Tuesday, November 5, 2019

Matt Chrystal Interviews Jason Hawk Harris

Jason Hawk Harris by Sean Rosenthal

Strange Juxtapositions 

By Matt Chrystal

Jason Hawk Harris is a classically trained musician who writes country songs and has a Norwegian Death Metal themed music video. That sentence alone should be enough to pique anyone's interest. The Houston native and Los Angeles transplant also has a way of turning tragedy into triumph. Harris processed the death of his mother, family strife, and the self-medication of his "beat-down heart" through his songwriting and published his "therapy journals" in the form of Love and the Dark, his debut album for Bloodshot Records.

I dare you to listen to "Phantom Limb" and not start feeling teary-eyed and then try not to crack a grin throughout his tale of a "creepy Jesus picture" in "I'm Afraid."

His album is an emotional journey for sure, but it's not a downer. With Love and the Dark, Harris has crafted  the perfect soundtrack for both a long drive or for blasting out of a jukebox at your favorite watering hole.

Harris comes to our area this week with shows in Philly, Brooklyn, and Hamden, CT.

I caught up with Mr. Hawk Harris just before he embarked on tour and as he was getting prepared for a string of Texas homecoming shows. Among other things, we talk about his new record, hitting the road, self-care, and how the metal community was not happy with him.

Uncool Uncle Matty: Many of the songs that make up Love and the Dark, especially "Phantom Limb" and "Grandfather," explore some very personal themes.  Did these songs just pour out of you or did you have to force yourself to let them out?

Jason Hawk Harris: Writing is a very natural process for me. Even as a kid, writing is how I processed stuff. It was not labored. It all came out pretty easy. I was basically just publishing my therapy journals. They really did just pour out. On the day after my mom died, I wrote "Phantom Limb" in about fifteen minutes. It just came out and was fully formed. Most of the songs came out easy; a few took a little bit longer. I feel like a song can either take me six months to a year to write, or it can just come out of me in ten minutes.

UUM: How does it feel to play these songs on tour? Is it a feeling of catharsis?Or has it felt like re-opening old wounds?

JHH: At this point, I have been playing these songs for over two years in various forms and have really gotten to know them. I feel like everything has been processed by now. I am comfortable singing these songs now. I wasn't always. It's almost a shame that everyone doesn't get to do this, but being able to work through your grief through song is a really great process. I am able to be on stage almost every night, and I get people coming up to me afterwards and they tell me about their own experiences with grief. Every now and then, it will hit me like a ton of bricks while I'm on stage; and I will really have to figure out how to work past it. I mean, if I start crying while I'm singing then I'm just toast for the rest of the set. I have to get tough up there quick because don't want to be up there with snot coming out everywhere.

UUM: Songwriting was your form of self-care as you made your way through many tough times. What kind of self-care do you engage in while you are on the road? You are a runner, correct?

JHH: I was running for a while, and I'm just starting to get back into it now. I was training for a half-marathon and got bronchitis the day before. I tried to run the morning before the marathon and see if I could make it, but I nearly coughed up a lung. If it was a cold, or even just the flu, I think I coulda made myself go through with it, but with bronchitis it just wasn't going to happen. And that bronchitis stayed with me for like two months and just took me out of running. I'm hoping to get back into running while I'm out on the road for this tour.

In addition to running, it's important to me to make sure that I am getting time alone. Even if it's just to go on a five minute walk and not have my nose in my phone and just be by myself to be able to think, that's important to me.

UUM: Bloodshot Records seems like the perfect home for you. How did you hook up with the label?

JHH: Sarah Shook and the Disarmers needed an opener for a few dates, and I just happened to be available, so I went to play shows with them in LA and San Francisco. I got to know them, and they took me on the road with them after that for about two weeks. So after that, the label that she's on, Bloodshot, became sort of familiar with me.

Then when I played at Folk Alliance, Bloodshot heard me do an acoustic set in a small room. I happened to knock it out of the park that night, and we started talking. Sarah Shook was very kind and gave me a ringing endorsement, and I think that pushed them over the edge. Seven months after Folk Alliance, I signed with them. And I agree, this is a perfect label for me. They really care about their artists and care about their artists' careers. I think they understand how hard it can be out on the road, and they have been very accommodating to me. I feel very lucky. I love Bloodshot, and I'm really happy here.

Sarah Shook and The Disarmers by John Gessner

UUM: Sarah Shook is one of our favorites here at CoolDadMusic Headquarters. Another one of our favorites are Vandoliers. You recently played some shows with those guys, any takeaways that you can share?

JHH: I did three shows opening for Vandoliers during the summer, and it was a blast. Those guys are really fun, and they are really good people. They were always willing to help out by pushing people to check us out. They also have some really awesome t-shirts. I think I have three right now, and they are kickass.  We both had albums come out this year, and our paths cross at Bloodshot showcases, so anytime I can get to see those guys is just really great.

UUM: It seems the trend is that punk rockers hear Springsteen's Nebraska  and then pick up an acoustic guitar and trade in their denim vest for a denim shirt. But in your case, you came from the world of classical music. So maybe you traded in your pocket square for a bolo-tie?  I'd be interested in hearing about that transition.

