Festival Heartstrings Interview

INTERVIEW: JP Harris at Newport Folk Festival 2016

JP Harris kicked off this year’s Newport Folk Festival on Friday at 11 am on the Harbor Stage, as we all reveled in the moment that happens only once every festival — it’s what JP referred to as approaching an audience with virgin ears and minds. It’s very much like the feeling one experiences on the first day of school or summer camp. It’s the beauty of knowing that an adventure is waiting to be had and that so many good things are about to happen. At the Harbor Stage, every seat was filled and everyone engaged with excited anticipation. Of all the performances we experienced throughout the weekend, JP’s connection and interaction with his audience was one of the most memorable. It was because of this performance that, though meeting in-person for the first time for our interview after the show, I felt as if we had already met. JP prides himself on authenticity both on and off stage. He’s a master craftsman, not only of music, but also at carpentry, positivity of the human spirit, and core values that exalt true talent over commercial packaging. His goal is to simultaneously create music, while building a community, all as one and the same entity. One which forms an oasis where the best attributes of character are graded select or better, solely upon their inherent imperfect beauty, the uniqueness of their intrinsic worth and upon nothing more.

How does it feel to be performing at Newport Folk Festival? 

I’m totally fucking stoked (laughs). I’ve been here the last two years and Jay [Sweet], Brittany [Manley] and Caps [Chris Capotosto] have always been sweet enough to find a place for me to do something, but this is the first year being on the official Newport roster. I got my little flag today, ya know. So it feels like I’ve been hanging out on my really cool friend’s super cool porch and I came over one day and they said, ‘Why don’t you come hang out in the living room, man?’ It’s a good feeling.

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Can you describe how you felt being on the NFF stage? What was going through your mind?

I don’t even know (laughs). Some times I’ll mess up a chord or I’ll just keep playing something for too long, and I don’t know what I’m singing…but I mean, I’m singing. There’s a short circuit (laughs). In situations like this…and it’s hard to compare anything to performing at Newport Folk Fest…I really want to communicate what these songs mean. They’re not just something I barfed out and was like cool, it rhymes. It’s all real shit that’s happened to me or I’ve made happen to other people. So, it felt like I was able to most honestly communicate what these songs are about. Today, I was in an open environment to do that. Other times it feels like you’re just repeating the words and you’re brain is somewhere else. This is Newport Folk Fest. This is the only thing like this in the entire world, let alone America, ya know. I think today it was so sweet of Jay, Brittany and Caps to place us where they did on the schedule.

The first chords to play the festival were ours, specifically mine. This means a lot to me, to ring in something so special, and I could feel it from the crowd, coming in with these virgin ears and minds. It’s a very metaphysical experience.

Was the preparation/anticipation for performing at Newport Folk Festival different than that of another festival?

Nah. I’m not going to disclose all details but I’ll say that we didn’t rehearse a ton. I’m sure I’ve played more technically perfect shows and “tighter” arrangements, but everything just felt more comfortable today. We let everything be a little looser because none of us have slept in the past 48 hours, from being on tour and then driving here. So, the performance lends itself to a little bit of, as I said before, honesty.

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It’s interesting because I think for a lot of artists, a successful live performance or show is defined by technical standards with no hiccups or mishaps. Whereas you are more focused on human connection and your audience.

Yes. It’s Country music. It’s not supposed to be super refined. It’s not wine. It’s some shitty beer, ya know. That’s the point. It’s for everybody. I really, really appreciate a tight band and I’ve seen some unbelievable bands at this festival and I will for the rest of the weekend. And I respect to the highest degree when people can pull together the unbelievably tight musicianship that I’ve seen so many times and with bands I’ve played with over the years. But I feel there is the element of stress that comes with that, that I don’t want to introduce into my music. I don’t want my guys who are playing with me to feel it. I don’t want to feel it. I always get to play with the most amazing musicians and I feel super lucky that no matter who is behind me, they are always good and always good people and it’s made me a better musician to get to work with these people. A personal relationship between us is far more important than whether or not the music is totally gelled with each other. The older I’ve gotten and the more experience I’ve gotten, I’ve gotten way less focused on trying to pin-brick all these little points that musically I’ve been lacking because I realize that it’s the biggest form a stress and dissatisfaction with my own music; trying to shape into this thing that I thought was the image it needed to have. It’s so much nicer to get older and more comfortable with it. I just want everyone on stage to be enjoying themselves, and having a good time, because the crowd recognizes that. Whether or not we’re missing some changes or maybe the ending got a little sloppy — who gives a goddamn? Country music is most well-suited in a community gathering, down-home folks kind of environment, and it’s super cool to come to Newport with that kind of attitude.

