Jason Hawk Harris’ debut on Bloodshot Records is an Americana gem many are calling one of the best albums of the year.
It’s not surprising Harris gravitated to the honky-tonk country popular in his native Texas as a backdrop for “Love & the Dark,” with what he said are love songs wrapped in a layer of grief and grief songs wrapped up in love.
Bloodshot Records in a recent Facebook post said if Harris isn’t selling out Nashville’s world famous Ryman Auditorium in the near future, something would be amiss. That shows the label's confidence in this emerging Americana star.
As you listen to the song "Cussing at the Light" from the new album, it may surprise some that Harris has a strong background in classical music, even attending college at Biola University Conservatory of Music in southern California. Also somewhat surprisingly, it was the rock band Queen that ignited his passion for classical music.
“I know Freddie Mercury and Brian May were both big classical music buffs,” said Harris. “At first it was Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. But then I got really, really into modern and contemporary classical music like Stravinsky and Shostakovich, and even the avant-garde like George Krum and John Cage. That’s where I really found a lot of interest. But what actually started my interest in classical music was Queen.”
You might discern a classical influence on the album’s lead track “The Smoke and the Stars.” Harris conceded the point for the song’s orchestration.
“The arrangement in regard to what instruments are playing what, and what ranges, and having some strings in there,” said Harris. “But the songs are still largely song structured.”
He said if he were talking with a classical composer with an upturned nose, he would turn his nose even higher if Harris told him the song was classically influenced.
“There’s a lot of weird stigmas in the classical music world, especially about what they call ‘program music.’ Which is music to a program rather than music for music’s sake,” said Harris.
When Harris decided to make music his job, he did gravitate to the country and honky-tonk he grew up with in Texas. He recalled two-stepping’ to George Strait and Alan Jackson songs early on; not something you can avoid growing up in Houston. But he was also heavy into the punk scene during his middle and high school years. It was a group he said didn’t look favorably on Strait and Jackson.
“When you grow up in Houston, Texas, and you’re in the punk scene, you do not want to admit you like country music,” laughed Harris. “So even though I did have an affinity for it, I sort of hid that, because as a kid you just want to fit in.”
College was a different story. He returned to country music, then shortly after graduating, he heard Michael Daves and Chris Thile’s “Sleep With One Eye Open” album.
“I don’t know, something snapped,” said Harris of when he heard the album.
At the time he was on a wait-list for UCLA’s grad school for composition.
“So, I was waiting around to see if I would make the cut and I heard that record and I was just like ‘this is all I want to do.’ I bought a Martin D-28 and,“ he paused to laugh at the memory. “That was it. I joined a bluegrass band and was in that for a while. Once that broke up that’s when I started my own thing.”
And ironic now that his label Bloodshot Records is known for its many artists that mash punk with country music.
“Exactly!” exclaimed Harris.
Though he landed on Bloodshot as much for his sound as his musical talent, Harris is also a nifty lyricist.
Someone told me once that I should make a little money,
Before I rush to put a ring on you.
Like a bank account could teach me, what grief and God ain’t taught me.
An IRA just gives me more to lose.
- From “Confused”
“I got married young at 23. The reason we got married so young is that we had been dating for years and we were like, ‘This is it, I don’t know what we’re waiting around for, let’s just do it,’’ said Harris.
The “someone” referenced in the first line was an older acquaintance of Harris’ who offered pre-marriage advice, such as having at least $50,000 stashed in an IRA before he said, “I do.” Harris said he felt sorry for the man.
“It felt like he had gotten so far away from how it felt to be in love that he couldn’t remember that that would mean absolutely nothing to a kid that was head-over-heels in love and just wanted to get married,” said Harris.
Babe it ain’t easy it’s a hell of a fight
To argue with a demon almost every single night
Silver tongue got me thinking he’s alright
So I get real drunk while he checks the time
On double vodkas with a little lime.
- From “Giving In”
The grief he hints at in “Confused” and “Giving In” is deep. He said he’s in a better place now, but recent years were difficult, as he dabbled in abusive behavior during that time, and his mother died after a long bout with alcoholism. Yet the music he writes around those themes is often upbeat, even danceable. He said it’s not necessarily something he does consciencely.
“I seem to write my most hopeful melodies whenever I’m the saddest,” said Harris. “What seems to come out is a sound that is more hopeful. I’m not sure why, but that seems to always be the case for me, even when I was younger, I was writing sad songs where the sound was very happy.”
A recent viral video of CNN’s Anderson Cooper asking TV Talk show host Stephen Colbert about how, as a Catholic, he accepts and is actually grateful for the suffering that comes with existence, Colbert argued he can’t accept being alive without accepting everything that comes with it, including suffering. Harris said he sees Colbert's point, though they define their terms differently.
“I’m not so much grateful for the crucible of suffering as I am for the refining that happens,” said Harris. “I certainly am grateful for the place I’m in now … the wisdom I’ve got from going through so much pain and hardship in the past five, six years. It’s funny, I think a lot of this record is geared toward that ethos a little bit."
Jason Hawk Harris plays Nightshop in downtown Bloomington on Friday night.
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