Chris Haise – Intense, Thoughtful Songcraft
Drawing Inevitable Comparisons, Yet Maintaining Unique Stylings
Chris Haise (say “HI-zee”) is a Milwaukee-based singer-songwriter who’s making a name for himself beyond the local area. Described as a cross between Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen with touches of Tom Petty in his gravelly voice, Chris Haise’s music is a blend of hook-filled ballads and toe tapping rhythms blending folk and rock within the genre of Americana.
Chris draws upon his personal experiences in writing songs with a cathartic release. Each of his songs is finely tuned and precise—the result of his intensive writing process. By the time he previews a song with his band, the lyrics have gone through several rewrites until they are at the point where the story he wants to convey is complete.
Recognized by the NASI as a ‘One to Watch,” Chris also won the Dylan Days Singer/Songwriter Contest. His first solo album, Your Ugly Friends, was nominated for 88Nine Radio Milwaukee’s Music Awards for Album of the Year, Independent Release of the Year, and Solo Artist of the Year. 2019 saw the release of his second album, Suburban View, as well as Chris Haise Band’s nomination for the Wisconsin Area Music Industry Awards.
Chris Haise Band includes Chris on keyboards and vocals, Weston Gregory on bass, Chad Burgess on drums, Tony Sturino on electric cello, and Mark Herrick on guitar and back-up vocals.
A Personal Conversation with Chris Haise
I had an opportunity to sit down with Chris Haise recently. We covered a wide range of topics, like his songwriting process, the value of open mic nights for aspiring artists, the importance of collaboration, and how to impress girls in 8th grade. Here is an edited extract from our conversation.
S16—One of the lines in your song “Ugly Friends” grabbed me immediately: “It pains me to say that I’m no stranger to the ways of screwing up everything.” Isn’t this the kind of line anyone can relate to in their life? What is the inspiration for your music?
Chris Haise—You always want to start with a strong line. That song happened very quickly. Actually, the word in the second verse that I repeat, ‘backseat,’ jumped out at me. I kept singing the word and then I wrote the words around it.
Inspiration for lines like that? I like self-deprecating. I like the idea of being intrusive in my own thoughts.
A lot of my songs take that “Oh woe is me” outlook. Those are the songs that I really enjoy listening to. Sometimes it is a little tongue-in-cheek but typically the inspiration comes from moments that aren’t so great, which I can then make into something better.
S16—Are you making a cathartic moment out of an unfortunate experience you’ve had in your life?
CH—My songs are more reflective rather than immediate. A past is prologue kind of thing. A lot of musicians write with immediacy. With a view on what’s going on right now. I like to be more reflective—to write with a reflective slant.
S16—How did you get your start in music?
CH—I started taking piano lessons in first grade. I picked up a guitar somewhere around 8th grade, which is about the right age when you are trying to impress girls. I took a few lessons, but I mainly picked up the guitar with my piano knowledge. I probably started writing bad songs in high school but that was when I really picked up songwriting in earnest.
S16—You are a big fan of open mic nights.
CH—Getting into open mic nights exposes you to so many people. It’s such a great avenue that I would recommend that to anybody who is starting out and who wants their music to be heard. I started doing open mic nights at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn in Milwaukee. As I started to go to open mics every week, I went to one at the Miramar Theater and ended up hosting an open mic night there from October 2016 through the end of 2018.
S16—When you hosted open mic nights, do you feel you were able to provide artists with the necessary encouragement to keep them performing?
CH—Most of the people you find at open mic have some intention to perform, whether or not they have ambitions to go beyond open mic. Maybe they just want to do open mic and don’t have great ambitions beside that. Maybe they just want to do cover songs.
But for new people, I really like open mic for helping point people in the right direction. So, it’s more than just giving people encouragement, it’s more important to give them connections. It may be tough to get feedback at open mic nights—you have to be very positive.
S16—Describe your current band. How did you get together?
CH—My friends Mark Herrick, Chad Burgess and Weston Gregory were in a band called Paladino. They would be playing a gig on a Tuesday, so they would go to a Monday open mic and say to friends—”come see us, this is what we will be playing.” Mark came up and I told them they were great. Mark said he enjoyed my sets. Then they asked me to play a show with them a month or so after that. We played three or 4 more times after that before I released Your Ugly Friends.
I wanted to release that album as a full band record. So, I asked Mark to play along. Mark is our background vocals and guitar and mandolin in Chris Haise Band. Mark said Chad and Weston would play with me, which they did. So that’s how we got the first iteration of Chris Haise Band.
I also recruited a friend of mine that I worked with, Tony Sturino. Tony is a great musician but is a classically trained cello player in much the same way that I took piano for a long time. He joined us on the cello. I thought the cello was a great addition and Tony is also a fantastic singer in two-part harmonies and more.
