Heidi Harris is a self-taught musician and vocalist whose creative practice is based on an exploration and intermingling of traditional and non-traditional sound sources. A child of New Weird America, New Hampshire-based Harris is known for coloring outside the margins. Let’s put our feet on the ground with them red heels on and let’s go and row … row into dreams, comforting haunts, and sensations of being young or of some psychedelic foreign place with Harris as our tour guide …
But first, a little background on Harris.
Her repertoire of instruments includes piano, clarinet, harmonica, guitar, cigar box guitar, synthesizer, theremin, and various sound makers. She contributed many of these sounds as well as songwriting as a former member of the chamber folk trio Cutleri, later in Knife Thrower’s Assistance, an eclectic musical collective based in New York City, and continues to collaborate in her band Heidi and the 9 Feathers. But Heidi’s first “instrument” was her own voice. From a young age she performed lead roles in operettas and musicals, and although stylistically she has moved on to more avant-garde territories, the quality and range of her voice still hinges on her theatrical roots.
Heidi attended the Institute of Audio Research in New York City, focusing on the process of recording and producing, and went on to record several self-released albums in her home studio, Suki Sound. Her work has been reviewed by labels and blogs all over the globe, applauding her as a unique and exceptionally prolific songwriter and recording artist.
Let’s peel the layers of her creative process and stride into the tall, tall tales of her sound.
What follows is a two-part interview. The first took place in 2011, and the second in 2019.
PART 1: BROOKLYN 2011
Julián Esteban Torres López: Heidi, you’ve been labeled a singer-songwriter and visual artist, yet sometimes in your work there is no singing. I’d like to start the interview by asking you how you would describe who you are in the art world and what exactly it is that you do?
Heidi Harris: I’d like to start by saying, thanks for having me! I appreciate all the time and thought you must have put into each question, and I hope to respond with the same effort and care.
I think I’m an artist who spills the cup a little. I believe in creating art of any kind, shape, or form, this is true, as much as possible. However, I do usually choose music when it comes down to it. Sometimes I don’t need to sing to express what I’m getting at; however, that being said, I love to sing more than anything else. I’m not a huge fan of the term “singer-songwriter.” Musician seems just fine to me. Music is the expression I choose when I need to understand or sometimes literally feel a certain place my mind is going to. I’m always very happy and enthusiastic about sharing that experience after it’s been recorded. Music always seems like an appropriate gift of sorts.
I have to say, visual art is just as important to me as music is. It’s an amazing form of communication and I often find myself thinking I should do more of it. I thought it would be a good idea to include some photos from my home studio to give you a visual idea of where I am when I create most of my work. My studio space is sort of a personal ongoing artwork.
JETL: You’re based out of Brooklyn, New York, but you grew up in New Hampshire. Do you feel like the entirety of your work or certain pieces embody New Hampshire and/or Brooklyn? Has either of these separate experiences shaped your art in any way? If so, how?
HH: I feel the entirety of my work embodies both places equally, to be honest. If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have probably said that NH is only in my past and therefore does not influence the bulk of my current works, but that’s not the case anymore! About 4 months ago I found myself with two homes. I now have an apartment/studio in Brooklyn, NY, and an apartment in Wolfeboro, NH, which is where I grew up and where my family currently lives. I still spend the majority of my time in Brooklyn but NH has now become a steady environment for me again. This change has totally opened up my thinking in a really productive way. I think I lost a lot of positive perspective and inspiration when I took myself away from NH. It’s really wonderful, calm, and beautiful there, and now I’m experiencing NH again as an adult.
Brooklyn inspires me to do something new with everything NH gives me. At first, New York influenced mostly the mistakes and the wanderings I sort of had to make as an artist, but thankfully I always feel encouraged by those who remain around me and sometimes just the city itself is enough to inspire me. Lately, Brooklyn seems to be revealing something to me. I’m not exactly sure what it is yet but it’s got my attention!
