Listening with Brett Harris: The Pop Tunesmith Talks the Beatles, Big Star, and Local Favorites | Music Feature | Indy Week
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Listening with Brett Harris: The Pop Tunesmith Talks the Beatles, Big Star, and Local Favorites 

Brett Harris, at home (briefly) in Durham

Photo by Ben McKeown

Brett Harris, at home (briefly) in Durham

It's a sleepy night at Brett Harris's home in suburban Durham.

The indie-pop songwriter has hardly been here in months. He's been busy traveling, either touring in support of his excellent March album Up in the Air or performing with other projects, including an acclaimed re-creation of Big Star's Third. Somehow, he's squeezed in an Italian vacation and a Myrtle Beach weekend with his wife, Rebecca. He's wiped.

Still, Harris leads the way to the lowest floor, where guitars line the wall behind a couch. Next to it are a simple turntable and a few shelves of records. Growing up, Harris didn't have a ton of music, so the thirty-three-year-old admits he's been making up for lost time.

"I always looked forward to when my brother would come home from college," Harris says. He was eleven, and his brother was seven years older. He devoured whatever mid-nineties CDs or cassettes made their way into his hands. In the decades since, he's been working backward through musical eras, finding what he missed in the variegated history of American pop.

We sat down to listen with Harris, asking him to choose most of the playlist. He excitedly obliged.

"ELEANOR RIGBY"

THE BEATLES, REVOLVER (1966)

Harris's songs are often peppy and catchy, but there's undeniable emotional substance to his work, too. So we listened to a particularly weighty tune by the masters.

INDY: You're smiling.

BRETT HARRIS: It's a strange thing to smile at, this song.

How did you come to the Beatles?

My mom, like most people from that generation, totally was into it. My dad claims he knows two songs, and that's "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and the national anthem. He completely could care less about music. My mom, when we would ride around in the car, we'd listen to oldies stations. When we'd ride around with my dad, we'd listen to football games and baseball games.

Was it 1994 when The Beatles Anthology came out? That was the big television event. My dad traveled around for jobs, and my brother was off at college. It was just me and my mom, and we watched that whole TV event. It hit me at the right age.

click to enlarge Brett Harris - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • Photo by Ben McKeown
  • Brett Harris

"JIMMY MACK"

MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS, MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS LIVE! (1967)

The guitar on this song speaks to Harris, though it's as much about the player's phrasing as it is his ability to shred within the exacting Motown song structure. This LP still sports its $2.99 price sticker.

I used to be able to kill a lot of time while I was touring. I would go into record shops and buy records for a dollar or two. You can still do that, but it's been crazy to watch how the vinyl market has changed the past five years. I got this one in East Nashville years ago on tour.

In the best records and the best songs and the best arrangements, everything has its proper place. That's something I try to take to heart and try to take to studios. I don't know who was on the road with [The Vandellas] because it wasn't as documented as now. It's a busy track. It's a busy shuffle. And it's a live take, so it's a little more rushed. There's something about this sense of everything having the right place in the arrangement and having everything have its time.

"(SITTIN' ON) THE DOCK OF THE BAY"

OTIS REDDING, THE DOCK OF THE BAY (1968)

A classic, this song needs no introduction.

The overdubs are so funny on this.

INDY: As a child hearing this song, I knew this was a kind of loneliness I didn't understand yet.

It's entirely in major chords. It's really bizarre. We don't know what Otis would have been like after this got released. He was such a powerful singer. Even songs like "Try a Little Tenderness," they're ballads and all, but they're powerful ballads. In this, there's this melancholy. There's this restraint. It really hints at something special. You take where Otis was going with his last recording, and you take where Sam Cooke was going with his last recording, and it's like they were both pushing, stretching in opposite directions.

"FROM A SILVER PHIAL"

GENE CLARK, NO OTHER (1974)

After its release, this solo record by Byrds founder Gene Clark floundered. It was overproduced, excessive, and strange. Harris had a digital version for a long time and finally found the actual LP. He sees sonic and intellectual depth in the cryptic lyrics, dense production, and sweeping choruses of what has become a cult classic.

