Analogue Music | Jesse Harris

Jesse Harris

By Matt Conner

The last few years have been transformative for Jesse Harris.

With the world locked down around him, Jesse Harris did what so many of us did and took control of what little was available to him. Like so many songwriters, Harris turned to the muse in order to make sense of a changing and confusing world, but this time around, he also built his first home studio. The result was an enhanced creative process, a world now accessible to him at any time with full control over the final sounds.

What makes this such an exciting development is that Harris is already an acclaimed songwriter with a prolific work ethic and global influences. His latest album, Silver Balloon, is a self-described blend of Peter Gabriel and Philip K. Dick, and there are several more projects in the works that he details for us in this conversation.

Harris is one of the rare songwriters who is often described as an artist's artist. He's also a wonderful conversationalist who recently opened up for us about his own creative process, his relationship with the muse, and why he's always forward-facing when it comes to his work.

Analogue: We first spoke several years ago and your first project was back in ’95, I think. Given the pandemic, has this been a season reflecting back on the longevity at all?

Jesse Harris: I tend not to look back. I’m usually so occupied with what I’m doing in the moment with the new record I’m making, the new project I’m working on, that sometimes I forget about old records completely. It’s interesting. I’m a performer, so some of the songs that I’ve written on these records, I still play them. But some records, like you mentioned Aquarelle earlier. I’m not sure that I play any of the songs off Aquarelle at the moment. And I like those songs. But I just don’t think any of them are in my repertoire.

And then sometimes I’ll make a record, and something about those songs sticks with me, and I’ll continue to play them. But generally no, I don’t really look back. It’s funny. Whenever I make a new record, I think it’s the best record I’ve made. And then when I make the next record, I hate the last record.

Analogue: You really do? You almost turn on it?

Jesse: Yeah. And I just think, I did everything wrong, and it just wasn’t good. And now I’ve figured it out. But yes, making new records is some attempt to do it right.

"It’s funny. Whenever I make a new record, I think it’s the best record I’ve made. And then when I make the next record, I hate the last record."

Analogue: I guess we’re all coming out from the same cloud. I know you also write a lot anyway. Was there a part of your rhythms that were really not that disturbed by it? How did that affect you in your own creative cycles?

Jesse: I have to admit, I was very lucky, because I had recently, and just maybe a year before, had bought a home studio. I had put together a home studio. So I was able to record at home. I hadn’t bothered to learn to operate the studio. I had always hired an engineer. When the pandemic came, I realized I couldn’t do that.

My friend Jeremy, who’s a drummer, plays with me, Jeremy Gustin, he moved into an extra bedroom at my place and we started making albums. I learned to record. It was kind of amazing for me, creatively. I was writing a lot of songs and recording a ton. For me, it changed my life, because it made me able to make albums not only for myself but for other artists, which I did. I recorded a record for a singer named Mads Jensen. And a bunch of individual songs for different people, and the list goes on and on.

Aside from even recording an album from beginning to end, it allowed me to take a record that I’m working on, take it home and work on it at home, even after it had been recorded by someone else. I could edit the vocals or do overdubs or clean up things like noises that bothered me. Things that I would always have to wait and get into a studio again to do it. I could just sit down and do it myself. That was really a breakthrough for me. So in a way, it launched me off into a more creative place.

Analogue: Did you miss the performance side, or is that pretty easy for you to lay aside for a while?

Jesse: I missed it. I missed travelling. I didn’t realize how much being able to just pick up and leave gave me a sense of freedom. And then to not have any options, it made me sad, especially because I couldn’t go to places that I was so used to going to, like Japan. I still haven’t even been back to Japan. Or Brazil or France. But then a lucky thing happened. This was early on. This was in September of 2020. Melody Gardot, a singer, who I’ve written songs with for years, needed a guitar player really fast to play on a shoot she was doing in Lisbon, Portugal. A friend was supposed to do it, and he couldn’t do it. At that time, Americans weren’t allowed into Europe. But her label wrote me a letter, and I got a covid test, and I got a ticket, and I went to the airport, and I got on the plane.

