Christian Lopez had just finished high school when his debut album Onward made him a standout in roots music circles. The album felt uncannily poised and wise beyond its years – an indie-folk throwback of worldly, self-written songs and old-soul vocals with tracks like "Morning Rise" and "The Man I Was Before" presenting powerful ideas of what a mature relationship might look like. Lead single "Will I See You Again" also garnered more than a million Spotify streams on the strength of its infectious hooks and simple-but-insightful lyrics.
Hailing from a Norman Rockwell painting of a town called Martinsburg, West Virginia, Lopez first arrived in Nashville as a tender-footed 18-year-old and recorded Onward with Dave Cobb, the producer who flipped commercial country's script with Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson and Chris Stapleton. His success added up to critical praise and coveted national performance slots, but looking back, Lopez says those conversations tended to over-hype his youth, making it hard to just be himself.
"I was down here kissing ass like everyone has to," he says, relaxing at an East Nashville sidewalk cafe sporting a pair of wire-rim shades and a twisted shock of golden hair. "I felt I had to put on this persona of a mature, professional kid with a clear path, but at the end of the day we're all here on a gamble. I'm 22 now, and I've slowly realized that I need to act my age – and sometimes that's young and stupid."
Lopez's follow-up Red Arrow, out September 22nd, finds him aiming higher than ever. No longer wishing his years away, he captures a transitional moment familiar to anyone with a Y chromosome – but he does it in real time, not after the fact. Like Onward, it's full of old-soul insight and melodies as crisp as Appalachian spring water, but now he sings about being young and stupid from experience, letting the mental tug of war between love, exploration and home leave its mark.
Working with a different acclaimed producer this time – Marshall Altman, who's produced Marc Broussard and Frankie Ballard – Lopez landed on a sound with Red Arrow that flies straight through multiple eras of rock, pop and country. Organic sounds are favored over electronics, while Lopez's versatile guitar playing provides a millennial take on everything from Eighties rock to timeless folk. Sly, generation-bridging vocals are the common thread, and as interest in Americana rises, Lopez could connect the dots for many young listeners.
"I think it's been hard for me to categorize myself, and I'm kind of proud of that," he says.
Lopez and Altman spent months just choosing which songs to record. They did full demos on close to 50 tracks – many co-written with writers like Mindy Smith, Tofer Brown and Liz Longley. Then they started arguing, and that was the first sign the singer was entering a new chapter.
"One of the best things [Altman] taught me was you've gotta trust yourself," he explains. "If someone is battling against you, you've gotta battle back and be your own man. Me and Marshall would yell and fight each other once a week, it was our thing. But I was so glad I could have an engaged conversation about the music, I felt like if we weren't fighting sometimes, we weren't getting good stuff done."
Ultimately, the fights were worth it. The first track Lopez released was "Swim the River," a bounding, headfirst dive into adulthood featuring fiddle ace Stuart Duncan and cascading guitar work from Lopez.
"It's about putting yourself in uncomfortable situations, and how as long as you give 100 percent, you'll never have regrets," he says. "The Red Arrow reference in the middle of the song represents me with everything I have to give. It's basically saying, 'Here I am. I'm taking aim and I'm gonna take that shot.'"
Throughout the album, that perceptive nature shines. Vince Gill contributes guitar work to the resilient "Still on Its Feet," ostensibly a meditation on an old chair, but actually an allegory for dreamers. Likewise, Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids adds guitar and vocals to the heartbroken ballad "Caramel," which is all about lying to yourself, and "Silver Line" includes the intriguing hook "I just wanna love somebody I like."
Elsewhere, Lopez celebrates the youth he once tried to escape. "1972" captures an autumn drive through the West Virginia hills in a vintage International Harvester Scout, with its propulsive drums and soaring vocals as comfortable as broken-in seats, and "Don't Wanna Say Goodnight" swells and shudders with desire, with an electrifying video to match, directed by Director Steve (Old Dominion's "No Such Thing As a Broken Heart").
"Mexico," meanwhile, laments the passage of time through colorful tales of eggs and salsa, mariachi bands and tequila-drunk afternoons. And in "Someday," his skill as a melody maker is revealed for an optimistic – but deeply conflicted – coming-home anthem
"Oh, this old road / We both know, it's gonna carry me away / Oh, this old road / We both know, it's gonna bring me back someday," he sings.
"That's the life of anyone who's away from home," says Lopez, already a seasoned tour vet. "That's my biggest struggle right now – being gone from the people I love, falling in and out of relationships, and also the personal struggle of dedicating yourself to a gamble of a lifestyle. Everyone wants to leave West Virginia, and I love the people in Nashville, but to me, home is a necessity. I need it."
With Red Arrow, Lopez speaks to the true nature of early adulthood. It's not all about tailgate boozing and awkward make-out sessions. It's about beginning to discover your place in the world, but still dreaming of new horizons. With a little luck, his next horizon will bring him out of the shadows for good.
"I'm happy I'm still young, but I'm glad the days of being a really young guy with a debut record ran their course," he admits. "It's just Christian Lopez the songwriter now, and not Christian Lopez the young songwriter."