By Brian Tucker
In August folk singer-songwriter Chris Frisina released his debut album Fences, produced be fellow musician Sean Thomas Gerard (Onward Soldiers). It’s a warm, stellar debut from a singer sounding wiser than his age who writes storyteller-driven material born from observations and an organic, stream-of-conscious burst of creativity.
Songs “To Feel OK” and “Winter in Potter County” were done this way – Frisian never wrote them down. Gerard recorded Frisina in a spare, formal situation and the resulting songs puts you in the room with Frisina’s large, engaging vocals. Although Frisina would sound dynamite with a band, the less-is-more decision was a smart move. What you hear is what you get – honest and earnest delivery.
For the album he was joined by local musicians Jason Andre and Stary Local’s Hanna Lomas and Jamie Rowen plus Raleigh, N.C. musician Joe MacPhail on piano.
You recorded Chris Frisina’s new album. Had you played music together already?
Sean Thomas Gerard: We played once or twice so far together. Chris came to me and said he was making a record; I want to get it done. I said, alright, let’s start next week. The first two records we made were in a home studio, that’s where I learned. I bought Logic (software) but I’ve been doing home recording stuff my whole life. I used to have a 4-track, I did stuff in my dorm room.
We did Chris’s stuff originally at Lincoln Morris’ place. He uses Logic too so we can bounce stuff between our computers. I knew Chris’ stuff was going to be really stripped down anyway, so I said let’s get a recording of your vocal and guitar live at the same time at Lincoln’s.
Chris Frisina: We did two sessions. I think the only song we recorded to a click track was “Gardeau Road” and the rest were done live.
Sean: The idea at first was – I had heard him play his songs before – lets get a band together, some brushes on a snare, some bass, and as soon as we started tracking I heard the way he was finger picking. I thought, there’s not a lot of room for anything else. The way he plays guitar it occupies so much space and we probably tracked as much stuff on that record and took a bunch of stuff off. The more we listened to it the more we realized it doesn’t need it, a little pedal steel, and a little mandolin.
Chris, your voice fills a lot of space on the record. Plus, there’s the intimacy of it too, just you and a microphone.
Frisina: I’m from Olean, New York, south of Buffalo, I’m actually from Portville, New York. Olean is where I went to school and where everyone says they’re from. I have a family farm in western Pennsylvania. It’s not a functioning farm anymore. It’s been there a 120 years. The album cover comes from a slide photo his grandfather took of his grandmother and a great-great uncle on the farm. My family used to be (Depression-era) bootleggers, had a route from Chicago. To afford the taxes on the land we have a hunting camp.
Do you use personal history for your writing? It feels like a very storyteller-driven record.
Frisina: Not a lot. I’d like to write a record that has old stories, but there’s really nothing on Fences. Definitely thought about that. Talking about the process is hard. Everything comes from feeling; I’ll just sit down with a guitar and start with a few simple chords and a picking pattern. Wherever my brain takes me that day is where I’ll take the song. If I can write a story in my head while playing…I think it all starts with a feeling and then I propel it into a song. If you can make yourself on the verge of tears or make your hair stand up then you know you have a good song. If I can’t feel it then no one else is going to feel it.
“Gardeau Road” has that addiction line. Is it something you’ve observed?
Frisina: That’s the song people always ask me about. My dad’s not addicted to meth. The song is about cooking meth (when you can’t use the land anymore). I just know people whose lives have been ruined by that. The whole area has is riddled by drug use. People make homemade contraptions to make drugs then burn their barns down and then lose their land because they go to jail. And always reading about stuff in the paper growing up and mom pointing it out in the paper. I kind of put myself in somebody else’s shoes and wrote about it. The song came out a lot more intense than I thought it was going to be.
Gerard: When we first recorded it we had a ton of peal steel al over the song. It was really busy and I took most of everything out, just him and his guitar. It changed the whole vibe of the song, made it seem personal. This whole record, I didn’t want to distract from the story of the song. If you’re too busy listening to everything that’s going on you’re going to miss the message.
Frisina: That’s one song I wish I could have recorded that one live instead with a click track. That’s the only song I sat with head phones on and sang it. I think it turned out good. Me listening to it so much there are little things in there I think if I was playing and singing at the same it might change the way I pronounce certain things. That was the first time I ever recorded with a click track.
Sean: You played fine with a click track, but I thought, why don’t you take the headphones off and just play the song? Every other song, the takes were like that, him just sitting in a room playing the song. I’ve never recorded with anyone that’s done that before – no headphones. Listening to the stuff with a click track, the live feeling, especially just being a guy with a guitar.
