“I called this Black Ink with a cover of an octopus expelling ink as a defense mechanism because there was a feeling of apprehension while making it,” says 27-year-old Chris Zurich. The Quaker-raised, Valley Forge-area native and experimental folkie is speaking confidently about the stinging lyrical themes that haunt his solo debut and its tales of a lover’s betrayal, friendships gone awry and wealth inequality. “I was saying things that might be uncomfortable for family and friends to hear so that octopus’ image was apt. I found myself trying to decide if something I’d say was too raw, but eventually saying, ‘no.’ That’s what art is for.”
Black Ink’s sonic-booming electronic ambiance and subtle twitches of prog-rock go handsomely with Zurich’s usual take on singer-songwriter folkie soul that local audiences first got to know through his one-time band, New West. The boldly rocking, country-ish ensemble debuted on the night of Obama’s first election. entertaining crowds in line to vote. “I chose that band’s name, not so much for political reasons, but cultural,” says Zurich. “Everything felt in flux or about to change. I also really liked how “big” the name sounded.”
By 2012 though, that band name became a weight around Zurich’s neck. Los Angeles’ New West Records sent cease-and-desist notices, a cock-block that slowed the band’s momentum to a stand-still. “The silver lining was that I got better responses from playing solo than with a loud band drowning out my sound.” Zurich’s New West went south as his solo direction grew sparse, blending electronics with traditional instrumentation.
One of Black Ink’s frankest songs, “Nothing Around Me,” is about a friendship-gone-awry with one of his bandmates, a necessary trade-off considering Zurich’s new-found need for a radically different (or at least complimentary) sonic palette for his earnest, often cutting lyrics. “My music changes rapidly now as a result of not having to answer to other musicians,” says Zurich. “I’m testing new sounds, but I’ve also experimented with writing quickly and not belaboring ideas, striving for some idea of perfection. The result is a direct voice and more spontaneity in my writing.”
Perhaps it’s that newfound impulsiveness that’s given Black Ink’s lyrics an unequivocally candid feel, songs that traffic in the travails of unconditional love (“Annie”), gender identification (“Doomsday”), a child’s death (“North of Sky”), and waking up to a lover saying someone else’s name in their sleep (“The Sounds”). With all the experimental change that Zurich has brought to his career and his art, Zurich will not eschew the one thing that drives most musicians: having a hit. That’s why he’s currently remixing Black Ink’s already-epic “Bend Song” into something eerily R&B-ish and grander still.
“It’s melodic, catchy, yet balanced with lyrical integrity,” says Zurich. “It felt big when I wrote it. Luckily, I have a producer reworking ”Bend” to shop around. He calls it a career defining song, one I’ll have to sing every night, like “Roxanne” is for Sting. I don’t know if I can stomach doing that, but I’ll try.”
Sat., Dec. 14, 7:30 p.m., $10, Philly Sound Studios 2829 S. 18th St., 215-551-1800, moc.oiduayksgib@ofni.
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