Stanhope (Chris Rawlins) photo by Gary Ciardella
Chris Rawlins is set to turn the page on his lifelong creative journey. Writing and recording under the moniker Stanhope, the Chicago-based storyteller is set to release the album Static on May 6, but first he is introducing his new songwriting self to the world with the single “Angry at Strangers,” available today.
I recently sat down with Rawlins to discuss hugging the curve, accepting the past, and the musical middle ground he has discovered along the way.
AH: Static is already one of my favorite albums of 2022. As far as accomplishments go, where does this record rank on your personal timeline?
CR: I am definitely glad to hear that, thank you. Static is very high among my personal accomplishments. It’s the culmination of a lot of growth in my songwriting. I reached a point in the writing where I could see my genuine voice coming through more than I have in the past. I felt very confident after finishing each of these songs that they were mine—no one else could have written exactly the same songs.
It’s also the first album where I’ve been able to play almost all of the instruments and come up with all of the arrangements on my own. On previous albums I’ve enjoyed having other musicians come play along with me and help bring the songs to life, but, out of necessity in the early pandemic lockdown, I hunkered down and forced myself to become my own session musician. Playing lead guitar was oddly the most challenging. No matter how long you’ve been playing, it’s difficult to come up with parts that are memorable and hook the listener but don’t distract from the song itself. Some people probably come at that style of playing naturally, but it was a learning curve for me to get away from fingerpicking or strumming the acoustic and I am very proud of how it all turned out.
AH: This is your first record under the Stanhope name. Does this feel like a new chapter in your musical existence? If so, where do you hope the journey leads?
CR: It does. I do feel like I’ve settled into my voice as a writer in the past three or four years. I’ve realized that memory, family, and home are recurring themes in my work and I chose the name Stanhope, which is my middle name and my mother’s maiden name, because it held a lot of significance for me within those themes.
That said, I’ve also accepted the fact that I’m a bit restless artistically. One of the main reasons I’m attracted to this idea of being a solo artist making music under a band name or moniker is because it makes things feel pliable. I could open Stanhope up to having more permanent band members in the future, or I could make more albums that are just me. I also feel like the sound can change with each album—lean more indie rock on one, more acoustic on the next, and it all fits under the Stanhope umbrella. Some solo artists don’t get stuck in this way, but for me, when I think about just making music under my name, I get hung up on thinking, “What is my sound, how do I write within my sound?” and I don’t feel stuck like that when thinking about Stanhope.
So I hope this is the beginning of a journey where I continue to let myself evolve, let the songwriting be the star, and trust that whatever the Stanhope sound is will emerge from the writing.
AH: Before the record hits on May 6, you have a new single—“Angry at Strangers”—going out to the masses on March 23. Why pick this track to represent the album and get people excited for Static?
CR: I think it’s more tongue in cheek and lighthearted than the rest of the album, which makes it a good icebreaker. The album at its core is about making peace with the past and “Angry at Strangers” is kind of a subtle warning of what can happen when you don’t make peace with the past. I wrote half of this song years ago and finished it in isolation at a time when I could feel some emotional wall going up to the outside world. I really did feel myself becoming angry at strangers for no apparent reason. I think that feeling feels very timely and I think other people will be able to relate. But when you start to think more about those issues you realize they creep up when you haven’t dealt with something yourself, in this case a past event you haven’t gotten over.
AH: I read that you used to struggle with stage fright. Is there a type of stage fright associated with releasing music into the world? In a way, is it almost as nerve-inducing as getting up in front of a group of people with your guitar, just because so much is out of your control?
CR: I’ve struggled with both and I actually think the fear associated with releasing music into the world is the harder fear to overcome. I dealt with my initial stage fright by creating monikers and stage names to perform under. I thought that if I felt like I was someone else, I could be more vulnerable on stage and that worked to some extent, but physical stage fright you really overcome by performing a lot. If things go wrong, you try again the next night, or even the next song in the set. Releasing an album takes much more time and emotional investment before anyone hears it. And once it’s out there, if it doesn’t go over well, trying again is writing a whole new album, which can take years. I think the way to get over it is just to write as much as possible. Write a lot and spend the time crafting what you’re putting out into the world into something you can stand behind with conviction. That conviction helps you get past any negative feedback along the way.
