NPR Tiny Desk Winner Quinn Christopherson On Creativity, Inspiration, and Finding Your Voice

Quinn Christopherson is a singer-songwriter from Anchorage, Alaska, and the winner of NPR’s fifth annual Tiny Desk Contest. Quinn’s winning video submission for his song “Erase Me” has earned over 180,000 views on YouTube.

Quinn recently took some time out of his busy touring schedule to chat with us about his musical influences, his approach to songwriting, and how he found success through intimate live performances.

How did you come up with the concept for your Tiny Desk submission video where you perform in front of a painting of Denali National Park at the museum? 

It was kind of a surprise because we had originally decided to film it somewhere downtown. One of my buddies is a visual curator at the Anchorage Museum, and when I told him about the idea, he suggested we do it at the museum. We were so excited we said yes immediately and decided to load all of the furniture we had brought for the shoot downtown into the museum.

We got clearance to film in front of Sydney Laurence’s painting of Denali, which stems from a word in the Athabaskan language, the Koyukon language, and it means “the big one,” or “the tall one.” I felt that, as an indigenous person, I could reclaim that painting for my people—that's why I wanted to film in front of it.

How has living in Alaska influenced your music?

As a musician in Alaska, and in Anchorage specifically, sometimes it feels like you’re playing for the same people over and over again. So it's really pushed me to keep writing and making new music at a high speed because I don't want the people I'm playing for to get bored. It's driven me to continuously edit myself and to keep evolving.

The lyrics to “Erase Me” are really powerful. What was your inspiration behind this song?

I wrote “Erase Me” the night after Alyse Galvin lost the general election. She was running to be Alaska's first congresswoman and she was the best candidate, hands-down. In my opinion, I think she just lost because she was a woman.

Her loss and that whole election really made me think about myself and the things that have been easier for me since I've transitioned from living my life as a woman for 25 years to now, a man. Things that have just been easier for me, more responsibilities have been handed to me for no reason, so it really made me think about myself after Alyse lost.

You submitted a video for last year’s Tiny Desk Contest. Do you think, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again” is still good advice for musicians in 2019?

Oh, yeah. That goes for anything, contests or not. I started out playing ukulele and singing Jason Mraz covers. Tons of people told me to stop. Looking back, I would have told myself to stop—it was terrible. But I didn't, and here I am, making good music, finally. You don't always have to be good from the start. I have terrible songs that I wrote years ago. You can come a long way—it just takes time.

Tell me about your creative process. How do you approach writing a song?

I wish there was a more profound way of saying how I write songs, but I’m usually just driving around in the car, singing to myself. I always start with a lyric, like a one-liner that hits home for me. Then I take that as a prompt and play something on the guitar. There's usually and idea or a person behind what I'm writing and it goes from there. But it always starts with a lyric. I have to sing about something.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

What I've found to be helpful is something I do with my band mate, Nick. If I'm having trouble writing or if he's having trouble writing, we'll swap prompts. I'll give him something to write about and he'll give me something to write about. It's kind of like homework.

Last time he had writer's block and I told him to write a song about something he never said to somebody, that he wishes he did. It's vague enough that you can take it in any direction you want, but it's also a nice topic. He took that prompt and wrote an incredible song.

Then when, I had writer’s block, he challenged me to write a love song. Which is funny, because I don't write love songs—I find them to be cliché. Not other people's love songs, just my own. I find it really hard to write about love in a way that doesn't sound kitschy. He was trying to throw me off, but I ended up writing one of my favorite love songs. So we give each other homework when we don't know what to write about.

Who are some of your biggest musical inspirations?

They’re always changing. I'm always chasing new music. It's crazy, but I'm super-inspired by any and all femme-fronted bands. Right now, my biggest inspiration is Julia Jacklin.

You know how certain albums get you through a time or a period in your life? This whole time I've been preparing to go do the Tiny Desk show in D.C. and dealing with the flights, the anxiety of playing, and the stress of being in front of a thousand people on YouTube, I've been listening to Julia Jacklin's album Crushing that she just released. It’s definitely inspired me the whole way through that trip.

Oh yeah, and Quarterflash. I talk about Quarterflash like it's the most popular band ever. Every single time I mention them, people are like “who...?” So, if you don't know Quarterflash, check them out. “Harden My Heart” is a banger. I love that song so much.

What advice do you have for aspiring musicians? What tools or resources should artists take advantage of to help get their music heard?

I think that differs depending where you live. For someone like me who's been land-locked in Anchorage forever, I had to use different tools. But it seems like every community is so different with the way they share music. Personally, I think that playing live, being a good performer, and being able to tell your stories in front of a group of people that want to hear them is the best way, for sure.

What’s one thing you wish you knew about the music business five years ago?

Five years ago... Okay, so I was 21. I wish I knew that I didn't have to drink alcohol to fit into the music business. It took me a while to figure that out, and it would've been nice to know that five years ago. Right now I'm three years sober, and it's been one of the best things I've ever done for myself. It would have been nice to come to that realization a little sooner.

You currently only have two songs available on Spotify: “Erase Me” and “Raedeen.” When can we expect to hear some new music from you?

I have a lot of demos but I never felt like it was the right time to release them. I saw a lot of musicians in Anchorage putting out so many songs and videos—just like content, content, content. I didn't want to do that because here in Anchorage, you're basically performing for no one. So I just felt like if you wanted to hear me, you'd better come see it live.

I was just waiting for the right opportunity to release music and I feel like now is definitely the right time. I’ll see how this tour goes and maybe release some stuff, but I really want to make an art piece of an album—that's the next project I want to work on.

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