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Storytelling Is How We Learn: in Conversation with Quinn Christopherson (Part I)

Photo of musician Quinn Christopherson hiking in the snow in Alaska.

Emma Sheffer, 2023

 

Quinn Christopherson is a singer-songwriter, guitarist and, most of all, a storyteller. He first gained wider acclaim in 2019 as the winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert, performing a trio of confessional, slightly off-kilter narrative songs that are indicative of his signature style.

Born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska, Quinn is Iñupiaq and Ahtna Athabascan and grew up immersed in two cultures of storytelling: the former focused more on mythology and the latter focused on the retelling of everyday events.

In 2022, Quinn released his debut album Write Your Name in Pink to critical acclaim. Drawing from personal and familial histories, Quinn inhabits, and explores, the growing pains of multiple personae as they navigate stories of loss, longing, love, addiction, nostalgia, trauma, and transformation.

Most recently, Quinn released the song (and accompanying music video) “Won’t Give Up” with Pattie Gonia and Yo-Yo Ma that defies the common narrative of doom and gloom surrounding the climate crisis, instead opting for an anthem of community and hope—ideas that are central to both the music Quinn makes and the clothing we create through ALL WE REMEMBER.

We first connected with Quinn in late 2022 and bonded over a shared appreciation of intention and craft, which resulted in a photoshoot with Quinn’s partner, the photographer Emma Sheffer, and a subsequent interview with Quinn late last year.

Over the course of a couple hours, our designer Jacob Victorine met with Quinn for a lively conversation via Zoom to discuss Quinn’s process and approach to songwriting, familial history, relationship to clothing, and much more. A year and a half in the making, this project with Quinn is indicative of our shared belief in care and collaboration over speed.

Please note, the below interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

Jacob Victorine: What role has storytelling played in your life, in your family, and in your music.

Quinn Christopherson: Storytelling for indigenous people has been a way for us to pass down our history forever. It's not even something I was consciously aware of growing up because it was just my every day, my surroundings, how my family passes the time, and how we celebrate and grieve. How we do everything is we tell stories and we talk through it. It was only when I got older that I realized how special and how unique that is and how it's not that way in every family. Just the way that all of my grandma's stories and my mom's stories have taught me so much, because my family has always been open about our past and our lives, so I don't make those same mistakes—how I can learn from all of their stories.

I found that to be unique and something I appreciate to this day. With songwriting, I didn't sit down and think, “Okay, I'm going to tell a story.” I just started writing what made me feel better, trying to get to know myself and other people around me through song. And the stories came out and then it kind of clicked, you know, “Wow, I got this from my grandma, I got this from my family.” I just think it's cool that they passed it down to me without telling me they're passing it down to me.

"Storytelling for indigenous people has been a way for us to pass down our history forever."

JV: It's incredible the way we sometimes carry parts of our lineage subconsciously, because I think about that with my family which has quite a few artists in it. My dad was a fine artist and a graphic designer among other things. And sometimes I'll catch myself doing things or working in ways that remind me of him.

So, I’m wondering, what is storytelling like in your family? Are the stories about things that have happened to people in your family? Are the stories mythology? And how are these stories shared?

QC: Yeah, it's everything. There's definitely some mythology in there. My family on my dad's side is Iñupiaq, which is Inuit way up north of Alaska, and my mom's side is Athabascan, which is more from the center. Two totally different native peoples, different languages, but both inherently doing the same things. I know on my Iñupiaq side, there's more mythology and more and, on my Athabascan side, it was all about family members and friends and events and all kinds of retelling of things that have happened in every context.

JV: In what ways do you see storytelling as a form of resistance?

QC: I've seen some of my friends going through things or wondering about their family and them being like, “Oh, you know, my mom won't tell me this, or my grandma won't tell me this, or I don't know because of this.” For me, if I wanted to know anything, my mom, my grandma, and my dad, would tell me every little thing because that's how you pass things down. It's crazy to me when people are withholding the details of their own family, their own existence and upbringing. Storytelling is how we learn to be better than the people that raised us. When I was growing up, I always thought my dad was so smart, the smartest guy ever. I would tell him that and he would say, “Oh, you are going to be way smarter than me.” That's the whole point. How else could you do that if you don't tell them every little thing?

