Chris LaVancher has many stories to tell. Coming from a musical theatre background, he learned many key lessons in how to develop plot and emotion within a song and it’s served him well since he has moved into the world of the singer-songwriter acoustic music world. When you stop and think about it, it makes perfect sense. Many of our nation’s best songwriters are storytellers who use music to tell their tales. Embracing the stories and telling them within a song’s framework is an incredible gift.
Chris LaVancher is one of 24 Emerging Artists chosen for this year’s Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. The Emerging Artist showcase is always one of the highlights of the festival. The musicians are chosen by a three-member jury and are given the opportunity to perform two songs (not to exceed ten minutes). The audience votes for their favorites and three or four acts are asked to return to the main stage the following year.
To learn more about Chris LaVancher, make a trip over to his website.
Here’s a video of Chris playing at Club Passim.
I was interested to read that your early years on stage were devoted to theater and not music and that you made a pretty good go at it. Were any of the plays you were in “musicals” by chance?
Most definitely. My very first experience being on stage was playing Frank Butler in the 5th grade presentation of “Annie Get Your Gun.” It was a formative experience for sure … I got to handle a gun, argue with a girl (“Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better”), and kiss her … in front of everyone in the school. It was pretty awesome … especially for a shy, not much noticed kid that I was at the time. I went on to do a one man show of “You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown” — playing all the characters — odd, I know, but it was wildly popular and I got to travel to all the different schools in the area. From there I was hooked and went on to do a bunch of other musicals over the years. I was Harry the Horse in “Guys & Dolls,” Jigger Craigin in “Carousel,” Bellamy (the girl’s father) in “The Fantasticks,” Lemar in “Godspell” (sings “All Good Gifts”), Vernon in “They’re Playing Our Song,” Charlie Brown in “Snoopy” (sequel to “You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown”), Rooster in “Annie.” So yeah … a lot of musicals. And I listened to a lot music from musical theater. Such great lyrics and melodies. I hope I have some of that in what I write today with my songs. And the acting piece really gave me an appreciation for character development which is definitely a big part of my writing.
Your bio states that you didn’t pick up the guitar until after your son was born in 1996. In addition to playing him soothing music while he fell off to sleep, do you think that the creative urge became real because you wanted to leave some kind of ‘statement’ about who and what you were all about so that your son would know the real you? (I wish I had something like that from my parents!)
I had picked up the guitar a little bit in college, but never got very serious about playing until ’95 or ’96 when Eli was born. The first ‘keepable’ song I wrote was written for him (“Eli’s Song”). It actually survived the years and made it onto my debut CD – Roadside Attractions. It’s one of the few songs I’ve written that comes directly from my own life experience. Most of my songs tend NOT to be about me, in fact are just made up from my imagination. So I certainly never consciously thought about creating songs to leave some kind of ‘statement’ for my son to know the ‘real’ me. Though when all’s said and done, I guess I’m in those songs somewhere in some way. Since the years of playing Eli to sleep every night, I don’t think he’s paid too much attention to my music. His musical tastes run toward the electronic and beat stuff, which he’s become very involved with creating and composing himself. This is very gratifying to me as I may have had some small influence on his love for music. He did say just the other day that he shared my CD with a friend of his who plays guitar and that the friend “jammed out” on it. I didn’t think “jamming out” was possible on my tunes, but hey … I’ll take it!
While you were busy being an actor, did you listen to any music and, if so, what kind? Did you have any ‘soundtrack of your life’ kind of tunes that capsulized different times of your life?
The first influential music was definitely from show tunes – Steven Schwartz’s “Pippin” was huge. I listened to the cast recording over and over again. I SO wanted to do that show, and never did. All of Stephen Sondheim’s scores, but especially “Sweeney Todd,” that just blew my teenage mind! As a teen I loved and still love to this day Billy Joel. Being a kid in love with the theater growing up in very small town PA, dreaming of New York City – “New York State of Mind” played constantly on my record player and in my head as did all his other songs. I also loved Supertramp and Chicago and for some odd reason Chuck Mangione (the trumpet and flugelhorn player) who I saw in concert once and just fell in love with his melodies. It wasn’t until college that I was introduced to direct influences in folk and blues and Americana. In college I found James Taylor and Joni Mitchell, Shawn Colvin, Taj Mahal and Muddy Waters, James Cotton, Leo Kottke and Michael Hedges, John Gorka and Greg Brown. I was in school in Pittsburgh and so had the wonderful radio station WYEP feeding this new love of acoustic singer/songwriters and once again, like the theater, I was hooked! Been soaking in that stuff ever since.
Your growing up years in rural Pennsylania sounds very idyllic. You mention that many of your songs are about some of the people you knew back then. What is it about the people in that environment that differs from say….the people who live in your new home turf—greater Boston?
