E.W. Harris has lived many lives. Throughout his life, he has been referred to as many different things, including dystopian romantic, songwriter, singer, producer, experimental artist, comparatist, lover, brother, son. He has traveled the world and lived all over the United States, but those details might not be specific enough to satisfy the contemporary art world’s demand for authenticity. Let’s be content with the statement that he is just as much of a con as anyone you’ll meet and just as genuine as the next guy.
His debut single, “Hammerhands,” a song about exile, love lost, and longing, was made public by the New York City-based Hanging Moon Records. This track is his first introduction to the world of “Homunculus IV,” the upcoming album to which it belongs. It is cloaked in a tale of an alien executioner in the post-apocalyptic future and lives in a sonic space between folk, lofi, pop, and soul. produced and engineered with care by renowned producer Kia Eshghi. Check out the single and the exclusive interview below:
1. Can you tell us a bit about where you come from and how it all got started?
E.W. HARRIS: I’m originally from Akron, Ohio. For those of you who don’t know it’s a mid-size American city near Cleveland that was once “the rubber capital of the world” and home to an unexpectedly large number of famous musicians (Chrissy Hynde, Joe Walsh, Devo, The Black Keys to name a few). We moved around alot when I was growing up, all over the South and Midwest and even as far as Oklahoma, but I ended up in Georgia as a young teenager and as a weirdo kid that had moved into a 1988 Astro van after high school, I naturally gravitated to Athens, Georgia birthplace of REM, the B-52’s and Neutral Milk Hotel. My folks are both musicians so music, devices for making music, and heated opinions about music were always around, but I think it was in Athens that I started really writing and performing in earnest.
2. Did you have any formal training or are you self-taught?
E.W. HARRIS: Sorta lol. I did have intermittent voice lessons from my mom, but it was more like my friends who are sorta bilingual when their parents speak a different language at home type of thing. You kind of gradually understand what’s going on and can communicate but never really quite understand what you’re doing? I pretty much learned how to sing watching and listening to my mom and then trying myself with whatever music was interesting at the moment. I learned guitar initially in a similar way from my dad. I have attempted formal training on the euphonium (it was the cheapest band instrument to rent), guitar, and I even studied voice briefly at the University of Georgia and it always kind of went the same way. I’d learn a few tricks and then try to make them into something instead of pursuing the course of study or get frustrated and straight up quit. At this point it seems like a pretty even trade to me though, if I had finished any kind of formal training I’d have a lot more tools in my toolbox but probably a lot less songs so I’m not mad about it.
3. Who were your first and strongest musical influences and why the name ‘E.W. HARRIS’?
E.W. HARRIS: That’s a really tough question. My first musical influences were my parents for sure. My mom really liked to play and sing big ballad type numbers with killer musicianship regardless of genre (though she really loves the BeeGees) and my dad liked to play and listen to music somewhere in the intersection of singer/songwriter music other genres that was usually a just a little strange (i.e. Neil Young, Donovan, Cat Stevens, Jethro Tull, David Bowie). They kind of met in the middle with stuff like James Taylor. That said, I found myself early on kind of all over the place. My aunt got me a bootleg walkman for Christmas one year and like half my backpack was mixtapes I’d made of like Cat Stevens’ “Catch A Bull at Four” that transitioned into a few Tangerine Dream or Vangelis tracks, then some with John Prine on one side and Smashing Pumpkins on the other. I forget this alot, but two records that came out when I was a teen that influenced (and continue to influence me) were Jewel’s “Pieces of You,” Beck’s “Mellow Gold,” and Radiohead’s “OK Computer.” The easy part of this question is the name bit. 1. It’s my name. 2. I got it first at school cause it was the 80’s and there were like seven Erics in my class. 3. It seems cool in an authorial way. 4. I had the same name as the Columbine High School spree killer Eric Harris and it seemed professionally prudent to continue to go by E.W.
The easy part of this question is the name bit. 1. It’s my name. 2. I got it first at school cause it was the 80’s and there were like seven Erics in my class. 3. It seems cool in an authorial way like e.e. cummings, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot. 4. I had the same name as the Columbine High School spree killer Eric Harris and it seemed professionally prudent to continue to go by E.W.
4. What do you feel are the key elements in your music that should resonate with listeners, and how would you personally describe your sound?
E.W. HARRIS: I think the number one key element is the lyric. It’s definitely the part I’m most invested in as a songwriter. Luckily as a musician I’m principally a singer so the performance attached to the lyric is also pretty key. That said, the lyric is delivered by the melody, which is couched in the arrangement and all of those have a performance attached to them. For me the performance nuances of interesting lyrics are the most resonant quality of a song, though I’m not sure it’s that way with everybody. In fact in tunes with no lyrics or sampled lyrics I find myself most drawn to other elements depending on the tune. In this tune “Hammerhands” though I feel like we’ve done a good job drawing attention to all of the cool little things the lyric and a nuanced vocal performance can do when an arrangement creates an atmosphere that supports that. Did that answer the question lol? As far as my sound, I’m not sure. This one has some classic soul vibes and some straight ahead folk things going on. The next single is pretty art pop, the new record is all over the place but in a consistent way? Abandoned sculpture garden maybe?
