How I Came Up: Soul Singer Chris Turner
A brush with eviction helped teach this crooner the importance of staying on the grind.
Classically trained in music since the age of 6, The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music graduate Chris Turner is a class act. With that kind background, one would think this son of San Francisco Bay Area singer Preston Turner would have had a smooth path to musical greatness. But Chris Turner had a lot of growing up to do before landing key gigs as a background vocalist for Grammy Award-winning artists Esperanza Spalding and Chris Brown and recording his own solo effort.
Turner, a 28-year-old Oakland, California-native, at one point found himself having to take some time off from his beloved New School in order to gain a better appreciation of the value of an education. But it took the married father of two facing the possibility of eviction to find the focus and commitment to pursue his career.
Today, Turner is touring with Spalding on her "Radio Music Society" show and promoting his mixtape, "LOVELife is a Challenge."
Turner chats in-depth with Loop21 about his evolution as an artist, a serious businessman, and a family man.
Loop 21: Who inspired you to become a performer?
Chris Turner: Well, my father (Preston Turner) is a professional singer. So whenever I think about singing as a kid, I think of him. He pursued music full-time when I was in the first or second grade. I saw at an early age that if you love to do something, you find a way to do it. He’s been [singing] ever since.
Loop 21: What did you learn from your dad that you still use?
CT: Phrasing. That’s something a lot of singers just don’t know about. You have to know your lyrics, but there’s a certain way you can phrase it, when you’re singing, that can evoke emotion within you, to give to the crowd. It’s the stuff that Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole did. That’s stuff that he taught me. It was just like a basketball player with an in-house coach.
Loop 21: I know Bilal played a big part in your growth as a professional singer. How did this relationship come about?
CT: Bilal went to the New School. So did Robert Glasper and a lot of jazz greats. The list is crazy. I got [to New School] at age 17 and met Bilal literally my first week. He started off just as a mentor. He would drag me to his shows. Well, actually, he didn’t have to drag me. I tagged along so I could go to his shows for free and just watch him.
Loop 21: You went back to New School, after a semester at San Francisco State. You’d gotten your grades up. You graduated from New School. When did your “big break” come?
CT: Well, my big break came from sheer will to pursue a career in music. I graduated in May of 2007. June [of that year] was the deadline, from my parents, for me to find a job. They weren’t like, “I’mma help you.” It was like, “We can’t help you. So either you find a job or you’ve got to come home.”
What do you consider your biggest failure, and who or what helped to steer you in the right direction?
CT: That’s hard. It’s been more of a constant learning process. It goes back to Bilal and him being a friend. A lot of my friends didn’t want me to sing background. They’d say, “You’re too dope to be singing background.” And I’ll be like, “Well, who’s going to pay for my rent?” (Laughs.) And then they shut up. Singing background can be … people think it’s really glamorous. There are a lot of perks about it. The pay, depending on whom you’re with, can be excellent. But it can make you very complacent and comfortable.
Loop 21: Is that why Bilal and others wanted to steer you away from those types of jobs?
CT: Well, Bilal was going back out on the road in 2011. He didn’t give me the gig [as his background singer]. Instead, he called out auditions and didn’t even tell me about it. Somebody said something [to me] and I went down there. There was like 300 people. (Laughs.) He ran the auditions in tournament style. He’d send four singers in at a time to sing for him. He’d say, “Nope. Nope. Nope. OK, you stay.” And then he’d bring in three more singers. He’d see if you could survive the next round. Basically, I was the last man standing.
Loop 21: So what led to the tour you’re on now?
CT: I got the call from Esperanza [Spalding] while I was still on the road with Bilal. I asked him if I should do it [and I got his blessing]. I bought a plane ticket for one of my days off to record with Esperanza. That’s how we first met. A friend of hers had been coming to my lounge shows while I was looking for my next gig. She recommended me to Esperanza, who had been looking for a male background singer. I guess I nailed the recording sessions because she hit me up and asked if I wanted to join the "Radio Music Society" tour.
Loop 21: What advice do you have for people trying to break into this field?
CT: You gotta have thick skin. I know people say that all the time but, pssh. You do! There’s going to be a lot of no’s. There’s going to be a lot of people that don’t really feel your music. There have been music blogs that I’ve sent my music to for years and they never responded until now. It’s all a part of being a new artist. I’m not signed. I have no label. Without that, your commitment level has to be crazy.