Opening for any performer is a tall task. Now, imagine that performer is Neil Young, the man whose music has helped define decades. Enter Chris Pierce, the artist who opened for Young over this past summer on the Coastal Tour. During these shows, Pierce’s voice, whether it was gentle or booming or both, connected with his audience and kept them in the moment. The storyteller’s soulfulness didn’t go in one ear and out the other; it stayed with listeners after the show was over.
With Pierce’s latest album, Let All Who Will, he again strikes the balance between immediacy and longevity in his sound. The artist released the album at a major moment in his life – turning 50 and opening for Neil Young. Needless to say, Let All Who Will is a deeply personal work from the man, which audiences will understand when they listen to and feel the songs.
Recently, Pierce was kind enough to speak to High Times about his most recent work and why it’s not just another album for him. Then again, no album is just another album for this guy, who, as he told us, has always fought to give music fans everything he’s got in the tank.
Those shows at the Greek theater were such a special experience. How’d you feel playing there?
That was such a surreal experience growing up here. My parents used to take me to Griffith Park when I was a kid, and my first stage experience was at Barnesville Theater down on Sunset and Vermont, and I was seven years old. I found an ad in the paper for a play, and I asked my parents if I could go audition. They took me down and then I got in the play. Every single audition they drove me there, I mean, audition, rehearsal, and on the way back, my pop would often drive back by the Greek and just take me by there. He’d say, “Man, you keep practicing and someday you’ll play here.” The week of my 50th birthday, I’m at the Greek.
Congratulations. For you, what’s it like when you play new songs for the first time on a stage?
It was a big therapy session for me because we write these songs and we hope that they’ll connect. A lot of them just really come from places that are so vulnerable, not only writing about yourself and experiences, but writing about what you wish for the world and for humanity. I mean, that’s a vulnerable thing to put that out there and your ideas out there. All of those audiences, not just the Greek, were so open and welcoming to my ideas and my emotion.
Neil’s whole organization was also just so caring for me and made sure that I felt good about going out there. It felt like a testimony that I was given, and it felt like it was received a testimony on life and some of my ideas and some of the things I’ve been through and some of the things I want to see change and some of the things I want, I feel like people should be talking about a little more.
I can’t imagine the pressure of writing a song about the Tulsa Massacre. Musically, how do you handle the weight of such a tragedy in a few minutes?
It’s such a responsibility too, and I don’t take it lightly. I did so much research about that with my writing partner, and what we decided to do, as you heard, was take it from the perspective of somebody who was actually there and affected by what was happening. And for me, that’s a way of really cutting through immediately to hopefully the listener being empathetic and not feeling kind of attacked by information that maybe they’re having a hard time listening to.
It’s like, listen, this is from the perspective of somebody who was there and what he felt. Oftentimes victims of horrific acts like that, they have to find a way to be empathetic towards the people who are doing it to them. I wanted to also demonstrate that it’s an unfortunate thing, I think, in the human condition that there’s been so much wrong, done to so many people in the history of humanity, and yet those who are victimized by it often find a time and a place where they look at who’s doing it to them and have to ask the question, “Why?”
To me, it’s a really heavy, heavy song, and it was a heavy task, and I hope that people listen to it, not only who know about Tulsa and are interested in Tulsa, but those who also push back against history and push back against some of the harsh things that have happened and really take a look at it and say, “Maybe I should learn more about this and teach my kids and let the people know around me.” That way we can maybe make sure that something like this never happens again.
Years ago, a show depicted it, I want to say Watchmen, and it was really sad to see how many people were unaware of what happened in Tulsa.
I didn’t know about it until I was almost 30. Sure enough, I didn’t hear about it in school. And the wild thing is, I don’t know if I touched on this on stage, but there’s just so much about it and that it’s not the only place that this happened. First of all, it’s just kind of one of the places, thankfully talked about now, but it took over 70 years to even be investigated. It’s still being shot down in judicial systems. Just that day that I was singing the song in Greek, a judge had denied reparations for some of the victims, like it didn’t even happen.