Silver Balloon cover art
Silver Balloon cover art

Analogue: In September of 2020? How did that even…?

Jesse: That’s when I realized that a lot of that stuff, they were just trying to deter people from travelling. Because actually, it wasn’t that difficult. I got to the airport, and I showed them this letter, and I showed them my covid test, and they said, “Okay.” And the hard part was always at the check-in desk. Every time I got to the border in the other country, they would just look at my passport and let me in. No one asked any questions.

So I went to Europe and spent a month in Europe playing with her. We were performing and doing TV and radio, and then I came home and she asked me to come back, and I went back again that February for another period of time. Then again in April, then again that summer. We did a tour. I played in her band. That was lucky, because I got to keep playing that way.

Otherwise, my own stuff, there were these outdoor gigs in the city or around upstate. I didn’t much enjoy those. Every time I did an outdoor gig, it was either raining or freezing. So yeah, I did miss playing. But at the same time, I’m not one of these artists that’s on tour all the time, who not being on the road was a total culture shock. I just missed playing. It’s not like I missed my life. It didn’t take my life from me. It just changed an outlet that I have usually.

Analogue: Yeah, I’ll talk to some musicians who will describe the home-boundness or the sheltering in placeness of it as a crisis point, of I don’t know who I am if I can’t leave some of this behind. And therefore, there was a crucible of, I have to face just being a dad or husband all the time, or just being rooted in that way, which really kind of caused all this inner turmoil. But for you, this wasn’t a season of that.

Jesse: Not really, no. It was just hard not being able to see some people and not being able to travel at first. But it was really productive, actually. I also cooked a ton. I quite enjoyed it, to be honest.

Analogue: You mentioned some of the people that you play with. It occurs to me that you, maybe this isn’t true, but also a lot of the musicians I will talk to, it seems like it’s part and parcel to always say, hey we should do something together. There’s the constant trading of potential ideas for down the road. And you’re so intertwined with so many different people that you’ve written for, played with, your own stuff. I just wondered, how do you begin to make decisions, in the present, about where to put your energies, when you could probably go down a myriad of potential roads? I’m curious about your decision-making process.

Jesse: I work with people, generally, who are friends of mine, and people who we have a mutual rapport. So a lot of these projects came from just friendships. For example, right now I’m working with John Zorn, and we’ve written 16 new songs together. We’re starting to develop a live stage production, and talking about that. This really just came out of being friends. At a certain point, John wanted to try adding lyrics to his compositions. And this goes back almost 10 years. He started something called The Song Project. This has been ongoing.

For example, the guitarist Vinicius Cantuaria, the composer from Brazil, we were friends. So for a long time, we said we’ve got to make a record. Finally, we did. That was another pandemic record. We made that. Just recently, I was in Brazil, we were on tour together, performing. So far, it’s interesting, I work with so many different people, but none of them has required that much of my time that it forces me to make a real decision about letting go of other things. Luckily, I’m able to do all of it.

Analogue: Do you work fast? Is that part of it?

Jesse: I think I do, yeah. In fact, Zorn gives me a hard time about that. He says, “You work fast, but you have to work harder. If you go back and work harder, you get better results.” But I do, yeah. I was in this instrumental group, Cosmo. We just put out a record. But again, it’s like, everyone is so busy, it’s hard to put that group together. In a way, I can’t make it take up more of my time, even if I try.

Analogue: How prolific was the pandemic? You’ve already referenced a couple of projects, but how much were you producing then versus what you would say normal?

Jesse: Yeah. Again, for me the thing that was really transformative was getting a studio at home. When I did that, there was one summer that I think we made like 12 records or something for different artists that I was either producing or helping produce or part of. Everyone from Maya Hawke to my group Cosmo to Toth. Kenny Wolleson, Harrington, Gustin and Zahn. Gabi Hartmann. I mean, the list just goes on and on. There were so many projects happening. And then yeah, when the pandemic came, it actually ground to a halt at first, but as I said, I started making my own records and recording those. It just kept going. So really the thing that was a real pivot for me was getting the studio, which I got, and it was basically the very beginning of 2019.

