A classically trained guitar player from the age of nine, Chris Velan grew up listening to an eclectic mix of his dad’s music: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Willie Nelson, and Van Morrison, his sister’s early 80’s New Wave cassettes, and his uncle’s extensive reggae vinyl collection. At thirteen he first picked up an electric guitar and quickly began playing by ear, memorizing all of his favorite guitar solos. By fourteen he formed his first band, The Preachers, with friends from school. While they played mostly rock covers, Chris began writing songs and experimenting with his own sound.
At Middlebury College, he continued writing songs and formed The Arrival of Horatio, in which he sang, played lead guitar, and produced an EP, his first time in a recording studio. Velan’s instant passion for recording would eventually become part of his live shows in the form of a loop pedal.
After University, Velan traveled for a year, following his ears to New Zealand, Australia, India, Nepal and Indonesia. With a beater guitar strapped to his backpack, he rode camels across the Indian desert and hiked through the Himalayas collecting sounds and stories, and questioning his life’s purpose.
Seeing world poverty and inequality made a deep impression, and led him back to Montreal, where he formed the band Equalizer with his brothers in order to maintain sanity while working toward a law degree at McGill University. They played a hybrid of Roots, Reggae and Rock, blending Velan’s compassionate worldview and childhood inspirations with the modern sounds of bands like the Police and The Samples. Despite label interest and a growing fan base, Velan made the difficult decision to leave Equalizer after graduation and continue his pursuit of law as a means to affect social change.
Dressed in suits, Velan spent a year as an apprentice attorney at a Vancouver law firm while writing songs morning and night. “I felt like I was two different people” he recalls, “Tapping out songs at my desk at the office.” A call from two college friends presented what would be another life-changing decision. They had support from the United Nations, and wanted to make a documentary telling the story of a humanitarian crisis in West Africa through art and music.
Equipped with only a video camera and a guitar, they toured refugee camps in the Republic of Guinea. Chris played concerts for the refugees, a mission of music. These simple shows evolved into all-day events incorporating children’s dance troupes, skits and magic. They visited eight camps in a month while war raged in nearby Liberia. At a mud hut bar, they met a band of refugees who would become the subject of their documentary, and a lifelong inspiration. They called themselves The Refugee All Stars, and had also been touring camps performing to lift the spirits of fellow refugees. Each had stories of limbs lost, loved ones murdered, and other unfathomable horrors, and none had any doubt about what music meant to them. Chris describes meeting the All Stars as the first moment he knew that he was doing exactly what he was born to do. The film “Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars” helped bring the All Stars home to Freetown, where Velan produced their first studio work, some of the first live instrument recordings there since the start of the war.
With renewed inspiration and self-assurance, Velan returned to Montreal to record his own first solo album. A collection of songs from earlier chapters of his life, “It’s Not What You Think” is a mosaic of Velan’s storytelling, world music sensibilities, and personal search for identity. The songs “Getaway Van” and “Open Shut Case” speak of a bottled desire to escape. “Toenail Clipping Moon” tells a heartbreaking story of poverty and loss, with the thinnest sliver of hope. Velan toured regionally to promote the album’s independent release in 2003 while finishing the All Stars documentary and writing new music.
In 2005 Velan recorded his second album, “Twitter Buzz Howl” over three summer months in a barn in the Quebec countryside. The themes and storytelling emphasis of the first album continued, but this time with a stronger first person sensibility, and a confident blending of musical and thematic influences. “Shiver” is a short story with an unreliable narrator warning his son of dark forces to come. “Continental Divide” captures a rare awareness that a decision at hand will have permanent consequences.
Velan toured more extensively throughout the U.S. and Canada, refining elements of his performance, and began working with a loop pedal to create his own live samples. He describes the process as elemental and minimalist, but the live sounds he creates are rich, deeply layered, and constantly changing. A single man on stage becomes a textured sonic experience, an expression of his own duality.
No longer questioning the decision to pursue music full time, Velan decided to leave his comfort zone, and spent half a year in California, recording demos, touring, and performing frequently at LA’s Hotel Café. His time in Los Angeles won him many new fans and relationships with a larger community of musicians, including members of the Animal Liberation Orchestra, and Tim Bluhm of The Mother Hips, who produced Velan’s latest album “Solidago.”
“Solidago” takes its name from the late-blooming Goldenrod, and represents a masterfully blossomed musical identity. Vivid imagery becomes sage advice on “A Year Can Change A Lot” and “Go Easy” while “Wobbly Bones” conveys the horrors and hopes witnessed in Africa. “House Upon A Hill” paints a loving and grateful sense of place. “May Your Soul Get To Heaven” finds profound spirituality in a book of superstitions and offers a blessing in the form of a lullaby. On “Solidago” can be heard the culmination of a journey from a nine year old boy taking guitar lessons to a mature artist finally giving himself permission to let go. Now twenty-five years removed from the classical training of his childhood, Chris still doesn’t play with a pick.