I hope that people listen to that song. It’s a tough song for me to sing sometimes. It really is, but I don’t know, it’s an honor to sing about our history. It really is. And it’s an honor to be conduit and to have those things flow through me and have people listen. I was telling my friend this the other day, if one person in each audience takes that in and goes and looks up something about it and passes the information on, I’ve done my job.
Where did the song “Meet at the Bottom” come from? You know when listening to it, this guy knows that feeling well, but the instrumentals have that lovely contrast.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, that to me is, I was really honestly thinking about the pandemic, and I was thinking about, okay, I think the hope of me and a lot of people hopefully out there was, okay, we’re all in a place where we at least have to look at the fact that we’re all susceptible to the same thing. It really got me thinking about just kind of people meeting, finding a place of common ground in general. If a pandemic can’t do that, what can I think?
A lot of my friends and people I know and associates have been let down in the fight for justice and the fight for equality and folks feeling they might be at a place of common ground, like, that kind of disappeared as folks started getting busy again. But at the same time, I feel like we always have to think in an empathetic and compassionate way that everybody at one point in their life hits rock bottom. It could be of different scopes, different ways.
It could be somebody with a silver spoon, it could be somebody that’s born on the street, but everybody has a time when they’re at their absolute worst. With that song, I just wanted to give an example that we are all in this together and we can find a way to see some common ground because we’ve all felt the same thing at one point in our lives. It’s about a time where we know that we need empathy and compassion from the people around us, and we are seeking forgiveness. I feel like that song, doing it in that soulful way to me is what soul songs are all about. It’s a way to put a little sugar on the pain without sugarcoating.
Do you usually know exactly what you want to say when you start writing a tune or does that sometimes crystalize later?
Sometimes I wake up with songs completely done in my head. It’s really a wild experience. There’s been something in there all night working. That song “Meet Me At the Bottom,” I wrote with my friend Sam Hollander, and we co-wrote about five songs on the album. I was in L.A. and he was in New York, and we were writing on Zoom. Co-writing is interesting because you have to be really open and vulnerable at the same time. With Sam, what I like about writing with him is he really gets in there right from the beginning. “Okay, man, all right, let’s do this. Let’s make something happen. How about this?”
I love Sam’s approach because he’s an instigator of writing, really gets in there. He’s a masterful lyric pusher, idea pusher. He really gets it out there and inspires the people around him to get that stuff out. We wrote that song probably in about a half hour.
Which songs kept you up at night?
Well, “Tulsa Town” took a minute. I wrote that with my friend Mark Malone, and we have a completely different process of writing together. We usually email each other ideas back and forth. And like I said, that one took a long time because it was a responsibility with the research, and I just didn’t want to really put anything out there that I really couldn’t back up emotionally.
“Sidney Poitier” took a little time. The person was such an icon who just lived his life with so much grace no matter what. I actually had a dream about him the other night that somebody was asking me, challenging me on his journey and saying that, “Oh, well, he was a celebrity and this and that. And then I said, “Well, but you have to look at the full spectrum of it and when it was happening and the challenges that he faced and the fact that he just really faced everything publicly with grace and how that inspired so many Black people and other people to treat Black people with respect and self dignity and respect from others.” It’s a task playing that, and it’s such a big responsibility.
Does cannabis ever play a role in your writing?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. 100%. Marijuana has been another gift. I know some incredible folks, growers and connoisseurs and some beautiful, beautiful people in my life that I’ve respected, admired. I have known a lot of folks who are young and old, from kids to adults, who I know have benefited from some of the medicinal and qualities of different types of CBD and marijuana. It’s a gift. It’s a gift from the earth.
It can also make music better.
It sure does. Yeah, it makes a lot of things better.
For any of our readers who’ll maybe smoke and listen to your new album, what do you hope they feel?
Open. I feel like we’re so quick to put a label on things these days and listen to one song or look at one piece of art and not really look at the big picture. I hope that folks can listen. We used to listen to albums when I was a kid and listen front to back. Check out the whole picture and all the colors and the journey within the ideas and the emotion, and just stay open when you’re listening to it and just let it in.
Excellent. How’s life on the road for you these days? Is it nonstop work or do you get a chance to explore and hear some stories?