My songs are definitely influenced by that area, though none are directly based on any one person. I guess it’s that old adage – ‘write what you know’ – though I contend that ‘writing what you know’ can be expanded to include not just your life experience but your imaginative experience as well. Both are highly intertwined. It’s kinda like what Garrison Keillor does with his Lake Wobegon stories maybe. I guess the rural environment lends itself to knowing more about the people in the community – for good and for bad. And it really was a community. Folks relied on each other. It was the kind of place where if something happened to a family, a fire or something, there would be charity events held to help raise money and in all the mom and pop stores there would be big old pickle jars at the register to collect donations. Things like that. I suppose that kind of thing happens in some city neighborhoods … I don’t know. But it was a pretty great place to grow up and certainly has worked its way into my DNA. I still feel like a country boy even though I’m in the city now.
When did you start playing your original songs before the public?
Well, I had been writing and playing at home for many years. Once in a great while I’d venture out and do an open mic, but it was often a horrible experience. I had such stage fright, which is odd given all the stage work I’d done over the years, but my hands just wouldn’t work for me, so the guitar never sounded very good, and it was disappointing to me every time I tried to play out. So for years, I just kept it to myself or just played informally for family and friends at a party or something. But the songs kept coming and I kept writing. It wasn’t until after my first marriage broke up and I started dating a songwriter (Esther Friedman), who really started to push and challenge me to get the songs out into the world. That eventually led to recording a CD, which I’m really proud of and feel good about sharing. So to support that, I’ve pushed myself to work through a lot of that stage fright stuff. It’s still hard for me, but it’s gotten a lot better. Having the CD helped give me confidence – sort of gave me some legitimacy or something. I’ve also been working with Vance Gilbert off and on over the last year or two which has helped tremendously to build confidence, get more grounded on stage and just have some fun. And amazingly (to me at least) things are starting to take off. But it’s really just been about two years I’ve been playing in public. I’m still amazed and somewhat daunted to think about playing on the Falcon Ridge stage, but now I’m more excited and thrilled than daunted. I can’t wait.
Tell us about the guitar that you made. (very impressive!!!)
Oh thanks! Yeah, I’m very attached to my guitar that I built with Alan Carruth almost ten years ago now. Alan is an amazing builder of stringed instruments – mostly guitars, but he’s built just about every sort of stringed instrument there is including some pretty fine violins and a gorgeous harp guitar for my friend Ken Bonfield. Ken has a number of guitars built by Alan, so that’s how I was introduced to him. When I found out Alan taught students, I really became enamored with the idea of building my own guitar. So over the course of about two years, traveling up to Alan’s shop in Newport New Hampshire one weekend a month I worked with him hand in hand to build it. It’s an amazing process and sure takes a lot of patience! Especially if you don’t have much woodworking experience like me. The design is Alan’s based somewhat off the Martin OM. It’s got East Indian Rosewood back and sides and a European spruce top, mahogany neck and curly maple bindings. It’s not the prettiest guitar in the world, but I’m really happy with how it turned out, especially the sound. I definitely have a strong emotional attachment to it, and I freak out a little bit when I have to fly with it or bring it to a big folk festival known for unpredictable weather. It’s the only one I’ve built, but would love to try another someday. I actually owe my mom a ukulele so there will eventually be some more building in my future.
What can you tell us about your CD, Roadside Attractions? How would you describe your sound? Do you have a favorite song on it?
First I have to say I’m humbled by the fact that much of it was financed by friends and family who believed in the songs and in me. I’m eternally grateful to them! And I’m so proud of how it turned out and feel fortunate to have worked on it with some incredibly talented folks – Tom Eaton who produced and engineered it, Paul Kochanski on upright bass, John Curtis on various stringed instruments especially slide guitar and mandolin, Jake Armerding on fiddle, Tom Eaton on accordion and hand percussion, and my lovely wife Esther Friedman on vocals.
It was an absolute joy and highlight of my life making this record and working with such great musicians. I’d be hard pressed to come up with a favorite song, but there were some really great surprises that happened in the studio that I didn’t anticipate. When you bring others into your creative process some wonderful and unexpected things happen. One example is the song “Circus Nights” which when I play just by myself is pretty straight forward 4/4 rhythm. But Paul, the bass player was able to work in this really cool samba beat behind what I was doing. And from there the whole song took on this more world beat feel with lots of hand percussion and talking drum and jaw harp and even an elephant! So the collaboration was a real treat for me. And yet I feel like Tom, my producer, was so careful to keep the heart of whatever it is I do at the forefront and not bury me in production. That’s a pretty great talent to be able to do that. And I’m thrilled with how it all came together. I hope folks like it!