Catching Up With Jesse Harris

Music Features Jesse Harris

Jesse Harris has plenty of experience in the music industry to stand by. He’s written eleven solo albums, including his most recent, Sub Rosa. The songwriter also won a Grammy in 2003 for his song “Don’t Know Why,” what became Norah Jones’ stand out hit. Though his songs have been recorded by a number of artists, like Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris and Cat Power, Harris is finally ready to really let his solo work be the primary focus, and he’s having fun in the process.

Before heading out on his West Coast tour, Harris took some time to discuss his most recent project, his experience recording the album in Rio De Janeiro and how writing for other artists differs from using his own voice to bring his songs to life.

Paste: This is your eleventh solo album. At this point in your career, does it feel easier to make a record? Can you articulate yourself better as a musician?
Jesse Harris: The process of making this record was unlike any album I’ve made in the past. I usually make records very quickly. I usually go in and record them and mix them and I’m done within a couple of weeks. Sometimes that’s spread out over time. I’ll record them and then I’ll mix at a later date. Usually I don’t spend that much time on my albums, and this time I spent a lot of time making this record. That was partly due to the fact that we were in Rio, where people’s sense of time is very different than it is up here. Things move slower there. We kind of got into that pace with this record. But I was really more meticulous this time, about the arrangements, the sounds and just making sure everything was exactly the way I wanted it. Also we had all of these additional elements that I don’t usually have, like all the strings, the horns and all of the guest artists. That takes time and extra recording sessions. And then we spent a great deal of time mixing it, just because we wanted every tune to be great. But in Rio, things really do move slower. I’m accustomed to working mornings, like I’ll start at eleven or twelve and then work through the day. These sessions often started at seven at night and we’d go until two or three in the morning, and we’d have our days free.

Paste: Because of the slower pace there, did you find that you were able to enjoy the process more?
Harris: I suppose. To be honest, making albums is really never easy. It’s always a bit excruciating because there’s always this fight to make it great, and then you hit these stumbling blocks along the way. I don’t know, making records is not an easy thing. Even if it goes quickly or efficiently, it’s hard because you always want to make the right decision and make sure that you’re doing something that’s the best for the record. I definitely enjoyed making this record, but it’s tough. Every time is different. Have I learned something from making records? Yeah, I’ve learned a lot, because I’ve not only made eleven of my own records, I’ve also probably produced that many records for other artists, and then I’ve probably played on, or been a large part of another eleven records with other people. I’ve definitely learned some things to make it better, but each time you make a record it’s a discovery. You’re always finding something out along the way. You can only plan so much. It’s like plotting the course for a ship that you’re going to sail across the ocean, you know? You can plot your course but you don’t know what’s going to happen.

Paste: Speaking of working with other artists, how is writing a song for an artist differ from writing a song for yourself? Is it hard for you to let them interpret your songs, or do you usually want it to turn out like how you imagined it?
Harris: It can be both. First of all, if somebody sings a song that I wrote, I feel like it’s a nice point of validation for the song, because it shows that the song is able to stand on its own. I like that. Have I heard versions of tunes of mine where I’ve thought people got it wrong? Yeah. And usually I find that that happens when people veer too much from the original harmony of the song and try to reinvent the tune. I think reinventing a tune is a hard thing to do, melodically and harmonically. If you listen to the great singers, they would usually stick pretty close to a song when they were covering it. If you listen to Frank Sinatra, he didn’t try to reinvent somebody’s tune for them. He would sing pretty faithfully, and that’s why he chose that tune. But that’s one side of things. Another side of things is that most of the time when I work with other artists as a writer, I’m co-writing, and that’s because unlike the period of Frank Sinatra when people would seek out songwriters that they admired or liked and sing their material, these days what people do is they seek out writers who they admire and like, and then co-write with them. Sometimes that can work, and sometimes it doesn’t make for better material. It’s a different process, and to be quite honest, usually the songs I write with other people are songs that I kind of feel as personally attached to, because they are written for another project.

Paste: Have you ever sat down to write a song for another artist, or were co-writing, and you started to like the song so much that you wanted it for yourself?
Harris: I mean, yeah, sure, that’s a great thing to have happen. But still, if someone was expecting a song from me I would still give them the tune, even if I really liked it. I’ve had that feeling, ya know, but then I think it was for this thing, so I might as well give it to them.

Paste: With people who you collaborate a lot with, like Norah Jones, do you end up having the kind of relationship where musically you can kind of read each other’s minds when you’re coming up with ideas?
Harris: Oh yeah. In Norah’s case, I didn’t really have to tell her what to sing at all on the record. I went over to her house, and basically we just put a microphone in front of her, and she sat in a chair and put her feet up and just sang. She just layered vocals over each tune, and after we’d do a tune, she’d say, “Okay, what else to you want me to sing?” So I’d play another tune, and she’d say, “Cool I’ll do that one.” I didn’t have to tell her at all. The reason I work with these artists is because I want what they do. I didn’t really have to tell anybody, Melody Gardot, Bill Frisell. In Conor’s [Oberst] case, he’s usually not a harmony singer, so we kind of figured out his part together. But then once we did that, he just sang the shit out of it.

Paste: What was your favorite part about being in Brazil? Do you miss it?
Harris: Well we recorded the album down in Rio, and then I still wasn’t sure where I wanted to mix it, but we were having such a good time there, and I felt such a great connection to the engineer, Daniel [Carvalho], who was recording everything. I really loved what he had done on other albums. He does Caetano Veloso records and a lot of other artists down there. I just love the sound of them, and I thought he really understands what we’re doing. Let’s just finish the record here in Rio. Also, we were having such a good time, the vibe was so good, and we still had some unfinished things down there. There were a couple little vocals I wanted to do. Maria Gadu hadn’t sung on the record yet, and I really wanted that. A lot of people up here don’t know who she is, but in Brazil she’s a huge star. During that time I was pretty eager to not be in New York City. There were a lot of things going on here that I kind of wanted to escape from, besides the fact that it was winter. But by the end of the whole thing, I was ready to come home. I’ve been having a great time in New York, but now I’m starting to miss Rio again [laughs]. I’ve got to go back there soon. I have a lot of friends there now. I miss everybody.

Paste: You have said recently that with this album, you are ready to back it up more than you have with other albums; you stand behind it more. Is that because you think this is a better record, or is it just that you have gotten more comfortable and confident with the recognition you’re getting?
Harris: I think it’s both. This year, actually, I haven’t done any co-writing with any other person. I’ve only been writing my own songs, and I’m talking post-Sub Rosa. I’m sort of weeding out a lot of extra projects. I co-produced one record this year for a friend, and it was not like a heavy time commitment, and I did one tune with Norah for a movie that I guess will come out next year. But otherwise, I’m doing all my own stuff, and I think it’s just a natural evolution in my life that I just feel like directing my energy into my own music. And yeah, I do feel more confident in this record. It’s stronger than albums I’ve made in the past, and I think that’s because I put the extra energy and time into it to make it really good. I like my past records, but I think this one is a more realized record—from the songwriting to the production and the arrangements. I think it’s a stronger statement, so it’s two-fold. A. I feel more confident about this record, but B. I feel more focused on myself.

Paste: That’s a good place to be, to feel proud of yourself.
Harris: Yeah, absolutely, and I feel eager to do more. I’m already thinking about a new record, actually. I just want to keep making music, and it feels good to perform.

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