Analogue Music | Jason Hawk Harris

Jason Hawk Harris

By Matt Conner

A good conversation doesn't leave you in the same place that it found you.

My recent interview with Jason Hawk Harris, one of the newer additions to the wonderful roster of artists at Bloodshot Records, is one such example. What began as a standard artist interview, an exercise I've taken on more than 2,000 times, turned into a moving discussion on beauty and pain, love and loss, art and suffering. I haven't stopped thinking about it since we said goodbye.

Harris is hardly a newcomer to the music industry. For more than five years, he played with L.A.'s The Show Ponies, an ascendant Americana band with a soulful edge that called it quits seemingly before their time. In the wake of the band's demise, Harris found his way to Bloodshot and a solo record was recorded, a collection of songs written during some devastating personal circumstances from the last few years. From his mother's death to his sister's diagnosis to his family's bankruptcy, pain and suffering has been ever-present with Harris and those around him.

By leaning into that content with a determination to share his learned lessons, Harris has gifted roots music lovers with perhaps the greatest Americana album of 2019. Love and the Dark is a masterclass in songwriting, a devastating yet gorgeous album upon which Harris remains determined as the hopeful torchbearer while simultaneously telling his sad, sad stories. All the while, the music surprises with a more spirited and expansive sound than you might expect given the subject matter.

I haven't been the same since I spoke with Harris and I'm hoping these shared stories will resonate with you, too.

Analogue: Before I listened to the new album, I read the lyrics a few times before pressing play. In doing so, I was struck by just how the music seemed to almost betray the lyrical mood—mostly in a more joyous, heartening, even raucous sort of way. Was that purposeful on your part to lift things up or keep things spirited?

Jason Hawk Harris: Honestly it was pretty natural. That was just the direction that I went. I wish I could say that I made an intellectual decision to, like you said, lift the lyrics with more joyous music, but ultimately it's just what I've always done. I don't know. Even in the most desperate lyrics I've ever written, there's always a tinge of optimism in the music I write in general. That's not something I shoot for; it's as natural as drinking a glass of water for me. That's just how I've always been.

Analogue: Have you ever tried to understand why you're wired that way in general?

Jason: One of the most formative records I listened to while developing my voice was Whatever And Ever Amen by Ben Folds Five. I think that might have something to do with it. I also like when there are sad lyrics to hopeful music. It just strikes a really true chord for me. That's the music I gravitate toward listening to, and since that's what I listen to, then it just has its own effect as I continue to write.

I'm also a pretty optimistic person in general. I have a pretty positive outlook on life. I don't tend to think of life as awful, even after going through all of the stuff that I did on this album, I didn't think of life as this awful thing that happens to humans. It's a gift no matter what. It doesn't make sense for me to make that kind of music—not that it doesn't for other artists. I love Godspeed You! Black Emperor, but it's desperate, desperate music. [Laughs] I do actually love that music, but it's just not what I write.

Good art looks head-on at pain and suffering and says something true about it. I think any time you do that, it will be cathartic because you kind of beat the darkness a little bit, and it feels good to win.

Analogue: I want to backtrack because you just made a quick aside about some personal turmoil, but from what I gather, there was a lot of painful layers coming together at the same time. Can you give us an overview there?

Jason: Well, some of the songs on this record go back six or seven years. During that seven year period, I was in a band where we thought we did all the necessary stuff you have to do to make it into a career, but it didn't happen. We ultimately had to close shop because it just wasn't financially viable, so a dream died there.

Then my mom passed away from complications from alcoholism during that time. My dad, in a very, very odd and really unfair way, was sued by someone and essentially had to declare bankruptcy because he basically signed a document incorrectly. That was happening while my mom was in and out of rehab and we were trying to figure out the finances for rehab cinic.

Then my sister most recently became pregnant and gave birth to a child with cerebral palsy. Fortunately that story ended well and he was adopted by a very awesome couple. She was simultaneously diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. So it's just been stuff piled on top of stuff piled on top of stuff. Everyone has those three or five year periods where it doesn't seem to stop, but I do seem to be out and on the other end of it at this point. I hope it's a long time before I get another taste.

Analogue: Did the songwriting help you make sense of those things or ease the pain at all?

Jason: I think, in a way, it does. It's certainly cathartic. Creating anything is an act of catharsis. I mean, good art looks head-on at pain and suffering and says something true about it. I think any time you do that, it will be cathartic because you kind of beat the darkness a little bit, and it feels good to win. I do feel like it's a way to get through the pain, but there are other times... like "Phantom Limb" is a song I had trouble performing live for a while. I ended up just having to memorize the way my mouth moved. [Laughs] I couldn't really think about the words I was singing.

Other songs are painful to write and it's not quite catharsis. It's like, 'Why am I reminding myself of this every night?' But as some time has passed, I think the repetition of singing these songs has helped me process them more than anything. Even more than the writing process, the liturgical sort of process of performing the songs is what's really helped me therapeutically quite a bit.

Analogue: That's interesting to me. I was just talking to Aaron Lee Tasjan not long ago and he said he believes that an artist can become what they write because they sing things over and over. So he said he had to be really careful to not write anything too painful because to sing that only invites that into his life.

