On Point With: Chris Blacker

Well known as a talented performer in queer NYC’s piano bar scene, Chris Blacker is preparing an entirely dynamic and original musical theater experience to ignite a stage near you.

Thotyssey: Hello Chris, thanks for chatting with us today! How was (is!) your summer?

Chris Blacker: My summer has been good so far. I’ve mostly been staying in town, working at my usual piano bars, trying get the occasional beach day in, and getting ready for what will hopefully be an exciting fall.

Have there been any particular songs this past season that folks have been requesting more than others?

Oh gosh, it’s hard to say. I have been getting a lot of Sondheim requests with his passing last fall, the revival of Into The Woods and the recent revival of Company on Broadway — but I always play a lot of Sondheim. Piano bar audiences (at least at the places I usually work) don’t tend to ask for the latest songs of the summer. Or maybe they just don’t ask me, because I don’t seem like I would know them!

I imagine it would be weird and a little annoying if someone came up to you at a piano bar and asked for, like, Britney!

Britney is fine–she’s basically old-school at this point! The problem with a lot of more recent pop music is that it tends to be heavy on production and sparse on composition, and ends up sounding a bit flat when played solo on the piano. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it, just that it’s not especially gratifying to perform by yourself.

So if we may step back for a moment… where are you from originally, and were you a music maker from day one?

I was born in Slidel, Louisiana, but my family moved around a fair amount… so I don’t have a place that I really consider myself “from” (New York is home). I took some informal piano lessons when I was young, but I wasn’t very disciplined about practicing and preferred to either learn by ear or make up my own music (if you can imagine an 8-year-old doing his best impression of a Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody, that would give you an idea of what I wrote at the time). My mother, though not a musician herself, knew how to read music and would help me jot down what I composed.

When I was ten we moved to Texas, where I began studying with a really intense classical piano teacher. And for many years that followed I was basically in classical piano boot camp, and writing was less of a priority. Though, it was always something I did: all classical music during that time.

Does having that classist background really effect the way you write, or even listen to, all genres of music?

It certainly affects my writing: the attention to detail, and the realization that small re-harmonizations can really change the emotional tenor of a passage of music. I’m not sure it affects the way I listen as much, though it’s hard to know since I only have my own ears (I wish I could listen to music with someone else’s ears just for once — I’m sure it would be incredibly educational!) I have always enjoyed a wide variety of music, and I try to appreciate each genre for what it is.

I should probably add also that my rigid classical days came to an abrupt end when I was 18. I got burned out, stopped playing piano for a couple of years, bought a used guitar, and began teaching myself Bob Dylan songs.

What’s been your history with writing and producing original pieces?

After some time off, I ended up doing a jazz program in college. And while piano was still more my focus, I composed a lot at the time and often performed my original compositions at student recitals. One of my demos from that time period made me a winner of the 2006 ASCAP Foundation Young Jazz Composer Awards, which spurred me to form a group that performed my original compositions and record an album (I was living in Seattle at the time). Meanwhile, being the restless person I am, I began writing songs with lyrics and playing solo shows in coffeehouses and other small venues.

When I first moved to New York in 2010, I still had aspirations to be an indie singer-songwriter, and played a number of shows at venues like Rockwood Music Hall, The Bitter End, and Arlene’s Grocery. At the same time, I began working in the cabaret and musical theater worlds (where my hybrid jazz-classical background was useful), and playing in piano bars.

Over time, I gradually accepted that my writing style wasn’t well suited for pop music in this day and age. At the same time, I was learning the canon of musical theater from my varied work in and out of piano bars. When I finally set out to write a musical, it was a real epiphany; finally I could channel all of my eclectic musical interests into one project, rather than having to separate them.

As far as your weekly piano bar gigs go, where and when can the children find you?

I am at the Monster on Tuesday and Wednesday nights from 11pm until close, and at the Townhouse on Saturdays from 9pm until close. I fill in other places as well, but those are my steady nights at the moment.

This coming Sunday at 3:30, you’ll be doing a special show at the Monster with singing queen Evita Loca!

I met Evita at the Monster shortly after they brought back their piano nights after the pandemic, and I have been pestering her to do a show with me since! She has a wonderful voice, and we have a natural rapport. Expect an eclectic variety of songs and some fun shenanigans. The Monster has been sponsoring a great series of free musical performances every Sunday afternoon… so if you can’t make the show on the 11th, definitely check it out some other time.

So this is exciting: you recently posted about an open call for an informal table reading of a new musical, with original music by you and libretto by Romie Faienza! What can you tell us about this project?

Well, the table reading itself is mostly for us to see how the script sounds when read aloud (we have only seen the script on paper until now), so that we can make adjustments if needed. The show is called The Lady Takes The Mic, and is a concept musical about Death and Cupid running into each other at a piano bar. As they discuss who is going to die and who is going to fall in love, they jump into the various lives of the people around them. It’s not meant to recreate the atmosphere of an actual piano bar (people can just go to piano bars for that), but rather it’s an exploration of how very different lives can intersect in that environment.

Fascinating! Obviously this is gonna be a long and complex process, but do you have any notion of a timeline when folks might be able to see this?

I’m still getting my bearings in the musical theater world, so no plans for a full production yet. But I have been in conversation with the folks at Red Eye about doing a cabaret of songs from the show. So that would be an opportunity to hear some of the music, and that will likely happen in the next six months or so. Stay tuned!

Excellent, and good luck! Anything else happening?

My big news is that I am starting as a composer at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theater Workshop next week! I am really excited and humbled to be part of such a great program, and I can’t wait to hone my skills further, meet new collaborators, and (hopefully) make professional connections along the way.

Congratulations! Okay, to close: if someone really wants to impress you when you’re performing at the piano bars, what song should they request?

It’s a rare occurrence, but it always brightens my night when I get asked to play something from Automatic For The People by R.E.M. (one of my all-time favorite albums), or a Radiohead song that isn’t “Creep.” I also love Kate Bush and Joni Mitchell.

Noted! Thanks, Chris!

Check Thotyssey’s calendar for Chris Blacker’s upcoming appearances, and follow him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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