Metro Weekly

The Next Big Thing: An Interview with Chris Urquiaga

With a voice potent, sweet, and rich, and songwriting skills to match, Chris Urquiaga is poised to take the pop world by storm

Photo: Julian Vankim

“I want to tour the world. I want to have musicals on Broadway. I want to start my own nonprofit, which financially assists kids from immigrant and low-income backgrounds and gives them music lessons.”

The aspirations may seem larger than life, but spend a few hours in the company of Chris Urquiaga and you absolutely know he’ll make every dream come true. This becomes more evident when you listen to the songs on his two albums, the EP Complete, released in 2017, and the exhilarating 2018 follow-up I’m Here. The latter’s gorgeous, deeply-felt title track alone is cut from the fabric of a first-act Broadway showstopper, the kind that brings the curtain down and leaves the audience roaring. Urquiaga has no shortage of ballads in his repertoire, and his voice — sweet, clear, emotionally potent — seems custom-built for them. But it’s the upbeat tracks — “Burn It Up,” for instance, and several numbers sung in Portuguese and spiced with irrepressible Latin rhythms — that truly show off the musical breadth and versatility of the gifted 28-year-old.

A graduate of the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, and a 2017 Artist-in-Residence at Strathmore, Urquiaga has forged an increasingly successful path in an impossibly crowded field filled with no shortage of equally talented singers. The difference here, however, is that Urquiaga’s gifts extend beyond singing. He’s an impossibly great composer, equally adept at classical and choral compositions as he is with pop.

When last interviewed in this magazine, the Congressional Chorus was performing “Dreams,” a piece Urquiaga set to the works of Langston Hughes. He wrote it a decade ago, at the age of 19.

In that interview, the shoulder-length-haired composer identified as an ally of the LGBTQ community. Nearly a year later, he’s fully out as a gay man and not shy about broadcasting his newfound pride. It was a tentative process years in the making, and it sparked a change in the way Urquiada saw himself. Gone were the conservative suits, in their place jackets fashioned from gold sequins or adorned with elaborate floral prints. His long, flowing Sixties-era locks were replaced by a hairstyle that has a life of its own, one that playfully swoops and dives as it contours to his deeply handsome visage.

“My friend David Simmons thinks that my makeover is connected to my coming out,” Urquiaga grins, impishly. “I agree with him.” Simmons, of course, is the Artistic Director of the Congressional Chorus, and an ardent champion of Urquiaga. His husband, Michael Polscer, currently serves as Urquiaga’s vocal coach.

“Michael and I were married last fall on a farm in Pennsylvania,” says Simmons. “Chris played and sang for our wedding. It has been such a joy to watch Chris mature and blossom over the last eight years. He’s an amazing young man.”

Photo: Julian Vankim

Urquiaga, whose mother is Brazilian and father is Peruvian, was born in the states. (His mother still lives here, and is a naturalized citizen. His father moved back to Peru.) He’s performed in almost every kind of situation, from dingy piano bars to singing the National Anthem in front of a baseball stadium packed with 30,000 fans. He recently sang the anthem for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, during the swearing-in ceremony for the Hispanic Members of Congress.

“I got to perform for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” he glows, noting that meeting Ocasio-Cortez was “amazing.”

“I felt like a little fangirl,” he says. “I was backstage waiting to go on to sing and I was lined up with all the politicians and she was one of them. I was standing right next to her. I was like, ‘Can I take a picture with you?’ And she was like, ‘Absolutely!’ So we got the representative from Guam to take a picture of us. And then I got to take a picture with the representative of Guam in return.

“It was interesting meeting all of these different politicians, hearing their stories. We all had this common thread — we were all Latinos that are trying to be good citizens in this country and make a positive difference. I’ve just been honored to have these kind of gigs, where I can honor my country and also honor my Latino heritage.”

