Meet Jason Hawk Harris – Formaldehyde, Tobacco and Tulips

In his bio Jason Hawk Harris says he “experienced his musical coming of age one fateful day in middle school when a friend played him Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Bohemian Rhapsody has probably launched a million music careers, that it planted a dream in Harris is a bit of a surprise considering his roots leanings, but not really once you listen to his debut EP, “Formaldehyde, Tobacco and Tulips“.

Harris is a singer/songwriter, whatever that means these days. In simple terms he writes songs and then sings them. His songs are deep, poetic, and emotional along the lines of Damien Jurado or Jason Isbell. Although they are not produced with the grandiose bombast of Queen, they will move you, in the same way that Freddie Mercury’s take on the fatalistic regret of a young man does. In fact throw on the lead track “Phantom Limb“, close your eyes and you can almost imagine Mercury’s piano, May’s layered guitars and overdubbed vocals.

Harris follows this up with “The Smoke And The Stars”,  a stunning mournful ballad with a weeping guitar that sings on its own.

Then they all turn into fireballs
Roll to the corners and burn up the walls
And now it’s just us, with the smoke and the stars
Holding hands in the dark

Give Myself To You” is a shuffling country ode and sounds like Harris wrote it riding the back roads with Ryan Bingham. “Tell Me I’m Good For You” could slide right on to Jackson Browne’s classic “Late For the Sky” and not too many people would notice, it’s got that California ease to it. The EP ends with the rockabilly rage of “I’m Afraid”  but don’t be fooled, that doesn’t mean Harris is carefree.

This is a very strong debut from a songwriter who makes it all seem effortless. His lyrics are literary in the same way that Todd Snider channels Raymond Carver, or Patterson Hood nods to Daniel Woodrell. You can tell music is in Jason Hawk Harris’s bones; this is what he was born to do. Well, he could be a writer as well…..

Your bio says you come from a long line of musicians, give us a short (ish) version of your musical history.

My great grandma had a local radio show.  Folks would call in and request songs, and she would play them on her piano.  My uncle, who died tragically of AIDS in 1990, was a local singer-songwriter of country songs named John Harris.  I still play some of his songs live.  The whole family has his songs memorized.  My favorite line of his goes, “I’m drinking you out of my system / And my blood’s turned to alcohol / My friends and my job, I don’t miss ‘em / And life don’t mean nothin’ at all.”  

The rest of my family is musical in one way or another.  Dad sings and plays guitar, mom was a singer and my sister is a poet. My aunt is an awesome pianist and song-writer and her husband is a killer bassist.  My Grandpa is a guitarist and singer, and my Grandmother (yes I actually call her “Grandmother”) is a great harmonizer.  She picks out the good notes, though I haven’t heard her sing in a while.     

Tell us about your hometown scene and how you fit into the scene…

Los Angeles is a big town with lot’s of people.  There is a folk/country scene that has flourished in the past and continues to flourish today.  I can’t say I’m as involved as I’d like to be, but I’m looking to change that when I get home from this current stretch of dates I’m on right now.  What I do know, is that there’s a lot of good folk and country music being written in Los Angeles, which isn’t what most people expect when they hear about music in L.A.  

You and I have talked a lot of books, how do you draw inspiration from what you read? 

I spend a lot of time being jealous of authors, because they get to write novels and short stories, and they get to contract and expand, and build elaborate worlds, and you just can’t do that kind of thing in a song, because there isn’t enough time.  More than anything I am inspired by their mastery of the English language.  It’s a mastery I’ll never possess.  That’s the burden of a songwriter.  You’ll never be as great at writing music as the greatest composer, and you’ll never have prose as beautiful as the best author or poet.  That level of skill takes a lifetime of work to achieve, and I have dedicated my work to the tandem.  

I like lyricists who manage to insert the mundane into the surreal.  It’s hard to do in a song, because you don’t have the time to provide a geographical and metaphysical context like you would in a novel or a short story.”

Who are your favorite lyricists and what lyric floors you?

I like lyricists who manage to insert the mundane into the surreal.  It’s hard to do in a song, because you don’t have the time to provide a geographical and metaphysical context like you would in a novel or a short story.  But there are those who manage it.  One such artist is Judee Sill.  To say “Crayon Angels” floored me when I first heard it would not be an understatement, but it would be a correct statement.  I fell on the floor and smiled like a little kid laying in a bed of yellow lab puppies:  

Crayon Angel songs are slightly out of tune
But I’m sure I’m not to blame
Nothing’s happened, but I think it will soon
So I sit here waiting for God and a train
To the Astral plane

There’s a vanishing quality to her lyrics, like invisible ink.  They disappear long before you have a chance to intellectualize them, and yet, they hang in the air—on nothing—like eternal crystalline husks following you around while you order bagels, clean the fridge and walk your dog.  

If, at the end of my life, I can be half as good a lyricist as Judee Sill, I’ll consider my career a massive success.

If you could pick any time and place to travel back to for music, where would you go and what year would it be….? I wanna go back to the day when Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” premiered and everyone got pissed off and started rioting against its weirdness.  Then I’d want to interview those folks and see why it was so weird to them.  Then I’d go to Stravinsky and show him one of my songs on an iPod (because who doesn’t bring an iPod when time traveling?), and ask him how I could improve my orchestration.  I’d also ask him a bunch of theoretical questions about the piece that I’ve never understood.

If not Stravinsky in the early 1900’s then I’d go back to the late 1700’s and party with Mozart, because I hear he was kind of a riot. I’d drunkenly request he play a piece by Salieri to see if he would criticize it in the same way he did in ‘Amadeus.’  I don’t think he would.

And if not Mozart in the late 1700’s, I’d go to the 1600’s and have Bach teach me how to pray right.    

If you could tour with any band/artist right now who would that be and why?

St Vincent, because I have some questions for which I think she would have some really interesting answers.  Like maybe she knows what the Astral Plane is.  I bet she loves Judee Sill.  We could just talk about Judee Sill and how ahead of her time she was.  And maybe I could even convince her to come out and sing an old country song with me.  I think we’d hit it off and be life-long friends.  Annie if you’re reading this let’s go get ramen and talk about Judee Sill.  

Give us your 10 song playlist for the tour van/bus/plane?

  • Jesus Was A Crossmaker – Judee Sill
  • You Go To My Head – Billy Holiday
  • A Beautiful Exit – Miguel
  • Pride of Queens – Daniel Romano
  • Wishing Well – Phantom Planet
  • It’s Late – Queen
  • Blacker the Berry – Kendrick Lamar
  • Makrokosmos III: 5. Music of the Starry Night – George Crumb
  • Animal Kingdom Chaotic – Jesca Hoop
  • This Is Not an Exit – Saves The Day

A song you wish you wrote…and a song that makes you cry….

Song I wish I wrote: “3:59 AM” by John Moreland

Song that makes me cry: “John My Beloved” by Sufjan Stevens

Give us two essential books to read.

“Descent into Hell” by Charles Williams

“One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

When you’re not playing and have some time off, where could we find you…

You can find me living in that strange world between being awake and being asleep, playing a cosmic game of seven card stud with Jesus and the Devil where I always lose.  Also I like to hike.  

What’s up for the rest of 2017/18?

I’m under new management, which means I’m no longer managing myself.  We’re getting our ducks in a row.  2018 is gonna be a good year.  

JASON HAWK HARRIS – WEBSITE

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Stephen

Domestic now, but spent early to late 80s playing drums in a hair metal band in Toronto. Since then I’ve lost the hair and have found new ways to scratch the rock and roll itch.

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