Gregg Belisle-Chi is a Seattle-based guitarist and composer fascinated by the way art forms interact across time and medium, and by our innate need to tell stories as a species—whether through poetry or jazz. He’s dug into spiritual and literary texts from the past and explored how these things have shaped our culture, giving them a new voice through his music. On December 21st, Gregg and his wife, Chelsea, celebrate the release of two new albums: I Sang To You and the Moon and Tyrant Lizard. Come January they move to New York City to continue exploring their music.
Why do you make music?
I mean, why not? Well, what do you mean, like why did I start playing music or continue to make music?
Maybe both. How did you start?
Well, my dad’s a violinist and he gave me my first guitar when I was a teenager. He lived in Seattle when I was growing up, my parents were separated before I was born, so I was always kind of back and forth between the two. So, taking his guitar back home with me, (because I lived with my mom) was kind of a way to be with him. But you know, you’re also a teenager and you want to rebel, he was really into classical music and I was really into Nirvana and punk rock, stuff like that—you know, simultaneously rebelling against my dad and wanting to be in a relationship with him in some way. Then, through that, really falling in love with the guitar specifically and making music with other people, and when I got older I just couldn’t really envision myself doing anything else.
When I got older and I went to music school and found out you could actually make a living doing this, it kind of validated what I wanted earlier.
When you decided to pursue music professionally, what was that like for you?
The first professional gig I got was when I was fourteen. I got hired to play in the pit of Jesus Christ Superstar. Before that, I was playing in school jazz bands and a garage band with my friends, but I had never had a real gig. My old band director hired me for this gig, which was really brave of her, come to think of it, because it was me and a bunch of like forty-year-old professional musicians. It’s so obscene when I think about it, I haven’t thought of that in a long time…but after that I was like, maybe I can do this, you know? And everyday you always have some kind of setback and then something happens and you’re like, yeah, maybe I can do this. And you just keep doing it.
Tell me about your transition into composing. What did it look like to find your voice?
I think I’d always been interested in songwriting. When I was younger, I tried to write songs…and wrote songs for my girlfriend or whatever, but that’s different than composing. Sitting in your bedroom strumming chords is very different from what I feel like I do now, although it’s all coming from the same place.
When I was in college I tried to write a little bit, but nothing really stuck. And after I graduated I just kind of spiraled into this place of not really knowing what I was doing musically. I was living in a basement of a house in West Seattle, my stuff was everywhere, and I was only playing music, anything to pay the bills. I didn’t have a day job or anything so I wasn’t really making a lot of money and just wondering what I was doing with my time. So I found myself with a lot of spare hours to just sit and think about what I wanted to do creatively—that’s when I really started to take composing seriously.
Your music has a lot of spiritual and liturgical themes, and then there’s Carl Sandburg—where does your inspiration come from?
I can talk specifically about Miserere, which is the piece I’ll be playing for the Chapel Sessions. It’s debuted a couple times, the first time I performed it was last year and it was with eight musicians, more like a chamber ensemble. Then I re-orchestrated it for guitar, bass, drums, and keyboard.
I obviously love records that are collections of songs, but I also love pieces that are one statement, like a painting that has a bunch of different themes but is kind of one cohesive piece. I wanted to write a whole piece like that, broken up into different movements, and I was listening to a lot of classical music a year or two ago and just decided to dive into one very specific thing. So, I was just listening to Masses, and all really great composers have taken that text and set it to their own music—it dates back all the way to the 1600’s.
So I just listened to Masses from the 1600’s till now. I would just listen to the composers I was already attracted to like, early on, Carlo Gesualdo, who was an incredible incredible composer who composed mostly just for voices, and then the classics like Bach and Mozart and Beethoven, and more recently, Stravinsky, Charles Ives… I just filled my iPod with Masses and just listened to each one, would read through the scores, and see how they were dealing with the text.
