Quinn Christopherson: Telling Stories and Carving Futures

Quinn Christopherson is a singer and songwriter born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. He writes painfully humbling and brutally honest songs with a style that takes influence from his Athabaskan family’s storytelling tradition. He won NPR’s songwriting contest in 2019 and has since been working on what will inevitably be a soul-crushing album telling the stories of his life. – by Noah Daboul

What drew you to playing music and songwriting, and what’s it like to play music in Alaska?

I think I started playing music and writing music as a means for therapy for myself to feel better. It helped…it did help. So I just kept doing it, and it’s become something that’s evolved over time. I used to write these really crushing songs because when I wasn’t a musician full-time, I had a full-time job and all the other stuff life throws at you. I had a really small sliver of time for music, and I guess I subconsciously had to use it wisely. All of my music writing was solely just to feel better, like therapy only. Now that I do music full-time and have a writing space…now that it’s my job, my writing has changed too. Not totally, but I don’t have to just use it to get my “sads” out. I can write about anything now, and that’s a big change from not doing music full-time, I guess.

Does being able to write about whatever and not having to keep songwriting as a cathartic experience make it more freeing, or is it overwhelming?

So much more freeing. It was like a job before. It was the only thing I could do with writing, so it kind of put me in a box. Now I’m not in a box anymore; I can chase my passion, and that has been totally freeing.

From the songs I’ve listened to, since you only have two on Spotify and a couple more on your Tiny Desk performance, I’ve realized that your songs and lyrics are totally just…brutally honest. What kind of pushes you into that realm?

I think the way I song-write is what I’ve learned from my family in the way that we storytell. I think that’s really where it starts and ends. I grew up around storytellers, and I see myself as a storyteller, so that’s what I try to do with my songs.

I had a question about being descended from an Athabaskan storyteller, and I was going to ask if that influences your songwriting, but you kind of just answered that.

For sure. It does, though. That’s just how we were raised.

What was it like doing the Tiny Desk Concert at NPR? How did it feel winning that contest? What made you enter in the first place?

I entered because I’m like every other poor kid. I grew up in a small town, and I want[ed] to write a different future for myself and my family. I never thought it was possible, but you kind of just put your name in a hat and try for it. When I entered, it was really more just like a fun thing to do. It’s fun to make a video; it’s fun to play music with your friend and make a day of it—just a fun thing. The first time I entered, I entered with a song about my grandmother, and they did a little radio interview for me. That was kind of the biggest thing to ever happen for me, although it’s really like small potatoes now. Thinking back, it was so special.

The next year [2019], I thought, ‘Well, I’ve got to do this again! Maybe they’ll notice me this time!’ It just felt like something I had to do. When I won, it was the craziest thing I ever could’ve imagined. It changed my life. Maybe I could’ve been a full-time musician before, but being here in Alaska kind of limits that. I never felt like I could ever do that. No one ever told me I could or should do that in a serious way. I never thought it was realistic. That was a turning point for me; I thought, ‘Oh, other people think this is maybe good enough, so maybe I should chase that.’ I did, now I’m here, and I don’t regret any of it.

I mean, I wouldn’t either! Going back to the storytelling tradition in your family, what does it mean to you to be a storyteller and a musician?

That’s all I know. I don’t know what else to write about or talk about. My grandma would tell us stories, and sometimes they would be so short. She would almost say nothing, but we got a whole world view out of like five words. I always remember her saying so much without really saying anything at all, and I just thought that was so powerful. Sometimes when I write songs, and I feel like they’re really dense, I think about what information is there that I just don’t need. How can I say more with saying less words, you know? That really influences me.

Photo Courtesy of Sean Rhorer

Who is the person you trust the most musically? Who’s your go-to bandmate or collaborator?

Definitely my go-to collaborator is my partner, Emma. She’s the most talented person I know. She’s a filmmaker and an artist; she doesn’t do music, but I think that when you’re collaborating with people who do different mediums than you, then all of your art comes out stronger.

The song “Raedeen” is one of the most brutally honest, humbling, and just…cathartic songs I’ve ever heard. Could you tell me the story behind it?

It’s a true story. The story is there within the song. That song for me is really special, too. Something I like to pay attention to when I’m writing songs, or poems, or whatever it is, is the timeline that you’re in. With that specific song, it spans over years. I think with that song, it’s all there. All the information is there. It’s honestly…a lot to put on the table for people. When I put that song on Spotify and Apple Music, nobody was listening to me. It was maybe a few people in Anchorage. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal; I was already singing that song for every drunk person at an open mic with maybe five people in the crowd. It wasn’t a whole lot to give away at the time.