JHH: When I was a kid, I loved Queen. So I would read about Brian May and Freddie Mercury, and I learned that they were big into classical music. So I thought maybe if I get into classical music then I could sound like Queen too. At first, it was just a way for me to learn more about music, but as I got into it I found that it was something I really loved. I loved the process of writing in those traditional formats and using pencil and paper. I think it gave me a way to internalize music, to know how something was going to sound before I could hear it. That was my biggest takeaway form classical training. It helped me a lot. But the fact of the matter is I am from Texas, and country music was part of my childhood. I was two-stepping in the park when I was a kid. Country music is in my blood.
After I graduated from the conservatory where I was trained in classical music, it was just a matter of time before I came back to my roots.

The real catalyst is that I was on the waiting list for the master's program in composition at UCLA, and while I was just waiting around I happen to hear the Michael Daves & Chris Thile Duo's bluegrass record and I decided to pull myself off the waiting list at UCLA and I went out and bought a Martin and started playing bluegrass for the next five years. I love country music, and that is why I am playing it now.

There was an opportunity for me to mix both of those worlds and not be so compartmentalized in my writing. I wanted to figure out how to make those worlds work together.

Jason Hawk Harris by Sean Rosenthal

UUM: Speaking of getting back to your roots, how are you feeling about making your triumphant return to Texas for a round of homecoming shows?

JHH: I am very much looking forward to it. I feel like hometown shows are amazing but can also be somewhat stressful. I just know so many people there, and I want to see everybody. It's just shitty that it's not realistic to get to have time with everybody I want to see. I have not played in Texas under my own name yet, so it's going to be fun. I am looking forward to seeing my friends and family.

UUM:  You’re a Houston native and currently living in L.A., is there anything you look forward to when coming out east to Brooklyn? Do you have time to enjoy the city or is it just another stop?

JHH: I grew up in Houston, and it's so dry here [in LA]. So I like getting up to the Northeast in general, so I can feel some humidity. I love coming to New York, even if it's only for the typical 12 hours that I get to spend in any given city. New York is one of the craziest cities on the planet, and it's always so much fun. I don't get out there that much because it's so far from me, so I always look forward to the chance to spend some time out that way.

UUM: You jokingly referred to yourself as the "Ghost of Country's Future." That seems pretty evident on your video for "Cussing at the Light" which has a Norwegian black metal vibe to it. Can you talk about how that came about?

JHH: Stanley Sievers, the director, just came to me with that idea, and I felt like he pulled the idea right out of my head. I thought that maybe he had been reading my diary. I love when artists juxtapose things that should not be juxtaposed, and they figure out a way to make it work. I think Norwegian Black Death Metal corpse paint and honkytonk music fit that description of strange juxtapositions. It's even been making its round at some film festivals.

The funny thing about this video is that we got a lot of backlash from the metal community. The moment it went up, there were like three high profile metal websites that linked to it, and needless to say, some of the metal kids were pretty upset about it.

The video is a lot of fun and I was happy with how it came out.

UUM: Speaking of interesting concepts, can you share the story behind your song, "I'm Afraid?"

JHH: I had a friend who grew up Catholic, and his mom hung up a picture of Jesus above his bed. This wasn't one of the nice ones, it was like a scary one of him holding like a bloody heart in his hands or something crazy like that. No smile and creepy eyes. So my friend said that at night, he would hide under the covers when he had to go to sleep because he was so freaked out by this picture of Jesus.

It made a lot of sense to me, and I asked him if I could I steal that story and appropriate it for my own workings. He said yeah, go ahead and so I did. It ended up being a song that a lot of people related to.
I did not expect that. I was going to leave it off of this record because it had already come out on one of my old EPs but Bloodshot was like, "You have to put this song on there." So I put it on Love and the Dark, and I think it's a better record for it.

UUM:  Thoughts on Today? Hopes for Tomorrow?

JHH: I think that images, like literal photographs, have too much power and too much sway over our narrative. We are letting pictures tell stories that they do not have the capacity to tell. I think that's leading to some shitty stuff.

The book that's second to the bible for me is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. He talks about how in today's world if I said "Abraham Lincoln," most people will right away think of the penny or a top hat or a beard. But, if I said, "Abraham Lincoln," in the mid-1800s, the first thing that would have popped into their heads would be a word for word chunk of the Gettysburg Address. People back then were not as inundated with images.

I feel like we are getting our news from images. Every time I see a fake news article it is accompanied by some crazy image of a politician mid-sneeze or something that makes them look awful or mean. Sure, a picture can say a thousand words but nobody can ever seem to agree on what those thousand words are. That freaks me out for the future of how we get our news and how we find out the truth about the world.

So anyways, my hope is that we can get back to more of a text-based society. I guess I am hoping that people start reading more.

Love and the Dark is out now on Bloodshot Records.

Jason Hawk Harris in our area:

11/5/19 - City Winery, Philadelphia, PA
11/6/19 - Knitting Factory Brooklyn, Brooklyn, NY
11/7/19 - Space Ballroom, Hamden, CT

For more info, check out www.JasonHawkHarris.com.

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