Now/It's: An Interview with JP Harris (Part One)

I feel I’d have to be borderline comatose not to take to the proverbial “over” on the over/under of how often the word “authenticity” is thrown around with regard to country, americana, and more specifically, JP Harris. It is the ultimate buzzword with regard to a “certain type” of music journalism - coincidentally, you’ll likely see it attached and mentioned over and over with regard to the buzz surrounding A Star is Born (topical!) - especially when it comes to Harris and his music. By some fashion, Harris’ approach of simply doing things his way has garnered him heaps of “authenticity points” in the eyes of music journalists. That’s all well and good, but sometimes it distracts from the matter at hand, which in this case is his newest record Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing (out today!). It’s been four years since Harris’ last full-length record (Home Is Where the Hurt Is, 2014), released, so in some regards, Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing might be viewed as long overdue, but as you’ll likely learn from our two-part conversation with Harris, it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time. Harris also takes the time to share some fantastic perspectives on the state of country, americana, and the world he inhabits as an artist, a cross-section analysis of European and American audiences, and much, much more. So much more that I’ve decided to split the interview in to two parts, with Part Two set to publish sometime next week. So feel free to dive into Part One in the mean time, and share in the wizened views of JP Harris.

Now/It’s met with JP Harris at his home on Nashville’s East Side.

JP - How you doing?

N/I - Doing well. How are things on your end? Busy?

JP - Did some morning TV, ate some Miss Saigon. So going pretty well. You want some coffee?

N/I - Sure. I was up early, so I could probably use it.

JP - I get it. I’m a carpenter when I’m not playing music, so a force of habit from doing years and years of doing this shit before I played music, I just get up at the ass crack of dawn. There’s not really anything I can do about it. A late sleep in for me is 8:30.

N/I - I’m about the same. I used to have a lot of late nights, but now doing this stuff and some radio as well, I’ve had to force all Circadian rhythms the other way.

JP - Send it all a totally different direction. I know what you mean. It’s always funny for me - adjusting back to tour scheduling. I’m always flopping one way or the other.

N/I - I can only imagine.

JP - Luckily, I do fine on not enough sleep. I can get about a month of that, and then I need at least a solid week of plenty of sleep every night [laughs].

N/I - Like a tour’s worth.

JP - Exactly. One tour’s worth of under-slept nights. I have to train for it. I’ll start staying up until 1am, or at least fucking midnight. Because I’m almost always in bed by 10:30, 11. So I have to ramp up to being on tour. I did the opposite when Americanafest happened. I was up earlier trying to bang out long days I was doing for a friend of mine, and then that festival weekend hit, and I was up until 1:30 or 2 every night, but then I still have to get up at 6am. It was brutal.

N/I - I was in the same boat. Not so much doing a carpentry job, but a lot of bouncing around town doing this and grabbing that.

JP - Well pull up a seat - welcome to my office. I’m going to keep making coffee, because I could use a little kick in the ass myself.

N/I - Do your thing.

[JP makes coffee]

JP - So this is your site? What’s your guys’ thing?

N/I - It is. It’s mostly long form interviews. Whether or not they’re journalistic, I don’t know. Just seems like most publications don’t lean into that all that much anymore.

JP - I know what you’re saying. People are getting forced to write shorter, more digestible pieces. It’s less staffing and more contracting out. And sometimes it barely scratches the surface.

N/I - That’s part of the reason why I try to keep this all as loose as possible. The last thing I want to do is sit there and run through a list of pre-portioned questions. I get that some publications need to establish the “Who, what, when, where, and why,” but if it’s a genuine conversation, and I’ve done some research, that stuff will come up naturally.

JP - It’s funny, because it’s almost like a “Here’s the format we figured out that lets us pull this whole thing off in three hundred words or less, and fit on an iPhone 7 screen, and can be read in two swipes.”

N/I - That’s the real truth of it. Three hundred words on a computer or a magazine doesn’t look like much, but three hundred words on a phone….

JP - Which is where people are reading 90% of their news these days….

N/I - That might as well be an entire novel. You could probably extend the same purview to people in general.

