Chris Pierce

by Corey O'Flanagan

Of the many tear-inducing moments on This Is Us, one of the most powerful comes on the 2017 "Memphis" episode under the song "We Can Always Come Back To This," used in a scene where the cancer-stricken William is comforted by his son. Chris Pierce co-wrote that song, drawing inspiration from the death of his father.

Pierce has made a name for himself as a singer and songwriter who can pack a musical wallop, endearing himself to music supervisors who have used his tunes in True Blood, Rosewood, Soul Men, and many other movies and TV shows. In 2020, he lent his voice to the protest movement with the incisive track "It's Been Burning For A While," which became a viral hit when he performed it on a Playing For Change showcase.

In this episode of the Songfacts Podcast, Pierce talks about overcoming both racism and deafness to find his voice. He also explains how he started getting movie and TV placements, and performs three of his songs, including a new one called "American Silence" and a stunning rendition of "It's Been Burning For A While." The transcript is below.


This Is Us

The process of making music for a show or film is different every time. I got my first placement on the show Dawson's Creek.1 A song of mine called "Are You Beautiful" was placed via a friend of a friend working on the show back in 2003. Then in 2004 I worked with a music placement firm. The process is then done through word of mouth using the firm's connections and they take a cut. This then blossomed into both national and international commercials, followed by a couple of big shows. I think that some of the widest-reaching stuff has happened through personal relationships.

An example of this is how I got the opportunity to write "We Can Always Come Back To This" for This Is Us. Ten years ago I wrote a song at South By Southwest and I met a friend of a friend who introduced me to Sid [Khosla], who was the lead singer of the band Gold Spot. Ten years later, Sid called me up and said, "Hey Chris, I hope this is still your number, I'm working on music for this TV show, This Is Us. I've got to write a soul song and I thought of you from South By Southwest 10 years ago." I was in my truck 10 minutes later.

Of course if anything comes my way I pass the ball and relay it. How the universe brings everybody together, working together and dancing together to make things happen, is the best.


"We Can Always Come Back To This"

The composer for the show reached out to me and had told me that the episode was filmed already, and explained what the episode was about. He said that it was about a guy who was having a lot of personal and family issues. There was a flashback scene to 1969 or 1970 in Memphis. It was a story of how this hit soul song was written with he and his friends and some of his family. So we needed to write that hit song.

It immediately resonated with me as I had lost my dad a few years before and he was really into soul. When I saw the picture of the scene, it immediately reminded me of my dad, and I really drew from my own experience of loss while writing it. Within an hour we submitted it to the executive producers and they loved it. The next week we began recording it with the actor [Brian Tyree Henry] and I even got put in the scene as a backup guitarist, which was fun. It ended up on the Billboard chart for four weeks, then they asked if I could do an acoustic version for the next episode, then another lady [Hannah Miller] did a cover of the song too, so we actually had the song appear in three different forms on the show. It's been such an awesome experience.


Nina Simone and Led Zeppelin

I grew up in Southern California, coming from a very diverse background. My father has an African American background while my mother is Caucasian. My mother grew up in the North and my father in the South. As you can imagine they both had very different experiences, different upbringing, different music. Their bravery and love brought them together.

My dad was mostly into deep soul music such as Solomon Burke, James Carr and Nina Simone. He liked some jazz like Coltrane. My mother was very into the likes of Led Zeppelin, Paul Simon and Paul McCartney. I remember a lot of their bonding would be to play records after dinner. My mom says that before I could walk I would help them pick out their vinyls to listen to. This experience of music symbolizing family and togetherness is just how music feels to me. I knew that feeling and loved that feeling. I always wanted to pass that feeling on and share it with somebody else.


Deafness

A couple years before studying, I began losing my hearing very rapidly and I was certified deaf at 15. I was devastated as I was pretty deep into singing and had all these plans to tour and go to school. I had actually just been on the Natalie Cole show, a singing competition, and appeared against R. Kelly.2

I got diagnosed with otosclerosis, which is an inner-ear bone deformation which ultimately makes you deaf. I was fortunate enough to get a surgery on my right ear and regained 70% of my hearing. They then told me they wanted to wait to do the left ear, which meant I had to learn sounds and play everything correctly with just the one ear, so I had to really pull my boots up in order to get into USC, and I did it. I put my head down and told myself that I wanted to pursue music, and I got in. I was the first vocal jazz major ever accepted.

After this, I began touring with my first band. I had been deaf for the majority of my career and 30 years later I decided to get the surgery for my left ear. I got it done a couple of years ago and it worked for about a week. This gave me a lot of reflection back to that time of having to work so hard and overcome this. It really empowered me to not think about what limits us and stops us. I feel like in a lot of ways we are limitless. Not much can argue with the human heart and spirit.

