The 99% Podcast Episode #22 With Chris Leamy
Chris Leamy is an artist sharing true “salt of the Earth stories” through his musical journey. He is a New York City-based singer and songwriter, taking his guitar to the streets of NYC to connect with the homeless community. Chris Leamy’s Rock and Pop songs are soulful and genuine, reaching his audience freshly and authentically. The Chicago native raises awareness about the conditions of the homeless through the movement he began called “He Plays for Me.” It started as a hashtag and flourished across media outlets such as The New York Times, CBS News and CNN. Chris Leamy sings to directly give back to those in need, donating his earnings to those in need. Inspiring as he is, Chris Leamy had an interview on our 99% Podcast where he goes more in-depth of how his “He Plays For Me” journey started. Listen and read along to the latest feature of the artist below.
Listen to The 99 Percent Interview with Chris Leamy Below:
All right. Welcome back to the 99% podcast. We’re here with Chris Leamy today. Thank you for joining us on the 99%.
Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
We are excited to have you on board Steereo. Let’s go back all the way. Where are you from, Chris? And if you can tell us a little bit about the music scene there.
[00:39] Chris Leamy:
Sure. So I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, in a town called [inaudible 00:00:44]. I have a bunch of uncles, and my dad’s been really into music, so it’s been around my house for a long time. We didn’t really have any players in my house, though. I was kind of the first one on that. Really, it was interesting growing up outside in the suburbs there because it was kind of just the birth of the punk rock scene, which was pop punk, punk rock scene. So you kind of had these like small basement shows, which kind of became a thing when I was in middle school that I started going to. At that time, there was really no place to discover new music besides going to shows. There wasn’t Spotify. Maybe there was briefly Shazam and Napster. Really, if you wanted to find new acts and new bands and new things to explore, you had to just go to shows. Kind of early on, as I was in middle school and high school, there are a couple of local bands who used to put on these things called like basement shows, in different parts and different cities. I’m sorry, in different towns within Chicago. Those bands started really getting signed and becoming huge acts. I remember I saw Fall Out Boy in a basement with 20 people.
[01:54] Chris Leamy:
At the Drive-In was another who … Thursday was another one. Really, a lot of those Victory Records bands we saw in these really unique, kind of fun setting, and it was like in people’s basements. Like mom and dad are eating popcorn upstairs, and then there’s like 150 sweaty kids jammed into a basement. Anyway, it was an awesome learning experience. I started playing music in a garage with my best friends. Super loud and super out of tune and not good, and then slowly got better over time. So that was kind of how I fell into all of it. Then, I guess, just kept going ever since.
Can we go on a joint tour together and bring back the basement days? That sounds very exciting to me as an artist.
[02:39] Chris Leamy:
I totally agree. I look back now and I didn’t know how great it was, for what it was, when I was so young, because I was just a kid. I’m sure I was just trying to fit in, stay in the back and watch. Think seeing people get together, play music strictly for just loving to play music with their friends that they formed a band with, I don’t know, I think it’s a really cool thing.
What age did you enter the music industry?
Oh man, complicated question. I don’t know. I would say, I started writing, I started playing guitar when I was 13, and then I was playing in different bands through high school. I would call it a hobby of mine, just doing it because we loved doing it. We had fun doing it. In college, I was in a couple of wild cover bands, which were pretty fun. It was more just, we were writing music too, but we would go and play covers for money, cheap beer and food, throughout the Chicagoland area. We played a lot of great venues in Chicago. We played the Metro, played the House of Blues and places like that. So it was exciting. Yeah, I don’t know if that was considered professional. We made a bit of money doing it. Then, when I moved to New York … I move to New York right after I graduated college. That was when I really started pursuing it more seriously. Like I said, I’ve always been a band guy. So I came out here, I had no musical network in New York, whatsoever. Everyone I knew was in Chicago, or a few buddies in L.A., but nothing in New York. So when I came out here, really, I spent a lot of my nights kind of just going to shows and clubs and different places like that. You know, watching acts perform and just trying to get as many people as I could to write songs. That was what I was about. I just loved writing songs. So slowly and surely over time I got in with better writers, better musicians. I’ve made amazing friends on the East Coast. It’s been a blessing, it’s been a blast. It kind of just grew from there. So, I don’t know, I signed some publishing deals, I signed some distribution deals. I’ve had those along the way. I don’t know at what point it was serious and at what point it was just for fun. I think it’s always been for fun. I’ve loved every step of the way.
