Chi McClean grew up around music – his dad played the French horn, his mom sang, and he played in his school music program in Long Island, New York. He started with the recorder, then moved onto the French horn and the piano, and in ninth grade, he got his first guitar.
He’s been a skier most of his life, too, learning to ski in Vermont and taking the occasional trip to Colorado when he was a kid. In his 20s, McClean spent a season teaching skiing in Bariloche, Argentina, and later worked in an outdoor shop in San Francisco, tuning skis and selling tents. He spent years trying out different careers: He worked for an early internet music start-up, sold radio ads for a jazz station, then got a job in marketing at The North Face.
When his position there got cut, his boss told him, “Find something you’re passionate about and the money will follow.” The things he was most passionate about? Music and skiing. So, in 2010, he moved into his truck and bounced between Nashville and Tahoe, playing guitar to make ends meet.
Today, McClean, 41, makes a living playing acoustic rock gigs both small and large in ski towns across the country. He lives full time in a custom Sprinter van and skis every day possible. He released his third album, “Let Me In,” in 2016, and he’s got two more EPs on the way.
Chi McClean: I was in a band in ninth grade called Feedback. We got hired by the drummer’s dad to play a fundraiser at a Chinese restaurant. We were so excited. We wore tie-dye shirts and played for blue-haired ladies. We knew three songs. They paid us $70 and gave us free Chinese food. We were like, ‘This is awesome.’
Every kid has a dream of becoming a rock star. Who knows what that means anymore? I get to play music for a living. I call my own shots. If the snow looks good in Tahoe or Colorado, I book gigs there. I’m not in a giant tour bus, I’m not staying at fancy hotels, but in my own way, it’s a huge success.
Everyone shows up and they’re ready to have a good time. They just had a great day skiing, they’re sipping a beer, maybe the shotski is out. They’re in a good mood. You’re teed-up to kill it.
Look at ski movies. Every single one has a soundtrack. Music definitely moves the spirit, the heart. Skiing and music go hand in hand, they complement each other. When folks are in the mountains, they need something to groove along to, they need a soundtrack for the moment. I’m stoked to be there to help them find it.
I write my own music-that’s what brings me joy. But, when needed, I will happily play cover tunes. Walk down the streets of a ski town and you’ll hear common ground: Hendrix, Grateful Dead, Joe Cocker, or Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.
I’ve done the whole office job thing. It’s nice to have that security and a steady paycheck. But it’s so nice to be independent. You’ve got to hustle, though. Nobody’s getting you work. You’ve got to do it yourself.
I lived in San Francisco and Tahoe. Rent is out of control. There’s not a lot of affordable housing. Depending on what you do for a living and how flexible you are, living in a van can be a good solution. It’s amazing how much you can do with very little stuff.
On the road, people look out for each other. If your car breaks down on the side of I-15 on your way to Vegas, a trucker will stop to help you out. There’s this unwritten code if you’re living life on the road-it doesn’t matter who you are-people look out for each other.
Anyone who’s out there chasing whatever they’re passionate about is leading a life well-lived.
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