JETL: You’ve been described by some as a folk singer and an experimental musician and your music as abstract because of the wide range of influences that create the depth and exoskeleton of your work. When you begin the creation process of your music, is there anything you start off wanting to capture? Do you go in wanting to create a particular genre of music? How would you describe your sound?
HH: I usually go into a songwriting process with a feeling or a mood or sometimes even one written line. Most of the time, I record what seems to be a sort of bubbling of something. I capture this so that I can go back later and see if there is something that should be developed a bit more, or not. Once in a while, I find myself very happy with the first recording of a song. I feel that it’s strong enough on its own, so I’ll put it out there. “tall tall tales (song sketch)” is one of those recordings.
Oh, to choose a genre! I find this very difficult but also a lot of fun. At this point in my life, I prefer to say “New Weird America.” I’m not always sure my music falls perfectly under this genre but I never really know where it’s going to land so, New Weird America works for me!
JETL: Adam Williams, for example, in a review of your album Sand in the Line he did for Fluid Radio, described your music as folk with hints blues, with added “abstract influences” that embraced the “simple DIY method of recording” that can be compared to “PJ Harvey’s 4-track demos or Will Oldham’s earliest works.” What and who do you consider as some of your biggest influences?
HH: First of all I need to confess that I’ve never actually listened to Will Odham before this interview. I searched him on YouTube and found this beautiful, beautiful clip.
I’m so very touched that someone would think of him as one of my influences. That song and performance by Will Odham, in particular, was so moving. I did listen to PJ Harvey a lot a while ago and I’ve recently been re-listening after I saw that comparison. Her work is so fantastic! I can’t even begin to explain how wonderful it feels to know that her name would come to mind when someone listens to my work. I enjoyed her 4-tack demos very much.
Here are a few artists I’m listening to at the moment: Josephine Foster & The Supposed, Emily Jane White, Teletextile, Tune-Yards, Plinth, Orion Rigel Domisse, Jason Anthony Harris, CocoRosie, Jolie Holland, Lisa Germano, Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet, Erik Friedlander, Lower Dens, The Brian Jonestown Massacre, Pierre Bastien, Luc Ferrari. (Just to name a few.)
JETL: When I tell people about your work and they ask me to describe it I have a difficult time because what I first experience is a feeling and a journey. When I listen to your work I feel like I’m taken into someone else’s dream. In this dream, I am lost but try to find my way, and it is the shadow of music, your words, and your voice that guide me. Though haunting, there’s something comforting about that experience.
Usually, there’s a sense of fear that comes with being lost or waking up in a strange place, but though this is how I experience your music, fear is the last word I’d use to describe the encounter. Though I’m in someone else’s dream, there’s a familiarity to it; as if I am walking through the memories of my younger self, or a younger self, a self I don’t fully remember or never met. This is my experience with your work, but I am sure others will interact with it in their own ways. Out of curiosity, is there any particular experience or emotion you hope will be extracted or instilled in your listeners as they listen to your work?
HH: Wow, my work evokes both fear and a feeling of being young! I like that. Those two subjects are constantly woven into my songs for various reasons. I’m also very big on dreams. I place a lot of my thought into the idea of dreams and the act of dreaming. I like to explore what dreams might mean to other people or to everyone collectively and also what dreams mean to me.
In terms of something to be extracted or instilled into my listeners, I’ll say yes and no. I always put my songs out there as a gift of sorts. So I guess in a way I’m intentionally putting songs out there as something that’s meant to be received in a positive, exciting, or perhaps helpful way, but also I’ll say no to that question because I’ll never really know what my work could become to other people.
JETL: When I view your visual art I get a similar feeling as I do when I listen to your music. The videos and the music seem to run parallel to each other in this sense. They, together, enhance the experience for me. Could you tell us a little bit about your visual artwork?
HH: Again, my visual artwork is very important to me. For instance, when I’m making a video for a song I’ve recorded, I feel like I’ve found a way to actually see the song. As if the song itself is an invisible floating blob of feelings, moods, and thoughts, and the video is a way to throw paint all over it, outline it, and fill it in!
I honestly always feel accomplished and happy with myself when I’m creating visual artwork. I never doubt it. I know I will always want to create it. It’s so very important to me. I may never put it out there the way I do with music because it’s more of a personal experience for me, but maybe one day I’ll start to share my artwork the way I do my music.
JETL: Do you create music for a particular audience in mind and try to cater to that audience, or do the seedlings of the creation come from a different place?
HH: I never know what sort of person will listen to something I’ve just made. Sometimes I have a little idea, but for the most part, I enjoy the mystery!
JETL: Could you guide us through the process of creation of a few pieces—“tall tall tales (song sketch),” “Layers,” and “The Good Bone Diggers”?
HH: “tall tall tales (song sketch)”… ok, well, here is one of those songs that came to me almost completely full. I started with the Portuguese guitar line for about 30 seconds, put down the guitar, wrote out the lyrics, picked it back up, sang the first verse, and little beyond that put down the guitar, turned on all my recording gear, and captured it before any of it had a chance to escape!
“Layers” is a song that sort of keeps going for me. It’s now become two different versions and I’m planning on recording it again for my next album. On my very first album, Wisdom Teeth On Bended Knee, track number one is the original version of “Layers.” My roommate at the time happened to be Kelli Rudick, an amazing guitarist and songwriter. You can find her work here.
The song came about as I was sitting at a desk at my “day job” and about halfway through the day I knew I needed to try to do something creative for my sanity. I wrote down the lyrics for “Layers” and wrote down a sort of mood or vibe (for lack of a better term), and I sent all this to Kelli in an email. I asked her if she wanted to collaborate with me on it and come up with a guitar part. That night when I got home, she had written out a guitar part that I recorded immediately and the following day it took no time at all to fill in the spaces. “Layers bitsv” is a version with new perspectives on the meaning of the song and I play my own guitar part. Everything heard in Layers bitsv was played by me. The “bitsv” stands for “bits version.”
“The Good Bone Diggers”
“The Good Bone Diggers” song was written for a collaboration project with an artist called Olds Sleeper. Our project name is Hawk Horses and you can find out about us here:
Through this blog you will see a backstory that Olds Sleeper and I sort of made up. I was simply writing from that backstory when I wrote this one. There is more about our writing process on the blog site also. It’s an interesting project, to say the least.
JETL: You’re not only a solo artist, but are also involved in some collaborative projects. Would you tell us a little bit about these projects and how they came about?
HH: I’ve already mentioned Hawk Horses. Full story about how that happened on our blog site, but in short we send songs back and forth via the internet.
Olds Sleeper and I’ve never actually been in the same room, someday maybe!
Cutleri is a folk trio, we like to go by “chamber folk.” Other members include Jessie Shaffer (violin) … Jessie and I had worked together in an older band called Town … we continued working together and formed Cutleri and eventually invited our third member, Christen Napier, who plays the banjo as her primary instrument. Our sound, I think, has developed so beautifully over the past couple of years. This project has taught me so much about being a live performer and I have to say that the experience of being onstage playing music next to two of my best friends in the whole world, that has been such an amazing experience and one I’ll never forget. Our first studio album, We Sink Ships, is almost in the final stages and should be available soon.
JETL: From listening to your music one quickly understands you have an appreciation for sounds, which is clearly transmitted to the ears of the listener. Where does this appreciation come from?