This track is one of my favorites of Gene Clark's. It's an overlooked record, although recently there was an all-star performance where they did this record in its entirety. This was a track I found out about because Aquarium Drunkard used to do these compilation things, and I used to grab that when I was looking for music. That track was in there. I used to work in a stockroom, and it was great because I could have flexible hours to tour. I could listen to music back there and get lost in my own world. This was one of those songs I listened to four or five times on repeat after I heard it. There was so much information to unpack.

"BIG, LONG LINE"

Wild Fur, Singles EP (2014)

Wild Fur is the musical partnership of local songwriters Nick Jaeger and Wylie Hunter. Despite the pop-rock label he often gets, Harris rejects the idea that music should be fenced off by genre. He celebrates the stylistic cross-pollination of Wild Fur, old friends who open for him this week.

I remember being blown away when I first heard this. I had known Nick for a few years. Nick plays on my record and had played on my records before. I loved Max Indian and the Tomahawks, and this totally came from somewhere new. This still had all the great playing and songwriting but was this brand new thing. It sounds big, too. At the same time, it's not distant. Sometimes, if I hear synthesizers, except for a very small grouping of records, I expect it to be a little bit cold. It's part of the game, right? But this is very warm and immediate.

Brett Harris - PHOTO BY BEN MCKEOWN
  • Photo by Ben McKeown
  • Brett Harris

"WHAT'S THE FREQUENCY, KENNETH?"

R.E.M., MONSTER (1994)

We skipped the eighties completely and went right to the nineties, to records that hit Harris as a kid. Nowadays, he even knows these guys.

I can say a lot of great things about this band, and I've been fortunate enough to meet every member and have good friendships with a lot of them. What never really gets talked about enough is Mike Mills's ability to harmonize with Michael Stipe. For years, I thought it was an overdub of Michael Stipe with himself. Mills has this perfect ability to blend, and he's a phenomenal singer. It's almost like they're a family band; they have that Beach Boys or Bee Gees magic of sibling harmony.

"O MY SOUL"

BIG STAR, RADIO CITY (1974)

Harris performs alongside Chris Stamey and a big cast in a loving homage to Big Star's Third. At these shows, Harris has sometimes found himself harmonizing with Michael Stipe, too. For a Big Star song, he chose a technically grueling piece of music, the opening cut to the band's sophomore record, Radio City.

We performed this song. Never again—it's like calculus, it's crazy. I don't know that they get any better than [drummer] Jody Stephens.

INDY: This is incredibly complicated.

It's lyrical drumming. He's feeding so much off what Alex [Chilton] is putting in. It's an incredibly interesting guitar part, too, and it hasn't even gotten to the last movement. You can see why they were so loved by critics. When you get swamped by that much music across your desk and this is the first thing you put on, this is going to stick.

Was getting this together to play maddening?

It was insane, kind of terrifying. Chris [Stamey] and Alex used to play together at CBGB, so it was this surreal night. We had just played Central Park the night before. This was 2013. We didn't have Jody. He had to fly back home, so Dale Baker—who is a phenomenal drummer in his own right—had charted out Jody's drum parts and was sight-reading all of Jody's fills. He nailed it.

"I MUST BE IN A GOOD PLACE NOW"

BOBBY CHARLES, BOBBY CHARLES (1972)

Charles was an incredibly influential rock songwriter, with legends like Bill Haley and Fats Domino recording his songs (including "See You Later, Alligator"), but he released very little music under his own name. This track is a perfect specimen of sleepy summer simplicity.

Bobby Charles is actually in The Last Waltz. I don't think he made it into the film version, but he's on the record. This song and this record I found through a guy who works for a music house in New York. He passed on signing me, but we still keep in touch. He's a huge record nut. He has tens of thousands of LPs. In his mind, this is nearly a perfect song in terms of a sense of home. He told me about this, and he said if somebody would write a version of this in this present day, it would be on every ad. It's a perfect song. With a couple of lyrics, it paints a perfect picture. There is nothing wasted.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Hit Parade"

  • Exploring pop's past with Brett Harris, one of its true local masters

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