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Livewire's One on One

An artist's artist

Jesse Harris
Photos of Jesse Harris by Bill Phelps
Photo of Martha Berner by Sarah Alair

Interview with Jesse Harris

Oct. 27, 2006

Singer/ songwriter / guitarist Jesse Harris is a musician's musician. He not only penned the Grammy Award winning single "Don't Know Why" for Norah Jones (a song that would catapult her career), along with other tracks from her two multi-million selling albums Come Away with Me and Feels Like Home,Martha Berner but his songs have also been covered more recently by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Cat Power, Feist, M. Ward, Bright Eyes and The Black Keys on the soundtrack for Ethan Hawke's forthcoming film "The Hottest State."

So with all the love and affection that Jesse has been receiving from both his musical peers and idols, we felt it only appropriate that a musician should interview this talented artist.

Chicago-based musician Martha Berner is herself an up-and-coming singer/songwriter with one deliciously, beautiful full-length album to her credit, ...this side of yesterday, along with a new five-song EP on Machine Records ready to hit stores in January, 2007. Martha caught up with Jesse backstage after his recent opening performance for Ani DiFranco at the Chicago Theater, where the two discussed Jesse starting his own record label, releasing his sixth full-length album, his love for touring, delivering his debut acting role in a feature film and, hold on for this one... typing soap opera scripts.

Martha: You seem like a very busy guy these days, Jesse. A new album, a tour, a record label and a movie, I hear you're getting your first onscreen appearance [in The Hottest State]; do you have a role in this film?

Jesse: I do, yeah. I mean, I have a character, my character has a name. But I only have a few lines; it's not like, serious acting.

Martha: How did you enjoy acting?

Jesse: It was a lot of fun. I mean, the acting part was fun but the music part was really great. I got to score the film and do all the music for the performances pieces in the film because the actress, Catalina (Sandino Moreno), Jesse Harrisplays a singer and I sing in the movie as well. So there are all these live music scenes that we did the music for, and then there was all of this soundtrack music which is artists singing songs of mine.

Martha: Right. You've got Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Norah Jones, Bright Eyes, M.Ward, and Cat Power. What an honor.

Jesse: Yeah, and a lot of other people. That was really fun because that involved all these little projects of producing some of them or trying to get the people to do it. It was a great and fulfilling project.

Martha: Had you previously worked with these artists?

Jesse: I knew a lot of them, and some of them I didn't know beforehand and some of them I still haven't met. Like, I didn't know The Black Keys and still haven't met The Black Keys. Of course, I didn't know Emmylou Harris or Willie Nelson, but I got to produce the Willie Nelson track. And Emmylou Harris, I just coincidentally met her right before she recorded it, so it was nice to get to talk about it. But otherwise, yeah, I think I knew almost everybody.

Martha: You have a record label, Secret Sun Recordings, and are just putting out your first record with Sasha Dobson, which you also produced.

Jesse: Yep, and played on. I co-wrote a bunch of songs with Sasha and co-wrote with her and Richard. She did a couple of songs that I wrote by myself and then there's a couple that Richard wrote and then there's some that Richard and Sasha wrote. It's almost all original material except for two songs. So that's the second release on Secret Sun, we've been doing some touring for that, getting that together.

Martha: Was having your own label a long dream of yours?

Jesse: Having a label is something I've thought about for a long time actually. There have been so many moments where I thought 'man, I wish I had my own label, I would sign that person' you know, or I would make that record. It's great to have the freedom and to not have to worry about what anyone else thinks. I mean, that's what I'm used to. Before I was on Verve Records I used to make all my own albums. This is my sixth album. I did three on my own and then I did two with Verve, and now I'm back on my own. Anytime I've ever been on a record label... I've been on two, I was on Verve and then I was on EMI ... I always feel this pressure when I'm on a label, I never feel relaxed, I never really enjoy it much. It seems like I make better records when I'm not on a label, for some reason.

Martha: Speaking of records, Mineral is getting great reviews and doing very well. It's more of just you and it's more delicate. Seems like your turning a new corner with it.

Jesse: Yeah, it feels that way. The Ferdinandos is really defined a lot by Tony Scherr's guitar playing. His playing is so strong that it's true; in a way it was difficult in the end, ultimately, to kind of step forward.

Martha: You also do a lot of producing and writing for others, Norah Jones and Sasha Dobson of course...

Jesse: Madeleine Payroux too, on her new record.

Martha: Which do you think is your favorite, or most fitting role?

Jesse: I really enjoy touring, but I don't see that as my primary activity. I don't see myself as a road warrior, being on the road eight months a year, or even six months a year, really. I like to tour, but it does take time away from other stuff. I like to do everything. It depends on the year, maybe one year I'd be doing more touring, it has been that way. A few years ago I was gone almost all the time. Last year I toured a lot somehow, but this year not that much and it didn't bother me. I did a tour in Japan though this year, a couple of tours in Japan. It was great. I like to do both. I've never really developed as a headliner in the States. So, it's always a matter of whether I get asked to open for somebody.

Martha: Now, you say the States. Does that mean it's different in places like Europe or Japan?

Jesse: In Japan I can headline.

Martha: Why is that, do you think? Did you have a specific record that was big there?

Jesse: Japan just started happening a long time ago. They licensed an album of mine in 2002 and then, I don't know, it just sort of developed there. And I've put out maybe four or five records over there. I really enjoy it over there too. I like going to Europe a lot. I haven't really concentrated on Europe, I'd like to do more. I've done some festivals as a headliner, but not as much as I would like. Mineral just came out in Europe, on Edel Records, about six weeks ago. So, yeah, I'd like to go back there.

Martha: Did you have a lot of support during some of the more trying and less successful times of your career? Was your family supportive of you taking this on as a career?

Jesse: Yeah, my family was supportive. But obviously when things aren't going well your family starts to worry and they starting thinking maybe you should start thinking about doing something else.

Martha: Did you have a fallback?

Jesse: No, I didn't as a matter of fact, and it was really scary this one time. It was after I'd been dropped from my first deal and my first band had broken up, this group called Once Blue. After Once Blue broke up and everything ended and I had no money, no label, no management, nothing, I needed to get a job and I thought 'oh my god, I don't know how to do anything'.

Martha: How old were you when that happened?

Jesse: I was 28. Yeah, I was 28 and I thought 'oh my god, I don't know how to do anything'.

Martha: And how long was it between then and winning a Grammy?

Jesse: That was 28 and I got the Grammy when I was 33.

Martha: So interesting in retrospect. Looking back at that point and having no idea that in five years you would win a Grammy.

Jesse: Well also later that year that I was panicking I got signed to a publishing deal with Sony. So that was a nice windfall too. But there was almost a year where I didn't really have any money. But then the funny thing is I got an advance from Sony and then a year and a half later I'd gone through that. So then I had to go back to work.

Bob (Jesse's manager): I'm sorry to jump in, but weren't you giving guitar lessons like a month before winning the Grammy?

Jesse: Well, the money's always like a year behind. That may have been my last lesson. I think at that point I still had some students who were counting on me and I tried to make time for them. Because a year and a half after I got the advance from Sony, that ran out so then I started ... I had been legal proofreading before the advance and then I tried to go back to legal proofreading and thought 'I can't do that anymore'. And so then I started teaching guitar. And also my mom, who's a soap opera actress, had recently gotten a job writing for the soap opera but she wrote out all of her scripts longhand so she needed me to type them for her. So she paid me to type her scripts for her. So, yeah, typing scripts and teaching guitar.

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