Photo By Chris Leamy Via Facebook
If somebody is listening to this, and they’re trying to emulate what you’ve done, which is move to a bigger city where there’s an industry and your voice can be heard, what are some of your advice or your tips to a new artist starting out, typically, maybe say, in New York or Los Angeles?
[05:07] Chris Leamy:
Sure. I would say one of the hardest things when I first got here was, I think often times there’s the myth, if I get X, Y and Z person to hear my song, I’m set. Right? There’s this mythical gate that will just open. In my experience, it just doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe there are still barriers to entry, in terms of the label world in some ways. But I think huge part of it is there’s a huge network around you that you don’t even realize. When I first came to New York, I worked really closely with these guys, Thor and Issac Corrin, who were in this band called The Kin. I went and saw them at Rockwood Music Hall, which has the capacity of maybe 200 people. They were incredible. I was like blown away. “Wow. Got to work with these guys. Got to write songs with these guys, and they’re so talented.” And then they went on to … A year later, fast forward, they’re signing Interscope, they’re touring with Pink on the Truth About Love Arena Tour. It’s like, wow. At that time, they weren’t signed anywhere. It was just because, “Oh, I think they’re really good and talented.” So my advice would be, there’s a lot of really talented people who make pop music. And I mean pop music being like pop rock or hip-hop or whatever you want to do within the realm of a three to four-minute radio song. There’s a lot of talented people around. So I would just explore and kind of really focus on the craft. Not necessarily pushing to get your stuff in front of A & R or Atlantic, or things like that.
Today, obviously, we’ve been doing podcasts for Steereo, and a lot of people say the same thing, which is, “Work on your craft.” What does that look like for you? On a daily basis, have you formed habits or do you have rituals that you do day in, day out to hone in on your craft, that you can share with us?
Sure. Yeah, I mean, I think from the age of 22 to 24, I wrote a song every day.
[07:07] Chris Leamy:
A lot of them are miserably horrible, miserably terrible. And you look and there are occasionally days I didn’t. I don’t know, maybe I’d been out late the night before. I have no idea. I tried to at least, five nights a week, write a song a day. When you do that, your instincts get better. I wish I could say … There is something to be said for being like in the moment and being inspired, and then like, poof, this amazing idea pops out of nowhere. I think that’s one of my favorite things about music, is these ideas can come and you don’t necessarily know where they came from. So it’s kind of like, is that a taught thing? Or is that something you learn? Or is that something that you’re just blessed with? I don’t know, I feel like for me, personally, I had to kind of learn it, and still continue to learn it to this day, and I think that’s part of why I keep coming back. You know, I think writing a song a day or focusing on a specific aspect of your craft. Another thing I did was, I really wasn’t comfortable playing by myself with shows. Like I said, I always had buddies in a band. Going out there playing a show with a band is very different from playing as a singer/songwriter, I quickly learned. It’s just a lot more intense and more intimate almost because it’s your name.
Regardless if you’re playing with a band or not. So I was going out and playing The Bitter End and Rockwood and any place that I could to just get comfortable with that. It wasn’t necessarily something I was broadcasting everywhere. I think performing is also a learned aspect, and people don’t count on that. When you’re playing a song live, and your guitar is out of tune, or you have no levels on your mic, you’re just out there raw, I think those are things you just learn how to deal with. You have the songwriting and then you have the performance aspect. I think you have to work hard at developing both. I don’t think you can be just one or the other anymore.
No. I think it’s very true. In your opinion, what is it like right now for an independent artist out there? Like from your point of view, what are the benefits, what are the drawbacks that you’re seeing in New York?
[09:14] Chris Leamy:
That’s an interesting question. I mean, I think the streaming landscape has really changed the way people view music. I remember, in Chicago, it was very different. I remember drill rap was huge, right? Then all the sudden here comes Chance the Rapper, this independent kid. And for years, everybody said, “It’s never going to work being independent.” He’s obviously had a monster career. But now you’re seeing the rise of almost hip-hop within streaming and that listener base. Culture, listener base, whatever you want to call it, has really embraced streaming. So I think there is a way to, particularly in that genre, have a successful career. Now, in terms of being an independent artist, I think the drawbacks are always going to be the same. You have no one telling you what to do, which can be good and bad. People often say, “I don’t want anyone telling me how to focus on my music or how to put on my music.”
Yeah, they look at it like it’s a benefit.
