It is a balmy Friday morning in Los Angeles as Christian Akridge, alias Christian Leave, gambols on the rooftop. In the next moment, he hops on a vast concrete block, exploring the seedy underbelly, while photographer Amber McKee matches the energy of this 20-year-old singer-songwriter. It’s a universe of unknown provenance, in which each moment conjures freedom and wonder. As the string of hazy light traverses above the crowns of stubby Californian houses, svelte palm trees, and songs of hummingbirds - occasionally broken by the hailing sirens in the distance - the viewer of this moment gets the sense that they are a part of a hook-filled, punchy (but not macho) music video.
Self-styled, Christian’s confidence and fresh flair only furthers the perception of him as an intelligent creator of genre-bending musical output. The former Vine-star who entered our screens as a purveyor of comedy has now shown that he is much more than the funny clips and comic stunts. For those who haven’t heard his previous hit-tracks like Adult (2020) or Never (2018), go and do your homework. For those who have, his most recent EP Heavy Hitting Hurts My Head (2021) carries on the deft blend of his wide range of influences from The Beatles to shoegaze-y alternative rock.
This project embodied a time capsule for Christian to record his emotions last year. "I hit my head on the fridge and I looked at my apartment: it was disgusting and I was completely alone," Christian muses. "I wanted this project to be about that moment in my life: where I've been, what I'm doing, and what I can do right now." Each of the five songs on the EP announces itself with an élan and flourish, engulfing and ensnaring you to roll down the window and sing along, or just lie down and embrace the apathy. And as for Christian himself, he is never going to be pigeonholed. It would be futile to even try.
Heavy Hitting Hurts My Head available now to stream on Spotify.
Is there a difference between Christian Leave and Christian Akridge?
They’re pretty much the same guy, but it's weird, a lot of people think my last name is Leave! Everybody on Vine had a name which was some kind of a play on words: your name, and then a verb. I wanted to be like them and then the name kind of stuck with me.
Outside the online universe, do you have a favourite place where you feel the most alive?
Chicago is awesome but I would say New York and LA. New York is a mixture of a bustling city and a bunch of people that you wouldn’t have met anywhere else. It's a lot of really regular people in the midst of chaos and it's very romantic in that way. Here in LA, I go to the beach every Saturday morning - Venice Pier is a funny, weird little place. It has a really interesting culture and it collectively changes itself. It's a reflection of itself and the people who come in. The culture there changes with the people who are in it.
Do you think that your music would be completely different if you lived in New York, not LA?
I'm sure it'd be because everything affects my music - every physical thing, every little detail of my life - it all finds its way into my subconscious and affects what I'm doing. What I'm looking at has the biggest impact and when I went to New York two years ago versus when I was living in Texas, my stuff is always completely different.
You started doing Vines at just 14. How did it feel to gain so many followers in such a short time and at such a young age?
It was scary. I really changed and I wouldn’t be the person that I am now without that experience. It was great but really overwhelming at the same time because it was almost something abnormal. Especially at that time, in 2014, before it was a thing to be a social media person, I didn't have anybody to talk about it who would understand where I was coming from. It's a weird thing to receive a lot of attention when you're young because you're trying to keep your head down and so you have to grow in the moment.
Growing up under the public eye, did you ever feel that you were losing yourself?
I just changed. Being online is part of me and without having that experience I wouldn't be the person I am now. I'm sure that there was a time when I was around 17, where some weird part of me felt that I was fleeting. But that I've grown up with it, it has grown into me, I don't think I've lost myself, it has just amplified a part of myself that wasn't there before.
How do you stay grounded in all this?
Everyone around me keeps me pretty in check and there's not much to be boastful for to change too much. I'm really connected to my family and my friends so if I was being a jerk or I started acting wildly different, they would call me out. I am also a very guilty person so it's hard for me to be a jerk.
Having lived so much of your teenage years online, what is your relationship with social media?
I've already put a lot of my life on the internet but I'm getting to a point where I would like to have more of a separation. Now, I want to present my art and work and use social media more as a place for that. I don't think that people should know my every waking moment, that's unnatural. Social media is good, but I don't think that as humans we're meant to have as much communication as we do now.
Did you have a different dream as a child?
I've always wanted to be a rock star! When I was 10-years-old my teachers asked what I wanted to do when I grew up and I put "rockstar" on a piece of paper.
How was the transition from Vine to steps towards becoming the rockstar of your dreams?
When I was 16 I started getting pretty good - not great but pretty good - at guitar. I have loved music my entire life and I was running out of fuel on comedy, not having more jokes to go. I even tried stand up but I had a much larger desire to make music. I was listening to a lot of my favourite artists and wanting to make something like they do and become like them.
Who were these people that you were looking up to?
The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone. My parents are pastors and I wasn't allowed to listen to much secular music growing up. So I started with the classics, the greatest of all time, and it deeply influenced me.
What do you think when you write your songs?
It comes to me in different ways. Sometimes I'll really want to write a song and have nothing to talk about so I'll play the guitar and sing some melodies until I start getting some kind of phonetic pattern. Then I start to say words out loud that fit over that melody, and eventually, it becomes a sentence. At times I hear something very interesting from someone having a conversation - it might be a phrase or a word that they've said - and then I write a song about that and go as deep as possible with it.
Who do you write your songs to?
