An Anchorage singer-songwriter is the winner of NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest.
Quinn Christopherson beat out 6,000 entries from around the world with a song called “Erase Me,” recorded in front of the huge, famous Sydney Laurence painting at the Anchorage Museum.
Christopherson sat down with Alaska Public Media’s Casey Grove earlier this week. Christopherson is Alaska Native — Athabaskan and Iñupiaq. And he says his experience as a transgender man informed the winning song.
QUINN CHRISTOPHERSON: You know I had lived my life as a woman for 25 years. And so after I transitioned I just noticed that there was so much more misogyny when people thought that women weren’t around. So I just kind of wrote that song. Let people know that, you know, I’m still here.
CASEY GROVE, ALASKA PUBLIC MEDIA: Take me to where you were when you heard that you had won and what went through your head in that moment.
CHRISTOPHERSON: Oh my gosh. There was an email and she just said, “I have a quick question about your Tiny Desk entry,” and I was thinking possibly something about legalities. You know I filmed in front of a painting at the museum, so I thought maybe it was something like that. And I get a call, and it’s Bob Boilen. And I’m like, “Why is this guy calling me?” And he just said that my day was about to get a lot better because I won, and he was right. And it’s a big secret right until it gets released. And so I’ve just been kind of bursting at the seams.
GROVE: So they told you on what day?
GROVE: So Monday they tell you.
CHRISTOPHERSON: Yeah you’re going to wait till Thursday. Yeah. And they said that, you know, I can tell my partner and Nick, my musical partner, and that’s it.
GROVE: Wow that’s got to be tough.
CHRISTOPHERSON: It’s so hard. Yeah very hard. Worth it.
GROVE: The “Erase Me” video, how did that come together? How did you guys get the concept together for that?
CHRISTOPHERSON: I was kind of shopping around at a thrift store looking for a desk or, you know, anything to use, and I saw this old chair. And I thought, “Well, maybe this is just a bit I’m doing now.” So I cut that chair, and I found like this blue polyester beautiful suit. And I thought, “Well OK now I’m really doing this.”
GROVE: And you chose, like, the biggest painting in the museum.
CHRISTOPHERSON: Well I chose that painting because it was a painting of Denali, and you know Denali stems from a word in the Athabaskan language. You know, meaning “the big one,” and I am Athabaskan and I wanted … sometimes you just have to take stuff back from white people who paint your stuff. So that was basically it.
GROVE: Tell me more about your Native roots.
CHRISTOPHERSON: My mother was Athabaskan and a little bit Iñupiaq, and then my father was Iñupiaq as well. I grew up with my mother’s side of the family. They’re Athabaskan, and you know we grew up really ingrained in our culture. My grandmother, she taught us everything that we know. And she was a storyteller, and she came from a little town called Tazlina. And she moved to Anchorage and she didn’t leave anything behind. You know, she was really wise, and she kept our traditions going and our culture and I think just, you know, a lot of the family values and cultural values and storytelling and those kind of things are passed down, just inherently.
GROVE: That was a big theme in your entry for last year at least. I’m sure you’ve probably written about her more. You know, how have her lessons sort of made their way into your songs?
CHRISTOPHERSON: Oh my gosh. Huge. My grandma plays a big role in just my being, I think. She stopped drinking alcohol when she was 40 and got sober, so I never knew her as she was at rock bottom. I always knew her as just the best person that I’ve ever met. And that inspired me, and she told me, you know, “Don’t drink because you will waste away,” kind of thing. And it took her a little longer to figure that out. And she was honest about that. That definitely steered me in the direction that I went. I quit drinking myself three years ago just because I could see myself having a really hard time with it later on.
GROVE: That seems like a really deep insight for somebody in their early-to-mid-20s to make. A lot of people don’t ever figure that out. I guess I wonder, how much of that do you want to sort of pass along to other young people?
CHRISTOPHERSON: It’s a big part of it, yeah. And I have a nephew. He’s 13, and I try to just be a good example for him. And you know, with my art and my music, and he’s an artist as well, and so I try and just not tell him what to do but show him what worked for me. I think that’s what it’s all about.
GROVE: You know, people are gonna know your name much more widely than just in Alaska. And so I guess you’re going to be like Portugal. The Man and go off to Portland or whatever.
CHRISTOPHERSON: I don’t know, it’s really hard to think about things you don’t know. Alaska is my home, and I’ll always have my roots here. But I am very excited to get out and experience the States. I do want to just tour around a little bit and get on the road and just play shows.
GROVE: Excited? Nervous? Combination of both?
CHRISTOPHERSON: Yeah, yeah. Definitely nervous. And I’m inspired lately, definitely by the whole thing.