I’m pretty old school. I’ve been doing this for a while, and I try to get my head out of the phone and out of filling up every hour of the calendar with something that will keep me in the hotel room. I like to get out. If it’s not with other artists, I just like to talk to people wherever I am. The folks at the coffee shop, I mean, that’s how that song “Mr. McMartin” came about. That’s about a street sweeper. Talking to folks of different jobs with different journeys, with different choices, with different histories and from different places, and just kind of get out in whatever city I’m in. Just a lot of struggle out there and a lot of pain. I feel like it’s good for folks to talk about it, and it’s good as a writer to hear about it and to take it in. Otherwise you’re kind of just writing in a bubble and who wants to listen to music like that? I don’t.
This sounds terribly broad, but there’s a lot of love for music in this album. The cover is very All Things Must Pass and you do a wonderful cover of The Cars. It’s not nostalgia, but I’d say, respecting music. Am I wrong?
I’m going to try to spend less than 20 minutes on the answer.
[Laughs] Take your time.
Well, turning 50 for a lot of people, it’s no big deal. I guess for probably people older than 50, they’re like, ah, it’s no big deal. But for me, my pop died in his fifties.
Thank you man. It was a long time ago, and for me, getting to that decade, it’s a milestone for me. And the fact that I got to go out and be embraced and open for such an icon during that time was incredible. Doing the record before that and leading up to this milestone, it was just surreal in so many ways. I have the support of David Resnik, who I met when I was 19, and he picked me out when I was singing background vocals for a guy named Jon Butcher at South by Southwest in 1992 and contacted me to tour with his band Sonia Dada.
They had a hit song out at the time, and they were kind of one of the first kinds of Americana bands, really doing that blend of roots and blues and country and rock. So getting to do that, and then even the fact that he met me through Jon Butcher, who’s also a dear brother to me. David Resnik came through for me time on this record and executive produced it, produced it and got an incredible studio for me to record. It was folks were getting together at a time when it felt like we could all finally get back together again.
Each person on this album that’s playing with me and singing with me, there’s these cascade of stories that we have in each friendship and having everybody there in one room and then having Niko Bolas, who is Neil Young’s longtime engineer and producer and friend there for the recordings as well, and having his expertise his expertise, this record was kind of one of those records that I said to myself, “If this never happens again, this is enough. This is a gift from the universe, and it’s a culmination of all the hard work I’ve done and all the belief that folks still have in me at this age and this part of the journey.”
I felt so humbled by the whole thing just to be in there with so many beautiful people. It felt like really just pulling everything I have out of my heart and putting it down on tape. I just hope that, hope that some of that gets through, and I hope that the overall feeling of everybody in there is just full of love and support for each other, that folks can hear that and feel it, because that’s really what it was. It was like a family cookout with people you haven’t seen in 20 years, and everybody brought a dish and all of them were excellent.
Where’d you hope your career would go from the start? How’s the reality of your life as a musician matched up to the dream?
I was an only child and had a lot of time to myself and started writing pretty early, but really, I’ve always been a very sensitive person. I knew that this was not going to be an easy journey by any means. I’ve had some challenges along the way that really tested my spirit and really asked me, “How much do you love this and how much do you want to fight for it?” One of those was losing my hearing when I was 15. If there’s one thing that a musician can go through that really asks the question, “How much do you love this? How much are you willing to fight for it?” It’s losing your hearing.
Thankfully, I was able to get a little bit back on my right ear, still deaf in my left ear, but I fight for this every day, and I’m a warrior for my voice, and I pull from places that are so deep in my soul because of the fight and because I can’t hear everything that I feel like it’s actually become kind of like a superpower.
I’m able to communicate at a deeper level because I have no choice. And so, it’s just one of those things that I automatically do. I give everything I have. Sometimes it feels like a freight train about to take off. A lot of times for me, it’s holding your breath and closing your eyes and hoping for the best.
For me, that’s thrilling. It’s become thrilling in my older years because it keeps it exciting. It keeps that vulnerability of not knowing everything all the time about what’s actually coming out and what people are hearing and what the results are going to be. It makes it so I don’t feel stagnant. I don’t feel fat and satisfied with anything I do. I don’t think I ever will, and as an artist, that’s a beautiful gift.
Chris Pierce’s Let All Who Will tour continues early next year.