By Yuri Iwahara
Name: Chris Zurich
Current neighborhood: Jersey City, NJ
Hometown: Valley Forge, PA
Last week, a friend of mine saw Chris Zurich performing at the Times Square subway station. In the midst of a cranky mass of people rushing to catch their mediocre dinner at Olive Garden, he graced the few square feet of floor space around him with his soulful rendition of Sam Smith’s “Not the Only One.” How would we deal with our daily soul-sucking commute without those who bring some energy to the drab underground? Many most likely don’t so much as acknowledge their presence, but subway performers still put on a smile and give their all to inject a bit of joy into the hustle and bustle.
Eager to find out a little more about this world, I looked into Chris’s music. With a clean, ringing voice and electro-folky beats, his original tracks feel dynamic yet almost nostalgic. As a self-professed “lover of so many different kinds of music,” Chris blurs the lines between genres and draws influences from several styles.
Of course, solely working in the subway stations isn’t quite enough to sustain one financially. Currently, on top of recording his own music (his album Black Ink was released in 2013), Chris has been working with producers to write for others’ projects. He also contributed vocals to Kanye’s Life of Pablo.
Friends of Friends was lucky enough to get an interview with Chris and learn a little bit about what it’s like to make it as a millennial musician.
How would you define your music style? How has it evolved over the years?
I’m a lover of so many different kinds of music that sometimes I’m a little schizophrenic with it. When I was a lot younger I used to play in a hardcore band, so there was that. Then when I lived in Philly, I played in an indie rock band. And now I’ve graduated to playing solo because it gives me the freedom to play guitar or to sing over beats depending on what I’m feeling that day or what the crowd looks like to me.
Is it true that you were raised as a Quaker? What is your relationship to your Quaker upbringing in the context of living in NYC, and has that changed since leaving your hometown?
My family isn’t Quaker, but I went to a Quaker elementary school and then taught at a Quaker school for a few years before I took on music full-time. I have only good things to say about Quakerism… Their prayer services are basically everyone sitting in a room together in silence until the mood strikes someone, at which point they stand up and speak their mind about whatever it is they’re thinking about. A six-year-old could stand up and talk about his trip to the zoo and then a 40-year-old could stand up voice his discomfort over the elections. It’s about treating everyone with the same respect, which is badass, but seemingly missing in today’s society. So I always found that cool and something I could get behind. I wouldn’t say I think about it on a daily basis right now in my New York existence, but it’s definitely embedded in who I am. I try to leave people and situations better than I found them. That’s a very Quaker way of going about life.
How long have you been busking, and what’s the NYC subway music community like (if there is one)?
I’ve been playing down there for maybe a year now. I’ve loved the subway music community and all of the experiences I’ve had doing it. It’s been really educational from a musical standpoint. You learn quickly how to get people’s attention and how to understand what people react to. You also learn to stay focused despite whatever distractions you encounter. The other musicians have been super supportive, for the most part, giving out advice and trading tips. My amp literally broke tonight and one guy is lending me his spare for a week. Shout outs to Mo the Musician.
Do you have favorite subway stations to perform at? Do any memories of specific people in the subway (while performing) jump out at you?
My favorite spots are always changing, because I like to try out new audiences and get a change of scenery. It also depends on what time of day it is or what day of the week. Like, I used to really like Astor Place on weekend nights, because you’d have drunk NYU kids and the station would be busy until 2 am. I could start so much later in the day and still play to a lot of people. But, honestly, I can’t stand that spot now, because the trains are obnoxiously loud. I also used to really like Delancey Street because it’s set up like an amphitheater, so you feel like you’re really rocking out. But then I realized that I wasn’t making much at that stop and it was making me resentful of mankind, so I moved on. Where do I go now? You’ll have to stay tuned. I don’t want to give away my secrets. Follow me on Instagram and Snapchat. I plan to start announcing where I’ll be each day.
I’ve had so many strange and amazing stories come out of playing down there. I’d say one that sticks in mind is when a homeless guy sleeping on a bench woke up and asked me for a business card, because he needed music to score a documentary people were making about his life. He had been a college and semi-pro basketball player and later a sports announcer in Europe, but had fallen on hard times. He even had his own Wikipedia page and everything. That was a pretty humbling, realizing that we’re all just a few bad turns or misfortunes from sleeping on a bench in the city at night.
How’s the NYC music scene unique compared to other places? How did you get started with it?
I moved here from Philly, specifically because the Brooklyn music scene caught my eye in the late 2000s. I just thought the diversity was what I was looking for and I’m experiencing a lot of things now that I wasn’t when I was living there.
Do you have any advice for up and coming young musicians trying to navigate their way around a music career?
Keep writing until something comes out that doesn’t sound like you. That’s the stuff that is God-given.
Who are your favorite artists and musical influences? Who are you obsessively listening to right now?
No one at this exact moment. But I had been listening to “I Need a Forest Fire” from the James Blake/Bon Iver collaboration. I’m also, eagerly awaiting the Frank Ocean record that’s supposed to be out this month. Yes, it will be out this month.
Any cool projects you’re working on right now?
Yes. I finished a new mixtape that I’m excited about. I’m starting to shop it around to management and labels and then hopefully release it a few months down the road. Aside from that, I’ve been writing songs and hooks for other people. One producer that I do this with collaborates with people like Kanye, Kendrick, J. Cole, and One Republic. I also got to lend vocals for Kanye’s last record. So that was really cool.
That’s awesome! What was it like being a part of Kanye’s work?
The Kanye experience was really cool. Apparently, he’s very last-minute with his requests and in typical fashion, we were called on the day-of to be in the studio that evening. It was one of those situations where you get there and everyone in the room has amazing vocal chops and is super talented. Next thing you know, we’re all in the studio wearing headphones and mimicking the demo vocals, and the vocal director is one of Whitney Houston’s old vocal coaches or something. It was very surreal and a lot of fun, honestly. I’m a little careful talking about it and giving details, because I know that that album is still considered a work in progress, even after its release. And there are definitely things that we worked on that still haven’t seen the light of day.
Ideally, where do you want to be with your music 10 years from now?
I like to think the point of music and art is to start conversations and get people talking about issues and culture. I’d like to be doing that on a much bigger level.
Yuri Iwahara listens to sixties jazz when she’s cooking in the kitchen. She’ll talk to you about art, plants, or that bizarre online article you just read.
Stories You Might Like…
By Nathaniel Nelson On a fundamental level, a record label’s function is to distribute its artists’ [...]
By Taylor Smith I last wore sunglasses in about 2002. They were square and thin-framed and had a Burberry [...]
By Nathaniel Nelson If you’re anything like me, you pop Brussels sprouts like candy and live with a [...]