Now that I’ve given that song away and other people are listening to it, not just in my little town, I sometimes think it’s a lot to share with everybody. I don’t regret it, but what I will say is that I released that song because at the time, I hadn’t heard from my sister in months and I was really scared. I had no way of reaching her. I just thought that maybe if I put that on the internet, she would stumble across it somehow and hear it. Here we are, about a year into her sobriety, and she’s really turned her life around. She said that the song helped her to want to chase a different lifestyle. In the end, that song did exactly what I wanted it to. I don’t know if I needed to share it with the world to do that, but maybe I did. Who knows, but it worked.

I’m glad it worked. You’re based in Anchorage, right?

Yes! I live in Anchorage.

Anchorage is a cool town. I remember getting the worst food poisoning possible at the Hard Rock Cafe there. Do you think you’ll end up staying in Alaska, or do you see yourself moving outside of the state eventually?

You know, if you asked me that question a year or two ago, I would’ve said I’m getting the fuck out of here, you know? But over this year or year and a half, where I’ve started this music career, gone on a US and Canada tour, done the whole musician thing-I had a European tour planned too, that got canceled because of COVID…it’s been rescheduled, though-I realized I’m not stuck here, and I can travel around. I’ve had a lot more appreciation for my home and knowing that it’s not about really where you’re at, but who you’re with. All of my family’s here, and we’ve been here for generations.

I realized this place is a lot more special once I knew that I’m not stuck. That goes for a lot of people living here. It takes so much money to get a plane ticket out of here. Just going to Seattle is so expensive…getting out of the country is crazy; it’s a really expensive thing to try to leave this place. A lot of Alaskans will actually go on little vacations to other parts of Alaska because it’s cheaper. I think that can really affect people’s mentality about not wanting to stay here…like you can’t just drive to another city. As I’ve gained more privilege to travel and have gotten more access to that, I feel like this is my home, and I’ll stay here.

Throughout the COVID pandemic, what’s it been like up there with everything going on?

We get everything a little later here. We’re pretty behind with all sorts of things, especially COVID. In some places where it’s been dying down, here it’s actually been amping up. Our cases this week are going up. They’re over the hundreds and people estimate that they’ll be in the 500s as the weeks go on. Right now is when we’ve been seeing the spikes that the lower 48 [states] saw weeks and months ago. It’s scary, but we’ve been on a lockdown level since March. But it is Alaska, a lot of us remained doing our “outdoorsy” things; kept going on walks and being outside. I have a huge backyard, I have plenty of space for myself, and I think it’s nice. We’re all getting really scared because we know that snow’s about to come. It was really cold today; my house was 58 degrees [F] when I woke up in the morning. We haven’t turned on the heat yet, but it’s getting to that point. I don’t know what will happen when we’re all stuck inside and can’t congregate outside.

Cases in the 500s are still a little low compared to the rest of the country, which seems like a silver lining.

We’re still really low, which is really good.

With all the time you’ve had being locked down, have you been writing a lot? Have you been working towards an album at all?

Yes! I’ve been writing a ton. I’m working on my album right now, actually. It’s kind of going with the flow. I couldn’t tell you, or even myself, what songs are going to go on it or what the name of the record will be. I’m working with a couple of producers and continuing to write. I signed with a label, and we’re working on it. I feel like I’ve written the record, I do. I feel like that part is done, even while I’m still continuing to write. I feel like I have a record there, and now I’m just finessing these pieces to get it put together. Hopefully, I’ll fly to go and lay final vocals. I wish I had a timeline, but I’m thinking sometime [this] month, but I’m not really sure. With COVID, it’s all pretty up in the air, but the songs are being worked on. I’ve been waiting a long time for this, so it feels like the gears are really turning. I’m going to release this record hopefully in early 2021. That’s my hope, but I don’t know what’s to come with COVID and what the rest of the year has in store, but that’s my hope—and I’m rocking and rolling with it.

I’m excited for it for sure, I’ve definitely been a big fan since I saw the Tiny Desk performance. Who have you been listening to lately?

Thank you so much! I’ve been listening to Black Grapefruit; she’s a Brooklyn songwriter and artist. She’s amazing, you’ve got to check it out. I think she’s still pretty low-key; she has one EP out from 2019, and she just put out two singles that are just amazing…I can’t wait for the rest. I don’t really know what else I’ve been listening to. I’ve really been on discovery mode. The new Jazmine Sullivan single, “Lost One,” is crazy. If I’m in a bad mood, I put that on repeat, and I’m better. It’s the perfect song. There are no drums, it’s just [the] guitar and her—and the words in it are amazing.

Featured image courtesy of Sean Rhorer

A gracious thank you to Quinn for the heartfelt discussion. Be sure to be on the lookout for his debut album in *hopefully* early 2021.


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