All December, Radio Milwaukee is paying tribute to our favorite Milwaukee releases of 2020 and speaking with the musicians who made them. This is Milwaukee Music’s 20 of 2020, presented by Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin.
Chris Crain was in no rush to complete his 2020 album, “Glow.” He wasn’t pushing toward a deadline or under pressure from a studio. Instead, he found himself on a mission to create the album on his own — writing, performing and recording it solo. Crain had been working on the 10-track album for at least two years and says he wasn’t trying to make a radio hit or a pop anthem; he was aiming to create something deeply personal, at his own pace.
Divorcing himself from the pressures to create on a timetable, he was able to write and rewrite songs, working parts over and over, until he was satisfied. And “Glow” truly offers a satisfying listen.
Expertly navigating genres like jazz, R&B and including elements of hip-hop, he writes in the first person, including stories from his own life of strength and resilience. “Glow” also offers a glimpse into his recording process, which, due to a neurological difference, is also unique to himself.
In our conversation below, Crain discusses the method he uses to play the guitar with limited use of one hand, his foundation and the work he does to educate and inspire youth.
Nate Imig: What would you say your mission statement is as an artist? I know you do so much more than music, but you kind of realize your brand and your mission through your music, too. So let’s start there. Like what, what’s your approach to music and the power of music?
Chris Crain: So for me I was born with a birth defect called brachial plexus palsy, and it left me with very limited use of my left hand and my arm. So I can’t stretch it up straight. I can’t do this with my fingers. Music was the thing that gave me confidence. It helped my self-esteem. And it made me into a strong individual. Music was a way for me to escape, to go, “Man, I can travel all over the world just by closing my eyes and hearing the sound.” And I realized that at a very, very young age. So music became my safe haven. It sheltered me, and it just kept my mind. So I wasn’t slow, I wasn’t behind, because I could always do this when I felt I started to feel down on myself. Or I could always go and pick up the instrument or play or listen to a song that just kinda helped boost my emotion. So for me, music is a therapeutic kind of thing. I believe, of course it’s God given and should be used to build. For nothing more, nothing less. It has to be that thing that makes a difference, because it can. And I’m an example of that.
NI: How has your difference in your hand affected your musicianship? Are you able to play the piano with both hands?
CC: Oh, both hands. If you listen to my music, you never even know. I also play jazz. I have a jazz EP as well, and you listen to it and it’s like, “Man, there’s no way his hands like that.” But what is, what is did for me? It allowed me to create a style and a sound that, you can’t really mimic it.
I put in a lot of hours man, I was practicing, and even now I’m playing the guitar and the bass and tracking right before I got on a call, and working on a record for an artist out of Vegas, mixing and editing, I produced. But it enhances my playing. I played guitar upside down, Jimi Hendrix [style]. But my first guitar, that’s the way I played. I’m right handed, but because I can’t use my left my fingers on my left hand, I just flipped it upside down and played while playing. We just give me a unique sound and it makes the storyline even that much stronger. So when I talk to young people or adults, I’m able to push them to eliminate excuses. The only person, the only thing that can stand in your way is you. And so I use that as motivation and as a motivator to help other folks go through, you know, we keep pushing.
NI: And I know you do a ton of work with the community, with your foundation, which we’ll talk about a little bit later on, but let’s get into this album “Glow.” What was it like creating this album? Was this a pandemic project or was this pre-pandemic? Or a little bit of both?
CC: A little bit of both. I’ve been working on some of these songs for about two or three years now. And what I decided was with this album, I wasn’t trying to be trendy. Wasn’t trying to create something for the radio or for the people. When I wrote this album for myself. Irt was just for me, what I was hearing. And by profession, I’m a keyboard player. I played keys, piano, organ. But I picked up the acoustic about five, maybe six years ago. I love acoustic guitar. So every song was written from the acoustic guitar first.
NI: You said that this was a different approach for you on this album. Was that the difference?
CC: Yes. So I started with the bass; it was acoustic. And then I added all of the other things as a song needed. You know, I have an approach where I don’t listen to what the trends are, but I let the song tell me what it needs. So if you listen to the song closely, it’ll tell you what it needed in this measure. And then it took what you have to be open-minded. And once I learned to do to do that kind of assessment and let the song kind of guide me, man, you hear all kinds of things like from fret noise, but what the fret noise would have, like a tone to it that would lead to a really cool string line that could go right here. Or it’d be like a rhythm that’s kind of really a wrong rhythm that, well, it was an accident, but if you put a drum beat there, then it kinda makes it a cool, maybe an eighth note or something that kind of pull them together. I just kind of let it happen.