JP - Right. Small talk and bullshitting - “What have you been doing?” “Oh, you know, just working.” It’s like, “No, I mean have you been thinking about the state of the world, or is there a tree on your block that fascinates you?” And music writing is the same where I’m like “God damn.” I’ve already - for the first time in my life, since the press releases went out - I’ve turned down four of fifty interviews that have come in, because I could just tell. I read the sites and was like “Who are these people?” And it’s obvious when you’re going to be wasting your time with certain [publications]. It’s like “I’m sorry, but it’s just not interesting to me.” Of course, we very politely pass, and tell them “Thank you so much.”

N/I - I understand completely. It’s the same - not to say everyone’s knocking on my door for an interview all the time - but I’ll do my to maintain some sort of thruline on interviews, and being in Nashville, it’s pretty easy to lean into that, but sometimes it just doesn’t….

JP - Fit.

N/I - Exactly. And I’ll say “Oh, I’m really busy right now. Sorry!”

JP - That’s a good way to do it. It’s a funny dance from both angles.

N/I - I would imagine for you, it’s a little more perilous - especially when you have an album coming out - to exercise that right to say no.

JP - It is. I felt weird about it every time I’ve done it. But at the same time, we put so much of ourselves out there as artists, and more and more these days, you’re expected to do one of two things as an artist in the digital age, which is to become completely about your entire fucking life to everybody. And that transparency becomes an incredibly constructed version, or you’re telling the world way too much about yourself. Or your flipside is to be a completely mysterious figure - I don’t give interviews often, there’s nothing about my past on the Internet, and I’ve scrubbed everything off Google.

N/I - It’s all in, or all out. And either way, you have to play a part.

JP - There’s no middle ground anymore that’s like “I am not a commodity you buy on an app store. I’m a fucking person. I’m an artist with a whole long, weird life story leading up to this point.” But at the same time, I’m a human. I get to say no to things. I have a threshold. I mean, fuck. I work as a full-time carpenter for myself, which is great. I’ve been doing that since I was seventeen years old. I’m self-employed. I can’t complain that much. But it’s super hard work that requires keeping some semblance of work hours. I can’t just go finish up a built-in that I’m doing starting at 9 one night the way that I can sit down and finish up some emails or whatever.

N/I - One’s a little more active than the other, but both can be equally consuming.

JP - Right. I get up in the morning…. The first thing I do for an hour every morning, is deal with Internet bullshit. Computer stuff. And drink coffee. Then I go to a job. Sometimes I have days where I don’t, like today and tomorrow, which is fucking awesome. Then I get home, and I do the same shit for another two hours. Then I mow my grass. Then I fucking tally some merch. There just has to be this point where you say “I don’t have anymore for you guys.” 14:30

N/I - Absolutely. There’s a usury nature to the promotional cycle of an album now more than ever. I would reckon, it’s probably a more usury detriment to an artist than whatever entity it is that’s asking.

JP - Totally.

N/I - Because the entities, publications, whatever, can go out and have five new features or what have you lined up by the end of the day.

JP - Exactly.

N/I - And I understand, in the digital age, with the nature of Facebook, and things like that….

JP - [snapping] Constant delivery of content.

N/I - Exactly. Algorithmically speaking, you have to. Otherwise you get lost in the mix.

JP - But it’s kind of like “What does it even matter?” And [the artists] are being asked to jump through all of these hoops. And at the end of the day, we have lives. I have three rehearsals this week, and an album release show. Bills to pay, and fucking more grass to cut.

N/I - That’s right. On top of being an artist trying to promote a record, whose being asked to constantly provide content for countless outlets, and somehow make it all unique. I would imagine it can be a massive strain.

JP - At the same, I feel like I’ve done a really good job at trying to hold back on the over-delivery thing. Because I see a lot of artists who do that. This new reboot of the single model, is just, in my mind, complete and utter horseshit. The time of singles is gone. It’s passed. Because what it used to be, the only way to get a song out was on a record, and you needed to put 45s out, because not only was it an affordable way for somebody to buy your music, but it was the only to get radio play. They had to be 45s, not long players. There was a physical reason it had to go that way.

N/I - Exactly. That whole model is built out of the radio format. And with the world that you’re in - country music, which becomes increasingly more broad - you have the Opry, which was born to accommodate that exact style. You come out, play two, maybe three songs, all of which are looking to be “added” on country radio. Nowadays, you talk to most people, they don’t understand why the format of the Opry exists.

JP - Exactly.

