For this special episode of Chroma and Friends I had the opportunity to do an email interview with spoken word poet and my pal, Chris Bernstorf. Chris has been touring and performing poetry since 2010; since 2015 I’ve gotten to know him through various tours and festivals and conversations that lasted until sunrise. Today, Chris gives us a detailed look at his new album It’s All Joy and reflects on his experiences as a traveling artist, an advocate for meaningful spirituality, and a plain ‘ol human. Give it a listen, then come back here and read what he has to say.
Fallon: Before we dive into your latest release, It’s All Joy, I wanted to highlight the “prologue” of sorts to your tour that you sent to your email list, an open letter called The Gazebo Matters. It brings the sort of attention to the value of creativity we here at Chroma really resonate with. In the letter, you lay out an argument for why people, regardless of their beliefs or circumstances, have a need for creativity, the conclusion being that it is a vessel for hope. Could you give an example of how art, either in its creation or appreciation, has impacted you and/or your community in such a way that it inspired this kind of hope?
Chris: Art has given me hope in so many ways. I think two examples that come to mind right now are from Levi the Poet and Kevin Schlereth. Levi has so many lines that stick with me and inspire me. “I’d rather have You than all of my answers,” from his album Correspondence gave words to so many different feelings and longings I had churning in my spirit, feelings I couldn’t express but I could sense burning inside. It came as a relief to me, allowing me to finally understand and handle everything I could feel inside of me and also allowing me to express those feelings to others. I have so often felt that, no matter what pain or confusion has come my way, no matter what difficult experience, somehow God is still there and still worth the suffering, and hearing that line from Levi allowed me to put that into words in a coherent, concise, clear way. That line has blessed me so much. Other lines from Levi, like “Three-in-One be the breathe in my lungs,” have worked their way into my prayer life and become the actual words that I speak to God because they seem to best express what my heart longs for. The first time I heard “Tables” from the band Kevin Schlereth, I was sitting on the floor in my friends’ kitchen. As Kevin and Jay were singing, I was nodding along, enjoying the new song as just a new piece of art my friends had made. When the chorus hit though, a simple refrain of “Jesus, it’s hard,” I wept. I was at a point in my life of working through a deep conflict with one of my best friends, a conflict that also seemed to threaten the beginning of my relationship with my now wife, and a massive implosion within my friend group in which many of the most important people in my life were tearing each other apart over a massively difficult issue. All of this combined with the normal growth and struggles with life and faith that I, like everyone, experience and work through. It created this huge, heavy weight in my heart, and hearing “Tables” acknowledge the hardship and give me words to express it (and also words to cry out to God from it) was such a relief and a catharsis. It felt like God saw me in my pain and reached out to acknowledge me, to commiserate, to hold me in it, and to give me and remind me of His hope and promises. I was so powerfully moved, and that song has continued to mean so much to me and I think so much to all of my friends who struggled in the situations we shared and also in their own ways. To be seen in the pain, to have someone agree with you that it’s hard down here (something the Church doesn’t always do a good job of), to have someone offer you a cry for and promise of hope that is visceral and real and knows this world’s pain in a real way, to have someone do all of that in a non-bullshit way that points to God’s very words, that isn’t just making up some nice platitude, means so, so much. I am so thankful for that song (and the whole Catechism record it comes from).
F: Let's start off talking about It's All Joy with a doozy of a question, one I’ve been wrestling with since first listening to your album. The most popular generalizations that surround poets often include characterizing them as elusive, codifying their every intention, brooding in quiet rage, pining for resolution they might never attain— but take a cursory glance at the music video for “Swing” and those generalizations are quickly challenged. Deeper still, the way that you operate as an artist places you in close proximity with fellow creatives and fans; it’s hard not to get to know you a little bit if someone follows your work. With the extremely personal nature of It’s All Joy in mind, how do you approach the communication of your identity through your poetry? Are there certain characteristics or ideas you try to project over others? Do you find yourself struggling with any sort of pressures to present yourself a certain way?
