Singer/songwriter/pianist raising money for Music Beats Cancer
By Joshua Maloni
Christina Custode is the hardest-working woman in show business – well, at least in Western New York.
Already well-known for her live concerts – prepandemic, Custode was regularly touring around the region – and her talent – Custode is a Grammy Award-contending singer/songwriter/pianist – Custode has added virtual concerts to her repertoire. In between livestreamed gigs, the Lewiston resident has been raising money for Music Beats Cancer.
Oh, and while navigating her way through the worst industry on the planet – have you seen these reality TV shows? Singers seeking record deals are falling out of trees – Custode is a high school music teacher. She spends weekdays molding area youth in what is arguably the hardest year to be an educator in the history of mankind. Undeterred by on-again, off-again/in-person, Zoom classroom challenges, Custode has made it a point to instill the value of music into her pupils, and to hammer home her students’ self-worth.
The daughter of Niagara Falls Music Hall of Famer Lew Custode – half of the jazz duo Custode & Parisi – Christina made a name for herself with the release of “From Here” and singles “Crush,” “Fire,” “Light of Day,” “Wasting My Time” – and my personal favorites: “High Water” and “Just in Case.” She promoted her music by touring in places such as New York City and Toronto, and through a series of YouTube chats Custode titled “Tea and Talk.”
For her musical efforts, Custode was honored with awards declaring her “Buffalo’s Best Female Vocalist” and “Buffalo’s Best Original Music Act.” She also was nominated for a Grammy Music Educator Award in 2019.
Custode doesn’t have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame … and, seemingly, she doesn’t care about fame or fortune. For her, forging connections with crowds – in a bar, online or in band class – is the highest mark of success.
She recently chatted with NFP, sharing her motivation and shedding light on her creative process. An edited Q&A follows.
Q: What's happening in your life right now, career wise; what are you working on; and what excites you about music in 2021?
Christina Custode: Yeah, so, 2020, 2021 has been strange for a lot of creatives and a lot of music makers, for sure. I perform out so much – and not only locally, but in New York and Toronto, and to have all of that eliminated so abruptly was definitely a big shift for me musically.
I think it forced me to become very much so capable in streaming and getting music to listeners who want to hear it, regardless of the obstacles of venues being closed.
So, I've dedicated quite a bit of time over this past year in really refining and delivering quality livestream concerts. And that's been really inspirational. It has been a learning curve, for sure. I mean, it's one thing to know how to set up a live sound system and run a show, and all of the logistics that go into that, but everything is so different in a virtual platform. So, that was a huge learning curve for me.
As much as this year has been challenging and, obviously, sad for so many different reasons, the silver lining has been being able to take the time and to invest it into something that I probably never would have done. Like, if you would have told me in 2018 or in 2019 that I would be capable of hooking up a camera – my digital equipment – running it through a laptop and streaming it to people all over – not just my community or the state, but the entire world – I would have said you were crazy. Because that was something that was so beyond my capabilities, as far as like sound engineering and music technology and that entire world.
I'm very grateful that I've had the time, and I've been able to really focus in on delivering something that I can stand behind and be proud of. Because a lot of people are just like, “Well, I really don't know how to do this, so I'll just set up my iPhone and then it'll just kind of be like that.” But for a keyboard instrument, my sound doesn't come out of the instrument; it's all digital. So, I was kind of forced to get a clean sound without you hearing my dog barking, the air conditioning running or something, right?
2020 and 2021 has pushed me in those ways that I don't think I would have been pushed without it.
Christina Custode (Images courtesy of Otter PR)
Q: There's so many talented musicians in Western New York, and a lot of times they're told, “You have to go to Nashville; you have to go to Los Angeles, New York City” – you name the big city. Right? And then we know in the past 10 years, it's like, “Well, maybe you don't have to,” because with the internet, with streaming, there's different ways to connect with people, there's different ways to get your music out. You don't necessarily have to be in a particular location. But, I think, for a lot of people, that concept of going and finding people online, whether it's musicians, entertainers – whether it's educating their children, whatever the case may be – that still was sort of a very foreign concept, I think, to the general public.
I'm wondering, in the past year, you know, you talked about what you've had to do. People have also learned how to now go online and access these things and find these musicians and find these entertainers. So, do you find now that this has become a better environment for you as a musician? I know you love playing live; I know you go out and you club a lot. But, are there advantages, now, in being able to reach people outside Western New York – wherever they may be – through Zoom, or through other platforms, through blogging, through livestreaming. Are there advantages that have come out of the past year that you can see benefiting you in the next year or two years, five years – whatever the case may be?