I really hope my story empowers and inspires others. These limitations can make us go even further.


"It's Been Burning For A While"

This song was written in late May 2020. It was the week of the brutal murder of George Floyd and during all of the civil unrest over here in the USA. I live in Los Angeles, and there were marches on my street and folks being arrested for raising their voices, trying to be heard speaking against injustice. I was talking with my friend Mark Malone about how angry I was looking out of the window, seeing people laying on the ground in handcuffs just for raising their voices. It got me thinking about how powerful songwriting can be. Songs can be a way of marching and can add to the conversation.

I had a Playing For Change performance the next day and I felt an urgency to get this song done and played at that show, so that was the first time it was played. We recorded it, and now it has over 100,000 views on YouTube and has been played on the radio a bunch, so I decided to record a new version for the new album [American Silence, scheduled for release on February 26, 2021]. It's a call in the hopes of a response, like a lot of the new songs I've been writing.

For me personally, having dealt with a lot of intolerance and racism to the point of being shot at, being stabbed, being thrown in jail when I was young for speaking up, I feel like we as writers and creators often compartmentalize these feelings in order to survive and get along with people and get on in the world, but sometimes we get to a tipping point where these songs have to come out. It's all there, we just have to be open to them coming out and putting them into song form.

This year has really prompted me to come out with these new songs, but the feelings have, as the name of the song suggests, been brewing for a while. This has been happening for a long time - it's nothing new.

There's a line in the song, "Glad you stopped to see," which hopefully will prompt people not only to fight for a day, but to spend a lifetime reaching out to other people in the fight against injustice.


"Let Me Be Your Sunshine"

This song was written approximately two years ago. You could really feel that there were a lot of incidents happening throughout the US and there was an energy around the country that was almost telling us that it was going to bubble over. This song was a bit of preparation to say, "Don't be afraid of it all, you can weather the storm. It's not gonna be easy but I'm here for you."


Reverend Tall Tree

The Reverend Tall Tree project started by me walking into a blues saloon in Hollywood where the bartender recognized me. He mentioned that he really wanted a blues band, so we got one together. We didn't have any songs and we gigged the next night, so we started playing covers. "Bad Bad Whiskey" was just one of those songs that had to be on the playlist. That song really embodies what the blues are and it's not really covered a lot.

Chris is married to the actress Tara Buck, who played Ginger on True Blood and has appeared in episodes of Party Of Five, Justified and Bones.
That song, having been a bit of a staple in blues, I wasn't hesitant to cover it. Bob Dylan however, is another story. Touching a Dylan or Stevie Wonder song is something that for me requires a lot of thought. There's respect. It's about finding something that can add to the conversation of the music instead of retelling it or taking away from it. I feel that when you're covering a song by such a musical hero, it's about interpretation, not retelling it how you would have done it.

"Everything Is Broken" was brought to me by a friend and as soon as he played it for me I fell in love with it. I dissected that song and thought really long and hard about whether or not to do it. We did it live a couple of times and there were some lyrics that really stood out to me. I had to do it as if Dylan was right there. As if he were listening, that he would raise an eyebrow. I feel like our intention to add something interesting to the conversation was successful. Now there are a bunch of other ways in which I would like to do it, and to try some different stuff in a different way.


Blues Opera

Mark [Malone] and I have been friends for years and he's a script writer. He approached me after I had started Reverend Tall Tree and asked me if I had ever thought about doing a stage show and writing some songs around who Reverend Tall Tree is. So over the space of about five years we got together a couple times each month and have written this blues opera. It's 21 original songs and weaves through the tale of a street preacher in Mississippi. The character has a very checkered past and the way he survives is to do these songs and get people to donate. His intention is a little bit of a hustle, but he is a man of God so he believes in the meaning of what he is doing. He falls in love and convinces her that she should marry him and go on the road with him.

She soon finds out that the musician-preacher's wife is not the life she wants. After infidelity, he confronts the lovers, there's murder... and that's Act 1. Throughout the next acts we see the preacher travel to hell and do a deal with the Devil for another chance and be reunited with her in order to apologize.

As we released it, the whole nightmare with COVID has happened, but we have played it in a few theatres and some unconventional locations in California, Washington and Oregon. Our plan is to get it out to New York off Broadway. It's ready to go so as soon as we are able to perform it in front of people. We are playing around with the idea of doing a virtual show of it if the current crisis continues, so watch this space.

January 6, 2021

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More at chrispierce.com

Further reading:
Vonda Shepard
Andrew Roachford

Photos: Mathieu Bitton

Footnotes:

  • 1] Dawson's Creek was a great point for musical discovery. Paula Cole did the theme song. (back)
  • 2] This show was called Big Break. It lasted just one season, 1990-1991. Soon after, R. Kelly became a star. (back)

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