On his new EP ‘Masquerade,’ the multi-talented Darren Criss welcomes everyone to the party.
Throughout his career, Darren Criss has never been one to shy away from boundaries. As an actor, he has won numerous awards and critical acclaim for his portrayal of Andrew Cunanan in Ryan Murphy’s award-winning drama American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, as well as hearts and a cult-like following for his portrayal of Harry Potter in Team Starkid’s A Very Potter Musical. As a musician, his talent shows the same range; he is as well known for his ability to belt a broadway ballad as he is for his covers of Top 40 hits on Glee.
For Criss, this is because all music is simply music. Musicians and listeners alike need not box themselves into certain genres and while this concept is currently growing in mainstream media, it is one Criss has known since he was a teenager. At Warped Tour, he encountered fellow San Franciscans Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, a punk-rock cover band that specializes in the unexpected (their most played track on Spotify is Country Roads.). Inspired by what he’s always known was possible, Darren’s career has had freedom most artists take years to explore — and with his new EP, it’s clear that is the most recent chapter.
‘Masquerade’ is an exploration into Criss’ more eclectic side with each track on the record representing a different persona or masque for the artist. The overt character-driven quality of the EP lends not only to allowing fans to learn more about Darren Criss, but also to create a project where something can be found for everyone.
1883 Magazine spoke to Darren Criss about his perception of genre, his new EP, and the curse of creative people.
Congratulations on ‘Masquerade’. I love it. It’s so fun!
Fun is a very fair adjective, I would agree.
I feel like there’s a very cohesive vision or aesthetic to it. When you set out to make the project, did you have this end goal in min or were you just making music?
Yes and no. First and foremost, when you’re dealing with the whole of what an artist does, there are so many different facets that make the whole piece. To start, I’m just a songwriter — that’s the main thing that seeds everything else. But, because I’m a creative person, I’d like to think that I have a somewhat cohesive vision for my projects. However, you can conjecture and pontificate over what you want to happen, but ultimately a project is going to come out how it does. The thing that ties it all together, hopefully, is the artistry of the music or the person’s voice. When I heard you say “cohesive” my mind was like, “Phew!” Because we’re all scatterbrained people and we just constantly pray other people somehow think that we planned something or we had it envisioned all along, so to hear that is an enormous relief.
That being said, I had hope for how the EP would come together. I’ve been leaning into this notion of a character-driven song. The dirty secret about that is all songs are character-driven; all art is character-driven in some way or another. I just use that wording to aide folks that might be perceiving me as an actor and to apply that methodology to music.
I always thought it was a bit of an unfair double standard — where actors can be in a horror movie or romantic comedy — and we’re still behind that person as an actor. Actors can put on a prosthetic nose or a wig and do different things to service whatever story they’re doing. Historically music has been a little trickier, but now I think that’s changing. I’ve always been a self-proclaimed genrephile. I love so many different kinds of things. Growing up it was difficult for me to really assert this without confusing people. Now, that kaleidoscope has shifted in my favour, because people are more into eclecticism and musical diversity due to playlist culture and the whole homogeneity of everything. I’m employing this notion of being an actor and being behind a character and applying it to music by treating each song as its own kind of character. I want the art to correspond with that.
That’s an interesting concept to apply to music.
I know that everything I just said is horrifically more cerebral than it needs to be. If you like the music and it’s fun, great. I’m just trying to help people out that might be confused by perhaps some of the cognitive dissonance that’s happening between some of the styles. At the end of the day, it’s an artist’s voice, literal singing voice, and heart voice — what they have to say and how they say it — that tie everything together. People are more accepting of that than they used to be. This is exciting for me because I finally got to lean into something that I’ve always leaned into my entire life.
The last EP you released was ‘Homework’ in 2017. How do you think you’ve grown as an artist since then?
For me, obviously, there’s personal growth and professional growth. I think my growth is much more technical — getting better at recording music or being able to translate abstract ideas into physical recording — the things that I don’t think necessarily would be seen on the records. Again, much like an actor, ‘Homework’ was me playing the part of making a very low-key, singer/songwriter record. I’m a big believer in dressing for a party. I had some singer/songwriter songs that I wanted to honour. Each record I release shows a different version of myself that I haven’t gotten around to sharing.
The songs on ‘Masquerade’ are not like, “oh man in the past few years, I’ve suddenly become this person.” The EP was me finally getting in touch with my more Garage Band musician roots that I hadn’t been able to flex. It made sense to me to finally make this music. I had linked up with people that I thought could help me bring it to life in a way that hadn’t been done before and I felt like the timing was right. As I mentioned, it seemed like audiences might be a little more privy to this kind of thing.
I don’t want to be so stubborn as to think that there hasn’t been growth. I’ve been so lucky as an actor, that I’ve been busy as an actor. The only obstacle to me putting out more music, which I wish I was doing all the time, is time. I’m not an artist that just shows up, sings, and checks out. I’m writing, I’m producing, and I’m really in the weeds. It takes a great deal of investment, emotionally and mentally when I make music.
So, when you say, “you wish you were always releasing music,” do you mean to imply you have more music or at least ideas for more music?
I think the curse of creative people is that our ideas move faster than our bodies can execute. What this inevitably will create is a huge queue of unattended things that you will always be haunted by. From there, you have to catch as catch can. At any given moment, there’s still so much more in the queue that I want to put out. It literally took a global shutdown for me to finally have the time to look at the said queue, and say, “Okay, which project do I not only really want to do, but also do I have the resources to do and do I think fits into where I am right now?” Because I’m very cognisant of l where I am in my career. I have this huge selection of songs and when I have the time to focus on music, I go through and pick the ones I think fit where I am mentally and how I think other people are feeling.
