothing to do with my life in Nashville, but my future life in Nashville, so I don’t know if I had any expectations coming out here. I had hope of what it would feel like, but it was like, “This is where you’re gonna come and be surrounded by music,” and even throughout all of this, I have been. It has felt more and more like home with every passing day. After the tornado (March of 2020), I saw how people came together and immediately did whatever they could do to help. I mean, I had people stopping by our house asking, “What’s trash? What do you want to hold on to?” I mean, half of our life was on our back lawn. They stopped by with food and water and all this stuff. Then the pandemic came and I lost my job. Second Harvest, a local food bank heard about my situation and they brought two crates of food to the rental place I was living at. Where I was working, at one of my favorite spots to listen to writers’ rounds, is The Local, here in Nashville. I love The Local. Geoff (Reid), the owner, is one of my friends. The Local was close to having to close its doors because of not being able to keep the business open and make a profit for so long. Seeing everyone coming together to make sure their doors could open back up, you know, it’s things like that that carried me through all the hardships of 2020. I see people care about each other out here.
Photo courtesy of The Local, Nashville, TN
PM: They really do.
CJE: That’s why I feel confident about this being my home. Seeing all of that really made me confident about that and it’s my hope that I can do the same. I’d like to do the same for a city that’s already shown me welcoming arms.
PM: It was an interesting time for you to arrive. I’ve seen people get very sick and the community comes together. With the tornado and anything. They just show up.
Video courtesy of Christopher J. Essex and YouTube
Now for the moment I think we both were waiting for. It was finally time to talk about the new single. It releases on Friday, October 23rd and the hype has been building on Essex’s social media sites. I’m really thrilled for him because I already know from doing a good deal of research on him that he’s extremely talented. I know he’s excited because I’ve seen his teaser videos on Instagram. He’s ready for this.
PM: Tell me about the new single. All the preliminaries are out of the way. “Swipe Right On Me” is the title. You wrote it with Bill DiLuigi. Let’s start from the beginning. Tell me about your connection with Bill.
CJE: I met Bill through an artist developer. As soon as I met Bill we were able to have a good conversation, and I think that’s what I always look for when I’m writing a song with someone, is the ability to have a good conversation, because if we can talk, we can write! I was so new to Nashville and I had made a trip here to write with him and a few other people. It was for a long weekend. On my phone, ’cause I am the dating app generation, I was getting push notifications saying, “Hey, there are all these amazing people that are interested in you. You should open the app and start swiping.” So, I’m getting all these push notifications and I’m at a stop light and I’m like, “Oh, whatever. I’ll open the app.” I really wasn’t swiping for any reason. I didn’t imagine I’d meet up with anyone that night or over that weekend. Just have a fun Nashville time before I had to leave again. So, I’m having this idea, and on my playlist on Spotify was “Good Time” by Alan Jackson, which is right up my alley. It’s everything I love about country. I was thinking it had been a while since a line dance song had come out, so I was like, “What if I did ‘Swipe Right On Over To Me’?” What if that was a hook? What if that was the line part of the dance? I’m telling them there’s a “swipe right” like that’s a movement that they’re doing? Then I’m thinking, “There’s something to this.” There’s a lot of imagery you’re able to use with dating apps, because with Tinder there’s lighting a flame, Bumble uses bee imagery, so you can use “buzzin’ like a bee”. All of these ideas are outpouring and I’m like, “I think we’ve got something here.” I go to Bill, “Okay, I’ve got a song, ‘Swipe Right On Me'”. He’s like, “Okay, never been on a dating app. You’re gonna have to walk me through this one.” (Laughs)
Photo courtesy of Christopher J. Essex
PM: Yeah. Maybe a little before our time.
CJE: That’s fair. So, while we’re having a conversation about it, I’m pickin’ along on the guitar to “Matchbox”, a Carl Perkins song. “Matchbox” definitely has that rockabilly feel, but if you change a couple chords around, you’re in a line dance song, and it’s that same kinda groove. So, we’re kinda jammin’ out and we’re like, “This definitely has a good jam,” and then we started writing it. I think one of our big goals was we didn’t wanna say the word “phone” too much. We wanted to try and get creative. So, that’s where we started goin’ with it and we just chased that down. It wasn’t a long write, but I knew at the end of that write, this is gonna be my song. This is gonna be my debut song. I even called my mom and told her this is gonna be the first song I release, and I told her the idea for it and she was like, “Well, maybe…” She was like, “So, you want your first song to be about dating apps?” She was totally onboard when she heard the song. (Laughs)
PM: She needed to hear the actual song.
CJE: Oh, yeah. Once she heard it she was one of the biggest people behind it. Just a little backstory about that song. It was my favorite song to record, favorite song to write and it’s actually one of my favorites to perform live. I love seeing the reactions of people when I sing it. It isn’t a song that meant to be taken too seriously. There’s a lot of fun words in it. We started out making it a storytelling song with a lot of imagery to it, but at the end of the day, it’s just a fun song that’s easy to listen to.
PM: The big question is, did you actually get a good, successful “swipe right” that day?