Yeah. It could be good or bad. Maybe it’s good to have some guy whose whole career has been radio and he can give you advice on what he likes on that song, and maybe those tweaks are important to the average listener. I don’t know. I think there is something to be said for an independent artist. No one’s really keeping you on a schedule. So I think there is an aspect of discipline that goes along with it, and I think that’s what I’ve seen in terms of people who have been really successful. Just that there is still that team attitude, be it managers, whatever, publishers, booking agents, whatever, what have you. I think to be an independent artist, it’s not just throwing up your song on SoundCloud or Spotify or anything like that, and just saying, “Look at me.” There’s so much noise in the world. That’s the issue that comes with people being able to put your music out.
I think you still need a strong strategy. That was something that I really didn’t understand. I signed with Moxi Management and Wallace Morgan, who’s been phenomenal at that. That was to my own detriment. That was something I certainly didn’t get, that I’m still learning on.
Yeah, I think that’s an incredible answer. I think there is two sides to every coin. I think, for me, specifically, as an artist, I love the team environment, and I like the feedback. I think sometimes, as artists, we can get super close to our own projects. It wasn’t even until I started to, from a live perspective, put the music in front of people. Ultimately they told me what they liked. It was like when you stand in a room and people start to resonate with one of your songs, you’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t think that would translate that way.” Or maybe that wasn’t the next single, or whatever. I think it is good to take counsel from people that you trust, but also ultimately the people who’re buying or streaming or going to your concerts are going to tell you exactly what they like anyway.
[11:58] Chris Leamy:
That’s such a great point. I wish I would’ve thought of that. You’re right. I know a lot of people talk about egos in the music business, and they certainly are there. I still remember songs that I thought were great, and I played them live, and you could’ve heard a cricket. Then songs that I thought weren’t good, and wow, I got a really good response. To your point, the audience will tell you. Right? In some ways it’s great, it’s scary, and it’s empowering at the same time.
So, Chris, tell us about “He Plays for Me.”
[12:31] Chris Leamy:
Sure. Let me preface this with, so I lived in New York seven years now. Before all of this, call it three or four years ago, I never spoke to homeless people. I had no interest in speaking to homeless people. I seen all homeless people were lazy, dealing with drugs and addiction because it was their fault, they chose to not pick themselves up and have a place to live, and it was all their choice. So, every bad thing you could think of, that was how I viewed the homeless population. I think it’s really important I start there. I was not this kind, sincere human being. I was definitely coming at it from a very New Yorker, “Get out of my way,” attitude.
Well, we appreciate your honesty. We appreciate your honesty.
[13:23] Chris Leamy:
Kind of what happened was, I just signed a publishing deal, I was just working on song ideas. I had a couple of really hard medical issues come up that I wasn’t really handling all that well, and I was dealing with really bad OCD that was kind of taking over my life. Music, I think, for a lot of us, can be super cathartic, as I’m sure you can relate to.
[13:43] Chris Leamy:
It’s just having an outlet, right? So during that period, I was writing a lot of songs. One of the things was let’s get these songs in front of people. I didn’t really want to have stuff that I wanted to go and truly, quote-unquote, “ perform”. It was kind of like a wood shop. Like how do I do this? So my idea was, okay, cool, I’ll go busk on the streets of New York. I’ll just sit out. If you can get someone on the streets of New York to listen to your song or stop and pay attention, you’re doing something right. To your point, I was looking for that instant feedback. So I was like, “All right, I’ll go and I’ll do this.” I wasn’t really doing it for money. I was trying just to see if the songs are any good. So I thought, “All right, I know there’s a lot of people on the streets begging, looking for money,” or what have you, donations, ” I’ll go sit next to them and I’ll play these song ideas. If any money comes in, these people can keep it.” Right? That was kind of my initial thought process. So I went out one Saturday and did this, and I was absolutely blown away. It completely changed my life. It had nothing to do with the song ideas. I can only remember like one or two of them of doing this the first couple of times. So they clearly weren’t that good. What happened was, you would sit with these people, or I would sit with these people, and I was just blown away at the stories I heard. Because there’d be lulls in crowds, so I would just kind of sit and chat with these individuals. And I did it with three or four that first day. I was blown away about one, the humility, the perspective. I am definitely a glass half empty guy. I stub my toe in the morning, my day is ruined. I’m like definitely that type of person. So to hear these people