Introducing: Chris Merritt – Reality & Other Fairy Tales + Interview

Chris Merritt is a multi-instrumentalist & singer-songwriter from Virginia. Reality & Other Fairy Tales, a storied work that is equal parts metaphysical and material, is his tenth studio album to date. The album features contributions from longtime collaborators Jake Thro and Brett Ripley along with Casey Davenport. In the wake of this album cycle, Merritt plans to release a songwriting course and return to recording in a band setting.

Reality & Other Fairy Tales is such a rewarding listen whether you are familiar with Chris Merritt’s earlier work or just discovering him now. Merritt weaves elements of jazz, classical, pop, and probably a billion other styles into a sound that is unabatedly & unmistakably his own. You can read our interview below:

Jackson: What about the medium of music enables you to express yourself not only creatively and cathartically, but critically as well?

Chris: It’s hard to talk about these concepts, but for me to write a song orbiting these concepts makes a lot more sense to me. I feel like it’s more valuable to other people too because they can listen to a catchy song and get this idea in a nice flowery format of a cool pop-rock song. I just want people thinking about this stuff, that’s my mission, to get people pondering this stuff like I’ve been.

Beethoven said that “music is the bridge between sensual experience and spiritual experience.” I think it’s cool to play with that bridge. I also love the combination of spoken language and phonetics. What’s so great about putting that over a melody is that you can create this amazing melody, you can talk about something mundane, and elevate it to this incredible piece of music or a different emotion. It’s a way of using language but completely skewing the perspective on it.

J: On Reality & Other Fairy Tales, you refer to “Decepticons,” B-list actors, Charlemagne, and other cultural and historical figures. What exactly were your reference points & inspirations for making this album conceptually and how did they shape the songs?

C: This was one of the most challenging records I’ve ever written lyrically because I was starting from such a different conceptual place – I didn’t want to use a lot of those cultural references, and I tried to force myself to make positive lyrics. It’s difficult to write a song and not start writing something that’s more dark. I often embraced that, but for this one I was trying to avoid dark lyrics and the cheesy love song thing.

I was consciously trying to leave all those references behind, but it turns out that it’s very hard to write songs that say certain things without hitting these cultural references! It was actually a lot easier to be funny when I used to believe the culture was really important. It just feels like we get stuck at these reference points, so I tried to avoid that in the new album as much as possible.

J: Sucker punch originally appears on Demos of Nod (2014). What made you revisit it now?

C: There’s this bizarre thing that happens when you’re working on a new song and the soul is transferred immediately to what you’re doing and there’s an immediacy and a rawness to what you’re doing and you’re like: “i want to capture the magic here” and you start recording and these certain things start to go away. I experienced that quite a lot!

There’s an Elvis Costello tune called “no action” – there’s a demo version that’s amazing, and then the album version is somewhat “lamified”. I was almost giving my empathy with that because that happens to me all the time!

WIth “Sucker Punch,” we all recorded it as a band and agreed we couldn’t get it to do what that demo version is doing, so we just put that in the vault. It was always in the back of my head and I pulled up those tracks and thought “I’m going to try really hard to nail that vibe of that original demo” and it turned into something different, but I like it. If it’s going to be different, I want to actually like it. It turned into just a raucous, more rock & roll live track.

J: Do you consciously reinvent yourself with each release? How do these variations in your style come about?

C: Albums always kind of do their own thing, they all kind of take on their own momentum at some point. At first they just seem random. I’ll end up with five new tunes and a few more maybe bubble up from the vault of demos I have or people mention them and then all of the sudden I realize “hey, there’s an album here!”

For reality and other fairy tales, I got my baby grand, so I was writing a lot on that and all these songs were bubbling up! I was going through these old sessions from really great bands I was super lucky to be a part of with jake ripley and jake thro. I found all these great tracks that were demanding to be finished and everything started flowing.

With the strings, Casey, my girlfriend, was playing more violin and she wanted to get back into it. She’s a great artist in her own right. There was this sudden realization of “why don’t I put strings on everything?” I love the sound of strings, almost more than any instrument. It really elevates everything so then I got really carried away, so that just became a whole journey of creating these string parts. Some of the best stuff I think I just recorded and let her play. There’s a tune called “Fairy Tales & other realities” that was all just improv by her and that became this weird bizarre jazz-prog fiasco mess.

J: How do you situate Reality in your catalog as a whole? How do you define this current chapter of your musical career?

C: It was a lot more relaxed to make this album. I didn’t feel like I had to please anybody. There have been records where I felt a lot of pressure to be a perfectionist, to make it a success. There were a lot of time constraints. Those have their benefits – when I hear Pixie and the Bear, I hear the fact that we had just been on tour for three months and we just got back and went right in the studio and tracked the foundation for that record in four days. There’s also some raw spirit in my earlier stuff that I really appreciate now.

For this one, the production was important to me because I did most of it myself. I like to start with all these ideas, insane chaos in my mind, and filter it down, and force myself to make it something that’s very listenable. I had a lot of fun writing it, and then producing it, mixing it, is really just a form of torture. I think I’m proudest of the production on this record.

Because the content was so kind of out there – it’s hard enough to grasp as it is – I wanted it to be an embarrassment of riches. I want the music to be something that anybody can appreciate and to do that, you have to take the time to learn some of the technicalities. I wanted something I could send to my aunt or a respected musician and they’ll both be like “This is cool!”

J: Places have always been an important theme in your music. You’ve always referred to very specific places and times. On Reality, however, it’s a bit more abstract. You sing about leading a better life “here,” returning home, and being a spiritual nomad – where is Home?

C: Places and travel were a huge part of my music for sure. I was looking for music culture. I thought culture was an interactive, personal thing. I learned a lot about what it was. I had a dream and so, when you have a dream, your ego just wants to see what it needs to see. I had lots of experiences that showed me that music culture is a very strange thing. It’s kind of darker and weirder than I had hoped.

I had this dreamlike appreciation of California – I was born there – I had a dreamlike appreciation of New York, and I went there to find music. My philosophy has changed a little bit with my records where I was really believing in the authorities of this world. We moved to Mexico a few years back. We lived there for a few years, I was just rejecting the group, collective soul that didn’t make sense to me. It just didn’t even seem like something I could interact with. It just felt like I was watching a show, and I actually tried to participate more than most people!

So this album, & I would say last rites, which is the album before that, and there’s maybe even hints of it in lulu and time is real, I see a little bit of this thread opening up as I wrote – I was searching for something. With Reality & Other Fairy Tales, I found it: something is very wrong with this place, and I have more questions than answers so I’m not saying I know what’s going on, but I do know that something is very unnatural! Home is trying to find answers that seem familiar to me. I’m looking for my town – even if it’s in another dimension somewhere.

Written by Jackson Tarricone

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