N/I - They go to see Kacey Musgraves, Josh Hedley, Garth Brooks, or whoever it is, they might expect to get an entire show, but they don’t. To that point, on the digital side, with streaming and singles, you have someone who will put out singles for one, two, three, however many years, continually, but the end game almost always circles back to signing some sort of label deal, and nine times out of ten, it’s purpose is to take all this stuff that’s already out….

JP - Together on a record now.

N/I - “Let’s just put a different photo on the front, and we’ll call it a new album.”

JP - “Maybe we’ll have it mastered by someone different.”

N/I - And that’s where your signing bonus of $2,500 comes into play. That can go to re-recording at Electric Lady Studios or something.

JP - It’s a weird system. I like the idea - and we did this - we premiered two singles before the album came out. But only one of them actually went to any streaming platform. Releasing singles in advance of an actual record makes sense to me, because it teases. It’s a movie trailer. But watching people put albums out over and over….. Plus, the art of making a cohesive, full album just seems to have been lost.

N/I - In a certain sense, absolutely.

JP - No one seems to care to do it anymore.

N/I - Again, with the single stuff, you can put something out, hope it sticks - gets placed on a TV show or something - but as that goes on, you can wind up with a backlog of songs waiting for release in a single format.

JP - It’s a very weird thing. I still don’t understand how exactly it works for some people.

N/I - In a way, it’s pretty antithetical to what you did, obviously. Four years between full-length records…. I don’t know how it was in your case, but when someone is in that scenario and has not put something out in a few years, I bet the pressure to release singles mounts. Did you feel anything similar to that during those four years leading to Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing?

JP - Not so much pushing me to put out singles. I think in my world, luckily, people are expecting albums, or records. Which is what I appreciate. It’s more like I would get these songs done over the course of those four years, and be like “Fuck. This is a good song. I really want to put it out into the world.” And occasionally, we would start playing live. There are a couple songs from the new record that we started playing a year and a half ago. I just did it because I wanted to feel it out more.


N/I - That makes sense.

JP - People who had seen me do it multiple times would pick up on it, but something you come to realize is, until you become a really massive, massive artist…. Fuck. Even people at that level don’t play unreleased material. You do it at a writer’s round, maybe. You can play an unreleased song four days before the single comes out, but you don’t do it sooner, most times. People don’t get it. They don’t know the words. They can’t sing along. They can’t necessarily listen back to it once they hear it.

N/I - If there’s a want for instant immersion, the means might not be there.

JP - And with the whole radio model so far gone from where it was, no one is going “Holy shit, what was that?” and picking up the phone and waiting on hold for the radio DJ to tell them what it was. Or they hear it again and turn it up to listen to the name. It just doesn’t work that way anymore. So it was sort of torturous in the sense that I was slowly building an album’s worth of songs, and I just couldn’t play them. Moreover, I was just getting really sick of playing the same fucking set of songs. Some of those songs, I’ll never get tired of, and I’m still really proud of, and they’re fun. But I’m still playing three songs every show from my very first record. Songs that I wrote in 2010. It’s eight years later. It was more circumstantial. I don’t have the ability to weed those out of the set if I want to, because I don’t have enough original material released to play a 90 or 120 minute show.

N/I - So it’s not necessarily a demand thing where people keep asking for those three?

JP - Well there is that, too. Over the years, I’ve already cut out a couple songs that we were playing for a few years after each record came out, and then I’d be like “Eh, I’m not really feeling these.” Or the live band arrangement didn’t work quite the way I wanted to, like “Fuck. This needs three back-up singers and a keys player, and all this shit I don’t have.” So there is a demand thing, and I’ll keep certain songs in. I’ve had people ask “Why don’t you play more songs from your first record? I love that record.” And sometimes, the answer is just because I don’t feel like playing it anymore.

N/I - Or the tour at hand is in service of different record.

