Jesse Harris – They’re playing his song
A few hours before I’m supposed to meet Jesse Harris for an interview, I walk down to the deli on the corner of my block to pick up a couple things. The PA system in the store is tuned to the same light-rock station as usual, and it only takes about three beats for me to recognize the song coming over the speakers, a woman’s voice dropping through a familiar declining melody: “I waited till I saw the sun,” she sang, “Don’t know why I didn’t come.” The song is “Don’t Know Why”, and the singer, of course, is Norah Jones. But the songwriter, the guy who took home the Grammy in 2003 for Song of the Year — and who also, as it happens, recorded the song first with his own band — well, that’s Jesse Harris.
And it strikes me there in the deli aisle, between the household cleaning products and the organic yogurt, that Harris has achieved something singular. What he has written is not just a Grammy winner and the signature song on a multi-platinum starmaking album. He has written a standard. “Don’t Know Why” already feels like a chestnut, the kind of song that gets dropped into nightclub set lists by eager-to-please bandleaders and aspiring piano-bar singers. Like a Johnny Mercer song, or a Carole King song, or “Yesterday”, it’s the kind of song you’re probably going to hear the rest of your life, whether you mean to or not.
It’s also the kind of song that can haunt its author — especially because Harris himself is considerably less recognizable. But in our interview, at a small Mediterranean restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village, he seems to be doing his best not to think about it. When I tell him about hearing the song that morning, he just smiles.
“I think there’s like a law of nature or something that if you write a song and it gets played a lot on the radio, you’re the only one who doesn’t hear it,” he says. “Everyone tells you they heard it here or there — I don’t hear it that much.”
And he’s just as happy that way. He’s suitably grateful for his good fortune in working with Jones, who moved to New York with Harris’ encouragement after he and his bandmates heard her sing in Denton, Texas. He was part of her band on Come Away With Me, and he wrote or co-wrote four other songs on the album besides “Don’t Know Why”. It made Jones a star, but it also made Harris, who is in his mid-30s, a formidably successful songwriter.
His focus since then has been to translate that success back into his work with his own band. His latest effort is While The Music Lasts, released in July on the Universal subsidiary Verve Forecast. It’s his second major-label album with the Ferdinandos, and their fifth overall. (The original version of “Don’t Know Why” was on a self-produced 1999 CD.) There are no great stylistic departures; the album is a cocktail of swinging cafe blues and folkish rock, with Harris’ restrained voice calling to mind forebears Paul Simon and Jackson Browne. He’s not as expressive as either of them, but he has something of their vocal ease.
Expressiveness on the whole is not Harris’ forte. His lyrics are slippery and ambiguous, rarely confronting anything head-on. Sometimes this makes them seem merely vague, but in his better moments he manages to be evocative without exactly defining the thing he’s evoking. The songs are mostly about relationships of one kind or another, and they tend to involve someone or something fading or leaving or not arriving at all (as in “Don’t Know Why”). Who or what is actually at stake is left to the listener to decide.
“Songs kind of exist in an abstract place,” Harris says. “I’ve never been one who wrote autobiographically. I keep a journal, and so maybe because of that I don’t feel a need to articulate things in my life, I don’t need to find expression for them. So songs can kind of exist in a world of their own, and they don’t have to bear the burden of me talking about my personal life.
“I’ve always been attracted to songs because I feel like there’s a freedom in them,” he continues. “So I guess I try to preserve that.”
He finds the best analog for his method in blues songs, with their succinct metaphors and repetition. “Great blues tunes are quite abstract and sort of universal,” he says. “It doesn’t have to be that person’s story, you know?”
At the same time, Harris resists categorization as a traditionalist of any stripe. His sepia-toned cover photo notwithstanding, he insists he’s not trying to revive anything. “I don’t know, it seems any time you try to do something in a ‘traditional’ way, it seems kind of hokey, or like a put-on,” he says. “I don’t see myself as doing anything in a traditional way — just making music that appeals to me in the best way I know how to do it.”
