Don’t gild the lily. Realize when the universe has given you something special. I wrote and recorded the original demo to my song “Let’s Stay Outside” in thirty minutes. If you listen to it, and then to the final version, you’ll see that it has changed very little. It just worked. Everything fit. This rarely happens, but when it does, you must embrace it. It’s a reminder that you don’t always have to toil.
As part of my series featuring the rising stars in the music industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Kelley, who leads a music project under the name Lost American. Chris just returned from Spain, where he lives in Barcelona, to the city where he was born, Nashville, Tennessee. The name Lost American suits him well because he has been living out of the US for almost twenty years, trying to understand his homeland from abroad. His wanderlust begin in earnest after the 9/11 attack on New York City: he was flying to Novosibirsk, Russia when the twin towers were felled. He soon decided he wanted to immerse himself in a life outside the United States to try to understand the often divergent opinions of his home country. Falling in love with a Bulgarian rascal sealed the deal. When he was three years old his parents noticed him playing along to a Temptations record on a toy piano. They enrolled him a Blair Academy of Music in Nashville, whereupon he suffered through a variety of classical composers. His older siblings introduced him to rock music; once he was old enough to wrap his hands around a guitar, he began playing in bands. He started playing Nashville’s legendary punk dive Cantrell’s when he was fifteen. Local college station WRVU started playing his band Chapel of Roses and they started to see some local buzz, releasing a 12" single. Television’s road manager started managing them and they played all over the South, playing 40-Watt club in Athens, 608 in Atlanta, and hitting the New Music Seminar in NYC. (Kelley laughs: “I met RuPaul during his punk rock days, he’d driven up w/ his band from Atlanta.”) As the story goes, they eventually broke up. (More info about the band is in Rev. Keith Gordon’s book The Other Side of Nashville.) His band Saint Christopher had a productive period in the nineties in Los Angeles, creating demos, playing clubs, and even had a song featured in a foreign art film (“Not porn!” Kelley maintains.). Kelley kept writing and recording in his ersatz lodgings during his years living in Bulgaria and South Africa in the noughties. By the mid-teens, he and his husband were able to settle in Spain whereupon he started Lost American, playing venues in Barcelona. At this point, he was able to reflect on his experiences, recorded a bunch of songs, and released the first Lost American record in 2016. The video clip “Put Me in a Spell” gained worldwide attention in gay media — no doubt for the song’s infectious chorus — or is it the handsome devils? Chris E. Kelley recently turned his attention back on his home country with the release of the video “Fearless Leader” — featuring a space-bound Trump animation by Spanish artist Adolf Rodriguez, and is now focusing on live performances in the US and a new, more personal single.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
In my hometown Nashville, Tennessee, music is everywhere, not only in the physical sense — like how everyone seems to have a guitar in the living room, or was in a band in high school, or had a cousin who worked at Dollywood. Music is also in our souls. Music carries us forward when we toil, and eases our burden when we cry. Most of us are from immigrant families, and carry some of our traditions — and spirits — from other places. I come from Irish, Scottish, and French ancestry. My father held deep spiritual beliefs and had a passion for social justice. He travelled widely and spoke several languages (including Greek) to unravel the mysteries of the Bible as well as Italian cinema. He toiled as an electrical engineer but probably could have followed a path more to his liking had he not been burdened with responsibilities to which he thought he was obligated. We had our issues when I was younger — my coming out was pretty rough on him — but over time we grew to love each other. But he died too soon.
My father passed away at our home after a short illness, and my mother, sister, and I were sitting beside him soon after his passing, marking the moment, mourning this man who had recently been whole but was now no more. Something really strange happened. It was very early in the morning, before sunrise. The weather was nice, windows open, not much noise outside. I noticed this sound that at first I thought was the wind, but with a voice, and then I realized it sounded more like someone crying, wailing even. The three of us looked at each other and listened to these sounds, this keening. It felt like a song, a lamentation, so very sad — it was more feeling than song, more elemental, stuff of a deeper soul. An enchantment: we were being taken somewhere else, we were being told a story, something very sad, something that hits every generation. It lasted for quite a while — maybe fifteen minutes — then faded. As morning came, birds started singing, leaves rustled from squirrels looking for food, nature brought us back to that bedroom, it broke the spell, and we turned to the aftermath of our father’s passing.