JV: At least for me, that comes through in your music and in the interviews that I've read with you. So, would you talk about how that familial transparency and vulnerability manifests itself in both your process and the product of your music?

QC: It was never hard to be honest with my family about anything. The gift of that for me is that they do the same thing with me. We're open about our struggles. I think a little bit inside all of us wants to figure things out on our own, be independent. We don't need anyone, but really we do. And all of the stuff we go through is so much better when we’re not going through it alone. Who else to be there for you through the thick and thin then the people who know you the best. We all go through hard times, and a lot of Write Your Name in Pink was digging through my past and healing from that. That's what I love about music; it really helped me and my family work through a lot of things and I want to continue to do that. In all of the music I'm working on right now, it's a look into where I'm at and where my family's at today. And I had to write Write Your Name in Pink to get here and it's an evolution of life. Just like humans, the music evolves, too.

 "It was never hard to be honest with my family about anything."

Musician Quinn Christopherson standing in an ALL WE REMEMBER undyed organic cotton shirt and scarf.
Emma Sheffer, 2023

 

JV: What I'm hearing you say, at least in part, is the way in which we carry our families and our ancestors with us, whether we want to or not. Those things were definitely on my mind when we founded and named ALL WE REMEMBER along with the collectivity of making clothing; it's very rare that a designer makes everything in a collection. Even if it’s a one person show, usually they're not also harvesting, weaving, and knitting the fabric. So, I'm curious to know, what initially drew you to us, and do you see any throughways between what we do and what you do?

QC: When I found ALL WE REMEMBER, I just started looking at all of the pieces and all the little details. For such a simple look and simple colors, there was a story that I was seeing from the clothing; I thought you were telling something and I was telling something, too. I've never worn anything with the natural dyeing process that you do. I thought that was so cool and so deliberate, and that's how I take making music and art and the photos and videos that go along with my music—every detail is important. I can tell you do the same thing. Then, when I got some of the pieces with the tags and the flowers and all of that…I have all kinds of flowers in and around my house and in my yard and everything. I have flowers tattooed on my head. It just felt like we were on the same wavelength, for sure.

JV: I really appreciate that you notice all those details; you don't always know if they’re going to catch on with people who are engaging with the work. It's gratifying when people pick up on those little touches.

QC: Of course, I actually feel like in making things, the process of it is so much more important than the product in the end, especially with songs. Even growing up, did you ever build a tree house and then right when it's done you're like, this thing sucks, but it took like two weeks or whatever to get this thing up, and it was so fun and you put so much into it. And then, do you sit in a box at the end like it's not fun anymore? I always try to remember that sentiment, especially in songwriting because I totally get wrapped up into, “Oh my gosh, this could be something.” Right when I start to think that, I almost want to crumple the song up and throw it out because I want to stay within that point of making it, and enjoying that, and just sitting with it and knowing that it doesn't have to turn into something.

That's something I have to practice all the time, letting go of things and remembering what the important part is. Especially if I collaborate with friends or other artists and we're there to make a thing, I almost want to forget that—forget the things and just make, and then those pieces are going to be so much better and so much more meaningful, and that's going to last in your heart rather than if you just spit out a song or sew up a garment. Like no, it's not about that.

JV: Yeah, I agree completely. One of the therapists I've seen over the years talks about the idea of loosening our attachment. As a singer, songwriter, musician, designer, poet, etc., it can be easy to get caught up in the expectations of the product and lose the process when what we should be emphasizing is the process, because that's where the meaningful connection comes from between each other and with ourselves. If that process is genuine, then that comes through in the work, and that's where you get people really feeling something. It made me think about your songwriting and what I hope comes through with our garments: a complex simplicity where things look simple at face value, but when you dig deeper, you start to see all of the intention, all of the thought that's gone into them.