Harris grew up in New York, where his mother has been a soap opera writer and actor for decades. As a teenager, he frequented music venues ranging from jazz spots to punk clubs. In the early ’90s, he and singer Rebecca Martin formed the jazzy pop duo Once Blue and eventually released one album on EMI. Harris then pulled together the Ferdinandos with guitarist Tony Scherr, bassist Jesse Murphy and drummer Kenny Wollesen. (Tim Luntzel replaced Murphy before the last album, and while Wollesen plays on a few tracks on the new disc, the regular drummer is now Dan Rieser.) They became regulars at the downtown neo-folk club the Living Room, which is where Jones also honed her chops. (The club’s growing popularity since then has necessitated a move to a new, larger location on the Lower East Side.)
One side effect of Jones’ breakthrough was to spotlight that close-knit circuit and remind people — including record executives and the media — that New York was home to many scenes. “I think what we did with Norah was really a New York thing in a lot of ways,” he says. “Songs, with a singer playing piano.”
Harris says he was surprised that reviews of his own previous album, 2003’s The Secret Sun, often mentioned twang and country influences. “I think if there’s any connection of me to country, it’s probably through folk and through blues and old jazz,” he says. “Because old jazz and old country sound a lot alike — it swings, you know? So if there’s a connection, it’s down deep there, at the roots.”
At the same time, he was deliberate in wanting the new album (which he co-produced with Scherr) to sound both contemporary and cosmopolitan. “I wanted it to be more urban,” he says. “And I don’t mean more urban like more R&B, but more urbane. I didn’t really want any twang on this record. If someone started playing a two-beat, I’d be like, ‘No, don’t play a two-beat. Play a whole note. Don’t make this country.'”
The album’s laid-back lushness gets some assistance from the legendary Van Dyke Parks, who did string arrangements on several tracks. Bill Frisell (who also played on Come Away With Me) adds guitar on one song, the gently jaunty “Open Your Eyes”. And Jones, still a close friend, lends backing vocals on four tunes.
One of Jones’ appearances is on the title track, the album’s most obvious candidate for the pop canon. Over a light bossa nova arrangement, Harris nudges the song’s carpe diem metaphor without overdoing it: “Teach me, I want to know/How you move so fast/Dancing while the music lasts.” Like all his best songs, it is effective in its melodic and lyrical understatement.
Whether it or anything else on the album will add up to a major breakthrough of his own is hard to say. But if not, it won’t be for lack of trying. After The Secret Sun fell into the crowded category of albums that registered better reviews than sales, Harris says he and Scherr spent a lot of time preparing for the follow-up.
“We felt like this new one really had to be better,” he says. “It had to be stronger, it had to be more together, it had to sound better, look better, everything had to be better. So we put a great deal of pressure on ourselves to do that. But I think it was a healthy kind of pressure. It wasn’t about, you know, the Grammys or anything like that. It was about just trying to make something that was going to be really solid.”
Although the songs are all credited solely to Harris, he makes clear that he sees the album as a collaboration with people he knows and trusts.
“First of all, those guys are my friends,” he says of the Ferdinandos. “Secondly, I feel like we have a musical connection that gets stronger each time we play, so it’s great to have them doing these albums with me. I’m open to playing with different musicians, but I usually keep it within a certain circle of people who I know.”
The success of “Don’t Know Why” brought a wave of offers and requests for Harris to contribute songs to other artists, or to co-write with them. He accepted a few, despite a general aversion to co-writing; he has songs on forthcoming albums by Madeleine Peyroux and Johnathan Rice, among others. But after the Grammy win, he resisted being swept into the writer-for-hire game. “For the past year, I really just focused on my own thing completely,” he says.
In a lot of ways, Harris’ life these days doesn’t look much different than it did before the rising tide of Norah. He’s still writing and playing with the same people, still looking for a big break. It’s all just been kicked up a few notches.
“There are challenges, you know; the responsibilities start to pile up in different ways,” he says. “You have to kind of adjust to a new idea of yourself. Part of that is money, and with money comes these other things. You get attention from people that you didn’t get attention from before, and some of it’s not that cool. And some of it is. So there’s some adjusting to do.
“But for me, my life is quite similar. I’m busier doing music, which is good. But most of my close friends are the same close friends. I’ve met some really cool people, though, made some good new friends too.”
And also, of course, whether he hears it or not, there’s this song out there, playing all the time on somebody’s radio.