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Interview: Christina Perri – Singer, Songwriter and Producer

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When you wish upon a star, sometimes dreams really do come true. Such was the case with Christina Perri, who received nationwide exposure – through no act of her own – on So You Think You Can Dance, when her song “Jar of Hearts” was passed on to Stacey Tookey, a choreographer for the show. And as is the case with all fairy tales, one thing led to another, and Perri landed a last-minute replacement gig on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, which cemented her status as an artist to watch in 2010 and beyond.

In support her debut EP, The Ocean Way Sessions, which was released on November 9, Christina Perri managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry – reflecting on the musical influence of her brother, the video treatment for “Jar of Hearts,” and the steep learning curve in the aftermath of her Jay Leno appearance.

In the vast majority of your press materials, there are several gaps in your personal biography. Since you were born and raised in Philadelphia, a city with a rich music history, I am curious to learn about the life events that led you to Los Angeles.

Well, I grew up in Philly. I went to school in Philly. I went to an art school for college right out of high school where I did a lot of theater. I was always in the music scene in Philly. All my friends are musicians, and all played in Philly. I woke up one day, when I was twenty, and just decided I wanted to move to LA. I had visited back when I was sixteen. My big brother was in a band called Silvertide. They had a record deal and they did a record out here. I visited them twice and just totally fell in love with L.A. and palm trees. Philly is really cold in the winter. I just always thought of Hollywood being a place where dreams come true. It wasn’t long before my twenty-first birthday. I think I had like a month to pack, make all my decisions and tie up all my loose ends. On my twenty-first birthday, August 19, 2007, I moved out to L.A. with my guitar, my suitcase and my big dream and then started my life out here.

Since your big move happened at the age of twenty-one, at what point did you decide that music was going to be the focus of your personal and professional lives? Is there a particular moment during art school, or the years beforehand, that crystallized your dedication to music?

That didn’t happen until September of 2009. I moved out to L.A. to work on music, but I was twenty-one. I was getting wrapped up in relationships and waitressing and getting distracted. I was working in production and making music videos. I basically floated around my whole life until September of last year when I just woke up and left the life that I had before. I was married. I was producing music videos for a living. I had the house and the dogs and I basically just left all of that, moved into a little apartment and wrote twenty brand new songs. So September of 2009 was really when I figured that out. Other than that, I was singing my whole life and music was always a part of my life, but it wasn’t until then when I dedicated my whole life to it.

Your brother Nick is a very accomplished musician as well. As you have embarked on your solo career, what lasting influences do you think his career had upon yours? And what advice has he given you, in the midst of your artistic journey?

It’s funny. My parents are not musical. No one else in my family is musical. It’s mainly just me and my brother. I grew up listening to Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra because my dad is from Italy. My mom listened to Elton John and James Taylor. I had a really cool, wide range of pop artists and singer/songwriters that I grew up listening to. Then my brother and I got really into rock music like Guns N’ Roses, and both of us started to go down this path of electric guitars and tattoos. That whole world started when we were teenagers and started, for sure, because of Guns N’ Roses. I was always really inspired by my big brother and it wasn’t until he moved away that I even picked up the piano and guitar as a songwriter. I had been a listener and a singer my whole life, along with doing theater. It wasn’t until he moved away that I became a songwriter because I missed hearing instruments in the house. Naturally when I played them, I would just sing with it, and then all of a sudden these songs would appear. So that’s how I started to become a songwriter and that happened when I was like sixteen. My brother has been an inspiration my whole life. I am now doing a version of what he did with his first band, but we’re very different. He had a rock ‘n’ roll band, and I’m just a solo artist, so our experiences are totally different. He’s been more of a supporting family member than somebody I consult with for my decisions because our experiences are so different. He just loves to crap out. I mean, we talk about stuff and he enjoys all my stories. It’s more of that than it is learning from him.

According to several online sources, your performance on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno on June 29 was a last-minute replacement. How much advance notice did you have? And how crazy was your preparation for the show?

