Living in Los Angeles, it’s not uncommon to see someone performing on the streets. From dance troupes to singer-songwriters who’ve made their way to reality competition stages. Often times though they are doing it for self-promotion or the change. Over on the east coast, Chris Leamy is singing his heart out for another type of change. Over the years he’s sang from Chicago to New York City’s Union Square in order to raise money for the homeless.
Raising over $20k since he began the #heplaysforme movement, Chris Leamy has impressed millions of passersby with his fusion of soulful blues and familiar pop. We talked with Chris about his charitable ways, his latest single “Hold Ground” and what’s next for the budding star.
Kendra: One note into “Hold Ground” and I was like, WOW this guy has got an amazing set of pipes. Incredibly strong. Did you take vocal lessons growing up, or did you just one day realize that you could carry a tune across the country without breaking a sweat?
Chris Leamy: HA! Thank you for that! Honestly, the guitar was my first love growing up. As I continued to develop as a player, I really wanted to further improve my ears and musicianship. I was told that one of the best ways to do this was to start singing. The next day I joined choir (yeah, the football team really loved that one, let me tell you). I had an amazing, inspirational choir director who taught me so much. From there, it was a lot of trial and error (lots of error), until I started seeing some improvement!
Kendra: You have such an amazing heart, which we will talk about soon, but we have to talk about “Hold Ground” some more. Where were you when you wrote it and what was going through your head at the time?
Chris Leamy: I flew out to Ojai, CA to work with Thorald & Isaac Koren for the new EP. The Koren brothers are incredible artists themselves (toured with P!nk with The Kin, now signed to Rostrum with their project BRAVES) who I have known for a long time. Their talent far outshines my own, and having them there to push me was so valuable. Previously, my process for writing was somewhat stagnant. I would think of the chords, figure out the groove of the tune and add the melodies and lyrics last.
When I went into the studio previously, I already had a good idea of what I wanted the record to sound like. They challenged that. Instead of building the song from instrumentation, we stripped everything back and said: “what do you want to say?” From there we wrote the melodies/words and recorded them to a scratch piano track. With no instrumentation to hide behind, the vocals needed to be really strong to build from, it was incredibly unnerving but exciting too. At the time, #heplaysforme was just beginning to make an impact.
A few viral videos led to several homeless individuals finding permanent housing and reconnecting with family. To see an idea that started so small actually make a difference was so inspiring. I tried to capture those sentiments in the song as best I could. After recording the vocals in LA, I came back to NYC and completed the instrumentation production and samples with John White and Johnny What. Both of which are incredible producers.
Kendra: Okay, now to bask in your amazing spirit. You started this #heplaysforme campaign where you basically busk once a week and donate the money to homeless charities. What about that man in 2015 really moved you to start that?
Chris Leamy: My understanding and perception of the homeless community before #heplaysforme was so off base, so I think I have continued doing it because I ALWAYS come away from each session with a much better perspective on life. I am not a naturally “glass half full” type of guy. Hearing these incredible stories from these people has taught me so much about my own outlook. I have a roof over my head, friends, and a loving family. I am very lucky. It is impossible not to feel grateful after hearing the incredible optimism from those who have none of those things. And also, the more I did it, the more I began to care about these people as individuals, and I wanted to help them because we were tight!
Kendra: At this point, you’ve raised something like $20k just playing on the street and in Union Station. You may win a Grammy one day, but can you even compare the two accolades?
Chris Leamy: We will have to see about that, but I appreciate the confidence! I am very proud of what we have been able to accomplish with #heplaysforme. So many people donated their time and money to help these people, and I am incredibly appreciative. I am also really proud of some of our friends on the street. Quite a few have picked themselves up! Getting jobs, mending torn relationships, and putting their lives back together. People are capable of incredible things when they feel supported, I am just glad I was able to be a part of it.
Kendra: Have you ever thought about doing a #heplaysforme tour across the US? Like each city you stop in, the money goes towards their local homeless charity?
Chris Leamy: YES! I would absolutely love to do that! In a broader sense though, the idea of #heplaysforme is not something I own. Anyone with an instrument can do it! More so, anyone willing to spend some time with a stranger can make an impact. A small act of kindness can go a long way.
Kendra: What is on the table for you for the rest of the year? New music, shows, continuing the be one of the greatest humans alive?
Chris Leamy: I was a devil as a child so I’m not sure my folks would agree with that (I was of those kids on a leash)! In terms of 2018, I am really looking forward to releasing new music! I have a new single coming out in January called “Great Mistakes.” I am really pumped for everyone to hear it.
Kendra: Lastly, here at ZO, we are all about every aspect of the creative world. With that, if you had to compare “Hold Ground” to a famous work of art, which would it be and why?
Chris Leamy: Tough one. I would probably Edvard Munch, The Scream. I have always seen color when listening to music, my own or others. It has been something I focus on a lot when writing and trying to shape a finished song. For “Hold Ground” I see bursts of orange, and it reminds me of this painting.