CJE: Actually, I did! I don’t know if it was that day or the next day, but I was on one of the apps and got a message from a girl and she saw I played guitar. She liked guitars, said she wished she had learned to play. Conversational stuff. She said she was going out with her friends that night and I could come out with them. So I hung out with her and some of her friends. That was the night I was looking to have. It wasn’t a hookup or a date or any of that. It was just, “Oh, you want to have a friend out here? Cool! Come out, me and my friends are here.” I just had coffee with her last week or the week before.
PM: Oh, good.
CJE: Yeah, a dating app helped me make one of my first friends here.
PM: Excellent, so they do have other purposes.
CJE: Absolutely, and I think that’s something I try and talk about in the song. What I wanted to do is get away from the app so I could go dance with her in the song, and I think that’s always my goal. I’m not living to stay on these apps, and I think people that are on the app, at the heart, aren’t either. Everyone wants to find their person and then go out and have a fun time. I think that’s the idea behind it. Get off the app and go have fun.
PM: The recording process. How did that go? Where did you do it? Who played? Were there snacks?
CJE: Well, there were snacks. I actually recorded four songs with Kent (Wells). So, obviously the first single is “Swipe Right On Me” and there are four other songs. We actually recorded at various studios because it was kind of a long recording process. I have to give Kent credit because I’m a perfectionist, and he tolerated me being a perfectionist (laughs). I mean, especially as a new artist, he didn’t try to rush me through anything. He wanted to make sure the product I had, the songs I would be releasing, were the best versions they could be. He never settled. He never let me settle. We pushed to make sure these tracks were the best they could be. So, the actual instrumentation recording process happened over one day. It was like, four hours and we recorded four songs. I mean, these musicians, they’re some of the best studio musicians you could find, and they’re all friends of Kent. You don’t become Kent Wells without making some friends.
CJE: One of the things that happened is two of the tracks ended up needing adjustments months later. Because I was so astounded by their level of musicianship, again, me being new to this whole process, I let some of my imagination for how I wanted the song to sound go, because I heard what they were doing and liked it, but when it came down to us laying down the vocals, it just didn’t feel like we were in the same groove that I had when I wrote the song. So, I went back to Kent, and that was a tough conversation because this was actually one of the things that ended up happening post-quarantine shutdown. I kind of had that time to sit with all the material, and over that time I was like, “Ugh, I think I’ve got to tell him that I need to make some adjustments to the instrumentation here.” I was so nervous because I didn’t want him to be upset with me. You know, I was like, “Is it worth it?” But I was like, “If I’m releasing music, I want it to be what I want the song to sound like.” I just didn’t think it matched the idea for what I had the song sounding like.
CJE: So, I sat down with Kent, super nervous, and I told him everything I had planned. I went, literally, bar by bar, with anything I had changes with, and it was only two of the tracks. He was like, “Yeah, okay, great. We’ll adjust all this. We’ll make sure it happens. What I’ll do is, I’ll bring you to my studio and I’ll just overdub the stuff you need me to take out and re-record,” and that’s what happened. We sat for four hours at his home studio. He brought me out and we sat in his basement and talked about everything I was hearing. He’d play a riff and he’d play an input and we’d discuss it. We’d say what we liked and what we didn’t. We didn’t always agree on things. Then we tried to figure out what we thought was best to fix it, and we came out with some of the best stuff. When it came to vocals, we didn’t let each other let me not have the best vocals that I could possibly do. If we went crazy about how I said a word, we did it again. I’m not someone who wants to use any kind of vocal tuning. I’ve spent years, my entire life, singing, and I don’t want a computer to edit my songs, because I can’t make a pitch right. I can make a pitch right. I’ll make that right, and that’s what we did. So, it ended up being one of the hardest processes of this entire thing, because for me only ever having the experience of recording live and singing live, taking songs into a booth with a mic right up to your lips, and hoping that you’re singing everything perfectly the way you would imagine you want to be, it was tough. I appreciate how he handled me with all of that though, because he never made me feel that I should rush through this, or that I was lesser-than because I wasn’t a known artist, or this wasn’t worth his time or anything. He’s just good people and I think that my tracks sound the way they do because of him.
PM: You never had to resort to any electronic vocal tuning? You were allowed to keep recording until you got the pitch correct?
CJE: Absolutely. Every note in every song is 100% my voice. There’s no tuning on this. This is all me. This is my voice. I think people can definitely hear certain tracks on the radio that they can definitely tell have been tuned. There’s a new sound that has somewhat of an electronic vibe in the vocal quality of it.
PM: There are a lot of people that can tell. There are a lot of people that can’t tell. Now, especially the people in this town, that are used to the equipment that’s out there, the musicians, they’ll be able to pick that stuff out.
