Walking down the block after parking my car near ACL 3Ten, I spot a familiar head of hair. Familiar to me only from my Instagram feed — I experience that oddly human phenomenon of spotting someone I didn’t know, but felt like I did.
I’ve been keeping up with Quinn Christopherson since his submission to last year’s Tiny Desk competition. He is a transgender, Athabaskan and Inupiaq artist based out of Anchorage, Alaska. His heartfelt tunes and rich emotional performances are even more striking than the dynamic scenes he shot his videos in.
Tentatively I shout, “Hey Quinn.” He and his bandmate Nick Carpenter turn around. He recognizes me too, and that awkward feeling I have dissipates when he walks my direction with open arms. We hug, and I tell him I’m there to write an article on him. He laughs and says, “I didn’t know we would get written about!”
I follow him to his merch table and buy a shirt that says “Quinn Christopherson turned me gay and then straight again.” He says, “I told them not to sell it to anyone who asked what it meant. Take a button too!” I thank him, laugh, and venture around the venue.
The room fills up fast. Talking with a few folks in the crowd, many of them didn’t know about this show until the last minute. Everyone seems excited to watch the three contest entries that NPR and local partner KUTX decided to feature alongside Quinn this year.
Bob Boilen and Laurie Gallardo, our hosts for the evening, arrive on the stage. Gallardo remarks that every time this contest comes around she sees bands that make her wonder why she’s never heard of them yet. I often wonder the same.
The first band to grace the stage is San Marcos based Christian Sparks and the Beatnik Bandits. Their joyful gritty rock got the room moving and grooving, a perfect way to get the evening going.
JC Juice takes the stage shortly after. This College Station based band has a front man that doesn’t quit. An impressive commander of the audience, he delivers soul rap accompanied by a full band with a cool horn section that makes your heart melt. I particularly like his song with the refrain, “I gotta keep working.” It resonates with this room and the occasion.
I’m pleased to see local Austin band Como Las Movies on the stage next. From their very first song, they get the crowd dancing with their psychedelic Latin vibes. They’re a group of classic and polished musicians that execute a seamless performance with their colorful and trippy video projected behind them.
At this point, Bob Boilen comes back onto the stage and introduces Quinn Christopherson. He emplores any folks that feel the need to talk to move outside. I’m glad he does this because it’s what a songwriter like Quinn deserves.
Quinn and Nick come onto the stage. Their setup is simple and well matched for what they do. Quinn takes just the microphone for the first song. From the first two lines of lyrics, I’ve got tears streaming down my face. It’s the first time I’ve heard this song, but I can feel what it’s about. This song is about mental health and the darkness that comes with it – the pain is palpable as he sings about it. He mentions shortly after that it was dedicated to someone in their community they lost recently.
His next song is about wanting to tour, but who would ever pay to see him? It’s ironic and heartfelt in all the right ways. “I wrote this a week before Bob called me,” he says.
I finally stop crying and smile throughout the next song. It’s about his dad who Quinn says is a “real smart guy.” Quinn wishes he could have been there because he’s always been a great support at their shows.
In his next few songs, he recounts his memories. “I remember 2005,” he says. The imagery is nostalgic and immediately takes back those of us old enough to remember. I particularly love his reference to horizontally striped shirts, and I recall a shirt just like it that I used to own in Neapolitan colors.
In another he sings into the eyes of stagemate Nick; they smile and feel the music together. I start crying again, obviously, as they both sing in a tone nestled deep in their throats “I don’t know what I was looking for but I knew when I met you.”
The last song is from his contest entry this year “Erase Me.” The first lyrics “I used to have long hair. I used to smile when I walked,” hooked me when I heard them several months ago and have me again here. This song is about his transition and is quite possibly one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve heard on this topic. I cry a final time.
Waiting for the room to die down, I think about the last year and the journey that music can take us on. I thank Quinn and Nick a final time and wish them well on their upcoming tour with Courtney Barnett and Portugal the Man. I also thank Bob Boilen for starting this incredible national musical community.
If you haven’t heard of the Tinydesk series, lucky you! You’ve got so much to discover. Click here and go cry a little bit for me ok?