This Tuesday, Sept. 24, Urquiaga will perform two sets at Blues Alley, one of D.C.’s most venerated music venues. Playing the room fills the young artist with a sense of appreciation — it’s not lost on him the great artists who have played there during the club’s storied 54-year history. “You feel like you’re walking into a very sacred historic place,” he says.

Urquiaga has dreams of someday improving the lives of others — through his music, his voice, his activism.

“I want to inspire young people to follow their dreams,” he says. “Particularly those who are discouraged to pursue music, so that they can pursue music, forget about the pressures, forget about what society tells them, that music is not lucrative. I want them to go ahead and live life to the fullest and do what makes them happy, content, and fulfilled.”

In other words, follow in his footsteps.

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with your early life.

CHRIS URQUIAGA: I was born in Takoma Park, Maryland, and was raised in Beltsville, Maryland, which is in PG County. I really consider myself a true Marylander. My mother is from Brazil, and my father is from Peru. My stepdad is Canadian. So I have all foreigner parents. I’m the first person to have been born in the United States in my family.

MW: How important was music in your household growing up?

URQUIAGA: There was always a tremendous interest in music. My father was the kind of person who could pick up a song by ear. He was not a trained musician, by any means. He just had a natural ability for playing music at the piano by ear. My mother has a natural gift of song — she has a lovely voice. I got the natural talent of singing through her. She has a wonderful soprano range, this nice clear voice.

Growing up as a kid, I remember hearing all these great records from all over the world. Songs from Brazil, songs from Peru, from Mexico, from Cuba, songs of different traditions in the United States. So it was always a tremendous interest in my family. It was something that was natural, especially because as Brazilian people, we consider our music to be really infused with the culture. It’s in the way we speak Portuguese — it’s very singable the way we speak our idiom. And the music in Brazil has just such lush and warm melodies that make you feel nostalgic and make you feel like you want to dance.

MW: Did you take music lessons?

URQUIAGA: I started taking piano lessons seriously when I was seven years old. My mother, when she was a kid, really wanted to study music, but her family was so poor in Brazil, they could not afford it. She wanted to pass that on to me. She saw the gift in me in the way that I loved music, the way that I’d sing perfectly in tune whenever my favorite song would come on the radio. She saw me noodling around at the piano. So she said, “I need to put this boy in piano lessons.”

I didn’t want to take them at first, but my mom said, “This is a good discipline for you.” So she made me practice and I found the beginning stages of piano so painstaking and I found it to be so menial and just had such grunt work to it that I found it difficult to overcome the beginning fundamental technical stages of learning piano. I eventually developed a passion for it, so I blame my mother for my successful career in music. [Laughs.]

Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: At some point in your life you thought, “I’m going to make music my career.” It’s not the easy road. Why did you choose it?

URQUIAGA: I chose it because music was something that was very natural for me. I found myself not only feeling good but also making other people feel good and motivated. I remember one professor at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, the university I attended, told me that I have a deep sensibility in music. It’s not mainly intellectually-based, I don’t treat music in an esoteric way or in an abstract way in that I’m just putting all the right notes and just trying to show the right concepts to the audience of what the piece I’m presenting is. But I’m also trying to make them feel something.

MW: It’s instinctive to you.

URQUIAGA: It is instinctive, yes. I felt like there was this higher calling in it. I feel I can give back to my community with music. By the time I was in ninth grade, I was already looking at conservatories I could apply to. By the 10th grade, I started to have a deep interest in composition.

MW: You ended up as an Artist in Residence at Strathmore during the 2016-2017 season. That’s a pretty big deal.

URQUIAGA: I was just very humbled by the experience.

MW: For those who don’t know, what does being an Artist in Residence at Strathmore mean?

URQUIAGA: It means that you put on many shows there for them. They dedicate concerts to you, they give you top billing, and they give you an opportunity to present an education workshop. They have you do a bunch of paid gigs in the area for their partnership organizations, including the Kennedy Center, which I did a concert at. They also give you free seminars on how to have a successful career in music. These seminars each week are on different topics in the music industry: marketing, music, production, agencies, management, being a bandleader.

