On Quinn Christopherson's debut album, stories of growth emerge in monumental details
For Quinn Christopherson, storytelling is something of a family affair. The musician, who grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, attributes his knack for it to his heritage: His mother is Ahtna Athabascan and his father is Iñupiat, and Christopherson says telling stories is central to his family's traditions. He started writing a lot of poems as a kid; at 20, his dad bought him a guitar and he began writing songs. But really, he says, he traces it back to his grandmother. "My grandma would tell us stories, and sometimes they would be so short," heonce said in an interview. "She would almost say nothing, but we got a whole world view out of, like, five words."
The first song I ever heard of Christopherson's was, in fact, a tribute to his grandmother: "Mary Alee," a sweet, moving folk song he entered into the 2018 Tiny Desk Contest. As it turns out, he's a keen inheritor of her impressive economy of language. On Write Your Name In Pink collections of charming details — childhood friends, hole-in-the-wall bars, a father-daughter bowling league — thread together to reveal moving, complicated stories of growth, pain and possibility.
After gigging in the Anchorage scene for a few years, Christopherson's big break came courtesy of a song he wrote called "Erase Me," which won the 2019 Tiny Desk Contest. Christopherson came out as a trans man in his mid-20s, and "Erase Me" is about his gender transition. It's a song about how much more seriously people took him when they knew him to be a man — and how it gave him a new perspective on the decades of disrespect and misogyny he'd experienced before. "Nobody interrupts me / Nobody second guesses my opinion," he sings about this new era of his life, after spending decades being "so used to pulling the short stick." The song navigates a complicated form of privilege: "Passing, to me," he's said about the song, "feels like I'm being rewarded for my own erasure." A new studio version of the track closes Write Your Name In Pink — a fitting end to a collection of songs that try to make peace with the hand life has dealt, that function as plainspoken reminders that, while our past selves are inescapable, so too is the possibility of welcome transformation.
Write Your Name In Pink also turns a sharp but compassionate eye toward Christopherson's childhood. Addiction is a constant presence in these songs; Christopherson was impacted by his mother's experience with addiction over many years, and both he and his sister — the subject of a devastating song he released in 2019 — have battled addiction too. "Uptown," an unsettlingly buoyant, sleek song on Write Your Name In Pink, is about blacking out to forget your problems. "Headed uptown, driving drunk," goes the chorus, which ends with Christopherson repeating the line, "I don't like who I am." "Bubblegum" traces his life ages 6 to 26. At 17, he's breaking rules and getting high, "abandoned alone"; in his early 20s, he's doing lines in the bathroom and "treating women badly." "I don't know who I am," he repeats throughout the song — sometimes mournfully, sometimes nonchalantly, a statement of self-abnegation one moment and a declaration of freedom the next.
Christopherson got sober when he was 23, though that led to a new kind of emotional crisis, a flooding back of emotions that drinking had helped him numb. He thought a lot about his relationship with his mother and the impact her addiction had on both of them — how it had, as he put it, "ruined both our lives at the time." He wrote a lot of angry, resentful songs during that time; eventually, though, his feelings started to evolve. "I finally realized my mother had been through a lifetime of trauma before she put me through mine," he said in a TEDx talk about his songwriting. He explains that shift plainly, but it's no small task; to really internalize that truth takes an astonishing slog through the muck of emotional growth, and there's evidence of that painful process in many of these songs. "Neighborhood," a poignant track on Write Your Name In Pink about his childhood, is a result of that period of reevaluation. "I was waiting around / As children do," he sings to his mother over minimal synth chords, "Never knew what I would eat for dinner / I never found out what was eating at you." His heart breaks for her, but also for his younger self, holding onto the memories of neighborhood bike rides to preserve some sense of normalcy.
The backdrop of that reality, though, sweetens other moments on the record. On "Simple," Christopherson dreams about buying his mom a condo when she's spending the "last of [her] cash on a midtown motel." "We don't have much we relate on," he sings, "We talk about our clothes / You've got that good blouse, those nice jeans / Match your anklet with your toe rings." Later in the song, they run into a friend, a sad-eyed parent who's trying to do right by his children, and Christopherson's voice swells with emotion as he sings about that dad's time with his kids every other week. On "Celine," another standout from Write Your Name In Pink, Christopherson remembers being home with a babysitter while his mom sings karaoke at a local bar. She needs a night out, and he knows it. "You came back so proud," he sings. Everyone at karaoke agreed she sounded "just like Celine," he sings, glowing with pride in the song's chorus. "Neighborhood" ends with a recent voicemail from Christopherson's mom — she wants to know about an upcoming tour, and hopes to see him before he heads out. In these songs, Christopherson turns his full attention to the tiny yet monumental details in the lives of the people around him — recognizing that it matters for their efforts, however imperfect, to be affirmed.
Elsewhere on the record, Christopherson looks back at his youth and highlights other necessary, if fractured, kinships that sustained him. On "Evelene," a magnetic track whose shimmery production explodes like fireworks against a dark sky, he and a childhood friend watch each other make the same romantic mistakes; they recognize each other's growing pains, even if they can't save each other from hurt. "True Friend" recounts the sense of freedom and risk in leaving home, and turns into a celebration of solidarity after a creep gets between him and a confidante: "You're a true friend," he sings, "We were just kids / I don't know what you told that man, but I never seen him again." The friendship might not have lasted forever, but Christopherson appreciates its impact: "We still turned out alright," he sings, "I hope you and your kid live a good life."
When Christopherson's songs focus on the present, they celebrate the work and rewards of creating his own family. "Take Your Time" is a paean to being out on the road, but it's mainly a song of commitment to his musical partner, Nick Carpenter — a loving urge, over downtempo guitar, to Carpenter to slow down and take in everything they've accomplished together. "Thanks," the album's opener, is a love letter to Christopherson's wife, an unhurried accounting of his gratitude for the life they've built together. "I don't know what I was looking for," he sings, "but I knew when I found you." "Kids" is a wishlist for their future children: ambitious, grateful, good sports who know how to cook. These songs are not entirely free from the darkness that informs his more painful work: They're still laced with doubt and insecurity and bad dreams. But they find relief in patiently cataloging the goodness that surrounds him. Christopherson's songs, like his grandmother's five-word worldview, strip away distractions to highlight the most precious, most pertinent facets: the things we carry with us from our past; the small moments of compassion we share with each other; the places that shape us — reminding us how this attention to detail can help us look through our pain to love and see each other more clearly.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.