This Tiny Desk Contestant Braved The Elements Of Alaska To Pay Tribute To His Grandmother

May 20, 2018

There may be only one winner of the Tiny Desk Contest — this year, NPR Music was proud to award that honor to Naia Izumi — but many other talented musicians entered. Over the next couple of months, Weekend Edition will highlight some of the standouts among the nearly 5,000 who submitted videos.

Entrant Quinn Christopherson hails from Alaska, and his entry video is pretty cool — literally. As the video starts, Christopherson is seated and rocking in an orange recliner chair set atop a frozen lake. As he strums his guitar, ice skaters leisurely skate behind him. Sporting a plaid blazer, pale blue dress slacks and horn-rimmed glasses, he gets up and walks carefully to his microphone.

"My Grandma was a saint / She ain't never been a quitter / Never nothing to complain / Boy I'm surely gonna miss her," Christopherson sings in "Mary Alee." He says the original song was inspired by his late grandmother.

"In the song I say, 'Never nothin' to complain,' and that's true: Never in my life did I hear her say anything negative. She was just so positive and there was never a bad day for her," he tells NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

Christopherson visited his grandmother in the hospital before she died, and would play his guitar to her as she lay in bed. "I feel like she knew I was there and then she could kind of go on," he says. "I started playing that chord progression — it was just really four chords. And I just went home with that and I wrote that song."

The description in Christopherson's YouTube channel says he addresses "his role as a transgender individual navigating Alaska's social landscape through his music." The musician says his grandmother's acceptance of his transition was instrumental.

"I remember I walked into her house one day after I had cut all my hair off and I just remember her saying, 'Wow, sweeter. You look great.' And then that was it. I never heard anything more from that."

Looking back on his journey so far, Christopherson says he wasn't happy with the way he sounded on songs before transitioning — and when he realized why he felt that way, it was like a light bulb went off. He says it's been about 11 months since he began his transition, and though he's "still waiting on a mustache," he's more comfortable making music now.

"I feel like the songs I was writing before my voice changed, they were kind of for my voice now," he says. "The music, it just didn't fit me before. All of a sudden, after my voice had changed, all these songs I had written before started just making way more sense, and they started sounding like they were supposed to the whole time."

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The 2018 Tiny Desk Contest has come and gone, but over the next couple of months here at WEEKEND EDITION, we wanted to highlight some of the standouts among the nearly 5,000 who submitted videos like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY ALEE")

QUINN CHISTOPHERSON: (Playing guitar) Hey, I'm Quinn from Alaska.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Quinn Christopherson's video is pretty cool - literally. He's seated and rocking in a La-Z-Boy set atop an ice rink, sporting a plaid blazer, pale blue dress slacks and horn-rimmed glasses. He gets up and walks carefully to a microphone to sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY ALEE")

CHISTOPHERSON: (Singing) My grandma was a saint. She ain't never been a quitter. Never nothing to complain. Boy, I'm surely gonna miss her.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Quinn Christopherson joins us from the studios of Alaska Public Radio in Anchorage. Welcome to the program.

CHISTOPHERSON: Thank you. Thank you. Thanks for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So this song is called "Mary Alee". She was your grandmother?

CHISTOPHERSON: Yeah, she was my grandmother on my mother's side.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me a little bit about her.

CHISTOPHERSON: She was just an all around really great person. And in the song, I said never nothing to complain, and that was true. And ever in my life did I hear her say anything - I don't know - just anything negative. She was just so positive. And it was never a bad day for her. So I just always thought that was so cool. Even on her bad days, when she was in pain or sick, you know, she would never tell you that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The description in your YouTube channel says you try to address your role as a transgender individual through your music. How did your grandmother help you through your transition?

CHISTOPHERSON: She just didn't really mind. You know, she didn't have any questions, so it was just really easy. I just - I remember I walked into her house one day after I had cut all my hair off, and I just remember her saying, wow, sweeter. You look great. You know, and then that was it. I mean, I never heard anything more from it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Were you a musical performer before your transition?

CHISTOPHERSON: I was, yeah. But I didn't really record anything before that because I just - I wasn't really happy with the way I sounded or, you know, myself. I didn't, like, consciously know, like, why I wasn't pursuing music as much until I did. Then, it was just like this huge light bulb - like, oh, yeah - OK. This is good. This works.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEIGHBORHOOD")

CHISTOPHERSON: (Singing) We used to have some fun. We would walk the neighborhood. I tell you which yard I like best. You'd say that one looks pretty good. We used to bike around.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you prefer your voice now - the way it sounds? And it's a better instrument for the kind of sound you want to make?

CHISTOPHERSON: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like the songs I was writing before my voice changed - they were kind of for my voice now. I didn't know that. And so I don't know - the music - it just didn't really fit me before. And all of a sudden, after my voice had changed, all these songs that I had written before started just making way more sense. And they started sounding just like - I don't know - like they were supposed to the whole time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Because music isn't just about the instrument of your voice. It's about the internal voice that you have about who you are.

CHISTOPHERSON: Yeah, I think so. And that's just something I realized on the whole journey, you know? A lot of these things I realize I didn't really know were coming, or I didn't know, you know, beforehand. I don't know - it's just windows opening.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How long has it been?

CHISTOPHERSON: It's been about 11 months.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

CHISTOPHERSON: Yeah, pretty new - pretty new. But still waiting on a mustache (laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE NEIGHBORHOOD")

CHISTOPHERSON: (Singing) I hope you'd smell the roses. The best I got is from when you and I - we used to have some fun.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask - is your grandmother still alive?

CHISTOPHERSON: She's not. She passed away last year. And I had brought my guitar to the hospital room when some of my family members told me that she was there and not doing so well. And I thought maybe I could get there and play her some music because she always - she always like that. I showed up to the hospital room. She was there, and she was still breathing. And I told her, hey, Grandma, I'm here. She heard my voice, and she nodded. And that was it. She took her last breath. And so I don't know. I felt good about it because, you know, I got to say I was there, you know. So I feel like she knew I was there, and then she could kind of go on. So I had my guitar, and I was just kind of playing. I started playing that, like, chord progressions - it's just really four chords, and I just went home with that, and I wrote that song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY ALEE")

CHISTOPHERSON: (Singing) As a kid, she would ask me - what do I want to do? I want to ride the city bus all around town with you. She grab a couple dollars. And away we went.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Quinn Christopherson, singer-songwriter from Anchorage, Alaska. He has three new song videos on YouTube. Thank you so very much.

CHISTOPHERSON: Thank you. I appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MARY ALEE")

CHISTOPHERSON: (Singing) My grandma was a saint. She ain't never been a quitter. Never nothing to complain. Boy, I'm surely gonna miss her. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.