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Antonio Lopez on Roots and Wings and the Warriors Inside Us All

antonio

Antonio Lopez takes flight in his newest album Roots and Wings. In an Icarian journey towards insight and unity, Antonio leaves his wax wings on the floor and trusts the ones he has inside him. The gentle Indie folk sound sways like leaves in a carefree wind, but deeper down is a powerful testament to family trauma, friendship, loss, and unifying love. Roots and Wings is an inspiring, down-to-earth look into the experience of a musician hitting his stride. In a collection of narrative songs like “‘42 Ford” and personal stories like “Going to the City,” this album illustrates an artist “coming of age” within his craft, and within his beliefs. 

I had the privilege of talking with Antonio via video call for just over an hour. During our interview he described himself as “soft spoken,” and while this is true in that his calm temperament could come across as reserved, he was not guarded. Antonio spoke candidly about his family, and with great pride. He told me stories about healing, and his “unlikely hero’s” journey in self reflection.

At about 20 minutes into the interview, our conversation turned to his song “The New Warrior.” He stepped out of frame for a second, and returned with a photograph of a woman surrounded by blankets of snow, he holds it to the camera so that I can see. “This is my friend Tetsuko of Cold Mountain.” he explains. Tetsuko, is an artist, a Buddhist, and became a quadriplegic after breaking her neck in the student protests of Berkeley California in 1969. She tells Antonio of a Buddhist prophecy about a New Warrior. “This new warrior isn’t a warrior that uses force and might,” he explains, “but it’s about using compassion and insight and understanding, trying to see things from others points of view.” 

The message of Lopez’s album can be distilled to this idea of the “New Warrior.” In order to be the New Warrior you have to be able to connect with people through listening and understanding experiences that aren’t yours. Roots and Wings communicates a strong theme of connection, both in losing and finding it. This comes across as a connection to oneself in “Flying Like a Bird,” to nature in “Going to the City,” of love in “Elemental Love,” and of loss and reconnection in “The Truth We Tell.” With Antonio we grow into our wings, and learn that the answer to much of the pain in the world is a disconnection to each other. Antonio demonstrates his New Warriorship through his earthy, unifying sound, and much needed insight. Antonio Lopez is the soft spoken unlikely hero we need right now, his newest Album Roots and Wings deserves your time.

Roots and Wings is out today. Give it a listen and follow Antonio around the internet. Then dig into his story via the interview below.


What first called you to music? 

I’m the youngest of five children, and my older brother, when we were kids he had a portable Discman and I would walk on his back, kind of like a massage in exchange for him letting me listen to CDs. So I remember listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Guns and Roses’ Use Your Illusion. As far as playing music, I took piano lessons, you know, started singing in the school choir, clarinet came along in fourth grade, guitar was in middle school. There were changes happening to my body and I thought a red electric guitar was cooler than a clarinet. 

So you have those early influences, and how would you describe your sound? 

I mean it’s kind of a tough question, I went to school for music to study composition and classical guitar, and so I feel like I learned a lot about the inner workings of music, but I never wanted to be elitist or turn my nose up on anything. I studied music in school, but I love folk music and I’m first and foremost a folk musician. I feel like I take some of those elements of a more extended harmony, more complex arrangements and stuff, and make it simple in a way that you don’t really notice how it’s different from a lot of other music you hear.

How would you say that your folk music sound reflects you as a person?

So, I grew up in a very small town called Alamosa. It has about eight thousand / nine thousand people, and you know, in a town that size it’s not like you’re exposed to music every night of the week, sometimes shows would come through, but I spent a lot of time just in my bedroom playing guitar and listening to albums. So you kind of evolve almost like an animal that’s on an island, where you’re getting your sound, getting your vibe, before you really know too much, it’s almost like you’re inventing things for yourself, because there’s no one there to tell you how to do them.  

The way that you write about your family is so beautiful in “Roots and Wings,” as well as “The Truth We Tell,” can you talk a little bit about that song, “The Truth We Tell” and why it’s so important?

