“Growing up, there was always a lot of other Chris’s everywhere,” Chris Lee told American Songwriter. “In classes and stuff people ended up just calling me ‘Chris Lee’ because it stood out.”
Years later, Chris Lee — who now goes by ‘ChrisLee’ — is still standing out. On Monday night, Lee became the newest winner of NBC’s “Songland,” the show which features songwriters pitching their songs to a panel of celebrity ‘producers’ — Shane McAnally, Ryan Tedder and Ester Dean — and a guest artist. This week, the guest was the influential vocal group Boyz II Men, who actually made the unprecedented move to record all of the songs pitched to them. However, Lee’s song “Love Struck” still received special recognition as the winning song… which makes sense considering that it is a grooving pop number which feels perfectly situated for the glossy sound of Boyz II Men.
A graduate of the Berklee College of Music, Lee has been writing songs since he was in elementary school. As a beautiful reminder of the importance of teachers — an especially powerful sentiment in today’s quarantine world — Lee cites his music teacher, Bob Berzack, as the person who spurred his life’s journey.
“I was really fortunate to get into songwriting at a really young age,” Lee said. “Somehow I managed to convince my parents to let me switch schools in the middle of 3rd grade and I happened to get really lucky because the music teacher at that new school was Bob Berzack. He is an incredible guitarist and he had gone to Berklee College of Music, so he was really into recording and songwriting. He taught our class the principles of songwriting, like how to pick chords and create melodies. I remember just falling in love with the concept of songwriting as a whole in that moment.”
Lee had Berzack as a teacher several times throughout the years, and eventually Berzack encouraged him to learn guitar. “He just really thought I would have a really big love for it,” Lee said. “Then it sorta became my life. It became my way of expressing things that I was dealing with as a kid emotionally — the trauma, the hardships of growing up and trying to find your way. It’s been like a companion for me, it’s part of my identity.”
After graduating from high school Lee was initially planning on going to college for psychology, but then he remembered that place that Berzack had gone to school: Berklee.
“I remember finding out about Berklee and diving into what a producer really does. Producers and songwriters use a lot of psychology. They work with artists through really personal things and the end result is this beautiful song that they can share. Then, not only does the individual work through their stuff, but it also helps an entire population of people work through that same issue.”
To this day, Lee cites his interest in psychology as one of the major inspirations for his songwriting.
“It’s a big thing I push in sessions,” Lee said. “Like, how do we get the most real, authentic and vulnerable product? To me, the thing that connects the most with people is the human experience — there’s nothing more human than the stories that define us and make our lives connected. So, generally my approach to writing is to really dive in and go to that deeper place. As difficult as it is to be vulnerable and to write about personal stuff, your triumphs and tribulations, it’s also incredibly empowering. I’m trying to always bring that to my own sessions and in sessions with other artists.”
Even “Love Struck” pulls from Lee’s personal life. “It came from a lot of trials and tribulations in my life,” he said. “I was trying to find a new path forward in my life, doing things from a place of love and not fear… all while falling in love at the time. It was tricky for me, it was a very emotional time full of growth.”
Lee wrote the song about falling in love with his now-girlfriend. The cherry on top of the story is the fact that his girlfriend is a huge fan of Boyz II Men.
“We have always loved their music,” Lee said. “We have moments like ‘whoa, this is like really happening! Boyz II Men, this incredible group who’s inspired so many people, is singing a song I wrote!’ It’s kind of a ‘pinch me’ moment.”
For Lee, the ‘pinch me’ moments are just beginning. Getting work as a writer for a variety of artists, his career is beginning to blossom. Recently, a tune he penned for 220 Kid and GRACEY entitled “Don’t Need Love” hit the Top 20 in the U.K.
“I am really excited to see what this brings,” Lee said. “The more writing I can do and the more artists’ work that I can be a part of, the better. I’m just excited to be a part of it all.”
Watch ChrisLee perform “Love Struck” on NBC’s “Songland” below: