A conversation with Brian Harnetty

 

    Jerry David DeCicca spoke with Brian Harnetty about being realistic about his own abilities, creating in the name of friendship and making music for the front porch rather than the concert hall.

    If I can connect with an audience or have a meaningful exchange, then that is enough. I’m not trying to make something universal or popular, but anchored to the people I work with.

    1

    Jerry David DeCicca

    Do you care what other people think about your music?

    Brian Harnetty

    Yes. And no! There’s a tension between the two, and it has changed over the years. When I was a teenager, at the debilitating height of caring what other people think, I read physicist Richard Feynman’s book What Do You Care What Other People Think?. His insistence on listening to others yet thinking critically about what they say and being radically honest with himself was completely inspiring and much-needed. It became a motto for me. But I don’t always live up to this ideal: it comes and goes in waves.

    In retrospect, I now see these waves directly corresponding to my own sense of self and self-worth. If there is a good confidence (not ego-filled, but realistic about your own abilities), then it doesn’t matter; you do your best and the rest is not important. And it’s not only confidence, but connection, too. The more connected I feel with others, the less I care. Also, I think there has to be something in anyone who insists on working creatively at the margins and knowing that it won’t ever be a big seller or popular that must not care, deep down, what other people think. You just have to make these things — music, art, words, whatever — and scratching that itch is all you can do and think about.

    Now I often think, “Who is my audience? Who am I making this for or with?” instead of worrying about whether people like what I do or not. This might sound strange, but I’ve found it to be really helpful. It might be a single person, or a community. And if I can connect with this audience or have a meaningful exchange, then that is enough. I’m not trying to make something universal or popular, but anchored to the people I work with.

    So, my caring has become more focused, and not about my own pride, but more about using the music as a means to reach out and build a relationship. For my last project, “Shawnee, Ohio,” I wrote the music for the residents of the town of Shawnee. When I played it for them, their reactions were thoughtful and sometimes mixed, but always with respect and a kind of tenderness. And then it all becomes so much more than seeking praise; it is instead building friendships and community.

    What about you? Do you care what other people think about your music? I have a sense I already know your answer. For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve seemed to be a person who has quietly and confidently always known what you wanted, and caring what others thought never seemed to be all that important to you.

    2

    I think you have me confused for someone else — insert appropriate emoticon here. It’s true that, at least in terms of songwriting, I’m very much of the mindset that I want to see songs in the world that aren’t already there, so I should put them there. And I do have very strong opinions about the state of the type of songwriting I do, which in form and tradition is historically fairly conservative compared to music with a capital M. But, I do want other people to hear and enjoy my music. When it comes to record-making, I’m a bit less calculated. All my records have been a product of geography and circumstance and I’m always excited to hear my songs and voice in new frames musically. So I guess I do mainly make things for my own amusement. I don’t think about audience, though, because that’s a tail chaser. I lean to examples like Lou Reed, Dylan, Merle or other contrarians.

    Speaking of those guys, that’s who I listened to in high school forever ago, and you mentioned reading Feynman as a teenager. I feel pretty lucky that as a teenager I was putting good stuff in my body, at least in terms of music, books, and movies. Are you sentimental about those moments? As an artist, I’m a big believer in “you are what you eat” when your brain is developing.

    I don’t feel sentimental about that time (I definitely don’t want to go back to it!) but I do think that everything affected me more then. Everything was new, everything was a turn-on. So, yeah, the culture that touches you when you are young does so differently than when you are older. But, I’ve never felt in control of my own tastes and likes; I don’t feel like I’ve ever been a tastemaker. Instead, I became a good listener, taking seriously the suggestions of others, adding my own thoughts and ideas, and passing them along. And now, I’m not sure if I have any taste at all!

    There’s intimacy and detail in their music that is so inviting, and might not translate well when scaled up. Maybe that’s the quality that I’m searching for.