HH: A lot of my appreciation actually came about because of an ex-boyfriend a while back. He was always listening to music I had never heard before and artists who did things that constantly blew my mind. Artists such as John Cage, Margaret Leng Tan, Arthur Russel (specifically, Arthur Russell’s World of Echo), Otomo Yoshihide, Robert Wyatt, Luc Ferrari and a lot more. Up until this point, I was listening to mostly folk. The most experimental folk I was listening to at the time was probably Ani Difranco and her music is not extremely experimental … not that Ani Difranco isn’t an amazing and unique artist because she certainly is and was a huge influence on me. My visual artwork was inspired by the discovery of another new artist, Joseph Cornell.
These new artists opened up a lot of different thoughts and concepts for me as a musician and as an artist. I wanted to understand music and the art of making music in a better way. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to know more about the recording process itself so I went to IAR (Institute of Audio Research) in NY. Learning about recording and everything in between was wonderful and I believe it has really helped me as an artist.
PART 2: NEW HAMPSHIRE 2019
Julián Esteban Torres López: During our first interview in 2011, we discussed your sound, your identity as a musician and visual artist, and peeled back some of layers of your creative process. For this second part in 2019, I’d like to revisit some old themes to get updates as well as delve deeper into your life experience and mind to better understand the seeds of the extraordinary creation that is you.
Eight years ago, you said, “Brooklyn inspires me to do something new with everything NH gives me. At first, New York influenced mostly the mistakes and the wanderings I sort of had to make as an artist, but thankfully I always feel encouraged by those who remain around me and sometimes just the city itself is enough to inspire me.”
You mentioned that Brooklyn seemed to be revealing something to you. You weren’t exactly sure what it was, but it had your attention. Has that something been revealed to you? Does it still have your attention?
Heidi Harris: An interesting question since I’ve moved back to New Hampshire (where I grew up). I moved around 2016 … I think! [Laughs.] Time and I have a hard time keeping track. Anyways, Brooklyn, Queens, NYC, even Jersey City all revealed something to me. I lived all over during my 12-or-so-year romance with the city.
I honestly think that all of my experiences and my surroundings showed me how to tap into my self more. Makes me laugh. Like Dorothy or something … heels clicked, there’s no place like home etc. I’ve always had a strange and swirling/surreal/sad/beautiful world floating around in my head. Growing up in the woods, I didn’t know how to tap into it fully. NH is so quiet, so simple. But it’s all in here, as it always was. And I consider myself a hybrid now. Half country, half city. I’ve seen/felt the stillness of the woods and the chaos of the city street. My music and art will always reflect that.
JETL: Since the first interview, what have been the biggest changes in your life?
HH: So many different music projects! Enough to fill a lifetime. The biggest change I can think of is leaving the city. Now, my shift with music is more internal, for myself. To play alone in a dark room, with maybe some candles and perhaps a little wine … just to feel something raw. That’s the change I’ve come to. For now, I’m sitting back from all the music I’ve created … my solo work, ALL the collaborations/bands, strange videos, performances and I’m just taking a deep breath—thinking: did I really do all that???! How do I even begin to describe it as a whole? Was any of it any good? [Laughs.] These thoughts and questions leave me to take a deep breath, play for the pleasure of making music, and revisit what makes me feel authentic. What makes me feel like myself.
JETL: You’ve continued to be a prolific creator. What have been your favorite music, art, projects you’ve created from 2012 to the present?
HH: In no particular order:
_Heidi and the 9 Feathers – band
_Knife Throwers Assistance – Music Collective 2013
_solo – Cut the Line
_solo – Cave Tides
_Cutleri (avant folk trio)
_Little Bones – band
_Spaceman film score
_Dream Fodder – album
_Circe – a collaboration album with Joaquín Mendoza ~ Madrid, Spain
_Performing at SXSW
_Performing at The Cutting Room NYC
_Performing in tiny dive bars
_Joining other musicians projects as a vocalist, clarinetist, or sound art
_All my videos (mixed media and others)
_and recently I’ve been making mixed media artworks, which are very satisfying. You can find those on my Instagram account: @heidiharris_sukisound
JETL: When we last spoke, Cutleri was getting ready to release its first studio album, We Sink Ships. How did the release go?