6. What’s your view on the role and function of music as political, cultural, spiritual, and/or social vehicles – and do you try and affront any of these themes in your work, or are you purely interested in music as an expression of technical artistry, personal narrative and entertainment?
I think music as an art form has the ability, and in some way the responsibility, of dealing with all of those things. Even as a kind of fantasist I think it would be impossible for me, as a person living in this world, not to interact with political, cultural, spiritual and social ideas in the context of my work. Is it explicit? In my case not very often, but I do think my work is informed by my political attitudes, cultural experience, spirituality, and social status. Songs are a weird medium they’re a writing and music hybrid. Writing has the ability to be very explicit and music the ability to be almost infinitely mysterious. Together they can create a strange artistic alchemy that can really be meaningful to people of wildly different backgrounds and modes of thought. To make a long story short I think songs that are too explicit (say politically for instance) draw away from the mystique conferred by the music. Though sometimes (like in the case of Billy Bragg) that’s exactly what you want. “Hammerhands” is in some ways a reflection of my thoughts about capital punishment and the rights of sovereign governments over the lives and deaths of its citizens, but in other ways it’s a weird folk song about a sad boi alien with a crappy job in the middle of nowhere.
7. Do you feel that your music is giving you back just as much fulfilment as the amount of work you are putting into it, or are you expecting something more, or different in the future?
I would like a kidney shaped pool with a waterfall maybe with some classy lighting and possibly an option to be heated…I would also like to buy a geodesic dome house…but I jest. I’m very happy to be an artist and particularly a traveling songwriter/musician. It’s an ancient job and I feel pretty good doing it. I would like to get paid better, but who wouldn’t? Mainly I’m in this because it never runs out, you can never get to the end of art, there’s always always always something new to explore. When you think you can “win” music it is daunting, but since I’ve begun to think of it as an exploration I find that music has the potential to be infinitely fulfilling.
8. Could you describe your creative processes? How do usually start, and go about shaping ideas into a completed song? Do you usually start with a tune, a beat, or a narrative in your head? And do you collaborate with others in this process?
Sure. I have many of them based upon the (let’s rephrase without the curse) “mess around and discover” principle. One I described in an email to a writer friend. She asked me the “do you write for an audience or just for yourself?” question. This is a fearsome one, but in this case illuminating vis a vis what I call “the hater method” of songwriting. I told her that I kinda write for an intended audience and here’s how. I first look into what people are listening to and hate on it liberally to anyone who will listen. Stage two, I feel bad about being a hater and try to make myself feel better by saying that I could do a similar thing better. Third, I try to make a song in the same style as that thing. Fourth, I think it sucks but I already went to the trouble to do it so I try and salvage what I’ve done. Fifth, I deconstruct the song and mess around with it until it becomes something I like. Sixth, I observe that it is now nothing like I meant to do in the first place, but is something I like. Seventh, I’m happy cause I’ve got a new tune.
9. What has been the most difficult thing you’ve had to endure in your life or music career so far?
As a one off? It’s hard to say what has been most difficult. Life happens. Automobile accidents, loved ones dying, relationships ending, health concerns, etc. I consider myself quite lucky to be reasonably healthy, mostly sober, and not incarcerated. Being a professional artist of any kind is not a very easy life, but neither is fishing or farming or any of the other occupations that depend entirely on a swirling mass of factors beyond your direct control. Events though… being homeless was pretty rough. I’ll not try that again soon. I did a nine week tour a couple of years back that was pretty disastrous emotionally and financially and I’ve almost died a few times, but I’m still kickin’ so it’s mostly all good.
10. On the contrary, what would you consider a successful, proud or significant point in your life or music career so far?
That’s the great thing about music, every time I do a performance or release some music in a way that feels “just right,” that is my proudest and most significant moment. I’ve got 9 albums at this stage (with a new one on the way) and have toured or performed shows in 14 countries on 3 continents. On paper I guess I’ve won a few local songwriting contests, been invited to open for and perform with some pretty big deal people, but that stuff all mostly just keeps the ball rollin’.” I will say that a whole lot of this wouldn’t had it been possible if not for a songwriter called Niall Connolly and the Big City Folk Collective here in New York City, so moving here and meeting them was definitely a significant point in my career. Signing on with Hanging Moon Records and getting the opportunity to work with Kia Eshghi has also been a game changer. Other than that? I did get to play recently opening for the film “Back to the Future” at the Greenville Drive-In in Greenville, NY. That was pretty good.
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Photo credits: Richard T. Scott