We live in interesting times. The world seems to have gone topsy-turvy. People are grasping at straws, trying to make sense of their reality. Others are throwing up their hands and embracing the anarchy. The tensions of the times have pushed people out towards opposite extremes, their grievances with the opposition amplified by the revenue-driven rhetoric the media cycles through on an hourly basis. People are getting desperate. Their desire for a sense of purpose gets undermined with each passing day as the public figures they’re told to trust contradict themselves or are exposed as behaving in a manner contrary to the image they have projected.
It’s not a new state of affairs, and for someone who has been raised in a former “Bell-Weather State,” the vacillating political allegiances of the region will drive you mad. The same can be said of the cultural schisms that manifest. Because of those schisms you may find yourself trying to reconcile allegiances with certain values and tastes that align with Midwestern sensibilities derived from the agrarian roots of the plains, and the cosmopolitan ambitions that are tied to the mercantilism associated with our major cities being former trading posts where multiple cultures intermingled.
My perspective as listener and creator were informed by those dueling perspectives. It’s not uncommon to find like-minded people from all around our state, and neighboring ones, that have that same bewildering sense of alienation and affinity for the place we call home. We belong by not belonging at all, contrary to the stereotypes and prejudices people have about where we reside and its influence on our personalities. Meanwhile here we remain, like generations prior, contributing to the world at large with talents and skills of the highest caliber, at times liberated from our geographical and ancestral origins, and at others unrepentantly content with being the strange and bitter fruit harvested from one of the many fields or groves that dot our native soil.
Ross Christopher has had a very fruitful career as a performing artist and professional musician. He’s done so during some of the most trying times to pursue those ambitions. The climate for the arts in our metro area and the industry as a whole leave a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, it is also a time when the events of the recent past have demanded people with the power to do so to raise their voices and stand for justice and human rights. That’s quite a load to shoulder, but people from this region are known for their willingness to show and prove. Ross is steadfast in his efforts to do just that. For those of you unfamiliar, let me introduce you.
This interview was conducted in two separate sessions, then compiled and edited for clarity.
Willie Edward Smith: First of all how are things going?
Ross Christopher: It’s been a whirlwind year, for sure. I’ve been busy with lots of new creative projects. I’ve produced a couple band’s albums, recorded string arrangements, and wrote and recorded my upcoming album, Kamikaze.
Back in 2007-2008, I was touring a lot and producing music for other artists and bands. With St. Louis being a centrally located city, it was a great place to call home. My wife and I started a family. I continued to tour and build a nice grassroots St. Louis fan base. When I wasn’t touring solo, I was playing strings for other artists, and growing my studio (SiloTREE Studio), working with new artists. It was then that I really started to do more and more string arrangements for other artists, TV, and documentaries. Like any industry, diversification is key, so the ability to tour my solo albums, write and record strings for other artists, and produce albums for new songwriters really kept me busy.
What were your impressions of St. Louis before you arrived and what were they drawn from?
I think my initial impressions were more influenced from tourism. I didn’t know the [ins] and outs like I do now. I felt like a Kansas City boy exploring a new town, but I quickly fell in love with St. Louis.
How did those impressions change after you settled in?
I’m a big Cardinals fan, so I was always downtown with the family enjoying games. My wife and I love food culture, and what it says about its city. St. Louis has a vibrant food scene, and [it’s] one of the city’s real strengths. And I’m constantly charged by the tech and innovation that is leading St. Louis forward in many positive ways. .
What were your impressions of the arts community in St Louis?
The arts community embraced me right off. I came to town and got on some really great bills, playing nearly every venue in town with the likes of Sleeping at Last, Jars of Clay, Andrew Belle, Neulore, Colony House, Guster, The Wallflowers, Robert Randolph, The Black Crowes, Kishi Bashi, James McCartney, Kopecky, Sucre, and many, many more. KDHX played my tunes from time to time, and I genuinely enjoy listening to other local artists. But like a lot of cities, St. Louis can be tough for original artists. I saw a lot of turnover. It requires diversification and a willingness to hit the road and take risks.
Do you feel your approach to the Arts and your ambitions have been influenced by living here, and if so, how specifically?
My new album, Kamikaze, is that laser focused version of where I need to be artistically right now. I’ve seen too many other artists pull punches or simply remain silent about some real sickness that’s been bubbling up in our cities and politics for way too long. It’s time to call it out and lead the way. Art always precedes culture, so it’s our job as artists to speak to injustice, whenever it shows its ugly face. But it’s also our job to show and give language to hope – to express what a just and peaceful future looks like. I’m confident we’ll get there sooner or later. And until we do, I’ll continue to throw whatever creative energies I have at building the future I hope for.