You know, every family has things that they’ve gone through. One of my older brothers has schizophrenia, he’s in a much better place now, but a few years ago when I wrote that song he was in a really rough spot. And, you know, you couldn’t really reach him when you would try to communicate with him. He was just in a different place, it’s really painful to witness that. But more broadly speaking, I feel like, you know it’s strange because there’s really strong bonds that you hold with your family, but then at the same time as you grow older they kind of become strangers, you know? So everyone’s kind of out walking this path of life alone, but not a day goes by that you aren’t thinking about them.

So you moved from Alamosa to Longmont CO in 2012 to pursue your musical career, what led up to that decision? 

Honestly, it was just kind of on a whim. Early on in my wife and my relationship her mother passed away. I had gone to South Dakota to be with her and her family, and I was riding a Greyhound bus back to Colorado and it was kind of like the sun was rising. And it was that night that she had passed. And, I just remember the bus coming through Longmont and then driving down Main Street and circling around the park and I just had a weird feeling, you know, like this is kind of a cool town, Longmont’s kind of equidistant between South Dakota and Alamosa, yeah, so I feel like that experience influenced us moving here. 

In your song, “Going to the City,” the line “to grow farther from nature is the nature of the man,” was that growing farther from nature, something that you struggled with during your own move into the city?

Yeah, definitely, where I grew up in southern Colorado, you would go to the mountains and most likely wouldn’t see anyone else. So moving up here, you know, you’d go hiking and sometimes you can’t find a parking space if you don’t wake up early. The Front Range isn’t even as urban as a lot of places are, but I guess that gets to the core of the song. Humanity is really successful and we’re really good at what we do, but there is definitely an ecological cost to that. There’s just a lot of things that we’re up against. 

When you first moved to Longmont, you worked as a school janitor for a time to support your music career. What was that time in your life like? 

It was really exciting, honestly. I was as green as they come. I remember moving up here and literally to people I met within the first twenty four hours, I’m like, yeah, I moved up here this morning I’m going to become a professional musician, and they just kind of look at me like, you know hard that is? You’re kind of crazy. And, you know, I saw that job as a means to an end just as we were getting our footing. And that kind of work just keeps you humble. 

In your song, “Flying Like a Bird,” you reference “wings of wax” and discovering that “glory is less important than grace.” So I guess my question is, what parts of that song parallel your story as a musician? Did you have an Icarus moment of flying too close to the sun?

I think a lot of times as a creative there’s a lot of questioning, there’s this outward persona you want to put out of how you’re being successful and the Instagram highlights or whatever. The fact of the matter is, pursuing this kind of field, it’s taxing. A line in that song, “I thought I was flying like a bird, but I was just falling”, it’s just that. You just have to believe that you’re flying, and maybe you’re actually falling. And, you get so caught up in your head that sometimes you don’t even know which one you’re doing. Sometimes when you’re closer to it, you’re actually farther away. Sometimes when you feel you’re further away from it, actually you were pretty close. 

As far as an Icarus moment, you know, when I wrote that song and when I wrote this whole album it was a real pivotal moment in my music career because I mean, what we were talking about just now, I was a janitor, and then I became a substitute school teacher, and eventually I was gigging full time and there was a good six or seven years that I was playing two hundred and fifty shows a year. In about 2018 I wanted to transition into quality over quantity when it came to performances. So I get this house sitting gig up in the mountains, and my intention was to go up there and write some new material for this album, and I was calling it “Winter of Woodshed,” “woodshed” is a music term, and the reason it’s called is woodshed is because you would go to the woodshed and practice because no one would want to listen to you. So I showed up in Conifer to this really cool house, and the first morning I woke up and I was in the trees, and it was winter, so there was a ton of snow, and I was watching the sunrise. Flying Like a Bird was the first song I started writing during that winter of woodshed. I was just at a really vulnerable and raw place in my career where I knew what I was capable of, but at the same time, if you’re looking at probabilities, you know, it’s pretty hard.

Your song, “The New Warrior,” I think it’s probably my favorite off of the new album.

Yes! I think that’s my favorite too, that and The Truth We Tell. 

What’s the story behind that song? 