I'd say myself. Or whoever wants to listen! Especially with this EP, I tried as hard as I could to have a huge sense of relatability and take minuscule details of either emotional turmoil, romance, or the feeling of an unreal acquisition. I tried to explain it as bluntly and in the mind of a 20-year-old boy as possible.
Is it ever scary to show your honest emotions in your music?
It's getting that way. The older I get, the easier it is for me to be honest. But at the same time the more worried I am about including actual life experiences with people that I know. To think of them hearing my songs, and then either being upset or not liking the song - it's getting scarier.
Let's talk about your new EP, how was Heavy Hitting Hurts My Head born?
Purely out of isolation and quarantine. I had been really looking to revamp my sound because I had entered into a new phase in my life. I was living alone where I ended up being really alone. I had already collected a tonne of emotional information five months prior and I was digesting it but then one day I hit my head on the fridge and I looked at my apartment: it was disgusting and I was completely alone. I realised how sad I was, and how sad I had been for a while. I wanted this project to be about this moment in my life: where I've been, what I'm doing, and what I can do right now.
Was it almost a healing process for you?
It was. It is only five songs and they hit on every pinpoint of what I was struggling with at the time. Listening back to it now, I was really explaining how I was feeling. It's good to time capsule those emotions so that I can reflect back.
Now when the EP is out, how has the response been from your fans?
It's been awesome. It's more than I expected it to be. This might be me being in my own head, but in the past, I felt it hasn't been as much about the music and more about ME putting out music. Now people are responding to the music, finding themselves in the songs and it is really the goal for me.
What do you wish people feel when they listen to your music?
Anything! Whatever comes is the point. Feel however it makes you feel, however you connect to the songs.
I feel quite a few people can relate to the song 'Bedache' at the moment. How did it come around?
The first two weeks of quarantine, I was in bed most of the time. I was working a lot prior and then when the quarantine hit I felt I had the chance to have two weeks off. I thought to myself 'I'm literally gonna spend this entire time in bed and do nothing.' But then it got to me and I got really gross and sad: it felt almost like this darkness in a way. So that's how Bedache came to me.
There is some kind of nostalgia in your songs. Do you have a striking memory from your past that makes your heart bump with joy?
I don't think that I have a specific one, it's a bunch of little stuff. When I'm with my girlfriend or by myself taking the train and seeing random interactions on the train. It feels like I am seeing things that I shouldn't see, watching other people's lives from the outside. And it can be either a sweet moment or a really weird thing, but I love that because then I can write about it. I sit down and imagine how that whole scenario plays out on my own in my head.
How would you advise someone to find joy again and break free from this rabbit hole of isolation and uncertainty?
It takes time. There's not an easy answer to that, but the first thing to say is that it's okay. It's a process of life and figuring out where you fit and what makes you happy. Sometimes it can take a really long time but the people around you are really important. Addressing, reflecting, and figuring out your own issues is crucial. Whether you talk to someone or if you feel capable of doing it on your own, find the root of your unhappiness or your problems. COVID is a completely different thing because we're all isolated. The answer for COVID is to go outside, call your friends and try to establish support systems. If not, go on the internet: there are plenty of people who would love to talk to you. But for someone who is purely sad, it comes with time, it's your own journey. It's different for everyone.
Gaining a social media following as a personality is pretty different than starting the music path in a band. Have you ever experienced loneliness on your journey?
For sure. Growing up, I only had one musical buddy - my best friend named Austin - who played the drums. He was in the heat when I started doing Vine and touring. When I started focusing on music, he was still in school, but I wasn't so we didn't really have time to sit down and do anything together. It became me by myself, writing music and trying to figure out how to be every part of the band. But I've met a lot of amazing people on the way. And I don't get as lonely in that regard anymore because I have people willing to work with me and help me out. I refuted it for a long time, wanting to be the only person making my music. I feel it was childish and immature and now I have realised that a part of being a good producer or a good song maker is playing coach and finding the people who are doing things that are beyond your capability.
You seem to have a really defined style and sense of self - you are comfortable wearing skirts and make up, for example! Is this something that has always been natural for you?
I just like to feel pretty. Honestly, it makes me feel cool. I feel pretty when I do those kinds of things. I'm not very tall or buff so I don't feel sexy a lot of the time so the other option is to feel pretty. The reason why I do things like that is because it has been like this my entire life, not skirts and stuff, but being very free as far as how I dress and what I'm willing to put on.
Who was Christian a year ago? What would you love to say to that guy?
He was Christian at 19 and he was still a teenager. I am now 20, ladies and gentlemen. I don't think I would say anything. Last year was a really hard and bad one, but I also wouldn't have grown, changed, or had the time to reflect in the same way without it. In a way, internally last year was my year for me, as far as growing and becoming the person that I want to be. Before that, I didn't have the tools, knowledge, or guidance of where I wanted to go. All of this placed me in a position where I was being forced to figure that out. So, I don't think I would say anything, let him ride it out and have his journey.
In high school we were asked to write a letter to ourselves in a year's time – what would your letter say?
I would say: "How are you doing, big guy? It's me. Christian. Don't screw it up. You've got people depending on you.'' And then I'd say ''Good luck.'' I would say "MWAH MWAH" *kisses air*. I feel I’d say better stuff to myself later but the thing is that guy a year from now, he's not going to care because I don't want a letter from my 19-year-old-self. What does he know?
Well, you know, 2021 is going to be "your year", right? Or am I jinxing it?
No, haha, it is going to be my year, baby. No one else’s, only mine! Haha.