Christina Custode: For sure; I'm definitely excited to see live performance come back. That's hands down, for sure. And whether that means I'm able to get on a plane and get to New York, go to Toronto, go to Nashville, I'm definitely excited to hit the road again in a very traditional way. But I think I will continue to offer probably a livestream show every single month. And if I can get the quality of streaming, portable, I see no reason why, going forward, if I am in New York, I can't stream that concert at the same time.
I think having that ability to both be in person and then capture that quality performance and share it with people from anywhere – the last streaming show that I did, I had people from like the other side of Europe, and they were in my livestream. “Hi from Germany,” and hi from all these amazing places. And I was like, “This is a very powerful vehicle that I want to continue using, even when those live venues do open up.”
Q: As I said, there's a ton of super-talented musicians in Western New York and, for me unfortunately, I don't have time to talk to as many of them as I would like. Usually the ones that I talk to are super-talented and super-intriguing – and so, hello, super-talented and super-intriguing.
When did you know that you were good at this? I know you've been doing it your whole life; I know your father is a musician. That doesn't necessarily mean you're going to have skill in this area, right? So, when did you know, “Hey, this is more than a hobby; this is actually something that I'm good at, that I could do as a career, as something where I'm releasing music.” When was that point in your progression where you knew this was something beyond just a hobby or something that was passed down to you from your father?
Christina Custode: I mean, that's a tricky one. When does anybody ever truly know? And I'm sure that there's people that would say who can truly judge your worth as a musician. I think that's a super-deep question.
And there's certainly times when you doubt that yourself. You're like, “This is not worth anything”; or you write a song and you never wind up playing it, because you're just like, “This isn't great.”
I was performing very heavily as a cover artist for a long time, and my bass player – I didn't tell anybody that I was writing music. I didn't tell anybody. And my bass player – I don't know; maybe she was tapped into some other energy, because she just kept saying, “Are you writing stuff? I feel like you're writing stuff. If you are, we should play it. If you are we should play it.”
I was terrified, because there's such a vulnerability that goes along with sharing your original music, right? “These are my feelings, my opinion, my perspectives, my worldview.” Because I'm human, so I only right from where I stand. And so, to put that out, and to throw your guts up publicly – in front of strangers – is kind of a very odd thing to be comfortable with.
And she kept pushing me and pushing me. And we were at a gig on Chippewa – I'll never forget it – and I said, “Listen, we will play one of my original songs; and I'm not telling anybody that it's an original. This way, if it tanks, we're never doing it again; we're never telling anybody.” I had a great Carrie Underwood tune to pull next, because I was like, if it tanks – you know, you gauge the crowd and, if it's just like everyone's, “Oh, what was that; that's awful,” we're gonna have a slam-dunk cover to follow it up.
And so, we kind of went in with this plan, and I played it. And at the end, the reception from the crowd was good. I mean, nobody was singing along, because nobody knew it. But two girls came up to me from the bar and said, “Oh my gosh, who does that last song you did? I loved it. I've never heard it.” And my bass player kind of looked and smirked. And I was like, “Oh, thank you so much. It's actually an original.” And they were like, “You wrote that!?!”
And so, to hear that from somebody that was a complete stranger – somebody that did not know me – these weren't girls that had followed me through my career; they were not friends; I don't even know their names – I don't even think they know my name, or the impact that that little, 30-second interaction had on me and my career.
I got a little bit braver with releasing music, and sharing that with people. And I would have people come up to me and they would say, “Gosh, that last song, that hit me,” or “I felt that. I know exactly; I was there.” And you start seeing that connection. And I just said, you know, “Whether people think it's good or not, if I'm able to connect with people, and it resonates, then it's worth sharing.”
And at the end of the day, I don't know if that means I'm good; if I'm not good. And I guess I don't necessarily care that much, because, if it resonates with people and there's meaning, and there's understanding and communication, I think that's where the worth is.
Christina Custode (Images courtesy of Otter PR)
Q: Like you said, it takes a lot of courage to share your words and your thoughts and beliefs with the world; and it takes a lot of courage to go out and perform in front of a crowd. So, similarly, when did you know you wanted to get out there and do that? When did you know you wanted to not just be someone who writes songs, but someone who performs songs? Was that always something you enjoyed doing, or was there sort of a point in time where you were like, “You know what: I want to go out there; I want the crowd; I want the feedback; I want all of that”?