Oh my God. I found out at eight in the morning. I was sleeping, and my manager called at like seven. I didn’t answer it because it was seven in the morning and it was a day off. At least I thought it was a day off. I hadn’t had a day off for two months. So I didn’t answer. He called again and again and again. Then my other manager called, like the higher-up guy, and I was like: “Oh my God, what’s going on?” So by eight o’clock in the morning, I finally called them. And they had called my best friends to go and wake me up but I was sleeping. Finally I got up. I answered the phone and my manager said, “Can you do Jay Leno this afternoon?” It’s taped at like four. So I said yes and they picked me up at eleven. I only had between eight and ten to shower and do my hair. I didn’t have any time to go get a dress, so I had to wear something I had in my closet. Fortunately, I had something I had never worn before. So I had three hours to prepare before the car picked me up at eleven.

That’s crazy!

Yes, that’s how that whole two months went. There is no time to think, there is just time to do. I swear, the whole two months were like that.

Before your performance on Jay Leno, what previous venues and appearances do you credit for preparing you for such a life-changing opportunity?

Well, it’s funny. I really don’t think anything could have prepared me for my first show being on national television, because I had never performed as an artist. I had performed maybe at little coffee houses and open mics. I had never “performed performed.” My first performance was on the CBS Morning Show. My second performance was on Jay Leno. My first show ever was at the Santa Barbara Bowl, a thing for Jason Mraz in front of 6,000 people. It sold out. It’s been crazy. I don’t think I have specific things that prepared for me that, for the actual craft of performing. What I do think prepared me was just keeping my head on straight the whole time. I know for a fact that when the madness was happening in June, I reached out and was completely surrounded by my core people: My family, my closest friends, and they kept me really in check. My family is very Italian, and I can just imagine my dad giving me a good Italian smack in the head – like: “What’s the matter with you?” – if my ego is getting too big or something. So I basically would touch home base and I did that every single day. Calling my little cousin. “What did you score in your basketball games?” Little stuff like that, that just kept my feet on the ground. That really prepared me to do one day at a time because it was just one crazy thing after the next. So I just tried to stay out of my own way because if I were to think too much, I might have gotten more nervous and tripped out. So I definitely was just doing. I was on the doing plan instead of the thinking plan. I was just going, doing and staying connected to my friends and family, and I think that’s really how I got through that.

As you talk about all the madness that came out of June, I can only imagine that your learning curve has been really, really steep. Is there a particular moment or incident that you find to be extremely memorable?

It’s funny. I can remember everything pretty well but it all seems like one big blur for the whole two months. But it’s funny. Nothing terrible happened. Nothing too scary. But I think what stands out to me is I tried to really enjoy each day, which is really hard to do when you’re on such a crazy path like that. It was just moving so fast. And I remember I would stop every night and try to soak it in and try to enjoy what had just happened. And I would answer every single email that came in. I made this email address called LoveChristina@ChristinaPerri.com, because all of a sudden my personal Facebook went away, and I wanted people to be able to message me personally. So I posted this email address, and literally I was just flooded with hundreds and hundreds of emails a day. I would sit every night and read all their stories and write them all back. And that’s something I really, really remember being such a big part of those first two months for me because it made me feel so connected to the listeners and to the fans. Instead of feeling like I got picked up on this journey and it was a me-me-me kind of thing, it felt like this group thing, that I was part of this thing with all of these people and we were all doing it together. And that, for me, is something that sticks out more than any kind of flub-up. As far as technicalities go, it was pretty flawless. Every show, every meeting, it was movin’ and shakin’. But it was really those emails at night that kept me present.

I really, really like your treatment for the video “Jar of Hearts.” How did all the pieces come together?