CJE: That’s what I’m hoping. If people pick up on it, great. If they don’t, that’s fine too because the song for me is not the notes. The artistry for me is not settling for something else doing my job. I don’t want a computer to have to go in there and tune me and make me sound good. As an artist, I can make me sound good. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect this thing to be so hard in terms of tuning. I’ve never really had pitch issues as a singer, but I promise you, you’re hearing things no one is going to hear because you’re hearing the wobble in the voice that no one hears on the track. When you have your super-dry vocals being blasted and you’re singing into a mic that’s touching your lips, you hear everything your voice is doing. Things I never could hear my voice doing before. I ended up becoming so analytical about these things that my voice was doing. I appreciate that because now I’m rehearsing even harder, preparing for the moments when I’m in the studio again. I’m rehearsing to be even better the next time.
PM: Not a bad thing. So, what are you doing to celebrate the single’s release? This is kind of a big deal.
CJE: It’s definitely a big deal. So, next Thursday, October 22nd, I’m playing The Local. I’m playing with the Porch Light Pickers at The Local. My song technically drops here at 11:00 PM Central Time on Thursday, October 22nd. Now, the bar is gonna be closed at 11 PM, so it’s not really a release party because the song releases and everyone is gonna have to leave, but I kind of figured I want to be there because it’s one of the first rounds I played in Nashville. So, I’m playing a round there, and I’m just inviting anyone that’s in town to come hang out with me, and be with me when I bring this in. I’ll end up doing an Instagram Live, probably a Facebook Live with supporters later on the following week, and have a release party with them.
PM: This single is part of an upcoming EP?
CJE: Yes, “Swipe Right On Me” is the title track to an EP. In 2021, I will most likely release two singles, if not a third single. Those will lead up to the re-release of “Swipe Right On Me” as part of the EP, with one more track. There will be music videos to come along with those tracks. There’s a whole plan ready for 2021. So, we’ll see if 2021 let’s me follow this plan. (Laughs)
PM: I hope so. I really do. As far as shows to promote it, are you pretty much sticking to writers’ rounds where you can actually get out there? COVID is kind of hampering a lot of everything.
CJE: So for right now, writers’ rounds are the best way I can get my music out there and perform. Right now I think I would rather stay here and focus on performing at these rounds and meeting more people, get more material written and build my network and family here. As things become a little more accessible and I have more music, then I can start making shows and tours. I definitely have a plan for a “Swipe Right On Me” tour that would come with the release of the EP. That’s something I can’t really talk about right now because it’s out of my hands.
We both took a breath because we had covered a ton of ground. It was time to unwind and do a few fun questions to close things out. He was down with that.
Favorite TV show as a kid? Scooby Doo
Teen crush? Carrie Underwood
People would be surprised I know all the lyrics to? “How Low” by Ludacris
I can eat an entire ______ in one sitting all by myself.. Answer: 12″ pizza
I’m deathly afraid of _____. Answer: spiders
The girl who finally “swipes right” successfully will have this one important trait. Answer: She’ll be kind.
I am not a fan of this intersection. Answer: I-95 meets I-75, that’s a Florida thing, or even 595 meets I-95. Where those come together there’s always a traffic jam.
I was kind of star struck when I met _____. Answer: Darren Criss, a pretty famous Broadway star. I met him in New York City when I was gigging there. He walked in and I immediately knew who he was. We went out and sang karaoke that night.
Favorite non-dating phone app? Slappy Dunk, it’s like a basketball game. It’s a stupid game.
If there’s anything I want to stress about my conversation with Christopher J. Essex it’s how floored I was with his enthusiasm and ambition. When he wants something, he finds a way. He doesn’t quit easily. He moved to Nashville and didn’t have more than a minute before his world got swept away by a tornado and a global pandemic. Yet here he is. While most others would have thrown their guitar in the case and high-tailed it back home, he’s in it for the long-haul. His words to me were, “If I make it through this year, I think I can make it through anything.” His positivity is infectious.
We had some things in common. He has no siblings. I don’t either. At one point, very early in our talk, he stopped and said to me, “Don’t take this the wrong way, but, you don’t sound like an only-child.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that, and my hesitation prompted him to say that most people have a pre-conceived idea of what only-children are like. He said I sounded “welcoming” and many people wouldn’t expect that from an only-child. I told him I was going to take that as a compliment then. He said that’s the way he meant it and then I gave him the same compliment back. I’m not sure what the ultimate source is supposed to be for the fine details on only children, but maybe it should be scrapped. I’ve just discovered another one that doesn’t fit the company line.
While it will take some time before you’re able to fill your device with loads of music from Essex, don’t count him out. Follow him on social media and take advantage of his live stream events. Watch his YouTube videos. The songs are coming soon enough, but until then, keep him on the front burner any way you can. He’s really something. He’s also so personable. He loves his supporters! Show him you want to be part of his supporter family and he’ll show you he appreciates that. Connect with him. Leave him comments. Make yourself a real part of that family. When “Swipe Right On Me” drops, start dancing! It’s meant to be a line dance, but if you don’t know how to line dance, dance anyway you want. Just create joy for yourself and let a little fun in at the end of 2020. Who knows? Maybe you or someone you know will be the one who finally makes that final, successful swipe to the right that gets Christopher J. Essex to his biggest goal in life.
Photo courtesy of Christopher J. Essex
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*Featured image courtesy of IMdb