“I heard a lot of Bach and Bartók in the womb,” says Chris Rosser, trying to explain a lifelong interest in music spanning many cultures and continents. “My mom’s a piano teacher, so I started lessons really young. I think I was in the womb during her senior recital.”
Guitar, Cümbüs oud, piano, Wurlitzer, bass, melodica, mandolin, dotar, harmonium, sarod, and tabla — Rosser could play any or all of these common and exotic instruments as he releases his fourth album this month, supported by his Free Planet Radio bandmates. “My dad’s a music fan, my grandparents loved music and played music,” he recalls, “and we were always listening to music around the house.”
Rosser grew up in Casar, North Carolina, population 290. “My parents were from Maryland, so we were kind of the outsiders there,” he says. “Even though technically Maryland was below the Mason-Dixon line, we were the Yankees.”
When he was in 2nd grade, his family joined the Bahá’í faith, and Rosser’s musical menu changed. “There are a lot of Iranian Bahá’í in the U.S., so I heard a lot of Iranian and Persian music, and I liked it. It was just sort of normal for me.” In high school, he checked out a library CD by Shakti, then heard John McLaughlin, Zakir Hussain, and Shankar. “I really got into Indian music. It was familiar. Some of the scales and things were in my ear. I’ve studied Turkish and Arabic music, and Persian music has a little different system of scales, and [a] different structure. But it definitely primed my ear for it.”
Later, his interest turned to jazz piano, and he was accepted into the vaunted music program at University of Miami. “Bruce Hornsby’s first CD had just come out, and he was from there,” Rosser recalls. “I was a big fan of his, and had been a big fan of Pat Metheny, who spent a lot of time there. Those things kind of helped me decide,” he says.
Rosser was also involved in the school’s recording program, and after college he began working at a studio in Charlotte.
Two passions continued — his love of world music, and his inclination for a rootsier sound. “In Charlotte, there was really no singer/songwriter or folk [scene],” he says. “So we found ourselves driving up to Asheville all the time to hear live music from people like Greg Brown, David Wilcox, and Shawn Colvin.
“I had gotten interested in writing songs, folk music, and there was a community of writers — David LaMotte, Jimmy Landry, and others — living here, writing songs. My brother was going to school at Warren Wilson [College], and it seemed like a nice place to live.”
Ironically, soon after moving to Asheville, he received a grant from the WNC Regional Arts Council to study Indian music at the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music in San Rafael, California. “It was a pretty life-changing experience,” Rosser says. “I certainly haven’t mastered Indian classical music, but it really opened my eyes, seeing how another culture took the same human bodies and the same physics of sound and kind of went in a whole different direction.”
Returning to Asheville, Rosser set up his own studio, Hollow Reed Arts, and began writing. He has recorded 150 album projects at the studio, including four of his own — Archaeology, The Holy Fool, Hidden Everywhere, and his new release, A Thousand Hands.
He met globally known world-music percussionist River Guerguerian and Grammy-winning bassist Eliot Wadopian and formed the acclaimed world music trio Free Planet Radio. “They were backing me up for songwriter stuff, and we started doing more and more instrumentals. I got back into playing piano more, and Indian music, and incorporating that.”
Different songs present different challenges. “Some of them I’ve worked on a long time,” he confides. “The instrumental things I can usually write if I just sit down and keep working on it — it’ll happen. Whereas the lyrics, I can sit down and work and work and just get stuck — and try to come back at it with a fresh angle.”
Rosser’s latest collection is unusually personal. “More In Love” references his wedding anniversary. “Love With No Words” is about his oldest son “and his adventures in autism,” as Rosser puts it. “He’s severely autistic, and needs a lot of assistance in the world.”
“The Wind Stole My Song” has a sweet acoustic sound. “I’ve been recording a lot of old-time music in my studio, and also bluegrass,” he reveals. “I hear some of that in there.”
He describes the album’s title track as “one of those old, dark banjo ballads. A simple minor melody with no chord changes, just kind of drone-y. Modal, like one of those Appalachian songs.
“Lyrically, I sort of knew what I was talking about, but not completely. People can read their own interpretations into it, and I kind of like it that way.”
Chris Rosser celebrates the release of A Thousand Hands with a performance at ISIS Restaurant & Music Hall (743 Haywood Road in Asheville) on December 12, with Free Planet Radio. 8:30 pm. $12/$15. Call 828-575-2737 or visit isisasheville.com for more information.