HH: It went very well thanks! Sadly, our band was ending as the album finished but the album itself was finely produced by an amazing engineer/friend/old professor from audio school, Mario Salvati. In retrospect, I wish we had him record a live show towards the end also. Our live shows had the most magic, but thankfully there are a few videos floating around. I’ll never forget one of our last shows in Boston. It was insane how intricate our sound had gotten, and how tight we were as a band. But that show was for us and the people in the room.
JETL: Cutleri just released a new album, Missing Reverie, in the fall. 100% of the proceeds go to RAICES. First, how has Cutleri evolved since We Sink Ships? How often do you perform live together? Has performing together strengthened your relationship? How do the other members inspire you? Also, tell us a little bit about RAICES and why you all decided to donate all proceeds to this cause.
HH: I’ll start with RAICES. The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that promotes justice by providing free and low-cost legal services to under-served immigrant children, families, and refugees in Central and South Texas.
Simply put, we really wanted to help the situation. Children being separated from parents … the confusion and poor management in some cases. It’s heartbreaking. It wasn’t really a political statement, we just wanted to help.
We actually hadn’t performed much. A reunion show in Brooklyn maybe 3 or 4 years after the debut album, which went wonderfully. All our songs came back to us in one practice. Our new album was another reunion, this time on Rattlesnake Island in NH in a little cottage this past July 2018. I had the pleasure of recording and producing the entire album myself this time. We sent ideas back and forth for a few months prior and just dove into everything over a 4-day lakeside retreat. We included two covers from back in the day. Honestly, that live “magic” I spoke of was truly captured this time! Not to toot my own horn, but with the time restraint and everything, the album was more live and in the moment, it just worked out that way.
JETL: Previously, we spoke a lot about your sound and your music process, but we only skimmed the surface of your visual art creation process. Let’s talk specifically about your videos. How would you describe them? Where do you get the content you use in your videos? Do you have favorite archives you use? Do the videos come first, or the music? When you begin creating the videos, do you know exactly what you are looking for? What exactly is your process like? How did you stumble upon video creation?
HH: Ah! VIDEOS !!! I love making videos. [Laughs.] I have since I was around 8 or 9. My dad had one of those clunky handheld video recorders that had an editing system built in. I’ve been making videos forever. My favorite aesthetic is anything before 1950, so the public domain pool works in my favor. I like to go to a website called Moving Image Archive and simply dig around the public domain stuff. I usually have a song in mind and then just dump the two or however many videos I’ve found together with the song. From there I just let instinct take over. It’s a lot like my music making, really. As soon as I have the basic elements, I just put the car in drive and see where I end up
JETL: You’re a self-taught musician and DIY kind of person. Where does this life ethic come from?
HH: Honestly, it comes from feeling frustrated by rules and lines. I guess I’m a little rebel. [Laughs.] But really, I’ve found that as long as I have a basic understanding or some sort of solid structure to start with, it’s best to let the fumbling around turn into something that works without thinking too much. Without worrying too much. I worry about stuff all the time, having something that can be void of worry, that’s nice.
JETL: What’s your process like when learning something new for the first time? For example, you play a lot of instruments. What was your process like to teach yourself? What advice would you give others who want to teach themselves a new instrument or something new?
HH: It’s similar to my last response. Take the time to understand the basic rules. Some good chords. How to properly hold hands and fingers, a few cover songs usually do the trick! From there, trust your ear. If it’s naturally in you, you don’t need much to kickstart things.
JETL: You pour creativity. Do you wake up every day with a need to create something? Do you have dry spells? What is your life like when you create as opposed to when you aren’t creating?
HH: I have dry spells, for sure. However, that’s why I’ve picked up so many instruments, or the videos, the art making. I get depressed when I’m not making something creative. If it’s not working in one direction, I try my best to keep moving in another.