AH: What would someone learn about you in sitting down to listen to Static front to back?
CR: They would learn that I can be extremely reflective, to the point where I start dwelling on things. That’s where the meaning behind these songs comes from, that tension of wanting to reflect on a past event in order to move on, but constantly needing to remind myself that the goal is to move on, not to start dwelling and over analyzing. I hope a listener would gather that these songs are a release for me, that by writing and singing them I’m letting things go.
The song “Fences” is a good example because it’s most overtly about that feeling of needing to learn from the past and let it go. And every time I sing it I feel a little better, like I can be okay with where I am in life. I’ve just entered my early 30s and feel like I should have a lot more figured out by now, like I should feel like more of an adult or something. I look back on heartbreaks, mistakes, choices, and try to figure out where I stumbled or went wrong to make me dissatisfied with the present, but what I learned through writing this album is how unproductive that thought pattern is. You just need to accept your past as your past and keep moving forward at your own pace. I hope people listening hear the album as that sort of release, and I also hope it can be a release for others as well.
AH: The record has been two years in the making. How has your songwriting changed in that timespan? Is your creative point of view different today than it was when you brought these tracks to life?
CR: I’d say writing these songs helped shape my creative viewpoint into what it is today. Like I mentioned before, I used to get stuck in thinking I had to figure out what my sound is and then write for that sound. In writing Static though, I learned to let the song be the guide of what it should sound like. I learned to try recording multiple versions of songs to see which I liked the best. I learned not to be afraid that I’m making a song too poppy, or not folky enough, and I learned just to trust my instincts and be willing to try something new.
AH: What would the Chris who first picked up a guitar thing of Static if he had a chance to hear it back then?
CR: Past Chris would be happy to hear this album because when I first started playing guitar I was very into power pop and bands like Green Day, Weezer, and Wilco, and I think melodically I’m throwing back to that more on these songs than I typically do. I gravitated towards acoustic guitar very early on, despite listening to so much rock and pop, so I think my past self would also be glad to know there’s a career path blending the two styles and plenty of musical middle ground to be heard.
AH: On the reverse side of that coin, how do you think you’ll view Static in 10 or 20 years from now? Will it be a snapshot of your life from this time period—yearbook, so to speak?
CR: That’s interesting to think about. I can already tell that the songs will hold up for me and continue to be a release. As more time passes, I think the songs might start to hold different meanings too and perhaps help me get through a whole new set of experiences.
I was also working on these songs during the height of the pandemic. That time was such a shock to the system that I can’t imagine listening in the future and not feeling the weight of that. The present was even more unsettling than it usually is, so it will make sense that I turned in that moment to writing about a longing for connection to the past, trying to make sense of it, and wondering how to move forward.
AH: How long did it take you to become comfortable with your songwriter voice and is that ability to tell a story in song something that an artist like yourself has to keep working at? How does one improve on their ability to spin a narrative in three minutes?
CR: It took years and years to get comfortable with my voice as a songwriter. I started writing in high school and I’d say sometime in my late 20s is when I finally started letting my honest voice through. When you start writing songs I think there’s already an idea in your head of what a song should sound like, based on what you listen to—your taste. It’s very difficult not to compare everything you write to that idea. I definitely have to keep working at it and I think every new set of songs I write are a little more me than the last.
Reading poetry over the years has definitely improved my writing, specifically in what you’re talking about—getting a narrative across in three minutes. If I feel like a song is rambling or taking too long to get the point across, I’ll read a bunch or short poems, even haikus, just to see how carefully poets choose their words and use images to move a story along. The more you read, listen to other songs, and write yourself, the easier it is to keep getting better. Whenever I talk to people who are just starting to write, I can’t stress enough the importance of just writing a lot.
AH: Time machine question. If you could jump ahead 10 years and get a glimpse of what your career looks like a decade from now, would you take that journey? If not, why?
CR: That’s a difficult question. It’s getting harder and harder to forge a sustained career path as a musician so it’s tough to imagine exactly what my career will look like 10 years from now. But I am confident that I will keep writing and releasing albums for the rest of my life. Creative work is therapeutic, rewarding, and leads to surprises and discovery at every turn. I can’t imagine not going on that journey.
For more information on Rawlins’ musical alter ego Stanhope, visit http://www.stanhopeband.com.