Jason: I agree 100 percent with that. Absolutely. There's a poem by Mary Oliver. It's called "The Poet With His Face In His Hands." It's a great example of what Aaron is getting at. The world has enough people screaming out their problems. To do only that is bad for you and bad for everybody else, but I think there's a difference between being a sad sack and looking at pain straight-on and saying, 'You are here. You are in front of me. I have to deal with you right now.' There's a difference between that and saying, 'Look how sad I am.'

I think there were a number of times when I was writing this record where I wondered, 'Am I just telling people how sad I am or am I trying to face this stuff and say something true about the nature of pain and suffering and love and beauty.' That's what I want to do. I don't want to tell people I'm sad. To answer your first question, maybe that's why there's a vein of optimism found throughout the music. Maybe it's a subconscious effort to curtail any possibility of me just saying how sad I am.

Jason Hawk Harris 2
Jason Hawk Harris 2

Analogue: Can you help me with telling the difference here tangibly? Some artists will want to say what is true and sometimes that's just being sad. So what does it mean for you to participate in something more than that?

Jason: I will say real quick that I think there's a place for songs that basically describe how sad you are. I don't think they're necessarily strong songs. What makes a song about pain and suffering strong is when you find something universal in it. Phoebe Bridgers has a song [starts singing], 'Jesus Christ, I'm so blue all the time and that's just how I feel... always have and always will.' ["Funeral"] That's just straight up saying, 'Jesus, I'm so sad all the time.' I think it's brilliant because she manages to say something beautiful about pain while also saying how sad she is. I think that's what I'm always shooting for.

As far as the difference between saying how sad you are, when you hear a songwriter you would consider an amateur or someone who does this recreationally, there's a lot of telling that goes on versus showing. That's really where most of the difference happens. What I tried to do on "Phantom Limb" is to describe someone walking into a viewing. It's the smell of formaldehyde and tulips. I want you to feel the sadness.

Analogue: Yeah, the shirt that still smells after you washed it, as you say.

Jason: Yeah. So maybe it's a bit of a skill gap.

Analogue: You gave me the difference between the two. What informs that difference for you? It sounds like a guiding principle for you to write songs in this way or with this as a rudder. Where'd you first get that?

Jason: Sadness, itself, can become a part of you. I think you can get attached to it. It's nice to get attention sometimes from people when you're sad. When my mom died, I won't lie, I found a solace in people coming up to me and bringing food over and getting attention, basically. There was solace in that. It was good and very needed, especially in the early stages of grief. But I think if you stay there, if you stay in an attention-seeking behavior with your sadness, that's where you can get stuck as a songwriter.

I'm saying that's just half the battle. Feeling the sadness and getting the attention is just half of it. When I talk about looking at pain and suffering in the face and saying something beautiful about it, I don't think getting that attention is looking it in the face. If anything, it's a distraction from what the universe or the world or what God is asking you to look at. I think a lot of people can stay there because it's cathartic to get help and attention from people.

I had the same inclination. Every human does. I had to fight myself not to stay there as long as I wanted. What informs the difference between saying you're sad versus looking at it in perspective is self-examination. It's knowing that what you're going through isn't just some emotion. It's something bigger. It's some universal power coursing through your veins and you're ignoring it because the attention is so powerful. For me I try to challenge myself or force myself to get away from the attention as quick as I can. Ultimately, my insecurities can really hold me up from finding some bit of truth I didn't know about before.

Analogue: You brought up "Phantom Limb" being hard to perform. Were there questions about putting it out there in any form?

Jason: I tend to be an over-sharer, and I think over-sharers just don't have a problem putting out that kind of stuff. I would put myself into that camp. With "Phantom Limb," there wasn't any insecurity about saying or singing the words. It was the actual pain inside of them that was hard for me to get through without tearing up or getting overwhelmed. I don't have a problem with people seeing that part of my life. I don't know why that's the case, because that's not a weird question.

Most people don't like to feel exposed. I don't necessarily like to feel exposed, but I guess I just don't mind it in the same way that people do. I don't think there's any shame in feeling this kind of grief or in being as sad as I was or letting people into that. It's fine for me. I don't have a problem with it.

Analogue: I'm assuming your okay-ness with that level of sharing is because you've seen firsthand the value of connecting with people through those expressions.

Jason: Absolutely. I say this from an ivory tower a bit, because I get to mask these personal thoughts and longings and frustrations in music. I think it's very different when you're tallking to someone face to face in a spontaneous conversation. I think that's different. I get to sit for hours and think of the best way I can possibly say this and then I get to frame it in the best way possible. I think I was blessed with a family that made music who also didn't shy away from pain. I've just had a lot of practice in it. I like being able to leverage that practice into real reactions from people through the music that I'm making.

I think it pushes me really hard to not let anything by. I wanted this record to be all beef, no fat. I wanted it to be lean and mean and I spent hours combing through the lyrics to find any widows that I could shore up to say things in the best way possible. Ultimately when it gets back to it, I can't shoot for an emotional reaction from my audience. The best thing I can do to connect with people comes from me being honest with myself. By doing that and making that a priority for myself, I think that's what ultimately has allowed me to connect with people on this stuff.

VISIT: Jason Hawk Harris