It sounds more like field recordings in the 1920s, a performer sitting down and telling a story.
Gerard: We recorded this record all over the place. We started at Lincoln’s place with his stuff. Then we got Jason Andre to play mandolin. I said, we’re going to come to your house, and we’ll record you in your living room. Then we went to Stray Local’s house and recorded them in their living room. I recorded my stuff in my living room.
Frisina: It was almost where we had the availability and time to do it. We drove all the way to Durham.
Gerard: We recorded Joe MacPhail in his living room. I think it turned out better because we were more comfortable in their house. Recording, I always feel most comfortable recording in my house. I felt like we’d get a better interaction and production with people being comfortable in their own homes.
Tell me about “To Feel Ok.”
Frisina: I was up for four days straight and wrote that song. I was trying to quit my job and break up with an amazing woman. My parents loved her. Something wasn’t right. I just felt like something was missing. I thought something was wrong with me. I’d wake up at night with my heart pounding, could hear it pounding through the pillows. One night I lost control of my muscles, my anxiety was so bad. I didn’t know what to do. Medication kept me up for four days. I stopped taking it, broke up, and quit my job. I remember sitting on the edge of her couch, she wasn’t home from work yet, and I was sitting there playing guitar. The song just came out; I didn’t write that song down.
“Virginia” was written by Jesse Jewell, from No Dollar Shoes.
Chris: I think Jesse writes some of the best songs I ever heard. He has so many songs. We’ll sit around and have beers and play music at their house all the time. He’ll pull out a song off a crinkled piece of paper.
How long have you been playing?
Frisina: Probably since eleven. My uncle Ralph played folk music. He always played around the campfire. I was infatuated with it. I’d sit around and watch and my family realized they needed to get me a guitar. He’d play old Woodie Guthrie songs and Bob Dylan. If it wasn’t for him I wouldn’t be playing. He still plays. I took lessons but couldn’t read music so I ended up teaching myself.
In Rochester I played in a folk band, five of us. It was probably the worst sounding band ever. I was really into The Felice Brothers and wanted to sound like them at that stage. We played out at the bars in Rochester and I think we probably sounded terrible. Someone came up to me once and said you guys sound like Modest Mouse and The Felice Brothers and I said, YES!! I think back then I just drank way too much and don’t remember any of it.
Performing, are you a different person?
Frisina: When I was young I couldn’t play in front of anyone. There’s no way. I’d get this drop feeling in my stomach, like plummeting off a cliff, which I still get sometimes. I can’t explain it. I had it when I was a kid, this feeling like when you’re on a roller-coaster. It comes out of nowhere, freezes you up. I just got over it. I try to lose myself in the song now, and not think about being nervous.
I think that just came with playing music out four nights a week at a crowded bar. It got to the point where you realize you’re up there doing something that most people aren’t doing so that should empower you a little bit more. And I don’t care what anyone thinks. What would you rather be doing, you want to work 9 to 5, sit in front of a computer screen? I remind myself of that every day, try to remain grateful.
Was there material left off Fences?
Frisina: Three or four songs I dint like, songs I don’t show anybody. After this I went and wrote five songs I really liked. I’d like to put out one better than this, I love it, it’s my first. Like any artist the next one has to be better. I loved the way it turned out.
We recorded “Back Patio” and a few songs and I’ve been sitting on them for awhile. I had this opportunity to work at a ski resort in Lake Tahoe for four months. I just left, halfway done with the album, and went to Alpine Meadows to work at a snowboard repair show. I love to snowboard and got to for four months for free. I had been listening to the demos over and over again and didn’t like the way I sounded, didn’t like them. I didn’t listen to them for three months when I was in Tahoe. Sean sent me tracks, like “Back Patio,” in my cabin and I was like I love this. It took three months of not hearing it all, and then I liked it.
Your voice is in the forefront, is that tough thing to reconcile?
Frisina: There are so many songs. On “Virginia” I wish I put the capo on three and finger pick it and sang in a lower tone because I can’t stand the tone of my voice when it gets high on that sang.
Gerard: That’s kind of where I came in, I’d say, it’s great.
Frisina: He’d say its fine, just keep going, because I’d always ask if I should re-record.
You’re in your mid-20s. Singing, you sound…wiser. Do you feel older?
Chris: No, man, I feel dumb as hell. All the time. I would like to read more. I take everything in, it’s overwhelming. I feel like it’s a songwriting thing, it just hits you. Sometimes I’ll wake up at five a.m. and feel a song coming on and I’ll sit there and write. You can’t force it but sometimes it just hits you all at once, it just spills out of you.