JP - “I put out a new album. That’s why.” [laughs] But there’s something that felt like going through the motions over the last year. Because I finished the album in July of last year. Between tours. It takes a long time to get a record queued up. And I didn’t have a deal signed with Free Dirt [Records]. We hadn’t begun discussing. I hadn’t even met those guys at that point. So I got it done, and it was mastered September 1st. And now I’ve had a year of sitting on these songs, and again, sneaking them out here and there, but the crowd responses are a little mixed. They’ll go “Cool?” And a lot of times, people are excited that I’m playing a new song from the record that isn’t out yet. They’ll get pumped about that, but you don’t necessarily see people singing along, yet. And every other original tune that I’m playing, people know the words, they’re screaming over the monitors once the chorus comes in. Until it’s out there in the world, people are only getting 80% of the experience. Because I stand firmly behind the idea of releasing whole, cohesive records. Yeah, I’ve got other side projects and things like that. I put out that duets record a couple years ago.

N/I - The one from 2016?

JP - That one was a hit. Actually, the spins for that on Spotify went up super fast. I think the one with Kelsey Waldon is up to 46,000 plays, or something like that. For a self-released, vinyl only thing with no publicity, no promotion, just “I’m putting this out in the world.” The girls on it put it up on their Internets and that was it.

N/I - It sort of laughed in the face of every release convention.

JP - Exactly, and there was some great success with that. I’ve got a whole other one lined up with the girls to sing with. I just have to find the time to record it and find the right time to put it out. There’s also a byline of me and Chance McCoy from Old Crow, there’s this old time side project. That’s how me met, playing old time music years ago. A lot of people have been asking for the past few years - they wanted a JP and Chance record which we made one and it got shelved for various reasons, and now it’s sitting indefinitely shelved somewhere.

N/I - Stuck in release purgatory?

JP - It is going to forever be in purgatory. We’ll release it on the 10 year anniversary of recording it. There’s been a lot of interest generated in the fact that I know all of these obscure old banjo ballads and murder songs, and someone will say “Why don’t you make a record of that shit?” and I’ll say “Again, when I have a little extra time and money, that’d be fun.” And maybe I put that out as a ten inch, eight song EP. But generally speaking, I’ve got new songs. I’ve got a whole other record’s worth of new songs, finished songs. And I’m hoping when I’m ready to record again, I’ll have a record and a half’s worth of songs, and then I’ll be able to hone that down to the best. It is a little torturous to be like “Shit. These are really good songs, but I can’t play them yet.”

N/I - You’re kind of restarting that process all over again, especially with this Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing coming out this Friday.

JP - Exactly. I can’t necessarily release anything until this time next year. Even the next duets project - I could probably release that in the fall of next year if I get it printed and recorded before then, but it’s a weird thing working in the inverse of this modern era of “Content. Content. Content.” Because my [content] is so limited, I think the fans - and the music writers and critics who pay attention to it - it’s a bigger deal when I put something out, because it’s so limited when I do release stuff, and so focused, I have to leave the spotlight on whatever that is for a while until it’s time for the next thing. It’s interesting, because again, it’s not like I’ve fallen out of circulation the last four years, but I hadn’t had a press mention in a while, and then I put the duets record out. Suddenly, there was a shit ton of attention to it. And if I had followed that up a month later with something as little as a single release, that would have knocked the duets record off the platform of attention. So it’s a tricky game. And going back to being limited about what aspects of my personal life I put out, and how much energy I put out - the musical thing - I do pay attention to timing to a certain degree. This record just kind of happened to time out. I wanted an early Fall release for business reasons, because there’s more releases in the Spring and Winter, usually, so there’d be a little less competition. Also, it’ll be well circulated in the press by the time festival buyers start opening their books in November, December, January. And it also works well that Winter being a naturally slower season for touring, I’m not under as much pressure to get it out and hit the road.

N/I - You can sort of control when and where you have to road dog it.

JP - We are doing a bunch of touring this year, and we’ll probably do a fuck ton next year, but there’s not as much of an expectation. It doesn’t look quite as weird if you only have four to eight dates a month - January, February, March, April - but if you’ve only got four dates a month June, July, August, September, people can be like “This isn’t going too well for you, is it?” I just want to let it organically take its course, to a degree. There’s all this great stuff, with people like you writing about it. It just debuted on the Euro Americana charts at number one this morning , which is awesome. That’s still underground, by comparison, but it’s still a pretty well respected radio chart. For the world I play in, it’s very much paid attention to. That’s where the BBC gets its music. Radio One. The Netherlands. Radio Eins in Germany. They’re all watching that chart for new releases.

