It almost seemed like the universe was trying to prevent Christopher J. Essex from getting to this point.
He left a successful stint on Broadway behind to pursue his dream of a country music career, and in doing so, made his move to Nashville at the end of 2019. Three months to the day after his move, one of the tornadoes that ravaged Nashville took his home, and soon thereafter, the world was shut down because of the Coronavirus pandemic.
Undeterred, Essex kept chugging along, and as October came to a close, he’s fulfilling a major part of his dream with the release of his debut single, “Swipe Right on Me.” Mixing a rockabilly flair with a modern, relevant lyric, Essex enlisted the help of Kent Wells and Mark Needham to craft his introduction to the country music community.
We chatted with Essex about his journey to the release of “Swipe Right on Me,” including his early start in performing arts, when he shifted his attention to a music career, the emotions that came with releasing his debut single, his big plans for the future and more!
Pro Country: Who are some of your biggest musical influences that have shaped your sound?
Christopher J. Essex: This is a tough question because I feel like my sound and artistry has been shaped by SO many different musical influences! Obviously being raised in musical theatre and singing in choir for most of my life has had a huge impact on the sound that I have. One thing that I try to always do with the background is make sure that every word of every line I sing is heard! What’s the point of telling stories if you can’t understand what I’m singing, right?
Another huge influence that musical theatre brings to my artistry is my love for storytelling. As an actor in musical theatre, you’re taught that when the need to say something is so great that you can’t just speak it anymore, that’s when you start to sing! So as an artist and songwriter, I want to tell stories that I feel are at that level of importance, where just saying the words isn’t enough!
Finally, one of my largest influences as a country music artist is Johnny Cash. For two years of my life, I toured with a show called Million Dollar Quartet where I played Johnny Cash! To be someone on stage, let alone an icon like Johnny Cash, takes hours and hours of research. I studied everything about him and his life for years, and the more I learned about him and the more I played his music, the more I started to find the foundations of my own artistry. You’ll definitely hear an Old School, Sun Records, Rockabilly sound in “Swipe Right On Me.”
PC: Your bio mentions that you were on stage early in your life as an actor. What was it about the stage that connected with you so early in your life?
CJE: I’ve always felt the most comfortable on a stage. I was bullied a lot growing up, I was definitely a unique kid, but when you’re an ADHD child who walks around singing and dancing, it certainly was easy for kids to find things to pick on. I think that’s what made me want to start doing musical theatre. At my school, you couldn’t be in the shows ‘til the 3rd grade, so when I finally was old enough, I auditioned for my first show, Annie Get Your Gun. I fell in love. Being able to sing, be on stage, but mostly, tell stories. When I was on that stage, I could be anyone I wanted to be; get to live a different life than the one I had. This love for telling stories led me to New York where I found a lot of success, but after a while, I realized I still was missing something. For so long, I wanted to be on stage telling other people’s stories because I didn’t like mine, but as you get older, you learn to accept your life for what it is. That’s when I decided I wanted to start telling my own stories. I want to go on that stage as ME!
Now that I am able to tell my own stories, I find myself working toward and constantly discovering what I can offer people with my music! I try to think back on what music brought to me as a kid: freedom. I think as artists, there is a lot of pressure to have an image to the public and do things/release music that is “on brand,” but I think the artist that I want to be is just a real person, more than just an archetype, but someone who has lived countless real experiences and would rather tell all those stories than just the few that seem the most “marketable.” I said this once in an interview and have since tried to model my music by it: “If country music is stories about real people, then I want to be a real person telling stories.”
PC: At what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue a career in music and entertainment?
CJE: I’ve always had the dream to be an entertainer, but I don’t think it was until I got into high school that I REALLY thought this could be my career. Funny enough, even then I thought pursuing a career as a country music artist was something I would never be able to do, so I went with the “safer option” and became an actor. That always surprises people, because when you think of actors and Broadway performers, you think of the starving artist image, but for me, I had a lot of education, training and support to go down that path and make a real career out of it. The decision to finally take the chance and focus on music came at a time when I was trying to imagine what the next 10 years of my life would look like. Although I could certainly imagine a successful career as an actor in my future, one of the most important things for me is the idea of being able to raise a family one day. For me personally, I was having a tough time imagining my life in NYC trying to raise a family working on Broadway. There are SO many friends I have who have and are doing it, but I wasn’t sure if it was for me. Around that time, I left NYC to do Million Dollar Quartet at the Marriott Theatre and decided I wasn’t coming back. I was finally going to do what it took to be a country music artist (though obviously a huge risk, I just knew that Nashville was a place I could imagine settling down in and raising a family). I knew though at that time I needed to put in the work, so for the past almost two years since then, I have been WORKING. I hope over this next year people will finally get to see what those two years have been for, so get ready for 2021, because I am just getting started with “Swipe Right On Me”!
PC: Can you talk about the emotions that came with making your move to Nashville? How difficult of an adjustment was it given that you moved during a pandemic?