MW: Did you enjoy the experience?

URQUIAGA: I loved it. I made some good friends. I have a longtime collaborator from that program. His name is Joey Antico. He’s the drummer in my band, and he is just one of the people, one of the entities, that really made my music what it is, gave it a more distinctive sound.

MW: After Strathmore, how did you support yourself?

URQUIAGA: I did whatever I could in the realm of music to support myself. I was accompanying choirs and soloists, I was acting as a clinician, giving coaching sessions to individuals who wanted to excel in music or prepare for auditions. I performed at churches, I performed at theaters, I performed at bars, I performed at restaurants. I performed everywhere. I had no ego coming up and decided that if I want to work in the realm of music, I must start off small and just find any venue that I can get to perform at.

I’ve been fortunate — I’ve been able to find my way in music. In the beginning I had to take on a lot more gigs that I did not want to do, and now I feel like I’m in a different place, and now I feel like in this area particularly I am a little more selective in terms of the work I get. Now I can get commissions, I can do singer-songwriter showcases. I can do a lot of private parties because I have so many connections doing that here and in New York City as well.

Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: The first time I interviewed you, it was about a piece that the Congressional Chorus had commissioned from you.

URQUIAGA: They were singing my Dreams piece based on Langston Hughes’ poetry. They commissioned that when I was 19 years old, almost 10 years ago. It’s also been performed by other choruses.

MW: How does it feel to know that you’ve written a piece of music that is being sought after and performed nationally?

URQUIAGA: I feel elated. Because I feel like there’s something that I said that is catching on with people and that has moved people, so now they feel like they need to share it with other people, with other listeners. I get letters from people who say, “I just heard your Dreams composition and I just want to say that that really moved me to start my own nonprofit organization.” “The song really moved me because it helped me really get over a loss that has occurred in my life.” “That just really inspired me to become an activist.” I feel honored that I have support and fans from all age groups — from senior citizens who are retired to little kids.

MW: Kids?

URQUIAGA: [Laughs.] I had my own residency dedicated to me at Tysons Corner Plaza in Virginia this summer! The average age there was four years old, because there was just so many kids listening to me perform with their mothers and fathers.

MW: What do you think it is that people like so much about your music?

URQUIAGA: I think it’s universal. I write music that has catchy melodies that are evocative, that give feelings of nostalgia. My rhythms are Latin, and so it makes people want to dance. The lyrics are direct, straight, no chaser. Simple.

MW: You do all your own lyrics?

URQUIAGA: Mostly. I’m writing a musical comedy about gentrification with Jordan Silver, a lyricist from New York City.

MW: You could be the next Lin-Manuel Miranda.

URQUIAGA: [Laughs.] That’s the plan! I’ve been meeting a lot of Broadway producers and I’m actually looking to set up a workshop in New York City with a producer pretty soon.

MW: You’re playing Blues Alley next Tuesday. Tell me about that particular show.

URQUIAGA: That’s going to be a show featuring my pop songs and including a preview song from the musical I’m writing — the working title is Mr. Manhattan.

MW: Blues Alley is a legendary space in D.C.

URQUIAGA: Playing there, you feel like you’re in a place that’s like a monument to jazz music. So when I’m there, I try to always pay some type of homage to the greats and play some good jazz music. Even though I’m a pop music artist, I feel flattered that they invite me to perform there.

MW: Who’s your following, your audience?

URQUIAGA: My following, I think, is largely women and gay men. It reminds me of that quote from Sex and the City — “first the gays, then the girls, then the industry.” That’s something that my friends have taught me, including my gay friends, even before I came out as a gay man. I think they really like my music because I sing it with a lot of soul and passion. I’m a pretty free and natural performer. I’m idiosyncratic.

MW: When you first interviewed with us back in November 2018, you said you were an ally of the LGBTQ community. You’ve come out since.