N/I - Sure. When it comes to Europe and the world of music you’re in…. Scandinavia is the most fascinating aspect of that whole equation. Country music, Americana, outlaw country, whatever you want to call it, is all wildly popular. It’s massive.

JP - It’s really interesting too, because there’s this flipside with Scandinavia in that three of the world’s top pop songwriters are Swedish. And these are guys who are writing American radio toppers, which is pretty funny. There’s an interesting - and I don’t think people are able to recognize it as much on the surface - but there’s a give and take with weird obsession with both cultures. People in America don’t realize how much Scandinavian popular culture influences Americana, fashion and music in particular.

N/I - I was going to say interior design.

JP - And interior design. Interior design being huge, especially from Denmark and the southern parts of Sweden and Norway. And when you get over there, you’re walking around in any major city - Malmo, Stockholm, Copenhagen - you’re like “Whoa. Everyone here under the age of 40 is dressed like the coolest looking city kids in America.” And then you’re like “Oh wait. They started this style.” The whole tracksuit and sneakers and skinny jeans thing started in Sweden, and then was bit by American fashion designers who then brought the style here. They’re exporting more fashion “pop” popular culture, but then they’re heavily influenced by American rock culture, throwback fashion, and that. It’s a weird exchange. It’s more equal part with Scandinavia than it is with any of the Western European countries.

N/I - That’s fair. Sometimes it seems like the more classically Western European countries are more so bemused by it rather than anything else. It’s like “Look at the guy with the beard and the tattoos coming into town!” It’s what the stereotypical idea of what American counter culture looks like. Or the guys rolling into town wearing Nudie suits. Or dressed like Loretta Lynn. They can say “Wow! There’s still a part of America stuck in the 70s!”

JP - But - particularly in the past decade - it’s got this cooler edge. It’s been refined. It’s not the guys of yesteryear that were doing a vintage throwback thing. It’s more 70s country outlaw biker style that’s been molded into more of it’s own weird world of high fashion. So that’s why I think Americana music in general has exploded in the last five years. People have been touring there for years. All my buddies who are twice my age and have been at this for two as long are like, “Yeah! We always did great in Europe. We started going in the 80s.” But every industry person I know in Europe is like “This is fucking huge. It’s not ever been this way. We would never get these top level of the independent world headliners -” like Nathaniel Rateliff and Leon Bridges and people like that. There was never an era like that. It was always huge level arena people or very underground people finding their niche markets.

N/I - It’d be like when John Prine used to always tour Ireland.

JP - Exactly. And now it’s broader. We see it too. We’ll go to a country like France, and we’ll see older people kind of playing dress up, Cowboy style. It’s sort of strange, but we’ll play in Eindhoven, Utrecht, or Berlin, and it’s like 30 to 45 year olds who are cool. It’s like “Oh whoa. You guys get it a little more than I thought.” I no longer think it’s this sort of novelty kind of thing. I think part of the beauty of it is that in Europe, people don’t feel like they have to follow…. There aren’t really tastemakers, or a mold you have to fit in to in terms of lifestyle in order to listen to the type of music you listen to like there is in the States. We have people come to our shows that are like “Yeah! We just love live music! We were at an EDM festival last weekend. We also went and saw this black metal band.” And we’re just like “You’re 55 and seem really normal. Wow.” They’re discerning, but open to a lot. People are becoming more and more discerning. In the independent world, there’s becoming more and more of an Emperor’s New Clothes sort of parallel with a lot of artists where people are getting fed from this growing Americana Roots Music Industry, and people in the States are just like “Yeah! I love this!” But people in Europe fearlessly tell you that they don’t like a band and think they’re terrible. And it’s oddly direct [laughs]. I kind of feel like certain markets in Europe provide more honest fans. And those same people might say “I fucking love Brad Paisley.” And I think that’s awesome, because they’re not afraid to like all sorts of weird mixes of styles of country music and music in general. But for some reason, some folks in the States want to continue trying to fill this mold.

N/I - I suppose that’s probably true.

JP - I’ve fought that in different ways over the years. One of greatest assets will always be not following what everyone else is doing. I’ve worn the exact same fucking clothes, had the same beard, the same fucking haircut since I was seventeen years old. Nothing has changed. I’m not changing my look. I’m not changing my sound. I’m not changing my stage show. I’m going to do what I want to do, the way I want to do it.

Part Two coming soon…