Pop with a Heart
Brett Harris draws inspiration from The Beatles, Otis Redding and Nick Lowe to make music that can cut as it comforts
By Bliss Bowen
The Beatles insistently spring to mind while listening to Brett Harris’ second album, the just-released “Up in the Air.” Textured with soulful organ swells and country-sounding guitars, his cleanly constructed, often buoyant melodies repeatedly evoke 1960s-’70s pop.
“I’ve always written to the sound that I have in my head and that I’m trying to capture,” he says over the phone from Austin, shortly after playing his first showcase at last week’s SXSW festival. “I grew up listening to classic pop records and that’s stuff I really cling to.”
Those classic recordings have unmistakably shaped Harris’ music — as has his Southern identity. A 10-year resident with his wife of Durham, North Carolina, he grew up in a house full of old Beatles records in “a really small-town bedroom community” outside of Richmond, Virginia. His “first real foray” with music was in church.
“Any person that works in a creative field is gonna be dealing with the input in one way or another, and that’s gonna find its way into the end product,” he muses. “Being from the South, I think there is a perspective that I have that people from other parts of the world might not have. I’m a big fan of Flannery O’Connor, and she has amazing essays on the subject that I cherish, about how there’s an obligation or responsibility as a Southern writer to deal with [certain] perceptions or internal conflicts.”
(Sharp-eared listeners might catch his “really opaque reference” to Hazel Motes from O’Connor’s 1952 novel “Wise Blood” in the last verse of “Lies”: “I have miles left to go before I get to where I’m going/ But that grass keeps getting greener and I hear that rooster crowing.”)
“There’s certainly an obligation to be honest and to be authentic in what you do,” he says while discussing the role of songwriters in contemporary society. “Maybe I’m one of those folks that still thinks that a great rock ‘n’ roll song can save the world, but I think that we all have an obligation to chase that — call it inspiration, call it divine motivation — that thing that made you want to make art in the first place.”
Harris garnered appreciative reviews for his first album, 2010’s “Man of Few Words,” and earned wider notice while playing guitar on the dB’s 2012 reunion tour and the Big Star “Third” tribute concert tour. With “Up in the Air,” he says, he’s gotten closer to finding his own voice as a solo artist. Musically, it strikes a light-in-the-dark balance that’s as aurally appealing as it is difficult to finesse, pairing bright melodies with lyrics describing a hollow heart as “the unintended consequence of bitter pills I’ve had to swallow” (“Lies”) and referencing the end of life (the gospel-inflected “High Times”).
“Some of my favorite songs are ones that are pretty heavy or pretty down, but if you take them on just the way they sound you would never know that,” Harris says. “Maybe it’s the Southern Baptist thing where I grew up, having to put a smile on your face and calling everybody ‘brother’ and acting like nothing was wrong. I love the ability of a pop song to just cut you open in a major key. [Laughs] It doesn’t have to rely on the trick of ‘Oh, this is in a minor key so you should be sad.’”
He offers up as examples the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home,” George Jones’ “A Good Year for the Roses,” Otis Redding’s “Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay” and “almost anything from the latter era of Nick Lowe’s career.” Despite studying that classic trope, Harris says he doesn’t consciously strive to create songs that will make audiences feel uplifted because “that would be manipulative.”
“I never try to make people feel any way in particular when I’m writing a song. I don’t necessarily consider an audience when I’m writing a song; I’m trying to communicate a sense of place or emotion.”
“High Times” floats a hopeful message — it’s arguably the album’s loveliest track — yet it was born of frustration: “That song is about an experience I had after traveling to New York to play a show with Big Star Third and being stuck up there for Superstorm Sandy,” Harris explains. “My flight was canceled and I was stranded in town for five days.”
“Look out the window
Watch as the storm rolls in
And you swear you’ve been here once before
But you can’t remember when
The rain on the rooftop
Sounds like a symphony
And you find yourself surrounded by
A familiar memory…”
Cradled in cooing harmonies, Saturday night guitar, Sunday morning piano and Memphis horns, the song floats like balm through the speakers — accomplishing precisely the thing Harris lauds as pop’s best achievement.
“It’s just this little three-minute orchestra that takes you to another world and transports you,” he says. “Pop speaks to me more than any other genre.”
Brett Harris opens for Eleni Mandell at McCabe’s (3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica) at 8 p.m. Friday, March 25. $16. Call (310) 828-4497 or visit brett-harrismusic.com.