Do you feel the political and cultural tensions in our region impacted people’s attitudes towards creative endeavors?
Absolutely! St. Louis has a tragic history of racism and it sadly hit the national stage after the murder of Michael Brown. I think this alone has been a monumental influence. I was aware of St. Louis’ sick racist past, and its current inequities, but this was the moment I started to act. I became involved in protests. I started speaking out. My art really started to shift as well. I felt like I needed to artistically reckon with my white privilege, and advocate for change.
There’s a sizable crowd that enjoys art that ventures into political commentary. But then there’s an extremely vocal side that wants their athletes, actors, and musicians, to keep their mouths shut. They boycott whomever doesn’t fit into their political echo-chamber. So I see some artists meeting tensions head-on. But I also see artists play it safe. In my opinion, life’s too short to not use your artistic voice for what you believe in, whatever side that may be. If you’re not being political or motivated by humanity, then what’s the point? I believe that art precedes culture. So it’s the artists’ role to decipher the future we want to live in.
Do you notice any distinct differences in the impact those tensions have had on those within the artistic community vs. those outside of the artistic community? If so, how has that impacted your endeavors?
When artists that I know care deeply about controversial topics but fail to address it with their art and/or platform, I think they’re acting out in privilege. As a white middle-class man, I have the luxury to disengage. That’s not the case for so many. So for me to unplug from political criticism, actually does a disservice to humanity. So I’ll continue to write and catalogue, and march, and to talk about my experiences. And I know that I will lose fans over it. I know some people will read this article and will immediately think less of me. That’s ok too. That’s the breaks of being true to your art. Because if I’m honest with myself, my art looked a lot different nine albums ago! Nine albums ago, my art was true to who I was then, but everything just seemed to be played out safer. I was either not as concerned, or unaware of a lot of the things that I take a stand for today. So I guess I’ve learned to become more vulnerable and honest. It just makes better art.
Do you ever feel artistically or professionally compromised by our political climate?
I don’t feel compromised. To be honest, I wish there weren’t as much fodder for writing these days. It’s when nothing is going on that you really have to stretch to make a song happen. When life brings you joy and/or struggle, that’s when the muses start whispering in your ear. The hyper-polarized nature of things has been maybe the saddest thing to watch unravel our country as of late. Because both sides of the political spectrum tend to exist in their own preferred echo-chambers, we’ve forgotten how to compromise, how to talk, and how to work for the common good. Nothing is black and white. There’s always nuance.
Independent of the politics of this day and age, do you feel the deterioration of the traditional music industry has benefited you as an independent artist & producer?
There’s been give and take. Dropping costs of technology allows smaller studios to compete with the unattainable ones in New York, LA, and Nashville. It has certainly allowed me to work with artists (both in person and remotely) that I would have never been able to in the past.
The internet has allowed everyone to have a voice. Which means it’s going to require better writing to rise to the top. The fact that people largely don’t purchase albums anymore, but [rather] shop song-to-song, has forced every single song to sound better and really matter. When I was growing up, it wouldn’t be uncommon for an artist or band to drop an album with 1 or 2 solid songs, surrounded by lots of filler. Because people buy single songs now, it’s forced us all to write better.
But the ease of technology also has its negatives. Digital streaming services like Spotify and Pandora have reduced art to being free. So I’m seeing far fewer people able to 100% dedicate their lives to their art. I know it may sound odd, but artists like to have families, homes, and eat occasionally. So when they can no longer rely on music sales, their focus becomes fractured. If we value art (which I think our politics are saying we don’t by defunding arts programs), then we need to figure out ways to keep the artist focused and doing what he or she does best. And it’s going to take more than Kickstarter. Kickstarter has become Kick-sustainer. Bands are now using it for every endeavor: recording, video, tour, etc.
But I have faith in us. I think we’ll emerge stronger and more creative than ever. After all that’s the way of human story. From the get-go, the arc of humanity has made us stronger, more forgiving, more technologically advanced, and creative. We may have our occasional setbacks, but those times will simply be an asterisk on the totality of history. | Willie Edward Smith
Ross Christopher will debut his new album Kamikaze with an album release show Friday, September 8th, at the Duck Room at Blueberry Hill. You can stream Christopher’s the album at https://open.spotify.com/album/3pMLHfISEFTqcujEzJvvzi?si=LfaUeNmD
Stream & purchase his previous releases and get tour dates at https://www.rosschristopher.com/