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Interview: Jesse Harris

Interview: Jesse Harris

“All recordings are discoveries.”

Jesse Harris is no stranger to musical narrative. With his solo albums in the double digits, he’s won a Grammy Award and collaborated across multiple genres and styles, while his experience writing, performing and producing gives him a perspective on nuance and depth few of his peers share. Aquarelle, his latest album, was recorded in Lisbon and infuses his songwriting with exotic shades and flavors. Inspired by the food and culture of Portugal, Aquarelle represents a distinctive twist in Harris’ career, a sonic shift pushing his music in new aesthetic directions. In this interview, Harris sheds light on studio collaboration, songwriting, and the direct and indirect influences Lisbon had on his latest release.

Aquarelle is an undeniably evocative album title. Did the idea come out during the songwriting process, or was it always supposed to be a calling card for the record?

Actually, I didn’t have the title until the moment that I was sending the album to the designer and needed to come up with something. “Aquarelle” is a beautiful word on its own and evoked the feeling of the album, which I saw as colorful, fluid and light.

Tracks like “Rolling By” and “Out of Time” have a bit of a Latin influence, primarily in the guitar comping. Is that something you’ve been experimenting with for a while, or was it inspired directly from the new material?

I’ve spent many years listening to Brazilian music, collaborating with Brazilian musicians, and spending time in Brazil playing, recording and hanging out, so that music has absolutely found its way into my songwriting and playing.

The sessions for Aquarelle began in Lisbon. How much did the backdrop of Portugal play into the songwriting process? Did the anticipation of this new country and its culture influence your writing or arranging process?

The songs were written by the time I got to Lisbon, but certainly being there in that culture influenced the music. Never did we try to make something that sounded either Portuguese or Brazilian, but for me, Will and Jeremy—who were enchanted by Lisbon and excited to play with Ricardo Dias Gomes, who is from Rio—being there inspired us, absolutely. The architecture, the food, the feeling of walking down the street—all these things affected us.

There’s an undeniable lightness to the album, something reflected in the album’s title. Was this aesthetic a natural outgrowth of your writing, or did you make a conscious decision to keep the record from getting too heavy?

I never set out to write a group of songs in a conceptual way, I’ve always written them one at a time, so it was a natural outgrowth of the writing—and again of the setting in which we recorded.

“Hexagram” and “Carousel” are beautiful instrumental tracks. Did they begin life as instrumentals, or did they evolve into vocal-less affairs?

Actually, I have an all-instrumental group called Cosmo, named after an instrumental album of mine on John Zorn’s label Tzadik. Ever since my 2005 album, Mineral, I’ve included a couple of instrumental tracks on almost every release. Sometimes instrumentals are songs that never seem to need words, but sometimes they never even approach the realm of being songs with lyrics and start out as fully conceived instrumentals.

There’s a really effective blend of acoustic and electric elements throughout Aquarelle. Do you have a philosophy with fusing tangible and digital instruments, or do you find it’s more of an experimental process?

I’m open to any sounds that make a track more interesting, whether acoustic or electronic. I even have an old Casio keyboard that was given to me for Christmas when I was 13 which I still use, because it’s so versatile.

“Sunday” has a timeless feel about it–the production is pretty modern, but the lyrics, melody and chords feel sort of ageless. How did this track come about?

The band seemed to feel that this one would have been better solo, but I disagreed. Our only intention was to not make it sound like a classic bossa nova. Rob Moose’s string arrangement is a key element to the production, because his sensibility is very modern. I hope a great singer agrees with your perspective and sings this song too.

Can you talk about how much collaboration factored into the album’s creation? How much of the final product resulted from your own vision, and how much came to be from working with other musicians?

All recordings are discoveries. You never know what’s going to happen. So, aside from the songwriting, it’s all about collaboration and the musicians you work with.

While the digitization of music (streaming, availability, visibility) has had some negative impacts, a notable positive impact is the wealth of resources at our fingertips. Fifteen years ago, it may have been difficult to find recordings of obscure artists and folk music from across the globe, but today the ability to do so is omnipresent. Has this availability impacted your performing or songwriting? Do you have any thoughts—positive or negative—about this?

I really like streaming. I love being able to find almost anything and discover both new and old music. There are some missing albums now and then, but mostly I find whatever I’m looking for. I love making mixes for friends. It’s great that when someone asks about my music I just tell them to look in their phone and it’s there. Yes, I agree that there needs to be a better way to make streaming pay. I hope that happens. But there’s no denying that it’s the main form of music distribution today. I can barely even give away CDs to people, because they have no way to play them. The fact is mostly I listen to vinyl—mostly old vinyl—but making vinyl today is a nightmare and 90% of the time it sounds terrible, which is a drag. I wish it was cheap and great, as it should be. But it takes forever to manufacture, and there’s very little quality control.

Recording in Portugal seems rather exotic, and it’s not difficult to hear eclectic influences throughout Aquarelle. From your perspective, what does this album mean to your career? Is it a new direction for your music, or do you see it as an artifact of a specific time in your musical path?

With each album I try to make something better than the last one. I always try something new that I haven’t done before. What Aquarelle will mean in my career or commercially is unpredictable. If I can use it as a means to go to cool places with my friends and play shows, then it’s enough. If more happens than that, great.

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