interview by Michael McCarthy
“Don’t have much to say,” sings Christian O — a super talented pop/R&B/soul singer/songwriter — at the beginning of “Free,” the first track from his latest EP Shiva’s Dance. Well, that couldn’t be further from the truth. As the song later goes, “Everyone’s free to be as they wish to be.” Now, that’s the sort of sentiment that makes his lyrics so universally accessible. It’s impossible to listen to his music and not feel motivated to live life to its fullest. He’s a guy who turned 18 and took off to go traveling and has now lived in over a half dozen countries. It’s hard not to be envious of that. Naturally, I wanted to have a chat with him about his voyages and music. I think you’ll find his story as inspiring as I do. Since he’s currently living in Switzerland, the interview was conducted via E-mail.
You’ve lived in over a half dozen different countries. Is this because you like traveling or do you come from a military or political family that moved around a lot when you were a kid or something like that?
Shortly after my 18th birthday I decided to start traveling and was always fascinated by Asia, so I jumped on a plane and went to Kathmandu, Nepal where I lived for 8 months before moving to Thailand. After that it just got harder and harder to return back home.
If not, what did your parents do when you were growing up?
My mom was the only one around when I was growing up. She worked numerous jobs and did whatever she could to provide for us. She’s kind of my hero.
Can you tell us what order you lived in all of these different places, starting with when you were born up until where you reside now?
I was born in New York and raised in Miami, where I lived until I was 18. After Nepal and Thailand, I spent time in Siem Reap, Kuala Lumpur, and Bali. I also lived in Tokyo for 6 months, in LA for a year, and currently I am living in Zürich.
One of your songs is called “California Dreams.” Is it safe to assume you’ve been to California? Have you ever lived there or anywhere else in the U.S.? (I lived in Los Angeles for three years.)
Yup, I lived in LA for a year while I got my professional music career started. It’s my favorite place in the States and not a bad place to call home.
If you had to settle down permanently in one of the countries you’ve lived in, which would you choose?
I actually recently got married to the love of my life in Switzerland so I suppose it’s safe to say that I’ll be settling down permanently in Europe for now.
Is there a country you currently call home now or are you still traveling?
How old were you when you started voluntarily traveling from one country to the next? How old are you now?
I was 18 when it all started and at the moment I am 27.
What’s the longest amount of time you’ve ever stayed in one country and which country was it?
I stayed on a little island called Koh Pha Ngan in Thailand for nearly two years. It’s pretty perfect there and almost impossible to leave. I also lived a year between Bali and Gili T. These are definitely my favorite getaways in the world.
Are you involved in a volunteer organization like Greenpeace or do you travel simply because you enjoy it?
It all was and still is one huge journey of self discovery.
Have you worked to support yourself in all of these countries you’ve lived in? If so, did you work under the table or did you somehow manage to get work visas for all of these countries? If you had work visas, how did you manage to get them? Is there a trick you could share with us?
Most of the countries I lived in weren’t the best for working but fortunately they’re usually very affordable if you stay at the right places. I did do some performances in Tokyo and to be honest the visa process for an artist visa is a nightmare, my advice is be patient but persistent. If you want to live or work somewhere you’ll find a way.
What are some of the jobs you’ve had in the various countries you’ve lived in?
Typical random survival jobs, nothing special!
How long do you have to live in a place for you to say you’ve lived there as opposed to having visited there like a tourist? For example, I once stayed in Paris for five weeks, but I’ve never really thought of it like I actually lived there because I always knew it was just a long vacation.
I say three months is when a new place begins to really feel like home. It’s always different but usually takes at least a few months to get settled, make new friends and really feel like part of the local way of life.
Do you use a lot of tourist guides when traveling? If so, is there a certain publisher that you’re loyal to? For example, I’m especially fond of Lonely Planet’s tour guides.
I usually go to places and just see what happens. Make friends with locals and have them tell you the real treasures of the land you’re visiting.
When you learn different languages for your travels, do you typically study a language before you move to the country or do you just learn it after you’ve arrived in a new country?
I don’t learn a word until I’m there and am immersed in the language. Every language I’ve learned has stemmed from sheer necessity. When you need to know the language in order to eat you learn quick.
I understand you speak five languages. Are you fluent in all of them? Are there any other languages you know that you’re not quite fluent in but can get by with?
I am, sometimes I find myself thinking in Thai or Malay. At the moment I’m perfecting my Swiss German and German. I know enough to get by, but definitely needs major improvements.
How do you usually learn new languages? Do you take classes or study them yourself, for example? If you study them independently is there a certain method you use? For example, some people swear by Rosetta Stone or Living Language brands of self-teaching.
Like I said before the best method for me is simply being surrounded by the language you are learning. Nothing beats hearing countless people pronounce the words you are learning and hearing how they’re actually used in sentences. Most often then not the locals speak their own dialects that differ greatly from the proper words taught in translation programs, but hey different methods work for different people.
I know from when I’ve been in Paris that countries can have different computer keyboard layouts. How many different keyboards do you know how to use? In which countries was learning the keyboard the most difficult?