URQUIAGA: I get a sense that a lot of my gay audience knew I was gay before I did — or before I was proudly wearing my gay stripes and I came out as a gay person.

MW: Why were you in?

URQUIAGA: What was it that made me closeted? Embarrassment and pressure. It was something that followed me from when I was a child — being Latino and being criticized for being a boy that liked musical theater and who liked to sing. There were those in my class who did make fun of me, said I was girly because I really liked all that Broadway and opera stuff. So that made me feel like an outsider.

Religion also had something to do with it as well. I do have religious friends and I do have religious family members who don’t agree with homosexuality, who think that it is a sin. So I did what many people did unfortunately, which is play it safe. I did pretty much what everyone else was doing — be with the opposite sex and try that out. I did that.

Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: You had girlfriends.

URQUIAGA: I did have girlfriends. I love women, but when it comes to my identity, in terms of who I’d rather be with romantically, I lean towards men. That’s what really made me realize that people are more fluid than you think, because of all these different coming out stories. We have people who come out after they have had kids and grandchildren, who grew up in conservative areas that would criticize them, that made them feel like they were wrong. Whenever people would ask me in interviews, I did not feel compelled to say that I was experimenting or that I was seeing guys behind closed doors — you know what I’m saying? — because I didn’t feel like it was right to say it at the time.

MW: What was the catalyst for you saying, “Okay, I’m just going to live my life openly?”

URQUIAGA: It was a man I dated. And this man was someone who really helped me bring out a lot of the inner-colors in me that made me who I am. And that made me this more vivacious and vibrant person. He said, “You know Chris, I notice that whenever you’re just being Chris and you’re just being vulnerable when you’re around the people who you love the most, like your family, you seem to be more vibrant, more vivacious. And when you’re outside, it’s like you’re less so. It’s like you’re more poised, you’re more conservative in terms of the way that you present yourself. Why can’t it all be just one package?” I didn’t know how to take it. It made me feel bothered that he observed that.

But what this man made me realize was that I really had to just wear my confidence proudly so that everyone could see it. It doesn’t matter what people think of me. That’s what inspired me to dress more stylish, more flamboyantly. I’ve been putting on shows that are more flamboyant, that are more entertaining, that are more flashy. And I’m not afraid of the rejection that might come with that, of the disapproval or the judgement.

MW: Was cutting your hair short part of all that?

URQUIAGA: My friend David Simmons actually thinks that my makeover is connected to my coming out, and I agree with him. I wanted to cut my hair because I just thought I’d look better with shorter hair. I thought I would look like a more grown, mature person. There was something more mature about it. It was something more daddy about it. Especially when my hairstylist, who’s a lovely Latina in Laurel, Maryland — I get my hair cut at Latin Image Salon, Sonya Portillo — I would get my hair cut with her and I said, “You know what Sonya? I want to change. I’m tired of this long hair. I want something different now. I want something that’s going to pronounce my face, pronounce my jawline. Can you help me find a style?” She said, “Hmm, yes, I see it. I see it. Yes, yes, yes, something more fluid that represents your personality.” Anyways, long story short, she did that, and in the process, Pride was coming up and I needed to show this gayness as well. I even spoke about my experience as a gay man publicly at the Frederick Pride Festival. I told people, I said, “This is the first Pride festival that I’m performing at where I’m fully out and everything, living in the way that God intended me to be without any type of repression, without any type of shame in me. This year has come from the sense of freedom.”

MW: How did it feel to play your first pride as an openly gay man?

URQUIAGA: Exhilarating. I’m sorry, I sound like a little kid right now. But it was exhilarating. I loved it, Randy. I thought it was me living my dreams. A patron from Signature Theater asked me recently, “I saw your flamboyant pride video where you took off your tear-away clothes and you tore your clothes off to present your rainbow onesie. And I loved it and I want to say welcome to the LGBT club.” She didn’t even ask me if I was gay or not, she just got the image. She was a lesbian woman. And I said, “Thank you so much.” She said, “How do you feel?” I said, “Not that different. I just feel more free.” So, not that different. It’s still the same Chris. There’s a sense of liberation. Even theologically speaking, because I do have a religious background.