NI: I’m sure a creative or a musician listening to this definitely feels that that idea of just like trusting the work and trusting the process and trying to just kind of let the creativity flow. That’s a tough thing to do, especially as an artist, when you’re already stepping outside of your comfort zone and stepping outside of your process, but leaning into it, letting it happen and taking your time with it. And taking two years to write these songs, it really shows you how personal they must be.
CC: I’ve done projects where I rushed, and I got to get these 12 songs written. And I listened to it a couple years later, like, “Ah, I should have did this, or I should have waited.” And this time I just took my time, you know, I write, produce, I record, mix and edit all of my own music. I use different people to master, but I do my own mixing and editing. So, you know, the patience of creating a project that you can listen to over and over again, first as an artist, because sometimes artists, we create music and we move on to the next team. But since I released his album, Sept. 29 of this year, I listened to it all the time, and I love it. I stopped fooling around with trends a long time ago. And this album “Glow” is a reflection of the patience, the sincerity, the honestly, the vulnerability. I opened up a lot on this album and I’m excited about it.
NI: Can you share a song on the album that you feel really was a vulnerable moment for you?
CC: There’s a song called “Never.” Well, I’ll just say the lyrics and it’ll tell you so it starts out: “Never thought I could fly / somewhere, be on the sky. / Always wanted to find / a love I could call mine. / All mine. / So much better than the last time / I can believe in love this time.” So that line was some disappointment. And you hit a point where you’ve done all that you can do, and it just doesn’t seem like it’s enough. So you start exploring other things.
I have a space like that with music. I finished my degree, I have a marketing degree, and I just couldn’t break through the ceiling. You know I’ve played and met a lot of people and everybody says, Chris Crain, your music is great and you’re this and you’re that, but it never seemed to be moving to that next place.
CC: And I’m saying, well, “What am I not doing?” And then I got to the point to where I was like, “Ah, okay, enough of that now,” putting in job applications and you know, I’m trying to get a real job. It starts out each verse kind of tells a story of somewhat defeated Chris Crain, but by the end of the song, it shows that I had transcended the defeat, and now I’m in a place to where my time has finally come and that’s how the song is. And so that song is, it was very personal because I put my own experiences out there.
NI: And that’s the kind of stuff, as a listener, that you can pick up on, even if you don’t know you’re picking up on it. This album is so lush, and broad, and musical, and beautiful. And I can just tell how much of yourself you put into it. So congratulations on an excellent album in “Glow” this year, nominated by Radio Milwaukee listeners.
Before we go, I want to ask you a little bit about your foundation, The Better Project Awareness Foundation. What’s the foundation about and what kind of work does it do?
CC: Essentially we use music as a platform to help encourage. We work with, young kids, primarily kids ages six through 16. Of course we’ve worked with kids older and even some adults, but I started this foundation. I was getting calls to go into the school system and to teach these specialty classes, or to even do something with the kids because they’re their music teachers just wasn’t connecting. I found it to be problematic. So I started hosting these free music camps where I taught every instrument that I learned to play from bass guitar, drums, piano. I even added dance and percussion. It started out with four kids, and by the time we did our last camp, we was up to like 70 kids per day hosting camp for a week.
And it was important to me to give them the very thing that helped me get past low self-esteem and anger management, because of my disability, because I was different, I had a boiling pot of anger inside of me because of that. You know, kids are very cruel and they’re very honest. And so I was different, and I heard about it a lot. And so so my, mission was if I can catch kids at this early age and put something inside of them now in these camps, we don’t just teach music and all these piano classes and guitar, but we also have sessions, sessions with that we’ll be talking about low self-esteem and perseverance and those kinds of things.
So my goal is if we can catch them early, then by the time they’re 19, 20 years old, they have something inside of them that helps them as an adult continue to walk. And it all stems from music. And so music is the platform that we use or the vehicle to drive this car, just to get to them a music attraction. Periodically we find a kid that that’s amazing, that has a gift. And if they need instruments to practice, then we purchase instruments for them to take home so that they can grow.
NI: Wow. Congrats. And you think about, I mean, you mentioned it’s grown to 70 little humans working there. I mean, to think about these individual kids that go through this program and get this appreciation of music and get this mentor that they can look up to. And it just sounds like a really beautiful program.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.