My laptop goes with me everywhere I go so my keyboard usually always stays the same.
Have you ever been a victim of a crime in any of the places you’ve lived. For example, were you ever robbed?
I once had a whole luggage full of clothes stolen on an island in Indonesia. I spent months with just a few pairs of clothes, which was fine since I spent most of my time there surfing. Overall not the worst thing that’s ever happened to me!
In which countries did you find the laws to be the most suffocating? Where did you feel the most free?
I love Singapore but never for more than a few days cause everything is illegal and very strictly enforced. Thailand is usually at the top of all my lists, if you want to feel free and be yourself go to the Thai Islands. That’s where it’s at for me.
How old were you when you started singing? How old were you when you realized you wanted to sing professionally?
I’ve been singing since I can remember but I didn’t realize I actually wanted to take it all the way until my 25th birthday. Something clicked for me then and I realized this is what I’m going to do.
Are you aiming to have a professional music career at this point or are you still more of a traveler who’s just doing music as a hobby?
I’m just creating music and finding myself through my sound and having fun doing it. I try not to think of the future too much otherwise it takes all the fun away from the now.
Which countries would you say have inspired your music the most?
Everywhere and Everything
Did you have a mentor teach you how to make music?
My producer John Ho has been such a big ally in my music. He took me on when all I had were poems and an idea. He helped me gain the confidence to write my own lyrics and create my own melodies.
What instruments do you play (if any)? Did you take lessons when you were growing up or are you self-taught?
I don’t, I play some piano and guitar but not so well.
Do you produce your own music? Did you produce the songs on your EP? If not, who produced it?
All my music until now has been produced by John Ho in Los Angeles.
Your new EP is called Shiva’s Dance. I understand Shiva is a major deity of Hinduism. Are you Hindu? If not, is there a particular religion you identify with or are you more of a spiritual person?
I’m not affiliated with any religion although I find glimmers of truth in all of them especially Buddhism and other eastern philosophies.
Are any of the songs on Shiva’s Dance based on Hinduism? If so, which one(s) and in what ways do they refer to Hinduism?
Shiva’s Dance refers to the cosmic destructive dance that Shiva performs at the end of a cycle in order to usher in the rebirth of a new world.
Are you a vegetarian? If so, how long have you been one? (I’ve been one for 26 years.) Which countries have the best vegetarian food? What are some of your favorite things/dishes?
I eat just about everything that also includes meat sometimes. Although I have had vegetarian stages, my whole time in Nepal and India I went completely vegetarian. Thailand is a great place to eat vegetarian the creamy stews and sauces make just about everything delicious!
When you write songs, do you write them alone or do you have a writing partner or partners?
I had help at first and learned to turn my poems into lyrics. The first song I wrote on my own was ‘Only Friend.’ It’s still my favorite and since then I write all my lyrics.
What do you usually start with when you write songs? For example, do you start with a title or the lyrics or the beats…? How does the magic happen?
My producer usually sends me some beats that I listen to and select my favorites. Then I just play them over and over – getting the feeling for the beats and gathering inspiration from things I’ve experienced or am experiencing. Some songs take weeks while others I’ve literally finished in an hour.
Do you have a record deal or do you release your music yourself?
Thankfully I have sponsors and business partners. I release all my music on my own without a label.
In which countries is your music the most popular?
My music on Spotify has done well in the U.S. with over 40K listeners but for some reason I’ve had a good response from Brazil which is kind of cool.
Have you ever done a lengthy tour as an artist or do you travel first and then find places to play?
I’ve done a few performances but nothing lengthy. Now that I’m more or less permanently in Switzerland I may begin to explore expanding my audience in Europe which will include doing more performances.
Do you sing a lot of karaoke when you travel? If so, are there certain songs that you do frequently? If so, what are those go to songs?
3 Doors Down ‘Here without you’ and Oasis ‘Wonderwall’
Do you have any plans to tour in support of Shiva’s Dance? (If so, feel free to give us any tour dates you’d like us to include with this interview.)
No plans yet, I just finished recording a new EP which I’m actually quite excited about so I may choose to jump into that by the end of the year.
We always ask some random questions with our interviews. Here are yours:
Go for it…
Tell us three things from your bucket list that you have yet to do.
1) Go to Fiji
2) Write a book
3) Make a major contribution to humanity in some way
What was the last album you bought and what format was it (CD, digital, vinyl)?
Drake – Views, digital and so bomb.
What’s the next album you intend to buy and on what format?
Haven’t a clue
What was the first album you ever bought with your own money?
System of a Down – Steal This Album… Love them.
If you could resurrect one musician from the dead, who would you bring back?
Just one? I’ve always wanted to party with Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison 🙂
Name three artists from your parents’ record collection who you actually like.
None of them
What’s the most useful piece of advice you’ve ever been given and who gave it to you?
“Nothing really matters anyways so do everything or do nothing but just be happy doing it.” Thanks Grandma
What are your favorite movies and what countries are they from? (I imagine you must have an eclectic list, having lived in so many countries.)
V for Vendetta – USA
Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof zoo – Germany
Into The Wild – USA
Fresa y Chocolate – Cuba