“When you do what you love, things start to align.”
“It's been insane, like, I'm so green it's not even funny. I've literally just been learning day-by-day, step-by-step. It's wild to me. Luckily, everybody along the way has been really kind,” Quinn Christopherson, this year’s Tiny Desk Contest winner, says. Having a big break, especially when NPR is involved, tends to have this type of impact on people’s lives — I can personally vouch.
A little over a year ago, following a thorough interview process, I answered a call from Washington, D.C., with sweaty palms and an excessively beating heart. I was offered an editorial internship with NPR Music, and all too enthusiastically accepted. And while my life hasn’t been drastically altered, the inspiration, experience, mentorship and confidence that I received during my tenure is immeasurable.
Quinn Christopherson’s story bears some resemblance. The Alaskan musician submitted a video to 2019’s Tiny Desk Contest, and, some months later, received a phone call that would ultimately open countless doors for him. “I used to be someone I hated / I used to cry a lot,” Christopherson plainly sings in the opening verse of “Erase Me,” the song that got him to this point. The vulnerability and power that Christopherson quietly possesses throughout his songwriting is precisely what makes his work so compelling. Everything is carefully calculated, yet presented with complete abandon. Even the backdrop for Christopherson’s contest submission carries an important meaning, as he comes from Athabaskan and Iñupiat heritage.
“I chose to perform in front of that painting, because it's a painting that a white person did of Denali,” Christopherson says, regarding his choice to play in front of a Mt. Denali painting, at the Anchorage Museum. “Denali stems from the Athabaskan language, meaning "the big one," or "the tall one." And so, I mean, I was just kind of taking that back, for a second. Sometimes you gotta take things back.”
Reclaiming entities — identity, control and sound — lie at the core of Christopherson’s writing. Over the phone, Christopherson discussed the challenges he’s faced as a transitioning musician, the power of being your truest self and life post-NPR.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Your songwriting is so intimate, and your performances seem so open and carefree, but does opening these snapshots into your life ever feel scary?
Uh, yeah. I think, before I was singing for nobody, so it wasn’t scary. And then, all of a sudden, now I have an audience, and so now I'm being vulnerable with a lot more people than I was before. So, I mean, even that's a learning experience for me that I didn't expect at this point. And so it's weird, but I don't know any other way to write. I just have to tell the truth, and tell my experience, or tell about people I love and stuff, so that's just how I write. So I guess I just better get used to it.
I mean, it's definitely important and extremely compelling. I'm sure you've gotten this a lot through the process, but it's really, really powerful, so definitely don't stop.
No, I won't. I won't stop.
What do you hope people take away from your music?
I guess... I don't know, it's really hard to say, you know, what I hope people take away from it. Like, for me, the whole reason I write these songs and perform them is because it's like therapy for me. It makes me feel better. That's kind of selfish, right, but I guess maybe like it would be therapeutic, and relatable, for other people, too, or small groups of people that don't often get in front of a microphone, I guess. I would hope that.
I mean that's an entirely valid thing. I feel like it's pretty common for artists to feel that way. And also, I personally get a lot more out of hearing artists, and seeing artists, that are doing it for themselves, and pouring themselves into it. Because, a lot of times, music consumption is, at its root, a selfish thing. Everyone's in it for what they're getting out of it, for themselves, but a lot of that comes from projection of audience members onto artists.
Exactly. I was just talking about that with my friend the other day. Like, I was born and raised in Anchorage, so I've been making music in the Anchorage community for, you know, forever, right? And you get to a point where, if people in that community aren't really accepting your music, or accepting you as an artist, you'd want to change yourself, and turn yourself into somebody that they would accept, right? So that's even what I did. I was like, oh, Anchorage really isn't like feeling me, you know, maybe I should get more folky, play an acoustic guitar, whatever it is — be someone I'm not. I did go down that path, for a second, and it was really not me. And then, once I dropped all that, it was like, all of a sudden, it was okay again. So, yeah, it gets kind of weird.
For sure. I was reading an interview that you had with Lulu Garcia-Navaro, from 2018, and you had mentioned, kind of along those lines, that you weren't comfortable with the way that you sounded on your own songs, before transitioning.
Yeah, I hated it. And I just thought that was normal.
I'm sure. I mean, that's a huge thing to reckon with, and to face head-on, in regards to both your identity and your musical identity. Are you starting to feel more comfortable, now that you're coming out on the other side of all that?
Oh, 100%. It was like a whole page turner. Yeah, every time I sang songs, or wrote songs... Before that, I just hated... I was pretty self-deprecating. I was like, this doesn't sound good, you know, whatever else. And then, after my voice changed, I actually started liking what I was doing, and it was this big eye opener. Like, oh my god, things are okay. It was pretty weird.
Yeah. I mean, I can only imagine how surreal a lot of that can be.
Yeah, and it's funny, because, before I decided to take hormone therapy, a lot of people would tell me, “Oh, you don't want to do that because your voice is going to change,” and, “You're not going to be able to sing,” and, “You're not going to be able to do what you love to do,” you know. I kind of hated that, because, to me, it was like, well, I'd rather not sing ever again, than hate myself. So it was a really fucked up thing people would say to me, in my opinion. And then I had to reconcile that, and say well this is just what I'm going to do. I did it, and, all of a sudden, all the songs I had wrote beforehand were really just meant for me now. And so it's kind of like middle finger to everybody who said that to me.
That's definitely a very personal decision. In terms of what's next for you, are you going to continue pursuing music?
Yeah, my dream is to be on the road, and play my songs and keep writing songs, but I also work with Alaskan Native youth. I counsel them, and hang out with them; they come and hang with me after school, and we just have a safe space for them. They know they can always come and hangout with us, and do fun things. We just take them to do anything that could possibly enrich them. My youth, they like what I'm doing, you know. Teenagers, they're your biggest critic. So, if they're into it, you're doing something right.
It's so funny, because, from when I was like 18 until 24, I just did construction. And I would just tell myself, you know, you just go to work everyday, and you come back, and then you have fun, and that's it. Not everybody has to enjoy what they do, right? It was pretty hard on my body, so I got out of that, and I started working with youth a couple years ago. It was like, woah, like I can actually enjoy what I do. It was this huge page turner for me. I didn't see that for myself. I didn't think that was realistic, to enjoy what you did. So I do really enjoy what I do now. Honestly, I'd like to do both. I don't know. I'm taking things one thing at a time. When you do what you love, things start to align. Feeling weird.