Christina Custode: I have always been my happiest when I'm singing and playing and performing. Like I said, for a while I did cover music. And I was very involved in theater when I was young; dance and theater. And I always loved singing, and just being onstage in front of people. I've always been the happiest when I'm performing.
So, I think for me, it was a little bit backwards, because I knew, from a pretty young age, that I wanted to go into the performing arts. I definitely knew that I was super-happy when I did that. I was the best version of myself. And then I was really passionate about theater, and then was involved with jazz and classical music, and then was doing pop stuff, and then it just kind of came together in this weird kind of way where I was like, “Wait a minute, I think I have my own voice that I'd like to express.”
Q: Are you still teaching music over at Niagara Falls High School?
Christina Custode: I am and I love it!
Q: You're giving back to students. I know you've promoted other musicians in Western New York. Tell me about giving back – why that's important for you and – especially with the past year and how difficult it's been for everybody – how has it been more meaningful in giving back and teaching others?
Christina Custode: For sure. I tell my students this all the time: I became a teacher because I love music and I love sharing music. I think that's part of performing, too – it’s that sharing aspect. And I think it's very natural for a lot of performers to be performing educators; I think it's a very natural fit.
And my kids this past year have struggled. I'm a band teacher, and imagine a concert band where, on Monday and Tuesday, there's one clarinet, one flute, one baritone, they're one on a part. And they're young; we're talking ninth graders. So, put yourself in that very beginning band stage: You're terrified; you’re at a new school; and you have to play your part. And if you don't play it, nobody else plays it.
And I told them, I said, “If you ever feel like in your life that you don't matter, this is living proof that you matter. Because if your part’s not here, we miss you; we miss your sound; we miss your mistakes; we miss your squeaks; because you matter here.
And I think that sense of, you know, “I only have school two days a week and, when I go, it's not really fun, because none of my friends are there. But I got to go to band because, if I'm not there, they're gonna miss me.” I think I've been able to provide that sense of community through music, that has kept the arts so special and so unique, in some of the most challenging times that we've certainly faced.
Q: We are chatting today because your publicist alerted me to your work with Music Beats Cancer. What can you tell me about that?
Christina Custode: Music Beats Cancer is a great organization. What they do is they get emerging artists, and they give them a platform to advocate for cancer research and innovative sort of scientific research that sometimes doesn't get a ton of attention.
You can imagine – especially this past year – cancer research, we haven't really heard much about it, you know? And I personally had many people in my life that had been affected by cancer. And if I can use my music for good, to kind of bring some of that research forward in a real way – not just like a touchy, feely – like, “Yeah, this is great” – but like if we can raise something that potentially funds an innovative cancer treatment, that's pretty revolutionary. And that's what I love about Music Beats Cancer.
Q: We've talked about so many different areas you're plugged into and so many different things that you're doing and will be doing as the world continues to open back up. Of course, you are a musician, and you are a songwriter, and I'm wondering, on that front, are you working on music? Are you working on songs? What can we look forward to as far as that goes?
Christina Custode: I’m always working on music and working on songs. I think that's like a life work.
I’ve got a lot of music that I'm excited to share, for sure. The shutdown was really odd for me, because I'm such a performance-based person. Performance really fuels me, gives me energy. And I love being out. A lot of my songs, if you listen to them, it talks about things that I've seen on gigs. Like things that happen in bars and these weird relationships that you get to kind of be a voyeur on, because you're in the corner and you're viewing all these little social things that happen.
I've been writing a little bit. I mean, there's been, obviously, a lot of inspiration from the news and current events, and I think it's really forced me to get outside of myself – in a good way – and to use my imagination and put myself in more of those roles.
Diane Warren said in an interview, you know, she's writing a song, she puts herself into that character and takes on the best of the scenario or the worst of this scenario. So, it's been definitely, creatively, not challenging but just exciting, I think, to have all of the external natural inspiration taken away and to be able to put yourself in this imaginative, creative space.
So, my music is definitely going to reflect some of that, as we're moving forward. It's going to be a little bit more removed, and a little bit more pensive, I think, which would be a natural reflection of what we've been going through.
Christina Custode in online at https://christinacustode.com/.