MW: What religion?

URQUIAGA: I have a Baptist background. I started playing at conservative Baptist churches from the Southern Baptist convention. Theologically, I disagreed with them. They did not promote liberation at all. But now I find myself performing at a lot of churches, especially in this area, that promote a liberation theology. And I know liberation theology comes largely from the Catholic tradition in South America, but still it has been taken by the Baptists as well. There are certain wings, particularly the Alliance of Baptists that have really owned that idea as well. And they said, you know what? We want to promote this theology. And it doesn’t matter if you’re gay, it doesn’t matter if you’re straight. You can still love God and you can still serve God and you can still be a Christian. You can still be this person that is zealous, with a heart for religion, with a heart for theology.

Photo: Julian Vankim

MW: This administration has put forth so much xenophobia against Latinx people in this country right now. How does it make you feel?

URQUIAGA: It makes me wonder how we’re going to get back to repairing the fabric of that original American democratic experiment. It makes me wonder how we’re going to come back to that. I’m a person who, once I see a problem, I try to go straight to finding the solution. Yes, it makes me feel bad. It makes me feel upset that people would define you by your heritage, your last name, the color of your skin, your social class, your income, when they don’t even know you.

MW: Does it frighten you at all?

URQUIAGA: Sometimes it does. Even though I am an American citizen and I was born here, I still have this Latin heritage to me that’s pretty salient. It’s pretty present and it’s not something that I hide. I’m not the kind of Latino person that’s saying, “Oh, I’m embarrassed to show off my Latino heritage, I want to become more Caucasian, I want to try to fit in with the majority.” I don’t think we should do that here in America. I think one of the ways we fight the xenophobia and racism is by just owning that which we are truly, just being proud of our heritage and our backgrounds. We see that here in D.C. at a lot of the marches, the protests, the demonstrations, the young people rising up, and proudly being who they are coming out of the closet. Not being afraid to show that they came from an immigrant family or even, which I find very brave, that they are undocumented immigrants, but they still boldly share their story as to why their family came here. Because if you’re born in this country or if you were brought to the country, in my opinion, I think that you should have a fresh start, particularly as a young person.

MW: You seem like a joyous person.

URQUIAGA: I am very joyful, and I felt even more joy when I came out.

MW: What gives you such joy?

URQUIAGA: I’ve been thinking about this recently. There’s something in my DNA that gives me great optimism for the future. I’m a person that likes to look forward and not look back so much. I find that if I look back too much, I start feeling down and sad. There’s no point looking back, because the past doesn’t exist anymore. It’s nonexistent. The future doesn’t exist either. But we live in the moment and we try to create better futures for ourselves. And so, I think that if you’re gonna live one life, which we all do, let’s really live it to the fullest. Can we curse here? I’m just curious.

MW: We can curse.

URQUIAGA: Let’s live that motherfucker. That’s how I see it. We better live it, ’cause it’s only one. We have one body. That’s why I take my health seriously. Listen to the doctor, listen to the dentist. I don’t see myself as a person that needs to be on drugs to bring me joy, because I think that me having the possibility of making a positive impact on someone’s life every day is the reason why I get up in the morning and I do what I do to the fullest. And that brings me joy. Seeing the uniting of people, especially if I can have some kind of part in creating a unification of people through my music, through my activism, that makes me happy.

Chris Urquiaga appears at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW, on Tuesday, Sept. 24, at 8 and 10 p.m. Tickets are $22. Call 202-337-4141 or visit www.bluesalleylive.com.

Randy Shulman is Metro Weekly's Publisher and Editor-in-Chief. He can be reached at rshulman@metroweekly.com.

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