There is this culture of Irish ghost stories. Our family has our own share, but we try to not get too attracted to their pull, because they can take you to a dark place away from creating new experiences. My mother told me and my sister that what we experienced with my father, and what she experienced with my Grandmother and great-Grandparents’ passings, was what the Irish call a banshee. It’s a ghost that laments the passing of a relative.
The strange experience during my father’s passing marked a new path in my life, although I did not realize it at the time. Within months of his passing I started working for an NGO, working on health projects in the developing world. I also started writing music again, first as a form of therapy to work through my grief. My work took me to many countries, and I had to learn some new languages in order to survive in them. I often felt my father’s presence as a travelled, not in a scary/ghostly sort of way; more of an encouragement to keep pushing forward. But what have I been pushing towards? Lately I’ve been trying to remember the sounds of the banshee. Those sounds are not things of words, they are more guttural, or of the soul. I’d like to learn how to express those sentiments, not to cause sadness, but to celebrate our connection to the past and provide a path towards a better future.
Can you share the most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your music career?
I was DJ-ing a fashion show in a former mosque in Sofia Bulgaria. It was the first time I’d played my own music to an audience in years; I realized how music can connect people even if I cannot speak their language. There is an undercurrent, a lower frequency that rides under the surface of the song that can touch people’s souls.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
I am starting a new version of my live band here in Nashville. It’s the first time I’ve had a band in the US since the 90’s. It’s been a long time; I’ve been away too long and I have much to share. I’m so fortunate to be doing this in Nashville; there are tons of musicians from all over the map. Tonight I’m meeting with a cellist to see if we can organize a small string section as part of the live band. But I don’t want it to become chamber pop — I’m looking for something darker, the gothic part of Southern Gothic ;-)
Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?
When I lived in Los Angeles I was a bit of a hippy, going to full-moon ceremonies in Ojai and trying to get rid of my teenage angst. My boyfriend got me into astrology and he had a dear friend named Lawson Bracewell who was a great thinker, social worker, and astrologer. I asked him to do my charts but there was a problem: my family had no idea what time I was born, which is an important data point for accurate charts. (My mother almost died when I was born, it was all very chaotic, and that information was not entered on my birth certificate.) So one afternoon Lawson sat me down and said, “Christopher, the universe knows when you were born. We just need to ask.” So he got a crystal out of bag that was attached to a string and drew a circle, marking it as a clock face. We did some meditation and visualizations and soon the crystal settled on a time. And thus at that moment I was born!
Let’s back up. To pay my rent, I’m a programmer. I code all day. I use languages that are pretty strict and let you know when you’ve fallen over the guardrails. Hearing someone say that an astrologer used a crystal to decide his birthdate would normally make me brandish my winky smirk emoticon and set my hashtag to be stun. But life is complicated, and strange shit happens. How do we handle the stuff that doesn’t fit inside our guardrails? Do we need to so strict, to embrace the obvious? I’m okay with a little nuance.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
Winston Churchill: Even though he was an aristocrat with a worldview formed during the Victorian age, he felt empathy with working people and — at times — tried to make reforms to make their lives better. He was willing to fight against the whole political establishment for ideas he thought were correct; he had a very lonely fight against appeasement of Germany during the slow cadence to World War Two. Eventually people realized his choice was right, and he lead his country to victory. During his political career he made some disastrous decisions — Galipoli — but these bad choices helped inform his conduct as he matured as a leader. He was terribly human.