CJE: I remember moving here feeling extremely hopeful. For most of my adult life, I have moved from city to city, bouncing around between shows, never really spending more than 4-6 months in one place. So moving to Nashville finally felt like the beginning of my opportunity to settle down and make a home base for myself. I moved here December 1st, and the tornado came and took my home March 1st. At that point, I was honestly pretty devastated. A few weeks later, the pandemic started; I wasn’t sure what I was going to do, and for a bit, I considered moving back home. I am SO thankful that I stayed and have made it through each day of this pandemic here in Nashville. Don’t get me wrong, this pandemic has brought so many challenges, and this certainly isn’t how I imagined my first year, but it’s forced me to dig my heels in and spread my roots even more! If I can stay in Nashville after a tornado and through a pandemic and still finish that year releasing music, I think I’ve found my home.
PC: What emotions were you feeling as you were preparing to release music for the first time with your single “Swipe Right on Me”?
CJE: Excited. Nervous. Stressed? Stressed. Hopeful. GRATEFUL! Honestly there are so many emotions that I had toward this release. I am so excited to finally have people hear this song! I’ve been sitting on the release for about a year now, so the idea that people are going to be hearing, I can’t help but be excited. Of course a big part of me is nervous. This is my first release, so I definitely have that middle school “will they people like me” feeling. One thing I didn’t expect to feel leading up to this was stressed. You don’t realize how much goes into the release of music behind the scenes ‘til you get there! There is so much involved in marketing and pre-promotional preparation that I certainly have been feeling stressed. However, above all else, I feel grateful. I am so grateful for what this song and this release does for my life. This song no matter what will always be the song that officially started my country music recording artist career.
PC: Can you talk about the inspiration for “Swipe Right on Me”?
CJE: I can say I had a lot to pull from in terms of inspiration. I am 100% the dating app generation. I remember when all of these apps started coming out; at first it was kind of funny, and now it just seems like such a normal idea: looking to find a date, go on an app. The idea for this song came to me in the car actually. I was still new to the area, only in town for a few days, and was driving to my co-writer’s house when my phone started buzzing. I was getting a lot of push notifications from the dating apps Tinder and Bumble saying that because I’m new to the area, there are a lot of new potential matches for me (or something like that). Anyway, with that in mind, I’m driving thinking about dating apps when “Good Time” by Alan Jackson came on my playlist. That’s when the idea hit; I should write a line dance song about dating apps. I brought it to Bill DiLuigi, my co-writer, and we RAN with it.
PC: “Swipe Right on Me” marries a classic country sound with rockabilly flair. Is it at all important for you to tap into both of those influences and to have a certain degree of sonic versatility in your music?
CJE: 100%. As I said before, I want to be an artist and songwriter who tells all types of stories! Not every story is going to have the same type of musical production or sound. Sometimes a story might fit a classic country ballad, sometimes you might get a song that leans to a more rhythmic pop-country sound, and then every once in a while you get a song like “Swipe Right On Me” where you get to throw in a rockabilly flair! You can try to make the country-pop song, a classic ballad or put rockabilly into the pop, but it’s like fitting a square into a circle! So for me, I want to stay versatile so that I can make sure I’m always able to tell the best stories and not limited to which ones fit “my sound”!
PC: “Swipe Right on Me” was produced by Kent Wells, best known for his work with Dolly Parton, and mixed by Mark Needham, a multi-platinum engineer. What has it been like for you working with Kent and Mark? How have they been able to bring out the best in you?
CJE: Probably one of the toughest parts about going from someone with a background of live performances to a recording artist is the want for perfection. Let me explain: on stage, sometimes the most exciting moments of any show are the imperfect moments. Those imperfect moments can sometimes be the thing that makes performing so much fun, because you never know what can happen on stage, but you get to just live it and breathe it. When you’re done with the show, that moment is now just a shared memory between you and the audience. However, with recording, you want perfection. Right? Well I feel like Kent and Mark helped me find a middle ground. I wanted (especially with this song) to make sure every single word in the story popped, but to still make it feel like you were at a concert while listening, and I think Kent was able to push me to maintain my energy and get really clean takes, and Mark so masterfully blended the live feel with an amazing mix down that is worthy of all of his accolades!
PC: 2020 has altered many plans of artists so far. Of the things you can control, what are your plans for the rest of the year?
CJE: Of the things I can control, which aren’t many, I plan to really spend time connecting with my supporters the rest of this year. They have been so amazing during this process! They all have been patiently awaiting this release, and with the song out now, they have been streaming like CRAZY. I want to give back to them and try to do as many IG/FB live shows for them and really just give them all the thanks in the world, because without them, it would just be my mom and me listening to my music! But seriously, the rest of this year is for them and then gearing up for some exciting stuff in 2021!
PC: Is there anything you’d like to add?
CJE: Last thing I can say right now is thank YOU! Justin, it really means a lot that you’re taking the time to put this interview out! As an independent artist. it is really tough to get your name out there and get people to take a chance on you. You were so inviting right at the get go and I have seen you do the same thing with so many of my friends, so thank you!
“Swipe Right On Me” is available EVERYWHERE you listen to music, so stream the hell out of it and let me what you think of the song!
“Swipe Right on Me” is featured on The Best of Pro Country playlist!*