C: I don’t think poetry always gives me an issue with how I present myself but rather just living as a person. I’ve struggled a ton with insecurity over the course of my life, with wanting to be accepted and found to be “good enough” in whatever relationship or circumstance I find myself. Those struggles obviously work very directly against any sort of vulnerability, and vulnerability is one of the most crucial aspects of making art and of just living the way we were created (i.e. in healthy, joyful, growing relationship with God, ourselves, and each other). Learning to be vulnerable, learning to express everything I feel in Godly, healthy ways, has been a huge struggle and growth process over the course of my life. We joke often of the death of “posi-Chris” back in 2015. In the fall of that year, I did a giant tour with my friends in Kept On Hold (and a few others who hopped on at different points). Andrew from Kept On Hold and I were together for 120 days straight. He is one of my best friends, and that experience brought us even closer. Through it, he started to really work with me on expressing my emotions. Before then, I thought that feeling angry or bothered or upset or sad or hurt were “bad” and therefore sins. Andrew helped me learned to express everything I thought, even the hard stuff, and it really changed my whole entire life. Learning to be honest with God brought me so much closer to Him, brought me so much closer to friends and family, and I think just made me all around a better person, artist, and performer. I’ve also really learned a lot from my friend Kevin Schlereth about how faith works and that we as Christians shouldn’t be trying to “sell” anything. Faith isn’t a matter of convincing someone, of proving to God that you really believe or of proving that to others. The Bible says that God’s strength is made complete in our weakness and that we should rejoice in weakness and suffering and trial. I’ve learned so much the last few years about learning to just be exactly who I am, warts and all, as the phrase goes, and letting God be Himself in that. Radical honesty has led me to radical freedom and healing and love. I heard a Matt Chandler sermon back in 2015 where he said something akin to, “Hey, if you don’t believe God is good, that’s fine, but you need to tell Him, so He can heal you.” I remember sitting on my bed at 25 years old, long into this whole sharing Jesus through art thing, and telling God that I just didn’t believe He was good or had my best interests in mind. I told Him I knew that I should, but I just didn’t. As soon as I admitted that, I felt something inside my heart break and the Spirit just rush in, and I’ve known since (albeit, with your expected moments of doubt and uncertainty) in a very real way that God is good and does have my best interest in mind. But I didn’t find any healing until I told the truth about where I was at. I keep thinking about how the crippled guy on the mat doesn’t say to Jesus “What mat? I’m not paralyzed” when Jesus says pick up your mat and walk. He knows he’s crippled, and he knows he needs healing. This has transferred over a ton into my art because I’m just trying to tell the truth as best as I can and let God have the pieces fall where they may. The band Eight Days from December described themselves as an act of vulnerability in the hopes that others could be vulnerable with them. Reading that really changed me, and I think it puts into words what I’m working for in my art—the belief that the best art comes from vulnerability and honesty and, through offering that, the immense power of art as commiseration and vision-giver with can be extended to everyone who interacts with my art.
So, yes, I guess all of that to say, it’s hard and scary, but I’m trying more and more to just be vulnerable in my art and my life and to let the pieces fall where they may. I grew up in neon-Warped Tour music culture, so I considered giving my project a name when it began. However, under the influence of stuff like The Chariot and what I was learning about punk and hardcore, I realized the best thing I could be is raw and honest. No matter what I called this all, people would know it’s just some guy up there named Chris. They could know it and see it, and I knew it and could see it (obviously), so I decided to just admit it, call it out, and be myself. Sometimes, my poems have real separations between the speaker and myself as the poet, and often I do the V-for-Vendetta bit of “artists use lies to tell the truth”—like in “Move,” my parents didn’t have a basement for me to live in, but the sentiment of that is true for where I was in my life—but, ultimately, I just want to offer where I am and what I know as best and honestly as I can. The decision to incorporate really extra specific stuff in this album (stuff like my friends’ names and things like that) came from my friend Janelle Maree. She writes these intensely, intensely personal poems and, through doing so, achieves these universal experiences and truths. It’s really beautiful and incredible to experience and really inspired me to give it a try and push in even deeper to it than usual.
F: With 4 studio albums, a collection of b-sides, and a bunch of other ventures including a short film and an anthology of your poetry, you’ve had a lot of time and projects over which to develop your writing process. On the craft side of things, how did you approach creating the poems for It’s All Joy, from conception, putting them on paper, and bringing them into spoken word?
