“I think a lot of people stop at their influences,” he says. “I think you need to go into the woods where it’s darkest and blaze your own path. Then you can look to these people and the way they did it for themselves.”
Christos embodies the axiom that art finds its actors, not the other way around. He began playing at an early age, and with preternatural guitar talents began opening shows for classic rock bands like Grand Funk and the Doobie Brothers before reaching his teens. Eventually he found his own voice, in the form of brooding, mysterious lyrics about love, death and betrayal, sung with gravelly insistence.
The 29-year-old songwriter made two albums, both well-received by critics and fans. But to Christos, neither managed to find the place he wanted to reach. With Overawake (2006), he says his elation at being in the studio led to an over-textured work: “I went so far with all of these post-production ideas [but] I couldn’t do that live. I would have to hire like 20 people.”
He tried paring things back for Widow’s Gun (2009), but soon found himself bedeviled by perfectionism, doing endless takes of the same songs: “I don’t know why I make it such a personal issue. I see so many people go into to studio and just sing their songs, but I’m not like them. It’s a sickness — I think about it all the time.”
So early this year he began sequestering himself in a borrowed farmhouse to focus on finding that elusive music. In mid-2010 he’d already renounced performing at places that forced him to play covers, compete with dinner chatter and weather requests for “D*** in a Box” and “Happy Birthday.” This time, he cut back his live schedule even more and borrowed money to tide him through.
It’s still a struggle.
“I set up my equipment and just sit and try to work completely without distraction, and it keeps bringing me further away,” he says. “I feel dishonest — that’s part of why I had to pull back performing, it feels fake. If you’re playing songs written for a certain demographic or to get people dancing, that works for some people but not for me. It’s a different mindset entirely.”
At times, the muse seems to be staring back up an abyss.
“I keep reclusing further and further,” Christos says. “It’s kind of a leap of faith, because I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen or if anything good is going to come of it, but I have been writing a lot.”
Much of his focus is on mood and feel. “I treat it like the way I would paint. I will maybe find one sound on my guitar and I’ll record it in all these different spaces until I find a sound that’s different and new,” he says. “There’s so much music out there and so many ways to criticize yourself into not even creating anything, so you need to constantly shut off all the voices and influences to really be honest and creative.”
The farmhouse is owned by the manager of Clark’s Tavern in Milford, one of a handful of places Christos still performs at (he was there June 2). “I play there a lot because I can play whatever I want,” he says. “I’ve developed a following and have a rapport — there are no expectations.”
This freedom occasionally provides an impetus for the kind of inspiration Christos seeks in his moments of artistic solitude.
“Sometimes, I will just start playing chords. I’ll follow those, and they’ll just click. I feel the energy change in the room and I start singing, from lyrics in my notebook or adding to them,” he says. “It’s not linear, I don’t have verse/chorus, because I’m making it up on the spot — but I have a recorder going.”
He’s not the only person who senses something happening. “The whole room is silent,’ says Christos. “Then they’re asking, ‘What was that?’ and I say I don’t know, I was just making it up. But I was taping it, so I have it.”
When he returns to the farmhouse, or his home studio at his family home in Hudson, Christos brings these feelings of inspiration with him.
“I’m trying to go back and recreate those moments because they are real,” he says. “Something passes through the room when you’re writing and all of a sudden you get it, you hear it and you tune in … I just really want to wait for those kind of moments to happen and then put it out honestly.”