Revising lyrics – it’s all part of being a songwriter. Throw a little philosophy into the process, and that can complicate things a little more.
While at Stanford University, Chris Ayer studied philosophy and music, so every now and then he might become lyrically trapped in “overly complicated, convoluted ways of describing something” when a song has been inspired by philosophical elements.
“But the strongest lyrics — the ones I really connect to when I go back and perform them — are the ones that say something simply and directly,” Ayer adds.
“It’s always an interesting challenge and a learning experience to go from what might be an hour-long conversation about life’s questions and get out of my own way so that something essential about that can be felt in less than five minutes. As I’ve written more, I think I’ve tried to say things more directly and work that balance a little bit better.”
He must be doing something right: In 2007, he was honored by the John Lennon Songwriting Contest with the ’06 Lennon Award in Folk for his song “Evaporate,” which can be found on Ayer’s first album, This Is the Place.
Ayer says he submitted the song hoping for the best but had no idea things would go the way they did. He walked away with some new gear, but the biggest perk from winning was the exposure his material received.
“It was pretty much overnight that shows started getting more folks out, and they seemed to listen closer,” he says. “All that I would hope for as a songwriter is to be able to play for people and share in something each night. And they really helped me move toward that a lot.”
While living in California, Ayer says he had hard time building an audience there, so he moved to New York.
“Of course, there are plenty of bands and artists that make it work and get their start there, but for me I really only started getting a crowd in California once I left and moved to New York,” he says. “Funny how it worked out, but it’s always a lot of fun to go back and play [in California] and get to see old friends.
“New York just has so many more people playing and making music, and that community and variety has been a lot of fun, and [it’s] a great pool of people to learn from,” he adds. “The downside is sometimes I feel the difficulty of such a big pond. But that challenge has made me rise to the occasion mostly, so overall, it’s been a good match.”
Another good match for Ayer has been Jason Gantt, who produced 2006’s This Is the Place as well as Ayer’s latest album, Don’t Go Back to Sleep.
“He might be more ‘hands-on’ or ‘hands-off’ with other artists,” Ayer says, “but for me, he was the perfect balance, where his goal really seemed to be to facilitate my songs and ideas to translate to the recording. He doesn’t push things one way or another when I’m trying things out, but when I’m at a crossroads with something and need those outside ears to bounce it off of, he’s quick and effective and keeping things moving.
“And more than anything, I trust him and his ears to get what I’m going for with the music. So it doesn’t ever feel belabored or like there’s any discord over the process. It’s just natural. And since he’s a songwriter, guitar player and singer, he really can take part in picking up instruments to play around with sounds, too.”
Even though he’s in New York, Ayer maintains an important San Francisco area connection with Lyric Entertainment, which has handled his bookings over the last few years.
“They’ve been able to get me better shows, with lineups of artists that make more sense for me, and more of them, so I can tour full-time for a few months, without needing to stop and play booking catch-up,” he says.
“I really believe that it all has to center on the music. And so long as I’m getting out there and playing my songs, then at the right time the other pieces will fall into place. So far it’s been a gradual thing, but it really seems like things happen at the right time.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Chris Ayer on tour (schedule subject to change):
* Nov. 10: The Bitter End – New York
* Nov. 17: The Saint – Asbury Park, N.J.
* Nov. 20: Capital Ale Music Hall – Richmond, Va.