Oh, I also love Ralph Wiggum from the Simpsons.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Ufff I’d sound like such a douchebag if I answered that question. I guess I try not to screw things up too much. Do-gooders are responsible for so much damage. Gotta be careful.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Yikes, I’m just a yodeler and Internet plumber. But I do care for my peoples and have been reflecting on how we move forward.
I wrote the following list on my flight from Spain Sunday. It’s a list I want to develop in discussions about the five goals that progressives must keep hammering the opposition (friends, family, Republicans) about, without letting ourselves get sidetracked by other stupid bullshit.
Hammer the five goals:
1. Affordable healthcare for all
2. A sane immigration plan that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented people and quick path for dreamers
3. Campaign reform:
- no gerrymandering
- election day on a holiday (President’s day?)
- elections paid from govt fund and no corporate funding/PACs
- end to vote suppression.
4. Higher taxes for the very rich. Sorry. The toil of our people created the opportunities that helped you get rich. Time to return the favor, fat cat.
5. Aggressive Investment in education system.
Make the five goals the focus of every discussion. Steer the topic away from Trump and toward these 5 points. Must continuously ask opponents what is their solution to these problems, and force them to provide concrete answers.
Pose basic questions: why can’t we have better healthcare? If they say it will cost too much, then why can European countries do it? More importantly, why do we already pay twice what other countries pay for healthcare?
Anyway, that’s where I’d start. Now that I’m back, I’m asking friends and family about these 5 points, and want to craft a better pitch. Not sure where this leads tbh, but it’s time.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Gotta get outside and enjoy life! Don’t be afraid to screw up from time to time.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Make a goal and let it develop. The goal you’re working on doesn’t have to become the goal you originally had: it is fine for it to evolve. But forge your own path. When I left the US for Bulgaria, I had no idea I would be living overseas for the next twenty years. I thought I’d be away for maybe six months. But once I was in Sofia, I was open to life showing me new opportunities, and I decided to say “Yes” more than “No.”
- If you’re making music, put your soul into it. Make your own sound. Give people a reason to listen to your music. I’ve never been a part of the Americana or folk community — my music is more influenced by modern styles — but I respect the connection to heritage. I want people to be able to get a hint of where I came from. It may be given off by a change in my accent, or taking a little longer to pronounce a word, making it last three syllables when one would have been fine.
- Don’t be afraid of taking a pause. Chances are, that TPS report really doesn’t need to be done by Thursday. Your routine may be getting in the way of something much more dear. About seven years ago, I had to come back to the US while my Spanish residency papers were getting sorted out. I had six months to kill, so I decided to focus on a bunch of demos I’d been working on. Those demos slowly became my first record. It was the first time I’d taken a pause from my normal routine, and it was the space I needed to reflect on my life and develop some ideas into something real.
- Don’t gild the lily. Realize when the universe has given you something special. I wrote and recorded the original demo to my song “Let’s Stay Outside” in thirty minutes. If you listen to it, and then to the final version, you’ll see that it has changed very little. It just worked. Everything fit. This rarely happens, but when it does, you must embrace it. It’s a reminder that you don’t always have to toil.
- Be kind. From all of my travels, what has made the greatest impression on me has not been the height of the cathedrals or the beauty of the fabric. It’s the goodness of the people.
We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she just might see this, especially if we tag them :-)
Having lunch with Jeff Bezos would be a great opportunity to learn how he views his role in the world. The company he has created affects our lives almost every day. Are these innovations in shopping, logistics, and cloud storage taking our country in a positive direction? Companies like Amazon and Walmart have been blamed for the death of small-town America. I think small-town America was already dying before the advent of Internet 1.0 in the late-nineties. But do we like what has emerged in its place? The small tribes we once belonged to have been replaced by big ideas posing as identities — Red state Republican, Blue state Progressive. These big ideas and their meme networks are becoming a wedge that are keeping Americans apart. We are losing our sense of community because we no longer need to get out of our homes now that almost everything can be delivered to it in a couple hours. I would like to discuss with Bezos how we can use these new tools to heal these rifts and build a brighter future.
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