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Jesse Harris to open Aspen gig

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
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ASPEN ” Midway through his years at Cornell University, Jesse Harris realized that writing could turn out to be a lonely way to make living. So the English major turned his attention to a kind of writing that would lead to social interaction. “Writing songs seemed like a much more fun way of being a writer, a lot less solitary ” he said. “So I switched from prose to songs and singing and guitar.”

As far as a plan for being a musician, that was about the extent of it. Harris, who had begun playing piano at 10, then switched to guitar and took some guitar classes in college, made a few cassettes of his songs while at Cornell. After graduation, he formed a band with fellow singer-songwriter Rebecca Martin. The group, named Once Blue, launched Harris’ career ” their 1995 self-title debut was released on the EMI label ” but it hardly qualifies as a long-term success story. A second album was released only years after it was recorded, and then, only in Japan.

So Harris simply bounced along to the next project ” a new band, called Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos ” and the next, and the next, and the next. It hasn’t made him a brand name: When he appears on Monday, Feb. 23 at Belly Up Aspen, one of a trio of singer-songwriters that also includes Joshua Radin and Meiko, Harris is at the bottom of the bill. But he accepts that as a trade-off of never having to come up with a blueprint that might ultimately confine him in his musical ventures.



“I usually just go with whatever happens,” said the 29-year-old from a tour bus that was heading toward San Diego. “I think it’s the only way to go. If you plan too much, you can get stuck in a plan and miss a lot of opportunities. The music business is changing and it’s better to seize what comes your way.”

Despite being the opening act on Monday’s show, Harris is, in a way, the most prominent of the three artists. In 2007, he had the rare honor of being tapped to supply all the songs for “The Hottest State,” a film written and directed by Ethan Hawke. The film did almost no business, but was noteworthy for its soundtrack, which featured the likes of Willie Nelson, Cat Power, the Black Keys and Bright Eyes singing Harris’ songs.




Even that experience, however, doesn’t match the one Harris had several year earlier in terms of a career boost. For some time, Harris ” a native of uptown Manhattan who has settled in the downtown Tribeca neighborhood ” had been rubbing shoulders with another young New York City singer, a woman who had relocated from Texas. When she sat at the piano and began tinkering around with one of Harris’ songs, “Holding On,” Harris got an early earful of a sound that would eventually entrance the whole country.

“For awhile I didn’t want to work with other singers at all,” said Harris. “But then I met Norah Jones. That changed my mind. I thought she was fantastic. I heard her sing a song of mine, just fooling around, and I was blown away.”

Harris ended up writing five of the songs ” including the Grammy-winning song “Don’t Know Why” ” for Jones’ 2002 debut, “Come Away With Me.” He also played guitar on half of the album, which has sold an eye-popping 36 million copies.

“It was a whole new world for me. I’d never had that much attention before,” said Harris. The fallout was mostly pleasant, but there was pressure as well: Harris had to fend off requests to work as a co-writer. And when his own CD, “The Secret Sun,” was released on the heels of “Come Away With Me,” his record label was eyeing it as a potential blockbuster ” which was a far remove from Harris’ own expectations. Reality sided with Harris on that one, but the doors remained open. Harris produced albums by singers Sasha Dobson and Jesse Baylin, toured as an opening act for Ani Difranco, played guitar on the Bright Eyes album, “I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning,” did the “Hottest State” soundtrack, and released several more CDs under his own name.

Harris’ latest project, the album “Watching the Sky,” due for release March 3, traces back to 2002’s “Crooked Lines.” On that CD, Harris haphazardly played six-string banjo on one track. Not long after, Harris found himself a member of the Himalayas, a street band led by Kenny Wollesen, a drummer who has played on Norah Jones’ CDs. Playing outdoors at festivals and on city plazas, Harris found his guitar insufficiently loud. Looking for a new instrument, he flashed back to the banjo, fortified with an electronic pick-up.

“I loved it so much I stopped bringing my acoustic guitar to gigs at all,” he said. “I thought it would be so cool to make it the foundation of an album.”

As it turns out, the six-string banjo is only one of the foundations of “Watching the Sky.” The other is Brazilian music, which has become an obsession for Harris. The album spotlights Brazilian percussionist Mauro Refusco, a member of David Byrne’s band. That Latin influence gives the album an island feel, beginning with the opening track, “On a Day,” which recalls early ska. But “Watching the Sky” stretches out even further, with horn arrangements, a production technique that leaves plenty of room between the sounds, an appearance by Norah Jones on “It Will Stay With Us,” and the vivid tone of Harris’ new instrument.

“To me, it’s an original sound,” said Harris, whose current set is a duo with percussionist Bill Dobrow. “People come and don’t expect to hear a banjo sound like that. They expect to hear bluegrass and we’re doing something totally different. Through an amp, it’s got more of a thumpy, warm sound. And with the percussion, it sounds like they’re ancient cousins from Africa.”

Harris would love for “Watching the Sky,” and the current tour, move him into headlining status on his own. “That’s my ideal ” to do my own thing,” he said. “Working with other artists, you have to go with decisions made by other people. And you have to live with them, even if they’re not the decisions you would have made.”

Harris will tour behind “Watching the Sky,” including a three-week stretch in Japan. Beyond that there are opportunities to produce other musicians, co-write songs, possibly even contribute lyrics to a musical. All avenues are open.

“I never felt I had a plan,” he said. “I don’t feel I have a plan right now.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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