Chris Kasper has a lot of love for his adopted city. The singer/songwriter, who is playing at both the Second Street Festival on August 5th and Philadelphia Folk Fest on August 18th, has called Philadelphia home for nearly 10 years.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, he grew up in the suburbs of North Jersey, leaving at age 18 to attend school in West Virginia. While there, he began playing at open mics and recorded a demo, which received a positive response. After earning his degree, however, he found himself at a crossroads, unsure of what to do next.
“I had a degree in Psychology and was thinking of maybe going to grad school,” Kasper says. “I’d been talking to my cousin Jackie about it, which was the turning point for me. She has real insight on life-I take what she says pretty seriously-and she said ‘You should try to do this, you should try to play music.’ As soon as I heard that, I thought, you know what, I am gonna try that. I think I just needed to hear it.”
Soon after that fateful talk, Kasper moved to Philadelphia and, with the exception of a months in Oregon, has become a devoted resident.
“There’s something I really identify with in Philly that I can’t quite put my finger on,” he says. “The music here really inspires me-I really get a lot out of the local scene. It’s not as overrun [as New York or Nashville] and it’s very real–there’s no smoke and mirrors with the music here. Philly gravitates towards things that are real. It’s a very hard town to play in–there’s a big love/hate, tough love thing here–but once you do, [the locals] find a lot of pride in things from Philly. You gotta really work for it, and I like when things aren’t just handed to you.”
Kasper recorded his debut, 2006’s Flying Boy, at a friend’s studio in North Carolina. He brought it to Philadelphia with great response, receiving invitations to play shows and getting radio airplay. Kasper is quick to dismiss the idea that success has fallen into his lap, however.
“It was a lot of work, but I was determined to make [being a professional musician] my life. It’s not for everybody; it’s a hard lifestyle, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Listening to his songs makes it easy to see why he has received such positive feedback. Taking inspiration from artists like Gillian Welch, Merle Haggard, and The Band, Kasper’s pleasantly peaceful chords blend seamlessly with his soft, slightly melancholic vocals. Lyrically, he cites everything from “the way life unfolds” to the dark poetry of Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac as influences.
“My own personal insights have a lot to do with what I write about. I’m not so much a storyteller when I write songs. I like writing about ideas, personal growth and personal challenges, that type of thing. I think my goal is to incorporate life in general, everything that surrounds me. I love art, I love oil paintings-all of my album covers are oil paintings-and it’s a great marriage of mediums. I really want to find a common thread in all of that, even lyrically. I notice by doing that, people interpret it in different ways, and I find that very interesting.”
Undoubtedly, Kasper finds the most powerful influence in his music comes from his friends in the local Philly scene.
“Seeing someone in a small club-there’s something really powerful in that. I remember seeing friends play and feeling so inspired, I was writing songs when I got home. That’s my biggest influence- the people who are right in front of me, who I see every day and am friends with.”
Naturally, he has a long list of hometown favorites.
“My absolute favorites are people like Birdie Busch, Hoots and Hellmouth, Hezekiah Jones, Amos Lee, Andrew Lipke. I love the Toy Soldiers, Levee Drivers, Good Old War, I could go on and on. There’s a lot. Those are some of my standouts.”
Getting by with a little help from his friends has served Kasper well. Paul Stanek, a photo editor at Wonderful Machine, helped Kasper develop a music video for the song “Walking On Water” off his latest album, The First Hundred Years Are The Hardest.
“I was talking to [Stanek] randomly at a festival and he mentioned he’d studied animation and was looking to get involved with local musicians and make a video. The First Hundred Years was coming out, and now we’re working on videos for three of its songs. [“Walking On Water”] was the first of the three videos.”
The video renders Kasper against a variety of beautifully animated sequences, such as surrounded by fish underwater and resting on a lunar surface.
“The concept came very loosely. It’s based a lot on his art—the fish, the flowers-that’s all him, his style of drawing. We shot for two days and did a few different takes of me singing the song, and he took 8 months to make that video. He put a lot of time and his heart into it, and I think it just came out beautiful. But the main thing about that video is he got into my brain somehow- bringing in the elements of water, the infinite door opening, the awakening of the Third Eye- he picked up on these deep spiritual notions on our time hanging out. There’s nothing in [the video] that said ‘that’s not me.’ He really nailed my personality and the song and did it in his own way. It was a really amazing experience.”
While the video is a striking introduction to Kasper’s music, he is at his strongest when performing live. After touring all spring with funk-pop band ALO, Kasper took a bit of a rest this summer, writing music and playing locally with Kiley Ryan in their folk duo Foxhound. He is currently looking forward to performing at the Second Street Festival and is “extremely honored” to make his third appearance at Philly Folk Fest.
Kasper encourages Folk Fest virgins to leave any preconceived notions at the door and just take it all in:
“It’s a loose atmosphere. There’s not a lot of folksy people; there’s no way to say a specific type of person comes to folk fest. There’s this real loving vibe in the air. Everyone’s so happy to be there. There are campers who camp for all three days, and they set up a little city with roads and streets. Each little commune has little towns and names. It’s so elaborate, there’s full kitchens and little stages, saloons–it’s nuts. It’s an amazing thing to see. There are diehard folk-festers who have gone for years and people who come back every year from far out of town. You should go just to see the camping; it’s a whole world in itself. All walks of life come, from little kids to old people and everyone in between.”
By Dana Giusti