C: It’s All Joy has been coming together for over four years. My general writing process essentially looks like “write whenever you can and just let it build up until it seems right to put something out.” Because Yellow is its own ep, I found that a lot of people saw my discography sort of in this dichotomy of love poems and not-love poems. I saw myself doing that a lot, too—honestly, I might have been the worst culprit at times. In my mind, all of them are the same—like, all of my poems always are doing the same thing—no matter what the topic, I hope they all are illuminating the truth of the human experience and pointing to God. For Christians, too, we seem to have this tendency to see life as doing stuff for God and then, “oh, also you fall in love,” but, in reality, Song of Songs is in the Bible—it’s not the separate sex book they hand you to figure that part of life out. It’s all there. It’s all one. So, I’ve dreamt of the love poems and not love poems all being together on one album, working very visibly together towards this one goal of illuminating the character of God and human experience. As I’ve grown in relationship with my wife, from expressing feelings to dating to engagement to marriage, the Bible’s promise that marriage is a metaphor for Christ’s love for His Church has proven so true and real, so being able to delve into that and put to words so much of what I’ve been experience and discovering in our relationship meant so much and was so cool for me. The idea of oneness, of the oneness of everything, all of experience pointing us to God and everything being a metaphor for something else and always pointing us to God, has been churning and cooking around in my heart for two or three years at least. “Swing” was almost on The Sidewalk Hymns, but I didn’t know what to do with it at the time, so I had just been sitting on it. The last song from the Spider Mansion ep finally helped me figure out what to do with it—I just didn’t get the poem. It just felt like this really fast “yell piece”, but I didn’t know how to contextualize it in my mind. That last song on the Spider Mansion ep is less than two minutes long I think, and most of the meat of the song is even shorter—it’s just this badass riff and then it’s kind of over. And that made me realize you can just put out art in whatever shape it takes (I probably should’ve known that sooner, but hey). So, I started viewing “Swing” as just this really sick, badass roar of a riff, and that let me keep it as a poem. When I went to put the album together and get it going this year, about half of it was written already over the last few years (“Doing This” dates back to college for me, so it’s like 6 or 8 years old) and then I had a ton of little drafts and pieces of stuff that I’d been working on and this idea of oneness and the physical circle metaphor churning in me for a couple years. It had just been baking and baking, and I’d been thinking and thinking and praying and talking to people about it. So the other half of the album came out of a ton of freewriting and piecing through all the different drafts and pieces of stuff and ideas I had. I’ve gotten a bit more lazy with page arrangement in the writing process because I do spoken word primarily, but I try to make every poem work on the page first and then learn it as a spoken word piece and figure out how to say it. The figuring out how to say it happens in practice and then also sometimes as we are recording them (I learned how I wanted “Geography” to go kind of as I was recording it).
F: The videos for “Swing” and “Facts” both have a surrealness to them that feels connected (to me, at least) despite the contrast of how silly “Swing” is and the focused, endearing nature of “Facts.” How did you go about choosing these two poems for videos? And what drew you toward the togetherness of these two themes as they continue a sort of partnership throughout It’s All Joy?
C: That’s really cool that you felt that way about the videos—I’m not sure we made a conscious tonal connection between the two—that’s God just doing something cool. We just tried to be as true to the tones and spirits of both poems as we could. I think the surrealness that you’re identifying though is a major theme on the album though, and one that’s come to mean a lot to me in the last few years. It started with “152.42” from The Sidewalk Hymns and has carried over for me. It’s just fucking incredible that we are here at all. What does it even mean to have consciousness? We are all just a bunch of tiny dots on some plane of existence (we don’t even really know what we are on—paint goes on canvas, cars go on roads, what is our essence as people on? What are we even standing on) that have some electricity zapping around in us and then we build and create and love and experience joy and emotion. What on earth? We are living in a constant, unfathomable, weird, fantastic miracle at every moment. No matter one’s world view, we absolutely must agree that it’s really fucking weird and insane and incredible and wonderful that we are here at all—whether there was some explosion or a sentient God speaking us into existence, whatever you believe, it’s insane that we are here. The awe and marvel at that miracle have really informed so much of my art and faith and life since I realized it was a miracle in the first place. I keep repeating to people at shows and to my wife the line from “Sci-fi”: “How could a miracle touch this place in the timeline and for me and not leave?” I really just can’t even fathom it—when I look at my wife, when I look at the life I get to lead, touring and living in close community and relationship with so many incredible people, when I think about even being here at all, when I think about God, it’s all too wonderful and amazing for me and I think the acknowledgement of the surrealness of life runs through the whole album and right out through my whole life and outlook.