I would say that it’s the crux of my message, you know, like if I had to say what my thesis statement is, it’s that song. I think it’s really important for the time, and I’m actually going to grab some real quick that I could show you. (Holding up a photograph) This is my friend Tetsuko of Cold Mountain. She was a quadriplegic woman, she broke her neck in 1969 in the student protests in Berkeley, California. 

It was the last week of my sophomore year in college and I was looking for a summer job, and this is in the days where you looked in the classified section of the local newspaper. There was just an ad saying, “Artist in a wheelchair looking for a caregiver.” So I went and interviewed with Tetsuko and she’s a really colorful character. Growing up in a small town, there’s a lot that you’re not exposed to, and she was the first Buddhist that I ever met. 

She was telling me about this prophecy of this new warrior. And this new warrior isn’t a warrior that uses force and might, but it’s about using compassion and insight and understanding, trying to see things from others points of view. And what I liked about it is it’s not like this new warrior is a Being that’s going to come save us, it’s more like that warriorship is inside each and every one of us. This warriorship arises in a time where it’s very chaotic and very fragmented, kind of like now. That song is for my friend Tetsuko. Sadly, she passed away before she was able to hear it. She was always telling me “Antonio when are you going to write me a song?” and I never wrote one for her when she was alive, but I like to think that she knows about it still.

You know she’s listening to it somewhere,

Oh yeah, she’s rocking out to that bridge.

How do you think that we can be “The New Warrior” right now in this world?

I would say first and foremost, get out of our own head. Everyone has a different view of right and wrong or good and bad, so try to look at things from another point of view, because I think what people would realize is that we have more in common than we think. And it’s so easy for a kid, they would know that intuitively, you know, but as we get older we get further and further away from that and more set in our beliefs and more set in our ways.

Since Tetsuko was a Buddhist, a big part of Buddhism is meditation. So a lot of the lyrics are alluding to the practice of meditation. I went to a meditation retreat about a year after Tetsuko had passed to honor her memory, and honestly it’s really hard to just sit there. I think maybe I need to practice a little bit more what I preach, but to be able to slow down is a really powerful thing, you know. One of the last trips I took with Tetsuko, we went to this Buddhist stupa, and we ended up not actually getting to the stupa because there was this crazy snowstorm and we got snowed in where we were staying. That’s probably the best conversation me and Tetsuko had ever had, we were just talking about how when people are very stressed and working a lot of jobs or trying to get by financially, it’s really hard to convince them that what they need to do is take a little bit of time and do nothing. Taking that time to step back and look at things from a more holistic point of view, a more big picture view, that is what gives you the insight. 

You talk a lot about taking a step back and insight, would you say that’s sort of a theme in your album? Like, coming-of-age, not exactly in the adolescent sense of the word, but as an artist?

Yeah, that’s definitely the space I was in the whole two years I was working on this album. I don’t know how your experience is with this, but I tend to still think of myself as a kid in a lot of ways. And it’s like, you know what, man, you’re like 30, 34 years old, you’re not a kid at all, you’re a grown ass man so you need to get it together. And if this music thing is what you’ve dreamed about your whole life and what you’ve been working on your whole life, there just comes a certain point where you really need to step it up. You know, we were talking about the winter of woodshed earlier and how Flying Like a Bird was the first song I wrote, and Icarus… are you familiar with Joseph Campbell and The Hero’s Journey? This might sound really corny, but at that moment in time when I stopped gigging, and went to write this album, I was going to come back and try to really level up my music career. You almost have to pretend like you’re a hero in a story, otherwise you’re just not going to have the fortitude to do what it takes.

I’m really curious about more of your time with Tetsuko. How did she influence your music?

Definitely, and as a matter of fact, the first thing we bonded over is Amos Lee. I mean, he probably is my favorite songwriter overall. She was telling me a story about a time that she almost died, being in a wheelchair you know, there’s just certain things that you’re more susceptible to. She was in the hospital for a really long time just not feeling well. And a friend of hers was like, “Hey, look, you want to go to this show at the Boulder Theater with me?” And she was thinking, “Oh, it’s going to be some loud rock band, and I just got out of hospital,” not really feeling it. And her friend, like, dragged her there and it was Amos Lee. And she just talked about how seeing Amos Lee completely healed her. And I really do think that music has that power to heal in ways that no other things do. 