With all these different genres of music you’ve released and all the music-centric projects that you’ve been a part of, is there a type of music that you enjoy performing the most?
I would say everything, but I don’t mean that in a way to just include everything. By nature, I’m a dot connector; I like shortening the distance between two things as much as possible and showing people how they can coexist. It’s my MO personally and professionally. Genre, while it has a lot to do with the cultural background and history of a type of music, is the boxes that we’ve arbitrarily made up to categorize and market music. I’m completely nondenominational when it comes to genre because all I can hear is chords, melody, and lyrics. It’s never been separated to me. When I’m performing live, I relish getting to lean in and bring together genres. I love using the setlist to show an audience how similar different genres are. For example, I’ll play a punk rock song and right after that I’ll sit at the piano and sing a ballad. My voice will be a little different, but it’s still my voice. Just like in acting, no matter what character an actor is portraying, it’s still their face and their body. Trying to minimize a distance between genres when I perform is an exciting prospect because I like getting audiences to rethink what they think they know about the differences between genre and how really at the end of the day it’s all just storytelling. So…I like performing it all.
I didn’t say you couldn’t say you liked everything. [Chuckles] That’s a perfectly acceptable answer.
I like putting all of it together specifically to show the similarities. Historically, all the great steps forward in a new kind of art form have been by mashing two or three seemingly unrelated things together. It’s happening constantly. It’s happening right now. Culture is a constant conversation back and forth. It’s a sharing of ideas that ebb and flow to create something new. I’m not saying that I’m taking part in this ancient conversation, but I’m certainly enjoying it. When I see pieces of it that I would like to showcase, I jump at the opportunity to do so.
Since ‘Masquerade’ has been in your creative bank for a while, what would you say inspired it?
Every song has its own inspiration. The album doesn’t really have an inspiration. If anything, I’m trying to make sure that I can show up for myself. I feel like with everything that I’ve done musically, I haven’t gotten to represent who and what I am and what I do. To me, this EP gets me closer to that goal. I still think that only a small percentage of me has been represented and that’s just because of time. I haven’t been able to focus on music in the way that I’d like, but ‘Masquerade’ is a huge stride for me.
Speaking of you being on Broadway, Elsie Fest is Sunday! On top of it just being exciting because it’s back, it’s your first public gig in almost two years. What did you miss most about the festival?
Listen, even without a global pandemic to worry about, putting on a music festival is hard enough. It’s one of my favourite times of the year because I’m very proud of what we’ve built and what we’ve continued to build and expand upon over the years. There’s been a community that has been built around not only people that come to the festival but people that have been part of it. I’ve followed these performers’ careers and I’ve been really grateful that we got a piece of their magic and got to be part of their journey at Elsie Fest. Magic which I can’t take credit for. I just lucked out with having incredible people perform. Over the years, we’ve had Cynthia Erivo perform twice. The first time she premiered a song called ‘You Will Be Found’ from a musical that would open in a year called ‘Dear Evan Hansen.’ We premiered a song from a movie called ‘The Greatest Showman.’ Keala Settle went on to win a Golden Globe for that song. Last year, we had a young girl from Disney sing for us — her name was Olivia Rodrigo. Those are just three examples. There’s been a lot of people that I’ve been thrilled to see do their thing. This year we have an incredible lineup. Barlow & Bear are coming, along with Jordan Fisher, Adrienne Warren, Pentatonix’s Kirstin Maldonado, and Alex Brightman. It’s gonna be great.
The obvious and the biggest answer is getting to perform live within as much of a safe and comfortable environment as humanly possible. Luckily we’re an outdoor festival, so that’s already to our advantage. I will be performing this new EP, but there is also a lot of music to catch up on and a lot of music I want to share. I’m mainly excited to share it with other human beings. I look at performing as a service industry. Everything that I do isn’t worth a whole lot unless other people experience it because it takes on a life of its own. The audience is not there for me & I’m there for them. I’m trying to service an experience that’s bigger than both of us and create something that couldn’t have been there if both parties were on their own.
Before I let you go, I need to tell you that Tramp Stamp Granny’s is one of my favourite bars in LA. I’m obsessed! I haven’t made it back yet. Like I said earlier, the editor Kelsey is also one of my best friends and when she comes, it’s top on my list of places to take her.
Really?! That makes me so happy. You couldn’t have said a better thing. We’re open again to limited capacity. We require vaccinations cards at the door and we’re only open Thursday-Saturday. Talk about being with people — the night we reopened, about a month ago, I got pretty emotional. It was nice to see people just being happy to sing and celebrate life with strangers. That was a really encouraging sentiment because despite the use of digital communication which I do think is an amazing thing, we, so clearly, inevitably, yearn for each other. Despite everything, people were coming to the bar and were so happy to be there and be around other people. Our need for other human beings is a constant that is extremely encouraging to me as a bleeding heart idealist. It’s nice to be a small part of that.
Finally, you said earlier Barlow and Bear were going to be at Elsie Fest. I cannot wait for the Unofficial Bridgerton Musical and was so excited to see you’re involved.
It’s cool meeting them because in a much more organized and impressive fashion they’re doing what my friends and I did ten years ago with ‘A Very Potter Musical.’ They are insanely talented and deserve to be the huge phenomenon they have become. They’re the future. I’m trying to grab onto their coattails however I can. [chuckles] They’re just getting started. I’ve been a big fan of Emily’s for a long time. She hates it when people say this, but [mock yells] she was a child prodigy and she still is. She’s an amazing human being.
Masquerade is out now.
Follow Darren Criss @darrencriss
Interview by Sydney Bolen
Photography by Amanda Demme