Where do you look for inspiration when creating music?

Mannn, it’s just life man (laughs). Yeah, that’s it (laughs). It’s gotta be real. You gotta live it. I respect that there are people who have a much more formulaic style that they are aces at, but I have to live life everyday. Songs for me are only a quarter factual or recounting of something that happened. There’s embellishment to make it more identifiable, but every single one of those songs is a real story for me.

So I get to learn from my life experiences through the songs I write and I get to go out to remind myself every day that you did this thing, good or bad, that caused you to write this song and it’s a picture that you’re going to have forever. You don’t get to put it down. Maybe you get to stop playing songs eventually but they’re always still there.

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A question I tend to ask musicians, is what do you do when you’re not playing music. You’re a carpenter, luthier, I’ve been to events that you helped organize and have many other talents. Can you tell me about some of the non-music work you do? 

I like to think of it as overall finish. I’m not the kind of guy who goes in and nails door trim in or does cabinets. I’ve been doing it 15 or 16 years, since I was still a teenager, and my focus has always been on historic restoration and real old-fashioned building methods. Country music makes sense to me for the same reasons.

It’s real honest work, and it gives me a real sense of purpose — that I have something beyond just my music.

It’s my connection to the world — that I work with my hands, physically. It’s a great thing and really meditative. It’s a great feeling, especially repairing, that you are potentially and hopefully a part of a long line of people who will study their craft and care enough about it and the people you are working for, and the people who came before you who built these things and they continue to be a legacy. The older things get, the more of an identity and community it has. You have to see the labor of your people for generations and generations before it really holds a serious weight. For me, it’s always been a connection to the community I’m living in.

You’ve been to and lived in a lot of places — why do you call Nashville home? Do you plan to stay there?

I’ve been in Nashville for five years. I didn’t really mean to move there (laughs). A friend of mine who worked in the music industry said to me, hey man, I think you’re on to something and I think you should keep at and move to Nashville. And I said, really? What am I going to do there? (laughs) I didn’t know anybody. He just called me up one day and said his buddy has a room available for $300 per month. I didn’t know if I was going to stay. I didn’t live in a city for 13 or 14 years. I didn’t have power, I didn’t have water, I could not drive to where I lived in the winter time; a very sparse simple life that had a lot of ups and downs to it. And so picking all that up and leaving the ability to walk outside naked in the morning and piss in the woods behind your house. It was isolation and I really appreciated the privacy and obviously I was in a really community with nature. Someday I’d like to move out of the city again like I did for so many years, but I don’t feel like I’ll ever not have a presence in some place that feels like part of my home, in Nashville. It’s a cool town, and it feels incredible to be a part of the history of that town.

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What are your plans for your next album?

I’m not making any promises. I have an entire record and then some worth of songs. I have a bunch of really cool new ones that are close to me being happy with the finished product. I played two brand new ones day and have been for the last couple of months. I have no idea when I’m going to put them out. I have no real plan for it. I feel like I’m in a really good spot. I don’t want it to sound like I’m being lazy, because I’m a hard worker, but I feel like I don’t want to force much more to happen. I did a lot of fighting in the first 5 or 6 years of being a musician and I feel like I was always honest about it, but I don’t feel like I always did things that were me to try and further my career as a musician. And in terms of making another record, I don’t want to have anyone to answer to. I love recording, but I would like the means of recording it and who’s releasing it to be a little more organic. I don’t want to set it on a calendar schedule. It does nothing for me but give me days I have to cross off with other shit I have to get done before this deadline. I have deadlines I have to set for other more practical things in my life. My creativity shouldn’t be on a stopwatch. If I don’t put another record out for four years, people are still going to come see play shows and that’s awesome.

I will add, though I can’t name any names, that I am putting out a recording project that’s all classic country duets with four of my favorite gals from Nashville. It’s going to be self-released as a limited addition 7-inch. I’m going to try and give it away online for free. I love being in the studio. We recorded at Ronnie’s Place, which is Ronnie Milsap’s studio in Nashville. It’s a sweet spot with a great vibe — Waylon, Cash, everybody has made recordings there. It’s a magical time in music — honest, independent music of every genre — we are experiencing an incredibly vibrant time for it now, and it’s getting commercially recognized without getting fouled by it. I just want to do my part to capture some of that. There are all these incredible female singers in Nashville. No matter how modern or progressive we say we are, there are standards women are forced to meet in so many ways. It’s an unfairly stacked deck.

 

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