You can’t always get a beat on Chris Zurich. The Philly-based singer-songwriter certainly has a glorious downtown folk vibe, inherent to those who busk, brood wisely, and follow in the familial, frank lyrical storytelling lineage of the Van Ronks, Dylans and Wainwrights of the urban planes. Yet, he’s got thick dense R&B grooves and lush, lilting harmonies for days as a one-man, blue-eyed-soul pairing such as Hall & Oates. Check his album “Black Ink” for further funky reference points and his all-original songbook.
Like all artists who hit the road, roaming for their living, Zurich got slammed with a C-19 pandemic’s worth of woe, canceled shows, and shifting release dates for his sophomore album. Rather than sulk or feel sorry for himself – hey, he was raised with a Quaker background – Zurich made lemonade from lemons, and silk from silt by rolling out a weekly, regular series of nu-neo-soulful covers on YouTube from like-minded, contemporary artists so new (think Noah Cyprus, Sia and Summer Walker), the originals have barely left the charts. His take on April’s Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande duet was still climbing to #1 when Zurich dropped this fresh gem.
Usually found bouncing between Philly and NYC, Zurich and I spoke from his local digs, while in quarantine.
A.D. Amorosi: Tell me where you were in your career, and its path, before COVID-19?
Chris Zurich: I had been performing full-time for the past couple of years while putting together a batch of original songs that I was proud of and planned to release in late May. COVID-19 dried up all my work, so I’m a bit in limbo as to when I can pick up where I left off.
A.D. Amorosi: What goes into choosing the perfect cover that both suits your voice and the aesthetic you would normally apply to your songwriting? All of the songs you’re tackling on YouTube on a now-regular basis are all very rooted in soul.
Chris Zurich: Good observation. Yeah. I always describe my own sound as “soulful,” for lack of a better word, when asked. I think I’ve probably done enough covers over the years, that I can pretty well tell if I’ll be able to do the song justice or not. So, it’s not an exact science, but, if possible, it’s good to do something unexpected, either a genre or an artist people wouldn’t expect. But that’s not always the driving force. Sometimes, a song will just jump out at you.
A.D. Amorosi: What I find most interesting about these songs, these covers, is that you are doing new or near-new tracks, as opposed to the usual standards of soul. Why these?
Chris Zurich: Partially just to stay on top of what’s out there. Every era and style has its own signature patterns, flows, structures. So, I like to get inside the songs and understand them. I always think about how the jazz greats were essentially cover artists early on, putting popular songs into their own style so that people could recognize the melody, but, also hear what stylistic changes were made. So, covers can play an important role for artists as they grow.
A.D. Amorosi: Give me a taste, please. Tell me about choosing Noah Cyrus? Sia? Summer Walker?
Chris Zurich: The Noah Cyrus song was interesting because, she has a low voice for a female, like her sister, so I didn’t have to change much in terms of what key to play it in. I thought the lyrics were poetic and how she references her family was poignant, so that’s what drew me to that one. I’d say a challenging thing about a lot of songs of this era is that, because of the hip hop influence, often times the chords are the same throughout the whole song. So, the question becomes how to transition to different parts of the song and make each section feel different. Some of that is already done with the different vocal flows. But if I’m interpreting it on guitar, I have to do something creative there too. Sometimes that might as simple as playing the same thing but changing it to a lower or higher octave.
A.D. Amorosi: What was the biggest challenge of doing that new Ariana and Biebs duet track?
Chris Zurich: Oh man. That one really was tough, honestly. I couldn’t find a key that worked for my range where I could sing both the male and female parts. That one actually took a lot of time figuring out how to make it work for me. I had to mess around quite a bit.
A.D. Amorosi: Will you keep doing this regular series of nu-soul covers even when C-19 stops?
Chris Zurich: I think so. I’m a slow writer with my own material, so this helps me stay out there and grow while still allowing myself time to finish up my own stuff.
A.D. Amorosi: What is next for you beyond the covers… your original material?
Chris Zurich: I do have about an album’s worth of material now. And I plan to release it all song by song over the next few months as soon as C-19 allows.