In that way, I think of poems where you want entry points, but then it’s also good for the reader to be able to come back and discover something new each time. Thinking of your song “2005,” which, at first glance, is very nostalgic, but you include things that people might not normally be nostalgic for. You sing about Mad Cow Disease, and that bitter sweetness adds a layer of depth to the song that nostalgic songs don't always have, because they're focusing on the illusion of how great things were instead of getting at that complexity. I don't know if that was intentional or if that was something that came out of your subconscious, but would you talk more about your songwriting process and what you feel a song can or should offer people?

QC: Yeah, thank you. I love that song. I don't even know if it was conscious, but, to me, it was nostalgic to think about the things that, at the time, I didn't like, but were so much simpler regardless. Even the line about my dad going through my things, I hated that, but would I take that over paying all my bills today? A hundred percent yes. It’s funny, the things you miss and think are good to remember, even the most imperfect moments you can still look back on in a good light—I have to take that with me today. Even going through whatever I'm going through, hopefully, I can look back on it later and be glad I did that.

For the songwriting, I usually just think, “What is it, what am I feeling in that moment that day?” and zoom in on it. If I sat down every day and tried to write the world into a song that would be really hard. So, it's like, just pick a little moment and zoom in on it; it’s always more fun that way anyway. With “2005,” I got to re-remember everything that was going on, good or bad. I let songs go anywhere. I'll start one song one way and the next day it'll be about something completely different. That’s when I'm willing to give it up to the process.

When I don't get stuck on this one thing, I'm like, “Oh man, this was like actually about this other thing I didn't know I was thinking about.” And the best part of making anything is that you start with nothing and then all of a sudden you have a thing that you made. It’s pretty special. Any process, like poetry, too. I love poems and I write poems, and a lot of times my songs start as poems. I think that's why some of them are weird and don't have a structure. Because I'm just like, “Who needs a chorus?” I'm telling the story and if the story is told, then the song is done, right? Like in my song, “Neighborhood,” that was purely a poem and I never gave it a chorus or a bridge; I just let it be. I think it's fun to do that. You probably deal with the same thing in clothing when you're sewing stuff, you probably have to have this or this or this, and it's like, “What if we didn't pay attention to that sometimes? Don't get me wrong, I love pop, I love a good chorus and a great structure, but I also like to forget that once in a while.

"Don't get me wrong, I love pop, I love a good chorus and a great structure, but I also like to forget that once in a while."

The shadow of musician Quinn Christopherson's pants and boots reflected in the snow.

Emma Sheffer, 2023

JV: It's funny you, you read my mind of where I was going next, because I'm curious for you to talk more about your connection with poetry. A lot of the things you named I associate with poetry in terms of specificity. I also think of Adrienne Maree Brown and her book Emergent Strategy in terms of the idea of starting small, and the small being represented in the large, both in terms of action and in nature. I think of the ability of an artistic work to move and the ability of the artist to surprise themself, which I think is something that’s key in making meaningful art. If you're not surprising yourself or if I'm not surprising myself when I'm making something, I don't think it's going to surprise an audience. Are there particular poets or poems that hold a lot of meaning for you?

QC: I love that idea of surprising yourself. I've never heard that, but yes, I think when you're creating something original to start, you're always going be finding yourself in that somehow.

As for poetry, I've been reading lots of Ocean Vuong lately. All his books, especially Time Is A Mother and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. Those two really stick with me. I've been playing the audio of them too. Don't tell anyone. I love his poetry and the way he writes, and it feels really modern to me; he feels modern. I know he's around my age and his references feel like the things I'm referring to sometimes.

Also, the people in my life are always inspiring me. My family, of course, but my friends and just the kids I'm around—basically everyone who just passionate about things. I wanted to cry watching MasterChef the other day. Just the way they were so passionate about the food they were cooking; I just think that's so special. That in itself is a song. I think everything is a song, anytime someone is so passionate about something it inspires me.

Part II of the interview coming soon...

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