JETL: Tell me a little bit about your early singing roots performing in operettas and musicals. What were your favorite leading roles and best memories from that time of your life?
HH: The best way to describe my memories of that are H.M.S. Pinafore. My favorite serious musical theater role. I think I was 17 or 18, I played Josephine, the lead female role. There’s actually a home video of it somewhere! There was a full pit orchestra, a gorgeous set, and we played to a full audience every night. It was like a dream. Being an operetta, it challenged my vocal range to the edge. The other leading role was played by an old friend and amazing talent, Gregory Douglass. His voice is out of this world good. Check him out at https://gregorydouglass.com/home. Singing with him pushed my voice forward in so many ways. I will always be grateful for that.
JETL: If you were to identify as five things, what would those be?
HH: [Laughs.] I like this question. Hmm. Well … 1. Sound. 2. Animals, specifically cats, foxes, bird,s and most dogs. 3. Abstract images. 4. Bells 5. The moon, the sun. Mystery … maybe also a good taco. I can relate to a good taco.
JETL: Do you have a quote you live your life by or think of often?
HH: This too shall pass.
JETL: If you could have one gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say?
HH: This too shall pass.
JETL: What ideas have you been thinking about lately?
HH: This too shall pass. [Laughs.] Just kidding.
Let’s see, my last project Heidi and the 9 Feathers was/is meant to be ongoing, for whenever I feel like starting up some sort of band-like collaboration again. I often think about my next chapter being all online or remote. I’ve met so many amazing musicians online, mostly SoundCloud but from all sorts of venues. I’d love to produce at least one track with a bunch of different artists from around the world for the next 9 Feathers release. I actually have a piano song I’ve been playing and refining for over a year now. It’s my most complicated and exciting yet. It still has yet to have any vocals. I’m letting it slow cook and I’m thinking it may be a 9 Feathers song one day. But I need a real piano in my home studio again first.
JETL: Do you have a favorite failure of yours?
HH: Good one. Honestly. I’m in love with failures! Failure brings out the best in people, if you let it. I love ALL my failures, all the same [laughs] … as any good mother would.
JETL: What is the worst advice you see or hear being dispensed in your world?
HH: Sex sells. Looks are everything. Communicate via technology always, all the time, only. (I fear natural human interaction is slipping.) Oh, and you’re only worth something if other people know about you … a lot of other people … if it’s not a lot, it doesn’t matter. Those things. In short, the music industry is too obsessed with perfection, I think.
JETL: Any ask or request for my readers? Last parting words?
HH: Parting words. Well, life is fragile. Try your best to find what makes you happy. Who cares if anyone thinks it’s the bees knees! If it makes you happy, do it.
I did create a retrospective album of solo works, collaborations, live shows etc. to try and sum up my time in the city. I suppose that album would be most appropriate to share for this interviewYou can download that beast of sound here.
Please enjoy this collection [Album: Further Adieu – A Retrospective] as a free gift, or you can donate towards future music projects.
Thanks for the questions and for reading. I hope 2019 is the best year for all yet!
Follow Heidi Harris and her work in the following social media platforms and websites:
Knife Thrower’s Assistance
Julián Esteban Torres López is a Colombian-born journalist, researcher, writer, and editor. Before founding The Nasiona, he ran several cultural and arts organizations, edited journals and books, was a social justice and public history researcher, wrote a column for Colombia Reports, taught university courses, and managed a history museum. He’s a Pushcart Prize nominee and 1st place winner of the Rudy Dusek Essay Prize in Philosophy of Art. He has authored several books, including Marx’s Humanism and Its Limits, which was BookAuthority’s Best New Socialism Book of 2018, and Reporting on Colombia: Essays on Colombia’s History, Culture, Peoples, and Armed Conflict (forthcoming, 2019).
Go here to inquire about his editing services.
Featured image: Photograph of Heidi Harris, by Jendog Lonewolf.