In your interview with Caitlin Rockett from Boulder Weekly you refer to your album as a “soundtrack to start a new year.” In what ways do you hope Roots and Wings will impact, heal and inspire listeners and the world?

We were talking a lot about the headspace I was in during the writing of this album and how I was trying to be the hero of my own story, and I feel like right now people need things to believe in, they need things to lift them up. I want to be people’s hero right now because in a lot of ways I’m the unlikely hero, I’m so quiet, so soft spoken, sometimes I don’t make sense at all, but I’m coming from here, (gestures to his heart) and that’s what’s real and that’s what the world needs. Talking about a new warrior, we all need to step up in that way and when everyone steps up in that way it’s not like a comic book hero, it’s more like an everyday hero. Instead of being pissed off and berating other people that aren’t like you, the heroship looks more just like understanding each other and listening to each other.

I chose the New Year’s Day release date, because I think there are certain things about the changing of the season that’s just like a mental reboot. And so many of us, myself especially, have been in a tape loop for the last 10 months. We just need something that’s real and raw to lift us out of that and to remind us of who we are. I mean I’m a small artist, you know? But that’s even kind of cooler because the people I know, and my fans, they become my community, and as evidenced by the Kickstarter for this and raising over 21K, that means that people believe in you. So, yeah, I want to take that belief and pay it forward.

How has COVID impacted you during this time? Where was that in the timeline of writing Roots and Wings?

Being an Indie musician, you take a while to get the funds to make an album. So honestly, some of these songs are four years old, five years old. But the bulk of them were written in early 2019 and the Kickstarter happened a year ago now. Luckily, the album was already recorded and the Kickstarter was already funded about a month and a half before COVID hit. I am really lucky that I’m not getting hit as hard as some other people in the arts are, it just really pains me to see and hear about what the music community is going through.

In the early part of the pandemic, I stepped into the executive director role of this nonprofit called Sound Bridge Music, I’ve been on the board of Sound Bridge, since 2017. We’re a really small organization, we’re still getting our feet underneath us, but we’ve done a lot, we brought music into area nursing homes, we get listening room settings for musicians, put on a few events, we do professional development workshops, we’ve given scholarships to go to this thing out here in Colorado called the Rocky Mountain Song School, but we’re still kind of finding our place, financing our niche. 

What I want to do in this director role is to harness and coordinate what everyone is doing individually into a more collective effort. It’s like if we have a school bus and we’re trying to push it up a hill, that’s kind of what the music industry is up against right now. If we just kind of start rocking it, you know, and more and more people come and help push it, collectively we could get up that hill together.

How do you honor your roots while spreading your wings? How do you honor your wings while holding onto your roots?

I feel like a lot of our work is just remembering who we are and getting back to that true essence. My dad, he was a pretty big civil rights activist in the Chicano Civil Rights Movement. He along with his older brother and one of his older sisters, all became lawyers to represent the voices of oppressed people. My Uncle Reyes, he was killed in a car bomb that happened at Chautauqua Park in Boulder. There was this secret branch of the FBI called COINTELPRO that was found to be behind a lot of deaths of activists at the time. What happened with my dad, was they pinned some charges on him that he did not do and he had to go into exile for almost 10 years. They didn’t have America’s Most Wanted then, but it was like the old west when there’s a poster on the wall, you know, that “shoot to kill” sort of thing, so he was really on the run. And this was before I was born because I’m the youngest of five children. By the time I came around, you know, things were a little more stable, but the shadows of those events still loom over my family. So me as a musician, I feel like I’m carrying on the work that my mom and my dad did.

What I’m doing with the songwriting on this album is connecting the past with the future. You can’t get too caught up in the roots of the past or the wings of the future because when you do get too caught up, you’re not really in the present moment. It’s a really tricky balance, honoring the past, being in the present, but then also being conscious of the future. 

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