Oh, and we chose those two poems because we loved them, have had them done and recorded for a while, and had very specific visions for both videos of what we wanted to do with them. We had the ideas and had the poems done, so it just seemed right. We actually shot “The Facts” video last summer, so we’ve been sitting on that one for a long while.
F: Any chance we can get the lore behind the mac n’ cheese bath?
C: The year is 2017, and Amanda (not my wife then, just my friend with whom I had a mutual set of feelings), myself, and our friends Hannah (of Formerly Bodies) and Ashley (of Amessa, rip) are on a trip to the northern part of Michigan to pick flowers for my upcoming poem “Unfold” (we pressed the flowers inside lathe cuts of the poem). “Cherry Garcia” by Dingus is playing loud in the speakers, and we are driving in joy through the sunshine and warmth. I explained the idea of the poem “Swing,” and we all start to riff on the zaniest, most ridiculous, celebrate-life, head-first-in-joy, crazy shit that we could possibly do for the video (originally, the idea was to throw a 24-hour “do crazy stuff adventure” party and try to film and edit while it was happening and have it done in 24 hours). We brainstormed a ton of stuff, and the mac-n-cheese bath and hot sauce drink just sort of materialized from that, and we kept it.
F: The range of circumstances and themes on It's All Joy is quite broad, from your relationship with your wife Amanda to your parents to the rejection of hopelessness through faith. If you had to share with someone just one track from the album that captures the core of these topical intersections, which would it be?
C: I think “One” is the track. This is the most conceptually I’ve ever worked for an album I think. Yellow was love poems. All the other releases have been gathering together what I have and feel like I should put out, and seeing how they work together and finding a title that best encapsulates them. For this album, I really wanted to try to have the poems work together, to reference each other, and to be headed towards and end goal, and I think they all sort of wrap up together and reach their pinnacle in “One.” It pulls from all the themes and works them all together into the sort of final statement/culmination of all the ideas.
F: And finally, if you have anything in the works you want to share, now’s the chance! We know you’re on tour, but what else is in store for Chris Bernstorf?
C: Um, honestly, we aren’t really sure. Amanda and I just had a brainstorm session yesterday. We have a lot of ideas of stuff we want to do, and so we are just praying about what we should do next and when. We have a lot of tour plans—this release tour runs into a few more dates that aren’t currently on the flier. We have a small break and then we head to Germany and Austria for a short run of shows. We are then hoping to tour most of/a lot of the rest of the year and are just praying about what form that should take. We really, really love It’s All Joy, so I think we really want to push it and share it as much as we can. We loved the videos we did, so I think we are hoping to do some more videos, hopefully both performance-based ones and more “art-piece” kinds of ones. We are excited to experiment and explore with those—Amanda does all of the video work and has a real natural knack for it, so we are stoked to see what else we can figure out doing. We have a couple book ideas and a few other future release thoughts and dreams. For now, it’s a lot of praying and dreaming. I’m excited to see where God takes us next. We can’t believe all we’ve already gotten to do and how beautiful it all is. We feel like we are just sort of along for the ride and watching it all, too.
It’s All Joy, as well as all of my other releases, are available for free via Bandcamp and can also be streamed everywhere music is had. My book So Far, and the smaller 152.42 book that is included within So Far, can be downloaded for free via my website (www.chrisbernstorf.com). We don’t think art belongs to us and are really thankful we get to share what we’ve been given.
Be sure to follow those links to get more of Chris! Also, hear Chris and a ton of other awesome artists over on the Chroma and Friends Spotify playlist.