Interview with Jesse Harris
Jesse Harris has made quite a name for himself as a songwriter (even winning a Song of the Year Grammy in the process) for artists like Norah Jones, Willie Nelson, Conor Oberst/Bright Eyes, M. Ward and more. However, Harris has amassed quite the catalog as a solo performer over the last two decades as well. In our newest NoiseTrade One-on-One, Harris looks back on his SXSW 2015 experience and reveals his favorite shows that he saw during the week’s festivities. He also breaks down some of the diverse influences for his songs on The Secret Sun Sampler and talks about his unique chemistry and years-long musical partnership with Norah Jones.
NoiseTrade: First things first, thanks so much for playing one of our SXSW Day Parties this year! How was your 2015 SXSW experience overall?
Jesse Harris: Rainy but fun. SXSW is such a frenetic environment that it brings out an intensity in the playing which I really enjoy, both as a performer and an audience member.
NT: How did this year’s SXSW festivities compare to years past for you? What sticks out as your most memorable SXSW experience this time around?
Harris: I played more shows. The more the merrier at SXSW. But my favorite thing about festivals is getting to see other bands all in one place. Things that stick out: seeing Thee Oh Sees, Delicate Steve, and Deerhoof, and hanging out on the East side having cold brew coffee at Cuvee.
NT: The Secret Sun Sampler features a handful of your back catalog songs that really showcase the sonic diversity and the seamless genre mix in your songwriting. What musical (and non-musical) inspirations do you find yourself being drawn to that feed into that aural assortment?
Harris: I get a lot of inspiration from the musicians around me. Star Rover influenced the sound and songwriting of this latest album, as well as some new songs I've been writing. In the past few years I've worked with John Zorn a lot as a lyricist. Along the way I've taken a look at how he uses chords in his compositions and I've tried to incorporate some of his tricks.
NT: One of the songs on The Secret Sun Sampler is “Rocking Chairs,” a shuffling ballad that features your oft-returned-to-musical-partner Norah Jones on background vocals. How did you first start collaborating with Jones and how would you describe the unique sonic chemistry you’ve both created together over the years?
Harris: I first met Norah in Denton, Texas when she was a student at UNT studying piano and voice. We became friends and she moved to New York not long after, where we started a group together and played many of the songs on her first album. Frankly, I think it would be hard for anyone not to have musical chemistry with Norah.
NT: “Miyazaki” is another stand out track from The Secret Sun Sampler that showcases the variety in your songwriting. Can you tell us a little about the track’s origin and the inspiration behind the eclectic instrumental?
Harris: Over the years I've written many instrumental songs that have appeared on various albums of mine. I've even recorded a whole album of instrumental music (Cosmo, on Tzadik Records). I wrote "Miyazaki" with a high fever in the midst of a bad flu last year. Each night I would watch a different Miyazaki film, so I named the song after him. Recently in Tokyo my friends took me to the Ghibli museum!
NT: Finally, I’ve always admired the score work you wrote for Ethan Hawke’s 2006 film The Hottest State. Can you describe the different approaches between writing for an album and writing for a film? Also, do you have any personal favorite film scores from other composers?
Harris: That was the only film I've scored and I was incredibly lucky to work with Ethan. He is a true music lover and really knows what he wants. We scored that film mostly with new versions of my songs by a host of celebrated singers. As for the instrumental parts, I emulated the technique in old films of using a recognizable theme repeated over and over in various styles. During the recording, we played while watching the film on a monitor and timed the cues to the picture. I do rue the days of the great film composers and how integral a film's music was to its overall identity. Composers I admire: Nino Rota, John Barry, Lalo Shifrin, and Ennio Morricone.