By Gina MacArthur
If the first time you met Chris Mercer was at a party, and you happened to mention that you really like jazz, you’d soon find out that he plays guitar. You might even find out that he’s a gifted musician with a deep passion for song writing. But you’d probably never know he has a PhD, unless you asked.
“If I go to a conference everyone refers to me as ‘doctor’ Chris Mercer,” he says, cringing. “But if I go to a party I introduce myself as Chris.”
He explains that’s because there’s an appropriate context for each facet of his persona, and at a party he’s just another guy who enjoys music and is there to socialize.
Even his future wife didn’t find out about his musical abilities for a while after they met, when they were both students at Memorial University (MUN).
“It was about six months into our relationship when we were sitting down one night and there was a guitar and I offhandedly commented ‘Oh yeah, I play.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Are you any good?’ I played her something and she was a bit surprised.”
In fact, at that point, Chris was a professional musician and had been playing with local bands around St. John’s for some time. But he insists he wasn’t keeping that a secret.
“It wasn’t relative to the conversations we were having at the time,” he says. “I just saw myself as a student of it and I’m still getting better at it.”
Chris discovered his passion for guitars when he was a pre-teen, growing up in Baie Verte. He’d been visiting his grandparents and a kid in the neighbourhood was selling a guitar and amp for $80. Chris had dabbled a bit with music, because his father and grandmother played, but a certain guitar really caught his attention. He begged, and his grandparents bought it for him.
By the time his dad got back from working in Labrador a couple of weeks later, Chris had open-tuned the guitar and taught himself to play Smoke on the Water.
Within a couple of years Chris realized that he wanted to pursue a career in the field, so he applied to MUN’s School of Music. There was just one problem. As a self-taught musician who hadn’t had the benefit of music classes in grade school, he couldn’t read music, and didn’t meet the school’s entrance requirements.
“I was devastated because up to that point I hadn’t thought of anything but being a musician,” he says.
Chris still went to MUN, but he did two years of general studies and found he had an interest in psychology. So he completed a bachelor’s degree and then did his masters in educational psychology. He also earned an education degree, the discipline in which he later earned his doctorate.
But in the meantime, he was still playing guitar.
“One of the first gigs I played was as an accompanist for an event downtown,” he says, describing what sounds like an outdoor jam session on a street corner. “You hang out in guitar stores and you go see live bands. You mention that you’re a guitar player and you end up jammin’ with people.”
Among the musicians on the St. John’s music scene at the time, some of them, like The Irish Descendants, went on to long-term careers. But Chris made a decision to pursue academics.
“That was my other look at the music business,” he says. “Either you go to university and get a real career or you go and be a ‘player’ – but they don’t make any money unless they’re willing to move and they’re talented enough, and even among that group not everybody makes it.”
So Chris took a job at Westviking College (now CNA in Bay St. George) as a learning disabilities specialist in 1995. It was a oneyear contract that turned into a nearly 20-year career, as he moved into counselling, later becoming the college’s Manager of Student Recruitment and Enrolment and current Registrar (Acting).
But Chris is quick to point out that the different parts of his life can’t be described as two solitudes.
“It’s ironic because I really think that the music has opened all these other doors. The career is something I chose. I don’t think I chose the passion for music – it’s always been there. It’s an attraction that I can’t even articulate and there’s a level of satisfaction that goes with it that I can’t articulate – language doesn’t do it justice, which is why I play.
“I’ve found that music has informed my counselling, it’s informed all the things I do at my job. It’s informed me as a person who works in post-secondary education,” he says. “The music makes me much more sensitive to the artistic temperament – to people who are introverts. But it also makes me more confident, or more gentle, about reinforcing the things that will make them better.”
He says that’s something he learned from all the hours he spent practicing on the guitar. For Chris, practice is where he finds himself truly connecting with his innermost self.
“The best place to be emotionally and mentally is in that zone,” he says, while admitting he doesn’t want to sound too ‘new age.’ “I don’t know if other people ever have that opportunity in their life to get to a place where they’re totally content in the moment they’re in, creating something. That’s a great place to be allowed to go. It’s a privilege, almost, to be able to do it. There’s times when it’s very dissociative. I almost become a spectator of the music.”
Chris had an opportunity to share that experience with an audience when he joined blues legend Denis Parker for a ‘one night only’ show during the Stephenville Theatre Festival.
He spent a lot of time practicing in preparation for the show, something he hadn’t been finding time for in recent years because of the competing priorities that come with having a young family.
“Every day there’s a list in my head of things that have to get done and every day playing or writing is on that list. Once or twice a month I can get to that, because the other things on the list are a way higher priority.”
As a measure of true passion, Chris describes his love for music as something spiritual. He says he’s looking forward to the day when it can once again be in the forefront of his daily life.
“I’m always looking for opportunities to get music into my day,” he says. “It’s something that I think about every night when I go to bed and it’s something that I think about every morning, every day. It’s something that can only be pushed out by things like work commitments and family, because those things are more important in the sense of obligations that you have.”
He says while family and work come first for now, there’s still a place for music.
“Between introducing music to my kids, to playing with my kids and helping them practice, there’s quite a bit of music in my life.”
That being said, he’s looking forward to the day when he can spend a whole Saturday playing.“If you had to say to me, ‘what would you do tomorrow if you won the lotto?’ I’d tell you the pie chart would be rearranged so that there would be a lot more time for making music.”
“If you had to say to me, ‘what would you do tomorrow if you won the lotto?’ I’d tell you the pie chart would be rearranged so that there would be a lot more time for making music.”