I had been thinking about the music video from day one. I’m a visual person and I also have a background in music video, so I was really excited to come up with something. I also wanted to do something that was really simple, that wasn’t going to disconnect all the people that like the song from the person that they associate the song with. I figured if I added some crazy storyline about some dude and me personally in this love affair and there was lots of acting … If it was that kind of music video, I felt like it would totally disconnect a lot of people. So I wanted it to be really simple, where it’s just me the artist singing to the audience. There’s a little storyline happening and there’s a dude in there, but also at the same time I am giving a huge nod to the dance community who made the song blow up, day one. I really feel like we achieved that. So I came with up the skeletal version of it and then Jay Martin, a director from the production company DNA, took it further and came up with the idea of the breathing where your heart is out of the mouth and breathing where the heart is back in at the end.

Yes! I really like that part!

So it was a collective thing in the end, but it was definitely one of the best days of my whole life.

Well, the video is gorgeous! And I agree with you completely. If you had done something more, then it probably would have just distracted the viewer. Your new EP features “Jar of Hearts,” and it was recorded at Hollywood’s legendary Ocean Way Studio. How did this project become attached to this particular studio? Did you have a previous attachment of some sort?

Well, the EP is a really magical thing because Ocean Way Studios is really prestigious and really just a big deal out here in L.A. and in the musician world. So for me to be able to do the EP at Ocean Way, it was like a dream. We basically went in there for like five hours. I think we started at 5:00 PM and ended around 10:00 PM. And we just did the songs in one take. It was me and my band. We had only known each other a month and had only rehearsed six times before we did that. We have a really nice relationship and we just nailed it. We just knocked it out and did a couple of takes. We took one of the whole takes and we moved on. We knew we only had that amount of time. I did make a video of the whole performance we were filming, so there’s going to be video content that goes with that audio content, and that will be really exciting.

My favorite song on the EP is “Black and Blue.” There are a few lines, in particular, that I love! At one point you say, “This isn’t where I’m meant to lay down, but you dug this grave, and it fits me perfectly.” When I first heard those words, I immediately pressed pause, rewound the track, and played them again!

Wow, thank you. That’s really cool! This is the first time I’ve ever gotten to talk about “Black and Blue” with anybody, so I feel really great right now! “Black and Blue” is just like a child of mine. I’ve had that song for about three years. It’s another one with a little bit of “F.U.” and a little bit of “I’m okay now and I’m moving on.” Funny enough, it’s about the same person as “Jar of Hearts” who was definitely a muse for me for a long time.

Well, at least you can collect a check now, right? [laughing]

I guess. I guess it’s worth it! [laughing] I don’t know. But yes, that song is really special to me and definitely a heartfelt one.

Where did you find the inspiration for such a visual? I really like how you phrase your words.

Well, it’s so funny. I don’t know how. I definitely don’t know how I come up with it. It just kind of comes out. I sit down at an instrument, whether it be the piano or the guitar, and I just start singing and writing down or recording what I’m singing. Then I go back and listen to it and hear what I said and I write it down. I mean, I have no way to explain, really, how I come up with words or phrasing other than it just comes through me. I have no idea.

I went to your website and it said, “Ready, Set, Rock.” As you prepare for what I think is going to be a wonderful career, what are your current goals for the future?

Well right now, I start recording my whole full-length album at Ocean Way, which is bananas! I’m going to do half the album and then I’m going to do touring during all of December, including Christmas shows and radio shows. I can’t wait to meet all of the fans of “Jar of Hearts.” That is going to be my favorite part. They know all the words and sing to me in the audience; and it totally just makes me realize why I’m alive. I’m going to do that all of December, have a Christmas break and then come back January, finish the second half of the record, and then prepare for the record to come out. I’m assuming it will be this Spring. Still working the EP the whole time. And the EP, it’s live, so it’s really just from me to you, the listener. It’s like, “Thank you so much for loving ‘Jar of Hearts.’ This is another piece of my heart to just prepare you a little for the album.” The album will obviously be the big, huge push, and I just want to tour all of 2011 and just meet every single person I possibly can.

For more information on Christina Perri, visit her official website: http://www.christinaperri.com/

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About Clayton Perry

  • Hugo

    Nice article! I think christina Perri is going to be a big star!!!

    Check out this Christina Perri Video Interview.

    Don�t worry, the text is in german, but the videos in english. You�re not missing anything in the text… ;)