“I need West Virginia like a daily vitamin in a way. If I don’t take it for too long, I get funky and I gotta go and refresh,” reflects Christian Lopez. Born and raised in Martinsburg, Lopez still owns property among the sweeping, serene Appalachian Mountains. Now residing deep in southwestern New Mexico after calling Nashville home for a number of years, the singer-songwriter found himself creatively and personally depleted in the aftermath of 2017’s Red Arrow. So, he set sights on returning to West Virginia; his old stomping grounds have remained familiar to him through his career, frequently a reprieve from the crushing pressures of a burgeoning Americana career and the bright lights of lower Broadway.
But this time was different.
His grandmother’s land, a wide stretch of earth in the sleepy Calhoun County town of Minnora that seems to harbor all of their deepest, darkest secrets, proved to possess a sort of healing elixir. Soon, he would be on his merry, artistic way to write his new record, The Other Side, a wonderfully volatile genre-fusion.
“It’s really inspiring down there. It’s a sort of stuck-in-time property on a mountain with nothing around you,” he reflects. “It was like a bittersweet depression in a way. I was trying to talk my way through it and write my way through it. This record is so satisfying, because it came from the deepest parts of me. You have to live and keep going to reach those parts. I guess it was just sort of destined to happen at some point.”
From the plaintive, finger-plucked confessionals he has become known for to a healthy powder keg of indie and classic rock detonating in the blink of an eye, Lopez emerges in rare form. His songwriting has gotten sharper, and his vocals dirtier, as he scrapes out a deathly snarl on “Nothing Wrong” and later lilts as songbirds do with “Tanglin.”
Lopez pounces across genres with a hypnotic slyness. Even when he gets down and groovy on “Finish What You Started,” an Elvis Presley-meets-Dwight Yoakam sidewinder, he makes sure to leave a mark all this own. And in between his most disruptive moments, he keeps connective tissues to the past, the more constrained, quieter arrangements as strong as ever.
This new approach developed “probably right near the top,” he says. In working with producer Robert Adam Stevenson (Queens of the Stone Age, Jeff Beck), who he met at a Halloween party a few years ago, Lopez set his sights on twisting his indie/Americana style with Stevenson’s more ambient work to conjure up a whole new entity. “I really wanted to see what kind of fusion we could make.”
It seems fitting “Nothing Wrong” opens the record, as it was their “first real co-write” together for the project. “That was a pretty big departure for us trying all those electrics and singing those big verses,” Lopez recounts. “But you know, it’s stretching the muscle and working those new ideas, sort of just as an experimental thing. It’s a soulful thing, too, and that’s why we kicked it off on the album. I think I wanted to get people a little shook right off the bat, because it’s a departure.”
There’s a cohesion to the 12-track record, even as Lopez swoops to rhythmic highs or dips into acoustic valleys. Interestingly, he never had the intention to make an album. “It just sort of came to be,” he explains. “We really didn’t have too many hiccups. It was such a fun, satisfying experience.”
Lopez’s genre-play is not unlike the Avett Brothers, who have “inspired me on another level,” he gushes. Particularly over the group’s last five or six records, they’ve swapped out straight-arrow folk music for “wacky things and crazy departures that a lot of people would always be up in arms about. I was there loving every second of it, because that honest longing for experimenting and trying new things is what I love.”
The Other Side is steeped in longing — and not only because Lopez returned returned to West Virginia to write. Now 26, he’s beginning to feel time’s grip tighten on his shoulders, leaving him to wonder if he’s out of time to accomplish what he wants to do. “To some I’m a joke/I’m the pull behind the toke/And to some, I’m just running out of time,” he sings on “Blows My Mind (to You),” wistfully taking the piss out his detractors while also reflecting upon the one person who believes him in, no strings attached: his fiancé.
“I was trying to laugh at myself in a way. I think if you can acknowledge it, it makes it clear to yourself and to the people around you. But I still feel like I’m on the first hole of 18 in a way,” he explains. “When you’re on your third album and you’re going into your late 20s, these are real things that I have to think about and sort of battle. But it doesn’t get me down, though. If you listen to the very beginning of that song, you can hear a voice peek out right before the music kicks in. That’s my fiancé saying, ‘You got it,’ from a demo session.”
“That’s really what it’s like when someone comes in and loves you in a way that you didn’t even think was even possible, and it blows your mind,” he adds.
Such is the nature of Lopez’s finest moments. “Feel the Same” swells with a similar emotional air, with the singer-songwriter listing off all the things he misses most about his WV childhood. “I miss you/I miss me/I miss whatever we used to be/I need more than this empty name,” he howls with a commanding softness. Drums pour down as rain, pulling the song’s desperation closer to his chest.
“Living a life as a kid, you don’t realize that you’re never going to get back there again. Having that sort of juvenile happiness is like an untouchable happiness when it’s gone,” he says, adding he initially wrote the song three years ago. He pieces together several “moments of me realizing that it was gone and that the rest of our lives is seeking out that same feeling wherever we can get it, in good ways and bad ways.”
Feeling like a companion piece, “The Other Side,” written as a specific response to working his grandmother’s land, arrived when he least expected it to. “I didn’t really know what I was going to say when I went into it,” he remembers. First, he simply jotted down the little things in life he loved most. “That was my focus. But then I started to realize what it could be, and it almost felt like the song was coming to sort of uplift myself.”
Looking back, the feel of West Virginia and the people possesses “storybook vibes,” he says. “My dad was like a best friend to me. I had a great mom and a great supportive situation.”
The record weaves through reflections on “the identity you give yourself as a kid, as a son, brother, kid in this class, friend to this guy,” he offers, “but then you get to a certain age, and for me, I’m out here on the road trying to do this and there’s no one else next me other than my fiancé, and that identity is sort of stripped because you’re not just the son or the friend of the kid in class. You’re this guy out here on the road trying to figure out who you are on your own. It’s a tough transition.”
The Other Side marks not only an impressive musical transition but demonstrates Lopez is more than capable of driving the ship. “I love being able to play all the instruments and take my sweet time. It definitely was a gradual recording process. The experience made me more powerful in the studio in a good way,” he says. “When I came to Nashville, I was courted… working with people who had a lot of clout, a lot of credit. I had to sit back and follow their lead. I learned so much, and I’m grateful for all of it, but this album was very much me doing the opposite. It was very much me taking the pilot’s seat and being able to say no when I needed to and push something through when I needed to.”