Exploring Existence Through Melody: An Interview with Chris Sunfield
In the quaint town of Brantford, Ontario, an indie artist has emerged with a distinctive musical journey shaped by unexpected influences and personal experiences. From the solitary melodies of his transistor radio to the profound musings of existential philosophers, Chris Sunfield has crafted a unique sound that weaves together introspection and whimsy. In this exclusive interview, Chris takes us on a sonic exploration of his upbringing, the evolution of his music, and the inspiration behind his latest release, “Bicycle Girl.”
1. Growing up in Brantford, Ontario, without much musical enrichment at home, how did artists like Elton John and the Beatles shape your early interest in music through your transistor radio?
I think radio fulfilled a natural interest in music that was unrealized. It was like a bomb went off when I turned it on for the first time. Radio was also a refuge. There were family problems growing up, so when that mono earbud was plugged in, I escaped into radio. I have a song about that planned for the future.
2. You transitioned from psychology to music after personal upheavals. How do these experiences influence the themes and emotions in your music, particularly in songs like “Bicycle Girl”?
Give some of my lyrics to a philosopher and they’ll probably say, “Oh yeah, pretty existential.” That started in childhood. I had some traumatic experiences before I was 7, and I coped with that by becoming very curious and reflective. Death and mortality became big themes for me.
3. “Bicycle Girl” juxtaposes existential musings with a whimsical subject. Can you share the inspiration or story behind creating this unique contrast in the song?
I got very heavy-handed with existential themes in songs like “Begin”, “Tomorrow’s Here”, and “Anton”. So I decided to poke fun at myself with “Bicycle Girl”. Part of the fun was being open and explicit about the philosophers and their concepts, laid bare in the lyrics. There’s more. Søren Kierkegaard was an 19th-century philosopher and early existentialist. One of the biggest influences on his writings was breaking off an engagement to a woman he deeply loved. He felt that his ‘melancholy’ made him unsuitable for long-term relationships. He then threw himself into his studies for the rest of his life. This has parallels in my own life. Not the melancholy, but the ambivalence and solitude.
4. Your songs often explore deep existential themes. How does your background in psychology play a role in crafting these intricate, thought-provoking lyrics?
Like Kierkegaard, I didn’t mate long-term. I married my studies and later threw myself into work as a consultant. I became a ‘pack rat’ of theories and models. Even when I launched a career as an indie recording artist and looked for inspiration, I just drew from what defined me in concept from a young age?
5. You’ve described an organic songwriting process that sometimes occurs in the quiet solitude of small-town motel rooms. Can you elaborate on this process, especially for “Bicycle Girl”?
I did that for other songs but it wasn’t possible for “Bicycle Girl”. My father died unexpectedly in February this year just before I had to pack and move from city to city. I had no internet in the new house for two weeks and didn’t have time to unpack. I wrote the lyrics for “Bicycle Girl” in a nearby bar and recorded backing tracks in my kitchen.
6. How has your music evolved from your earlier works like “Begin” and “Tomorrow’s Here” to your latest release, “Bicycle Girl”?
Maybe de-evolved a bit! “Begin” and “Tomorrow’s Here” hit you over the head with heady lyrics. “Tomorrow’s Here” and “Bicycle Girl” are still pop, musically. “Begin” is a monster progressive pop suite at almost 7 minutes with twists and turns, so “Bicycle Girl” is a nice step-down.
7. You mention being influenced by a range of artists, from Yes to Kate Bush. How do these influences manifest in your music, particularly in the eclectic sound of “Bicycle Girl”?
I discovered Kate Bush and progressive rock bands like Yes and Genesis when I got an AM/FM receiver. FM changed everything. I’d hear more progressive acts and say, “What the f*ck is that? Why on earth would they do that?” A week later, it would grow on me. The extraordinary things in music have always gotten my attention.
8. In “Bicycle Girl,” the imagery of a girl with her “ponytail in the wind” on a Schwinn is striking. How do you approach the use of imagery in your songwriting to convey deeper meanings?
Another inspiration for “Bicycle Girl” was an ex-girlfriend. One day, many years ago, she rode an old bike to get groceries at a local market. She told me later that a bunch of sketchy guys were calling after her, “Hey Bicycle Girl!” As I was writing the song, I was blocking on the bike brand and asked people about it on Facebook. Someone replied with “Schwinn” and “ponytail in the wind, peddle your way to my heart” just flew in my head.
9. As an indie artist in the streaming world, what challenges and rewards have you encountered, and how have they shaped your approach to music and songwriting?
There’s already been a huge amount of ink spilled about challenges with the indie artist experience. Streaming has democratized music distribution, so unsigned artists like myself can share music. Yet, there’s also the bottleneck of 100,000 new tracks every day. Even members of ABBA say they never would have been discovered today. In terms of rewards, I hope I can cultivate a deep fan base as my music changes, even if it’s a few hundred listeners.
10. After “Bicycle Girl,” what can your listeners expect next? Are there any new themes or musical directions you’re exploring for your upcoming work?
A lot of songs I’ve released are straight-ahead pop, and that’s because I had a backlog of them for decades. I had to do justice to them before getting more progressive. I wrote “Bicycle Girl” in the last year, so no excuses there. My music will be changing next year, and it’s been hard to describe to others. Some stuff will be slower tempo, and more minimalist and ambient. Some of it will be rockier. Genre-wise, I’d say somewhere between dream pop and post/experimental rock. There will be the odd pop song, although I’d like to give some of those to other artists. Right now, I’m working on an EP of ethereal pop songs to be sung by female featured artists.