    3

    I hear ya. Being old rules. I worked in a record store for all of my twenties. Despite the clichés of record stores in the ’90s, it was like going to college, an opportunity to learn and hear all this music with your referral or liner notes as context, instead of Google, YouTube, etc. I think in that way, I did feel in control of my tastes. I always wanted to surround myself with people or in places where I could learn something about songwriting or albums. As far as taste, though, I’ve never known what that meant. I guess I’ve been called a tastemaker, but that’s only because I speak in a low and slow voice. So, if you were of a different mind and talent, what musician would you want to play like who makes music nothing like your own? My answer, for many years, has been Southside Johnny.

    Ha, I love that choice! But why? Being close to Springsteen? His voice? To be able to sing and perform during the ’70s? I’d choose Mississippi John Hurt. His music always feels like he has arrived. It is quiet and precise and simple and wise. Funny enough, I hear those same qualities especially in your song “Watermelon,” and I immediately thought, “Whoa, Texas must be treating you right!” There’s a lightness to it that is really hard to pull off.

    I might also choose someone like Doc Boggs or Hiram Stamper, old-timey banjo players that are comfortable in their own skin. Or even Ali Farka Touré. These are performers that can play seemingly without effort, and have their own peculiar technique without wearing it on their sleeves. It’s functional and social music, yet deeply touching. They drop all pretense, don’t try to be masterpieces (whatever they are) and just need to be made.

    4

    Yes, all your choices I’m with you on. And thanks for noticing that about “Watermelon.” Mississippi John Hurt was my main influence on that tune. I wrote it on guitar, but on record there’s the pianist Matt Bourne. Most people hear Brian Wilson as a reference, but my acoustic part is very much in the John Hurt tradition. You know, I think it’s more about loving someone’s music that is nothing like me. Or seems nothing like me. The people you mention I guess I feel more similar to than Southside. I just can’t imagine standing on stage, singing joyously, being influenced by Sam Cooke and Otis without feeling self-conscious or a poser for being a semi-recovered introverted depressive. Maybe I just love beach music. I’d like to be Clifford Curry, too. Somehow, an old-timey musician seems like a very probable past life. But no matter how many lives I go back, I don’t think I’ve ever played Myrtle Beach to a bunch of tourists. Dream gig! Ali Farka Touré’s Niafunke is a masterpiece, though, right? But an effortless-sounding one. I want to make a record with you someday. But I only want to write and record it outside at night. How would we do that, and what do you think it would sound like?

    I just laughed hard enough to snort beer through my nose imagining you — or me, for that matter — playing a Myrtle Beach gig for tourists. I’d pay big money to see that. Yes, I chose those musicians because they all seem so different from what I do. But after thinking about it, I just now realized they each share a quality of sounding like they are all most comfortable playing on the front porch instead of big concert halls. There’s intimacy and detail in their music that is so inviting, and might not translate well when scaled up. Maybe that’s the quality that I’m searching for.

    On making a record together: yes. Simple, memorable melodies. Old instruments. Quietly celebratory. A thought-through field recording: something that wouldn’t get in the way of the nighttime sounds, but instead would invite them into the mix. I’m in!

    Deal. Buy your plane ticket, but wait until October when it cools off. I’ve got to go kill some red wasps right now, so we’ll catch up on this later.

    Thank you.

    Data


    Conversation: 194
    Curated by: Jerry David DeCicca
    Conducted by: Email
    Edited by: Morgan Enos
    Published: June 5, 2018
    Total questions: 4
    Word count: 1498
    Reading time: Five minutes
    Hyperlinks: 2

    Metadata


    Pretense: Null
    Scale: Achieved
    Suggestion: Taken
    Watermelon: Accessed
    Tourism: Null
    Connection: Found

    Relation


    About the subject


    Brian Harnetty is a composer, sound artist and writer who has recorded with Will Oldham, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Anna Roberts-Gevalt and more. He resides in Columbus, Ohio.

    About the curator


    Jerry David DeCicca’s most recent album is Time the Teacher. He’s also the producer of records by Larry Jon Wilson, Ed Askew, Chris Gantry, and others. He lives in Bulverde, Texas.


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