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Jason Harrod and Randy Bickford get steeped in "the business"

Well, it ain't American Idol, but then Jason Harrod is no Clay Aiken. So while the Chris Austin Songwriting Award doesn't hold the promise of big recording contracts and televised specials, it also has the prestige of being something Milli Vanilli never accomplished (as opposed to going platinum or winning a Grammy). Harrod won that annual Merlefest songwriting award in 2000, the same year as Tift Merritt (who now also has a chance at a Grammy), and he followed it up by winning the N.C. Songwriting Co-op's annual award, then releasing his solo debut, Living In Skin. Yeah, so, that was four years ago, what have you done lately?

"It kind of took me a while to find my feet as a solo artist. And it took me a while to get the money together, frankly," Harrod admits.

Ah, the life of a working artist.

Harrod began his musical career as half of the popular folk duo, Harrod & Funck, during the early nineties. When his partner, Brian Funck headed out to Hollywood to pursue film-editing work in 1998, Harrod went solo. (Funck now works on the popular cable show American Chopper.) He took the opportunity to stray a little further from folk's rigid constraints, explore more of his country roots, and return home to Durham from Boston.

Now Harrod's finished work on his second album, Bright As You, a 10-song, 50-minute affair for which he's looking for distribution. Until then he'll be selling it at shows and from his website ( www.jasonharrod.com).

The album was recorded in Nashville with Phil Madera, a noted session player from Buddy Miller's band, who has recently started getting into production. Madera pulled together some amazing session players, according to Harrod, and he's ecstatic about the finished product, which local producer John Plymale helped mix.

"It's a little bit different, one song ("Voyeurs") is straight up jazz. Other than that, it's a little more bluesy and rocky than my last one, though I always have a country edge to what I do," Harrod says. "There's an underlying theme of light and dark, starting with the album opener, 'The Sun is Up,' and ending with a song called 'Goodnight Sunshine.' There's a song, 'Voyeurs,' about looking in people's windows at night, and there's another called 'Night Follow Me,' so there is a lot of light and dark imagery."

The Strugglers' Randy Bickford can sympathize with Harrod's difficulty 'finding his feet.'

"I've always been serious about the music side of things, but I didn't really know how to promote myself ," Bickford says. "I still don't."

Though Bickford's released two albums and a brand new EP, The Fair Store, he is still working toward fielding a consistent lineup.

"I don't think I've played two consecutive shows with the same people. Which is really kind of maddening," he says. "People have things to do and they can't always be there, but we're slowly forming into a five-piece--two drummers, bass, guitar and piano."

Bickford believes the forthcoming self-titled nine-song CD signals a fresh chapter for The Strugglers.

"I think there are two types of self-titled albums--the default reason--it's your first album, so you self-title it, or it's a redefinition of the artist, a new beginning," Bickford suggests. "For me, this is the first real studio album, and it's almost like the other two don't count because the first one was all 4-track, and the second one was digital 8-track, and it just doesn't sound as grand and majestic. This one's just more instrumentally complex and more of a cohesive artistic statement."

The album was recorded by Jerry Kee in his Mebane studio and created with help from Sharkquest's Chris Eubank, who plays cello. Bickford wrote most of the arrangements, and describes the sound as lush, orchestral pop with strings. He's enthused about what he's done, but admits, as a whole, The Strugglers are a work-in-progress.

Jason Harrod plays the Six String Cafe on January 6.

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