And before that, yeah, I worked a lot, but it would be more when someone had, if someone wanted me to produce it would be a project where they had a budget where we could go to a studio. And that was great. I love working in recording studios. But it did mean that someone had to have a real budget. And when I had my own studio, all of a sudden if I liked someone’s work, and I wanted to work with them, we didn’t have to worry about raising the money. Just start recording right away, like that day. That changed things.

Analogue: How do you, coming out of it now, as the industry begins to find its footing and whatnot, do you find yourself missing the——

Jesse: Those quiet days?

Analogue: Yeah.

Jesse: A lot of people around me do miss them. A lot of people miss those days. I’m not going to be nostalgic for that, because it was tough for everybody.

Credit: Oriana Layandecker
Credit: Oriana Layandecker

Analogue: Yeah, I’m not trying to set you up to give a quote, “Oh I miss the time when everyone was getting…”

Jesse: But there was something nice about the simplicity of things not, everything slowed down and you could focus in on stuff. But I don’t know. I feel good about where things are right now. It’s nice to be able to go back out and see shows and travel without having to worry about all this getting a test or getting a letter. Go to a concert. I welcome this back. But yeah, look, that was a good time, too. It was very different. I was cooking a ton, too. I cooked so much. I think there was times I cooked every night. People would come over for dinner every single night.

Analogue: That sounds fun. Hey, Silver Balloon. I’m thinking, I mentioned Aquarelle earlier. I went looking back at that, too. I’m intrigued by at least what I read about inspiration behind a specific album, You mention Philip Dick’s stories here and something else there. Is it like, “I’m going to chase this creative thesis and see what songs come out,” or is it more organic than that?

Jesse: I’d say at least in the past few records, it always happened with a germ of something. Like Aquarelle, Jeremy says, “Hey, I’m going to be in Lisbon. We should make a record there.” I’ll start looking at songs I have together and say okay let’s do it. Or my record Song Never Sung. I just wanted to try a couple of songs with horns, with horn arrangements. And I recorded a song one day, and I loved how it sounded. So I was just, let’s do a whole record. And then this one, kind of the same thing. Kenny Wallison and I, we had done this record for that singer Mads Jensen, and we had done things I had never done in the studio before.

Analogue: Like what?

Jesse: Just like creating drum loops or using drum machines from old synthesizers. Processing sounds, processing drums, through harmonizers. Just doing experimental things I had never done. I would love to try that with my music. I’ve always been someone who goes in with live musicians, gets a good take, and goes for it like that. I’ve never done this other thing.

I asked Kenny if he’d come over and we could do a couple of my songs. We recorded two songs, and we both freaked out. We recorded Hummingbird first, and then we did The Hanged Man. We were so excited, we were like, let’s just keep going. And I didn’t have the songs. He was leaving town for a week, so I decided while he’s gone I’m going to write some songs. I wrote I think three songs that week. And then he came back, and I wrote another two songs. And then I had a few others, and I was able to assemble like 10 songs. We just, kind of in a fever over 8 days, recorded this record. Broken up maybe by a week in between.

But yeah, I had no intention of making a record. We recorded those first two, and I was so excited by the sound of it. And also Kenny. Kenny’s one of these guys, during the pandemic, I could call Kenny, “Hey, come on over tonight. Let’s record.” Boom. He was there. Most of the time, Kenny says, “Oh man, I’m gone from September 30th to October 31st. I have one day in November.” He’s always so busy. The fact that he wasn’t that week, I knew I’ve got Kenny right now. I want to do this. So that’s how this record came about, really.

"When you know you have to write something, and you have no choice, you just do it. I don’t even know if it’s about muse or not, you just do it because you have to."

Analogue: Is that how most of them come about? Where it’s like, we work on the thing, we’re surprised by the thing, we’re energized by the thing, we chase the thing.

