Photo: Shervin Lainez

Chance Peña

The Tyler, TX native has moved far beyond his bedroom pop beginnings

Chance Peña’s sold-out show at NYC’s Mercury Lounge this past February, the kind of sold-out that makes it impossible for security to even yell at people to step off the couches, was a bit of a speed round. He, along with opening act and frequent collaborator Hayd, were given the early slot of the evening, and in what has become a regular occurrence for those in this position post-pandemic, had their sets cut ever-so-slightly short due to time constraints. However, those in attendance could have cared less about the limited time and were locked into the Tyler, TX natives’ every word.

The bedroom pop-leaning “In My Room,” one of Peña’s breakout tunes, came early in the set to, as predicated, eager fanfare, while unreleased tracks “Bones” and “Cruel World” were unveiled later towards the end of the set. The latter two are swampy, blues rock-laden tunes with a throwback musical identity to that of a Johnny Cash, or a Rolling Thunder-era Bob Dylan, a sound he and his band have formulated and perfected to their comfort level.

With these songs, it’s clear that Peña, who has been musically active in the public space for almost a decade, is fully committed to and excited by homing in on a diverse sonic landscape of indie pop, blues, and doses of alternative rock.

His newest release, “The Mountain Is You,” is out now.

Effortlessly Cool

With his deep southern drawl and laid-back vibe, Peña comes across as effortlessly cool. Like an old movie star. At the start of this interview, he poured himself a cup of freshly brewed coffee, threw on some shades, and moved outside in the sunlight, comfortably settling in for the chat. He seemed delighted to be home in TX, having spent the better part of the first chunk of this year on tour in both the US and Europe.

When he sings, he possesses a stirring vibrato, and, most notably on his A and O vowels, a unique affectation that he maneuvers in and out of. It’s present on a song like “In My Room,” with its almost nonexistent song structure and experimental instrumental arrangement: “They say counting stars… you play the part of a soul missin’ home.”

The song, drenched in vocal reverb, perfectly captures Pena’s ability to create an inward, more undefined train of thought that then translates to a cinematic instrumental field. “You record a song like that by yourself… you record instruments one piece at a time, but you need a five-piece band to pull that off live,” he said. “I don’t like using tracks… I don’t like having a metronome in my ear. I think what makes that song what it is is the atmosphere and the emotion in it.”

His newest batch of songs, including “The Mountain Is You” and the unreleased bunch from his live setlist, do not solely fall under that level of emotional intimacy. Musically, he can both stretch them thin and expand them to their limit. “These are songs that, I think, sound great with just me and an acoustic guitar, and they’re gonna sound great with a band, too,” he said. “To me, that has always been the hallmark of a great song. If it could just be you and one instrument, and still be a, ‘Holy shit,’ kind of song. Anything else is kind of just a cherry on top. You just want to capture the emotion right.’

“I wanna KNOW you”

Boasting an impressively consistent musical output since 2017, Peña admits to holding onto 10 unreleased songs for everyone he has out. His process is not complex, as he writes and creates how he feels on his terms with people he trusts. “It’s all relationship-based,” he said. “I wanna KNOW you. I don’t wanna sit down, bang our heads against the wall for six hours, and walk out with nothin’. I did that for years. I did so many sessions and I never once left one bein’ like ‘I’m gonna put this one out.’ I don’t mind being vulnerable, but it felt forced cause you know you’re gonna sit down and they’re gonna be like, ‘So, what’re you goin’ through?’ You’re being honest, but it feels disingenuous cause we’re trying to WRITE about something, not have a conversation.”

He cited a song he’d just written “the other day,” as one he was “really excited about,” saying this one, like “I am not who I was,” another of his most popular tunes, came together in an hour. A jam band-like session sparked by a single line uttered in the room, then expanded upon. That style of collaboration is surely more his speed.

Pursuit Of Happiness 

An admiration for Kid Cudi has become a talking point of many of Peña’s interviews, though there are other artists, such as The Lumineers, and Gregory Alan Isakov, whom he equally reveres. He has routinely covered Cudi’s “Pursuit Of Happiness” off Man On The Moon: The End Of Day, and credits that record for pushing him to begin his journey as a producer of both his own music and in collaborative efforts.

“I definitely drew a lot of inspiration from him when I was a teenager,” he said. “I was making a lot of hip-hop beats… that’s how I learned how to produce. It wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I learned how to properly produce an acoustic guitar, so I was goin’ through a lot of samples and choppin’ stuff up. If anything, today, he’s an inspiration to me in the way that he just did his thing. That record still holds up today ‘cause he wasn’t chasing any trends… at least it doesn’t sound that way. He wasn’t tryna do nothin’… be anything that he wasn’t.”

The Mountain Is You

Peña embodies that loose, individualized creativity on his newest release, “The Mountain Is You,” one of the many songs of the current folk renaissance being heard around the world. The first half of the tune acts as a standstill at the bottom of the proverbial mountain, as if he is questioning how to, or if he even can, take those first steps. Then, he does. Like Lorde on “Solar Power,” the second half is a breathtaking release of both musical and emotional energy, though “The Mountain…” cuts itself off quicker than the former, choosing to stay somewhat contained:You called my name in the dead of night/ I was barely survivin’, almost left. the. climb/ Said, ‘Don’t look down, don’t open your eyes.’/ You were right/ You said, ‘The mountain is you.’”

It’s the people in his life… family, friends, and his girlfriend, who push him towards climbing that mountain in moments of self-doubt and uncertainty, allowing him to maintain an attitude of being grateful. “I feel like everyone is fortunate to get a handful of people like that in their lifetime,” he said. “I think when you find those people, you hold onto ‘em. You lean on ’em. They’re reminders that life exists outside of music. That there is happiness outside of my creative output. My people remind me of that.”

Stream “The Mountain Is You” :