Most people have probably heard a Harry Nilsson song at some point in their life, but how many of those people have actually heard of Harry Nilsson? Chances are you were introduced to songs like “Coconut” at a party, or maybe you just couldn’t get “Jump Into The Fire” out of your head after witnessing the infamous helicopter chase scene in Goodfellas, or, if you’re like me, you remember watching the animated film The Point over and over as a kid and singing along to songs like “Me And My Arrow” and “This Is The Town.” At whatever point (no pun intended) in life you discovered Harry Nilsson, it was most likely after hearing such incredible songs that you were driven to dig deeper and learn about the man behind the music.
The genius and tragedy of Harry Nilsson has always been that, while his music managed to reach a large audience over time, many of those enjoying his music never knew who created the songs. By the time Nilsson passed away in 1994 at the young age of 52 he had accumulated a massive catalogue of original music, won two Grammy’s and had had his songs featured in numerous hit films. Yet, somehow he failed to achieve the mainstream commercial success of peers like The Beatles and The Who, making Harry Nilsson arguably one of the most under appreciated musicians of all time. This was even the focus of a 2006 documentary appropriately titled Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin' About Him)?
Since the release of the film Nilsson and his music have connected with a whole new generation of people in awe that someone so talented was never a huge star. It was exactly this sentiment that attracted producer and musician Kenny Siegal, the man behind the recently released album This Is The Town: A Tribute To Nilsson (The Royal Potato Family). The album features twenty of Nilsson’s classic songs each recorded by a different musician or band. With well-known indie acts like Langhorne Slim, Marco Benevento and Yellowbirds contributing tunes, each song is a completely different and unique rendition.
“I really went out of my way with the artists to say we did not have to redo the originals because they are so good; this needs to be a new fresh thing with you expressing your love for these tunes. If you try to chase the originals you fall flat on your face, so to me that was never the goal – the goal was to put a new spin on it. I feel that’s what we were able to do on this,” says Siegal.
Convincing twenty artists to take the time to travel to a studio and record one cover tune might seem like an exhaustive undertaking, but Siegal has the advantage of being the owner, engineer and producer behind Old Soul Studios. Located in Catskill, New York about two and a half hours north of Manhattan, Siegal’s Old Soul Studios has been the go-to recording spot for notable groups like Ratatat, Beirut and Neko Case, among many others.
“I could see how from the outside it seems like an impossibility, but from where I sit – I’m at the studio every day – it’s actually easy to sort this out. All I ask of everybody is to show up for one day. I just [told] each band or artist to find a day when they could get to Old Soul, pick a tune, and they would have time to develop the song and make it theirs,” says Siegal.
Over the course of about a year Siegal welcomed acts into his studio to record different Harry Nilsson songs, acting as producer of the whole project while occasionally contributing musical parts as well. Siegal managed to get the support of Nilsson’s children, Annie and Zak, who even cover “Gotta Get Up” together on the album.
“If I had to do all of this myself it would take a lot of time and energy, but I’m working with all of these great people, so it sort of makes it easy,” says Siegal, who is quick to add that he is already working with a whole new group of bands and musicians to put together a second volume of the tribute album.
Anyone who’s ever discovered the magic of Nilsson’s music knows that along with that discovery comes a need to enlighten as many people as possible to one of the greatest musical minds of the last several decades. For Kenny Siegal and all of the acts who contributed songs to This Is The Town, spreading the gospel of Harry Nilsson was a key source of motivation and pride.
“[Harry Nilsson] was a guy that a lot of musicians and people do know and love, but a lot of people actually don’t know who he is. So there’s that element that maybe we could help expose his work once again through a new generation of artists presenting their version of his tunes. I just thought [that] if I love this music and these people love this music, let’s do it and it’s going to be a great project. I don’t regret it – it’s like a can of worms that we opened up and became better than I ever expected it would be.”
You can order This Is The Town: A Tribute to Nilsson at the Royal Potato Family WEBSITE!
Photo: Kenny Siegal at home at Old Soul taken by Brian Geltner