Jesse: Right. Well like I said, having my own studio gives me that freedom. It used to be, I had to plan it. I had to plan like okay, we’ll make a record in LA, we’ve got the studio, I’ve got the songs. Or Lisbon. I used to be more about going somewhere and recording, because that was fun. I want to make a record in Rio, or I’ll make a record in LA or Lisbon or the Bahamas. Or I’d find engineers that inspired me. But I’d have to plan it more. And that was different. I had to show up with the songs and be ready. So having my own studio gave me the opportunity to have the latter scenario, in which something happens and I’m excited by it and keep going.

Analogue: Earlier you said this is career-changing, having your own studio. But also, I guess I’m thinking, what you were just bringing up, being able to record in these locales and having these different flavors... is having something so easy and convenient to you going to keep you maybe from some of these other adventures? Disciplines?

Jesse: Definitely. Yeah, for sure.

Analogue: Just straight up, “Yes, that’s true.”

Jesse: Yeah, it does. And it’s wonderful. I used to love that, but also that costs more money. It’s logistically more difficult. But I still do it if another artist wants to work with me. But right now, for example, Jeremy is saying, “Let’s make the next Cosmo. Everyone’s going to be in LA in October. Let’s do it.” I said okay, but I have a studio. He’s like yeah but we’re all in LA anyway.

Analogue: It’s going to make it harder to pry you out of New York now.

Jesse: Exactly. But you know, look. The cool thing also, I love working in a studio. You get great stuff. Great engineers, great sounds, great instruments. So maybe LA. We’ll see. But yes, it has changed that.

Analogue: What you just said about the process with Kenny and Silver Balloon, it feels like I could infer some things there about your approach to the muse. It felt like you had the confidence that if you applied yourself, it would be there on the other side. Is that true?

Jesse: Yeah. For sure. I mean, Duke Ellington used to schedule recording dates and without having any material. And then for days beforehand would just stay up writing everything. Or he would accept a commission to perform for the Queen of England or something. And then write everything right before he had to show up and perform. I think there is something to that. When you know you have to write something, and you have no choice, you just do it. I don’t even know if it’s about muse or not, you just do it because you have to.

Analogue: Has it ever not been there for you?

Jesse: No. If you have to write something, yeah. If I have to write something, I will write it. In fact, I think in some cases, it can be better like that, to have to do it. You can write something better, because you don’t have time to think about it.

Analogue: So you’ve never encountered what other people would term as their writer’s block.

Jesse: I don’t really think writer’s block is a thing. Knock on wood. I think writer’s block –

Analogue: Is that a sexy excuse?

Jesse: I just think, I don’t know. I mean, maybe some people, I just think writer’s block means someone’s doing other things. They’re just too busy, or they’re preoccupied. I think Mark Twain said that 90% of writing is putting the seat of your pants in the seat of the chair.

Analogue: It’s so true.

Jesse: People who wrote a lot of books, they just sat down and wrote all the time. I don’t think it’s because they were possessed by this thing. They just did it. They worked hard. Balzac wrote like 90 masterpieces and died at the age of 53 or something. It’s because he wrote like 18 hours a day. Yeah, I just think it’s work. I really do.

Analogue: Talking to you about this process, it seems like your approach demystifies it for a lot of people who would make it mysterious. Is there any part of the creative flow, exchange, that is in some way mystical to you?

Jesse: Absolutely. All of it is. It always is. All I mean is that when you have to work, it forces you to kind of just turn off your mind and just start writing.

Analogue: So there’s no mystery to your role. It’s like, I’ve got to show up and do it. But the rest of it holds a mystery to it.

Jesse: I do think it’s mystical. And look, sometimes, I don’t know, you take Bob Dylan when he was younger, and it was just pouring out of him. I don’t think it’s pouring out of him now. But on the other hand, maybe it’s not pouring out of him as much because he’s on tour, on a never-ending tour, or building gates or developing a whiskey or something. Whereas when he was younger, his whole life was writing songs. But there’s definitely a mystical part of it, absolutely. But I think it’s just the constraint of time, having to do it, it can force you to just start. You have to write. You can’t start thinking about, oh is this a good line? You just have to do it. So it forces you to turn off your mind and be more mystical, maybe.

VISIT: Jesse Harris