Christian French didn’t know how to play guitar until this year. Thrust into quarantine, like the rest of the world, the rising pop musician had plenty of time on his hands. “I would say I’m pretty decent at it now,” he tells American Songwriter over a recent phone call. “I was able to sit down and produce some records by myself, too.”
With his new EP, good things take time, out now, French juggles relationship-based tracks (“make or break up”) and the viscerally introspective (“good things take time,” “time of our lives”), all the while weaving supple guitar lines with the synthetic. He walks a fine line, carefully sewing organic instruments against full-bodied production, leaving his voice atop the mix as the guiding light.
As much moody heartache he relays, there is plenty of counter-balancing sunshine. “I like my songs to have a glimpse of chance in them. Optimism and mindset are such important things. Not a lot of people are super aware of what their mind is capable of, and I want to bring that optimism in the light,” he says.
In either context, French writes with plain spoken honesty. “And I try not to hurt you / Can’t deny that it’s hard, but we both gotta learn to/ To just, just say what we need to say,” he sings with glistening sharpness on “make or break up.” A relationship mangles from miscommunication, and through imploring for truth, he undergoes deep introspection. “You can live in this weird zone of doing things because you think you have to or think it’s right, but inside, you really don’t want to,” he says. “If you’re not honest with yourself, you’re going to be wasting your time.”
On the last day in the studio, French, along with co-writers Imad Royal, Sam Fischer, and Andrew DeCaro, he wanted to mix things up a bit. So, they microdosed on mushrooms. “make or break up” blossomed out of their hallucinatory collaboration, beginning with the guitar part, courtesy of DeCaro. It quickly fell together like a puzzle finally getting its last missing piece.
“paper thin” lands at the opposite end of the musical spectrum, opting for a remarkably soothing quality ─ accentuated with lush strings, arranged by Johan Lennox. French still adheres to his synth/organic smoothie, but it is plastered with a near-heaven ambiance. He started writing the song a year and a half ago, and to say it was challenging to complete would be an understatement. “It was one of those tracks we had to really work on to get the final product. It’s gone through so many different versions. It’s been tough to get it here. I’ve recut vocals so many times. A song like this feels so good when you finally get it right.”
The title song, written with Fischer, Royale, and Rogét Chahayed, is French at his grooviest, a slow-rolling smolder reconfiguring his personal mantra in life. “I haven’t found the right road / I’m staying on my lifeline, hoping that it unwinds / Maybe I don’t know, but we’ll see where it goes,” he muses over a blanket of R&B-tinged piano. Even before the frothy beat kicks in, he’s already on his addicting flow. “You’ll make up your mind / Stop and rewind / Just to rewrite it over / Good things take time,” he sing with the pep-talk of a chorus.
“It’s straight up been a mantra I’ve kept since I started in the industry,” he remarks. Since his first single, 2015’s “Fall for You,” produced by Triegy, French has proven a dynamite force on streaming and become a pillar of the new wave of pop. Once a pre-med student at Indiana University, he dropped out of the program, moved to Los Angeles, and went out on tour with Chelsea Cutler. The stars seemed to align almost immediately; to-date he’s snagged hundreds of millons of streams and an adoring fan base. “I really had no idea then what I was doing, but I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life,” he recalls.
Over the last five years, there have certainly been plenty of hills and valleys in his career. Even the darkest moments have been vital to the journey. “It’s really easy to give up and put shit effort into what you’re doing. This kept me focused on pushing to something bigger,” says French, whose creative rebirth this year is palpable on the new set.
“Been stuck in this routine / I’m young, dumb, and unruly / I wish somethin’ would move me / ‘Cause I don’t wanna play pretend,” he sings of a stagnant state. Written well before COVID-19, “time of our lives” feels prescient and even more urgent now. “Where is this going? / Don’t be so quick to / To pack up and quit on the time of our lives.”
“That line definitely carries more weight now when there’s not even that opportunity to really go out and experience new things. We’re all stuck in this bubble,” he offers. “Life is through a lot of the media and phones rather than being with friends and out in these new spots.”
On an even deeper personal level, the song harkens back to his early days when he was “absolutely terrified to perform live. I had never really done it before. I was so timid to do it, and I was shying away from doing it for such a long time,” he explains. “After stepping up no matter how scared I was, I’ve grown so much. I’m really comfortable in my own skin now on stage. Performing live is the most alive I feel.”
French’s confidence significantly oozes into his music. good things take time pounds with heartfelt emotion, and his stylish compositions, including the gently crackling “wake up,” seem to blossom right before the listener. Having learned piano at 12, and flexing his muscles on a slew of cover songs through the years, his understanding of melody and structure is undeniable.
When he first began writing songs, chord placement was crucial, a fundamental building block that allowed him to explore and find his voice. “I still have no idea what I’m doing, though,” he laughs. “I never go in with a calculated approach in my songwriting. That’s not how you make music. It’s messing around with the chords until you find something that feels good.”
“Songwriting was pretty painful at the start. I knew what a good song sounded like, and I just hadn’t written enough music to be able to put that down. It was frustrating. It took a really long time to get to that point where I was able to write what I was thinking,” he says. “It was at first sitting down at the piano, and that was the only musical instrument I had any experience with. It came from a very acoustic point. Now, I feel a lot more aware and capable of putting in all these elements to make a good song. I’m able to play piano well enough to play all the synths and piano and pick up the guitar to play all the licks in the track.”
Generally, French first cooks up guitar or piano chords, which then lead him into what story he’s itching to tell. “Recently, I’ve been too picky, and I will sit and play guitar or piano for hours and not even really begin to write. I found it restricting, and I’ve tried different ways of writing,” he says.
Sometimes, an instrument alone is not enough to get his creative juices flowing. French will then turn to a movie or a book to gather bits of inspiration. “I’ll lay in bed and process how that made me feel. I meditate on it. It’s literally writing with no music at all and just focusing on the words. That’s helped me write the most genuinely. I’m not even thinking about any musical elements yet.”
He was never one to read books in high school or college, but when he was opening for Cutler all those years ago, her drummer Gavin Chops once pulled out a stack of books. Among them, Don Miguel Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom” caught his eye, and he picked it up. “It was my first book I had read that was based around self-awareness, self-respect, and self-love. It opened my eyes so much. I became really obsessed with Don’s writing. I’ve read pretty much all his books now. That’s had a huge impact on my life.”
“I like mixing in fiction. I don’t like to always be reading about really serious things,” he says, noting his adoration for the “Narnia” series by C.S. Lewis. “He does a crazy job at painting pictures.”
French’s writing is not nearly as fantastical, yet there’s something magical about his melodies and thick, complex style. Three EPs deep, and he is only getting started. In fact, he has already been chipping away at what will become his long-awaited debut record, one he says will be “more mature.”
“I’ve grown past my previous songs. That’s not to discount any of those. They’re all written at a certain time and beautiful for what they are. But I’ve never put so much effort into something in my life.”
Photo by Mickey Mars