with this amazing positivity, right, I was shook by that. There were so many little stories. Like, a guy, we made $15, call it, and the guy had no money to his name, and he wanted to spend $4 to go get his buddy a little cupcake for his birthday. It’s like, okay, cool, this guy is taking right around half of the money, all of the money in his entire world, and he’s going to give it to someone else. That’s like an amazing thing, right? All these little life moments are like teaching moments to me. It was really powerful. I thought, “Okay, I’ve clearly massively misjudged this community.” And it was a community the more that I learned about it. Maybe others have too. So, with permission, when I would get these moments, I was like, “Oh, I never thought of it that way.” Or, “That’s a great story.” Or, “That’s a funny joke,” or what have you. Whatever I could to show the homeless community in a new light, I just asked permission and started posting it. I used the hashtag, He Plays for Me. I was surprised by the response. A lot of people had a very similar outlook that I did. The goal of it really was to humanize the homeless population. I think, on Instagram and social media, I never thought it would turn into what it did. It was very much, “Oh, this is kind of cool. It’s a new perspective. Maybe others will agree.” With time, we got a couple of large viral videos. Again, I didn’t really have anything to do with them. I just happened to be there. It was more these people had the opportunity and the platform to tell their stories. I think people really resonated with that. So we’ve been able to raise a lot of money with a couple of different organizations. We’ve even got large donations from places like Leesa Mattresses. They donated 40 mattresses to a homeless shelter in Tennessee, because I had played in one of their events. So I was able to connect the dots on things like that. So it’s really just opened up a whole aspect of my life that I never really saw coming, but I’m so incredibly grateful for.
Watch Chris Leamy Sing “The Start” For #HePlaysForMe
That is super beautiful. I think your podcast number may be 22, I think, we’re up to now, and I think that has been the most beautiful story I have heard. So, congratulations to you.
It’s quite remarkable. I’m very impressed. Also, the girls in our office all swooned when they heard you were coming on the 99% Podcast.
Wow. That’s very nice. Thank you.
Well, I think that’s ultimately what an artist is trying to do. They’re trying to touch people, whether that’s through song or lyrics or melody, and you’re doing it in a couple of different forms. So we, on behalf of Steereo, say thank you for doing that and highlighting such an incredible cause.
Oh, thank you. That’s very kind. I appreciate that.
I don’t know where we go with the interview now, Chris. Because ultimately you just sold us your soul, in terms of how beautiful it is, and you showed yourself. So, some of these other questions seem very insignificant now. We’ll start with one because we ask everybody the same question. When someone jumps into a rideshare vehicle and Steereo is playing, and your music is on the loudspeaker, what is it you’re looking for them to feel or to take away from your music?
[18:50] Chris Leamy:
That’s a great question. Something I’ve always strived for, and I constantly push for, and I don’t always get there, and I think it’s rerecording or rewriting or whatever it is, but, “Do I believe the person? Do I believe the speaker of this song?” I say the person singing. Is there an emotional response from this individual? I think that’s something that it is … It’s not, “Oh, he’s a great singer.” Or, “Oh, she’s a great singer.” It’s like, “Do I believe them?” Right? Which is a very different thing. You can have a huge operatic voice, but if you’re just singing notes, does anyone really care? I don’t think so. The thing I would want is, “Oh, man, I really feel this guy. I can tell he really means it.” That would be the goal. You can have different genres, and people have different tastes in music, right? But I think everyone can usually look and be like, “This guy’s in it. He’s like in that moment.” So that’s constantly what I strive for.
Amazing. Tell us some of the exciting or new projects coming up for you this year.
[19:56] Chris Leamy:
We just put out a new single. It’s called “Shoot to Thrill.” It’s a bit more kind of on the rock side, a little kind of Imagine Dragons type vibe to it. So we’re really excited about that one. I’m doing a BMI showcase at Rockwood Music Hall, which should be super fun. That’s on September 25th at 8:00 PM. It’s very nice of BMI to ask us to do that. Then, we’re working, putting the finishing touches on a new EP, which should be out later this year. So, yeah, kind of the train is rolling, which has been fun.
Awesome. If people want to jump on your train, where do they find you, Chris? What’s all your social media handles and your website and things like that?
[20:34] Chris Leamy:
Sure. It’s ChrisLeamyMusic, that’s my handle for all social media stuff, and that’s my website too. So pretty easy.
Perfect. Chris, it’s been an absolute pleasure to talk to you today. We wish you continued success, and we’re excited to have you as part of the Steereo family. Thank you for taking the time and the opportunity to speak with us today.
Of course. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.