So, we have Mark, Chad on drums, Weston on bass, Tony on cello, and I try not to screw it up.
S16—When Chris Haise Band plays, do you play your songs or add in those written by other band members?
CH—It’s definitely a vehicle for me. I write way too many songs. We/I will never play them all. I write a ton of songs and a few of them stick.
The other band members are definitely part of the curation and the arrangement, including chord changes. They tell me I’m a stickler on the words. That’s because I have already thought about them a lot—I’ve gone through a lot of iterations. While we are flexible in arrangements and other stuff, the band is a vehicle for my songs.
But Mark and Weston are fantastic songwriters. They are the principal songwriters for the band Paladino. After we played together, they needed a piano player for Paladino, so I played with them but not as a songwriter. That is very freeing in a lot of ways.
I would like to write more collaboratively on the musical side. I would like to expand more because I can be a bit derivative.
S16—You’ve said you spend a lot of time crafting your words and that no one will hear a song and think it’s just a draft.
CH—That’s probably what I enjoy the most about the process—the craft of the songwriting.
I really had a breakthrough when I stopped writing with an instrument. I would come up with a melody and then hit on it. But if I couldn’t remember it later, then it probably wasn’t that good.
I recently got confirmed on this process by Trey Anastasio from Phish. He says he writes all day and he never writes anything down because if he can’t remember it, how can he expect anyone else to remember it? That is exactly what I’m talking about. If it’s a catchy melody, I’ll remember it and will be able to do it in my head and write the words free of the instrument.
I really made a breakthrough in terms of speed and finishing a song. It’s kind of inhibitive to have to play through it every time. So, I can write at work—I can write on my phone—telling Siri to take a note.
S16—You have been compared to a cross between Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. How do you feel about that kind of comparison? Some artists may bristle at being pigeonholed.
CH—That’s more like a ‘big shoes’ kind of bristling. I’m always comparing artists too so I can’t bristle when people compare me to others.
Honestly, I’d love to be pigeonholed. If I was Randy Newman and was good at that, I would take that in a heartbeat.
I used to resent the Bob Dylan comparisons. If it felt obvious that I was copying him, I’d say “no no, I’m doing something different.” But now it feels like this is coming from a real place of honesty.
If you can hear the person I’ve listened to the most of anyone, then that’s great, that’s what you should hear. I love Springsteen as well but that’s more of a voice thing rather than my style of writing.
I get comparisons with Bob Dylan for phrasing more than anything. But that’s how I learned to put too many words into a song. I love Paul McCartney but I’m not that simple. I can’t be that ‘poppy.’
So, I cram a lot of words in, especially in the choruses. I’ve been trying to insert more repetition and simplify things, but I can’t help just writing a bunch of words. That’s where you hear Bob Dylan in it. I’m from the Midwest as well. A lot of people from the Midwest sound like Bob Dylan at some point.
When I was playing at Bastille Days, one lady said I sounded like David Gray—I really liked that. I thought more of that please.
S16—And yet, you still want to provide your own unique twist or perspective on your life experiences.
CH—I used to worry about that but now I feel like that is happening. Everything else is just deck chairs on the Titanic.
I really like Randy Newman. I don’t sound like him thankfully. Even though I love his voice that would be tough. I love his songwriting and the way he provides perspective. I like that he has a lot of songs where he adopts a character that he is certainly not.
I have some songs like, “here’s a funny character. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you were this person?” And I think people get that at some level. I don’t know who I am satirizing or if I’m becoming more sardonic in my point of view. I’ve been really getting into that.
S16—When’s the best time of day for a musician to start a day job?
CH—Definitely 11:00 in the morning. Fortunately, I have a day job that lets me be more flexible with my hours.
S16—What’s your educational background?
CH—I got a degree in History. I think History definitely affects my music. I like to write more reflectively. I like to look at things with the posterity of time. That’s why I was drawn to History and was also driven by the study of it. I graduated in 2013 after 6 wonderful years. I lived at home, worked in a restaurant and took one class at a time during the last two years. I found you are a lot better at school when you only have to take 3 credits at a time.
S16—Where will your music take you in the future?
CH—I would like to do something in the publishing realm. I think that is an achievable goal. I would like to write for other people. I think I could provide words given a larger structure for other people. But I don’t think the songs I am writing now would work for a lot of others.
I would like to open for cool people when they come to town. I’d like to expand regionally within Wisconsin—Madison, Appleton and the Mile of Music.
It’s good that you asked this because I should verbalize these things and set achievable goals. Sometimes you have to dream big.
If you are in the Southeast Wisconsin area, check out Chris Haise Band for down to earth and heartfelt folk rock! Check out their set in the 88Nine Radio Milwaukee Studios on You Tube.
For more information about the band, visit www.chrishaiseband.com.
Special thanks to Amplified Artist Sessions for images from Chris Haise Band’s recent set.