Interview: Chris Sunfield
What got you into music, and if you had not gotten into music what would you be doing today?
My parents didn’t have music in the house, believe it or not. I only heard music in other kids’ houses, on TV, etc. I begged my parents for a transistor radio for Christmas (this was the early 70’s). The first song I remember hearing when I turned it on was Elton John’s Crocodile Rock. I think I knew within a pretty short time. Ironically, ‘what would you be doing’ was what I did instead of music for 25 years. I started off in music in university and switched majors to became a psychologist and management consultant. I left my music behind. I returned to making music a few years ago as a way of coping with a very difficult time in my life. It transformed me, and led to my unexpected reinvention as a late-life recording artist.
What do you like to do when you are not playing music and how does that influence your creativity?
Just about everything else I do influences my music. Even walking home with groceries will lead to me humming my next melody. Like most songwriters, I believe music has healing powers. But also being a psychologist, I know some things about what can make people happy, so I’m influenced by that. I try not to be preachy with lyrics, but I do try to motivate and encourage the kinds of things that I think could transform people. The outlier songs are Predator and Don’t Kill Me. They were just edgy and fun. What else do I do? Exercise. Classic movies. Martinis.
How long has your band been around?
Wow. These are interesting questions to answer as a solo artist that debuted later in life. I’ve been around as a musician for decades, but in limbo. I don’t have a band yet. I’ve done most of the instruments in my releases so far. But I need to start doing live work this year, and I have to get a backing band.
Where are you based out of and how did that influence your music?
I’ve been in Toronto, Canada since I was 18. But I was hatched and raised in a smaller, nearby town called Brantford. Like many kids from a small town, I couldn’t wait to get to the big city and fulfill my dreams. Ironically, as you get older, you get nostalgic and return to your roots. Since returning to music, I’ve returned to my hometown and stayed in hotels to write music. I needed to go back and walk around familiar places. Nostalgia can drive creativity. I had to reach into my past in order to write songs about going forward.
How did you come up with the name of your band and what does it mean to you?
I’ll let you know when I form a band. But, admittedly, Chris Sunfield is a stage name. Chris is the name of a dearly-departed mentor of mine. I identified with him pretty strongly. Sunfield (Sun field) is a place where light grows. The Sun, light, and positivity are important to me, and they show up in some of my lyrics.
Tell me about your most memorable shows.
I haven’t done live work in years, but the shows I remember the most were when I was the lead guitarist in various bands. Depending on how many drinks I had before the show or at the break, I’d find a table to get up on in a club for an extended, silly, over-the-top solo – the kind where you do the same riff over and over while someone feeds you or gives you a drag off a ciggy every now and then.
What is your favorite venue to play at, and do you have any places you want to play that you have not already?
If I had to pick a venue for a debut concert as Chris Sunfield, it would be an older theatre – the kind of century-old place with gilded ceilings, balconies, Greco-Roman pillars, a traditional stage curtain, and the kind of acoustics that are going extinct. Maybe it seats 250 or 500 tops. Those kinds of places are disappearing.
If you could play any show with any lineup, who would be on the ticket?
One of the difficulties in answering this is wondering who I sound like, so the ticket has a theme. I’m still a small-time guy who’s just returning to live work, so if The Flaming Lips, Polyphonic Spree, Mercury Rev, etc. wanted to do a small club run, that would be great. Just put me on a good alt pop bill.
What is some advice that you would give to someone who is just getting into playing in a band and some advice that you would give to your younger self?
There’s plenty of great advice out there from established, well-known musicians, but here goes. First of all (and I know this may sound like your Dad), start building a solid career outside of music in an occupation that the world will pay you for, and that you also enjoy. Money talks. And producers, engineers, and music marketers cost money. I would have hated this advice in my late teens or early twenties, but your day job is also your back-up plan. The good news is that streaming has democratized music distribution. You’ll get yourself out there. The bad news is that an estimated 50 million artists will be on Spotify over the next decade. Even if you’re the next Beatles or ABBA, you may never get ‘happened upon’. You have to be prepared for that, psychologically. You have to find other motives for making music other than fame and fortune. It’s only when you dial that down that your real, authentic motives will drive your best work. Do it primarily for the meaning it gives you, and for the impacts that you might have on a handful of people, not for the slim opportunity of getting on some chart. We can’t all be the 1% of the 1%.
If you could go back in time and give yourselves advice, what would it be?
As a guy who started off in music at 18 and switched over into another profession for decades, I’d easily say ‘stick with it’ in some capacity. How much development as an artist did I forego?. I’d tell myself not to go to my death bed knowing I didn’t realize my talent.
Of your songs which one means the most to you and why?
The song Begin off the recent Far Away Objects EP. I went back to my hometown and lived in a cheap hotel to finish writing it. Half of that song was 25 years old. The other half was completed in that hotel, living off of bagels, coffee, and canned beans. The song is about realizing your true potential before you die. It’s about living in good faith, as Jean-Paul Sartre would say. Some people heard Begin before it was released and felt that there was too much going on in it. It is a monster. But every time I hear it, I remain confident that it became everything that it had to become. It’s the song I’m proudest of.
Which songs are your favorite to play and which get requested the most?
The covers I’ve always loved to play are the songs that are most different from what I write! I love cranking out old Cream songs like White Room and Crossroads. Hendrix tunes like You Got Me Floating. Any Beatles tunes, but particularly Day Tripper and Nowhere Man.
What is the creative process for the band, and what inspires you to write your music?
Musical riffs and hooks usually come first, as I’m doing laundry or working out. I like to travel somewhere to write songs. I’ll stay home if I have to, but a 100K biking trip and an AirBnB stay somewhere in a small town helps. Nostalgia of any kind (memories, photos) is a huge creative driver for me. It makes me ponder where I’ve come from, where I am now because of that, and where I should go in the future. All that spawns personal stuff to write about.
What kinds of messages do you like to get across in your music?
Lyrically, I often deal with existential issues – personal ones, but ones that I hope get people to reflect on their own life choices and actions. Since I re-awakened my artistic side a few years ago, some of my songs are clarion calls to people to rekindle pursuits in their lives that used to be important, or find new ones. That half-written novel or some entrepreneurial project. The song Begin is about the importance of just beginning. Getting off the couch is the first step. You’ll be on fire in no time if you get past the first couple of weeks of recovering some former passion or starting a new one. I wish I could write love songs but I have no one to inspire them. “Hey girl…” is not likely going to show up in any of my songs.
Do you ever have disagreements in your band, and how do you get past them?
I have disagreements with myself. They usually dissipate after a few drinks. I think one of the reasons I’ve almost always been a solo artist is that I’m a control freak with musical arrangements and production.
What are your plans for the future, and do you have anything that you want to spotlight that is coming up?
I have 700 musical ideas on 25 years of fading scraps of paper and deteriorating tapes that I recently digitized. The future lies there. I just released lounge and house mixes of Predator, done by a producer I’ve worked with. Fun stuff, as they aren’t my genres. I’m continuing to promote the Far Away Objects EP and doing a remix of Eclipse on that. A Monkees cover in the summer (yes, really). In the fall there’s a waterfall release of singles on a new EP. Oh, and live work. I have got to form a backing band and do a debut show before the end of the year.