So when it came time to write my own, I was channeling what they were trying to do with different movements. The text was a great place for me to jump off from: I already had content, so I just had to put notes to it. So actually, I think I have the score here, if you want to look at it…
So in all the music, I have the text written out and then I just use that to inform how the notes are going to lay out…so this is all text from the Mass and I just used that to kind of generate melodies, if that makes sense. So yeah, I did five movements from the Mass and just put music to it.
So you have the text written throughout all the movements?
Yeah, I wanted the musicians to be able to read it too and internalize it in whatever way they want to. There’s something kind of deep about this music that’s engrained in all of Western culture, so I feel like evolutionarily speaking it’s in us all, in a way.
What inspired the Sandburg stuff (I Sang To You and the Moon)?
I took a class at UW that was basically a study of American art and the relationship between visual artists, poets, and composers, all revolving around the Americana theme. We would look at a piece by Hopper, look at his paintings and ask, what’s American about this? We would look at Gershwin or Charles Ives and say, what’s American about this? And not in the patriotic sense, but like what’s happening in culture, in society, that’s informing this? We would talk about them in a cross-disciplinary scope, so I was really interested when I read Sandburg’s work, like oh my God, this is so relatable. I gravitated to it and then I found out that most of his poetry isn’t settable to music. A lot of it is free form, not metered or anything, so I bought his complete collection, which is huge, and I found six or seven that are settable—so that was the project.
What does your creative process look like? Do you have rituals or routines for composition?
A lot of people are really ritualistic about their lives: like they wake up at the same time, they eat the same thing for breakfast, they go on a walk at the same time, they come home and work for two hours, then go out—like that everyday. And I feel like the theory behind that is if you live a ritualistic life, it leaves a lot more creative bandwidth for when you’re actually working. If I don’t have to think about what I’m having for dinner tonight, I don’t have to worry about it, I just have to worry about what I’m working on. I’m endlessly fascinated with the creative process. It’s so different for everybody and it’s cool to notice my own habits, which are kind of changing. Like, when I wrote the music for Tenebrae, everyday at three o’clock I would write for three hours—but it was different for the Mass, that was kind of more haphazard.
I guess the one constant though is that I’ve always had a deadline, which is a really good motivator. Like, Tenebrae, I booked the studio time six months in advance and put down a deposit for it and was like, okay, I have to write all this music now.
And then for the Mass, it wasn’t a commission, but I had to write all the music for an ensemble when I was in grad school at UW and the concert was this day so I had to finish it by that time.
Tell me about the double release and the move to New York City coming up!
Yeah, I’m really excited about this release! It’s December 21st, and that’s the Sandburg music that I’m releasing, and I’m also releasing music with another band that I play for called Tyrant Lizard. So actually, Tyrant Lizard is me and my friend Ray on trumpet, Carmen Rothwell on bass, and then the Moon (I Sang To You and the Moon) record, which is the Sandburg record, is the same band plus Chelsea. Chelsea was in Tenebrae, I was making music with Tyrant Lizard, so we decided to put them together.
The New York thing is just to be around more artists and more musicians that are doing things at a really high level. I just really want to learn from the best, and a lot of the best musicians are in New York.
Chelsea and I move in January and we’re just all over the place, and all our stuff is in New Jersey right now. This is my life right now—just me and my guitar.
What’s your spirit animal?
Whoa. Blue Whale.
Why Blue Whale?
They’re the biggest mammals on earth. They’re amazing! I wrote a song a long time ago called Whale Sounds and I was just thinking about a Blue Whale. And then my copyright is Whale Sounds Music.
RSVP here: Seattle Chapel Sessions #04: Gregg Belisle- Chi.
The Seattle Chapel Sessions was created to provide a space for local artists to share their stories through music and narrative. Hosted in “chapels” across the Seattle area, the “chapel” offers a unique and intimate experience for the artists and audience alike.
Giving the artist enough time to share in between their set, than allowing for a Q&A allows for the artist and audience to explore music, their creative process, and humanities in creative community.