Keep On Keepin’ On: An Interview With J.P. Harris At Newport Folk Fest

With Newport Folk tickets going on sale for 2017 next week it seemed due time to dig up this interview we did with honky tonk hero J.P. Harris at Newport this past July and finally transcribe it. Harris performed an absolute barn burner of a set on Friday to set the tone for the entire weekend to be a bit less traditional stripped down folk, and a bit more “raucous, dance your ass off and smile ear to ear” good ol time.

We caught up with Harris and took a stroll through the meandering tunnels of Fort Adams, back to his (extremely impressively set up) touring van and talked about music, folk fest and the fine art of working with you hands…

RLR: So to start it all off, what does it mean to be HERE  (at Newport) this year?

JP: Well its funny, there is so much talk about “community” and such in the music scene that it becomes a sort of rhetoric and becomes cliche, but this is the example of what is absolutely pure about a musical community and family and being a part of that and having been here the last couple of years peripherally, finally being welcomed into the fold officially this year, has been a pretty big honor for me. It feels like a milestone in my life.

RLR: How much does it differ from last year, having your own big stage slot and all? 

JP: I guess I feel a little more comfortable. Every  year that I come here I just feel more and more like I am meeting up with my family. We just fall back into being comfortable with each other and having good times. Also, of course, being the first year of being on the actual festival ‘roster’, I feel this place feels much more like home as opposed to someone’s house that I am just visiting. Its a pretty cool thing.

RLR: Who else are you looking forward to? I am sure there are a few that I can guess, but this weekend who are you pumped to catch up with and see perform?

JP: Well, my good friend Margo (Price), she is playing tomorrow and I love seeing her. Her boys are all buddies of mine, so I love seeing them kick ass. Violent Femmes are going to be amazing I am sure. It is so overwhelming because you realize not only are there so many artists that you want to see that are either people you look up to or musical influences, but also your friends are here all kicking ass too. I feel like rather than map out what I want to do I just kind of flow with what I hear and who I run into. It always seems to work out and I am never disappointed. 

RLR: So more about community, a big part of why I started with the Red Line Roots thing was to foster one where there wasn’t necessarily an infrastructure for folk/roots in New England or at least a media outlet to focus solely on it. In Nashville it seems to be flourishing. As an artist there how have you seen it grow, or maybe where it is even lacking a bit?

JP: As lame a definition as it could be, I think vibrant in a term you could apply to the Nashville music scene. I think its always been that way and maybe its just my perspective being there for the past 5 years, but even folks who have been there a long time say this is a big renaissance for Nashville right now. A lot of quality people have moved there. I feel like Nashville, inherently, as a city has this way of filtering out the impurities. People who are there to just schmooze or climb a ladder, and that may be the primary chunk of the industry that is going on there, but with our end of the side of musicians…people who are on a different level in a different scene, I feel like the group of people I consider to be friends and peers continues to grow organically. Everyone of them, without having to take part in what the outside has set as the “Nashville game”. Everyone has advanced in our careers through the purity of the music and good intentions. Its great to see so many great people rising out of that city.

RLR: You mentioned during your set that you had been writing and you have a bunch of new material, but when you anticipate you will have a new record out or when will the fruits of that labor come to a head?

JP: You know, I’ve been doing this full time for 7 years now and I feel like I have hit a really good place in my life right now. I quit drinking about two years ago, which has been probably the best thing I have done in my entire life and its given me a lot of perspective on the rat race I have kind of created for myself as a musician. You know touring and struggling and jumping from “write songs” to “record songs” to “put them out”. Sort of hit the benchmark, but you feel like it failed if it isn’t this magnificent array of fireworks that you hoped it would be. I feel like I am at this point in my life where I am lot more zen about whats going to happen. I feel like I have been welcomed into a massive music community. Not just in Nashville or in the states, but I have been going to Europe a bit in the past couple of years. Thats been amazing with great supportive crowds over there. So I feel like a lot of the youthful struggle and strife of trying to obtain some higher goal that I had shaped in my mind as a way. I want to just sort of let the rest of what my music career is going to be just happen in a way. I don’t want to fight for it, I want to work for it.

My fucking work ethic is who I am. Thats who I am as a person, its who I am as a musician. I feel like that, more even than my music, is that I am a fucking hard worker. I’m honest, I’m a hard worker and I think rather than turning that into some sort of market or laid out sort of goals I want to see where that takes me. Thats the same with the recording aspect. I’ve got plenty of songs to make another record with and rather than say “I’ve got 14 songs, which is the number I need to make a record. So we can go into the studio and keep 12 of them and they will fit on this size record”. Well, fuck it, I’m just going to keep on writing, then maybe I can demo some things and share them around. Maybe I run into someone who wants to put them out, maybe I put them out myself. I don’t feel like there is a big rush in any way. I don’t want to get wrapped up in some sort of production line of music. There’s all these industry standards about ‘album cycles’ and ‘tour life spans’ and all this bullshit that is real of course, music is a business that we are in, but I do business differently. I don’t want my music to be tainted by that side of the business.

RLR: So I guess that sentiment goes to other aspects of your life as well. You are a carpenter and wood worker as well and do some really beautiful stuff. I saw the work you did at McCauley’s house and its gorgeous. Do you find time to work on that stuff still with the tour schedule and all?

JP: Thanks man, thats like my prized pie right here. I love that shit (laughs). Yeah, its funny because even though like, in an ideal world, if I knew that my entire financial stability was based on music, if I knew that no matter what I could make a living as a musician, carpentry and woodworking and all that stuff could be something I just take on as a passion, but at the same time its nice to know that I don’t get to be lazy. I haven’t reached this point where the music does it so I can slack off on my other craft. Its really who I was before I was a musician. I mean I was playing music since I was a kid but I never dreamed that this is the lifestyle I would have. So I think that balancing it out keeps anything from becoming sour. Its the same way even for musicians, who all they do for a living is play music. Thats why people form side projects or they pare off from the band they are in and do solo projects. They don’t want to be defined by the one thing that makes them successful. If I wanted to stay home in Nashville and just build…I mean, I’ve worked exclusively within the music community in Nashville as a carpenter with no business cards, no anything, no advertising and I have more work than I know what to do with. Which is awesome. I could easily just stay at home and make some guest appearances locally and make a great living. Or I could bust my ass hard and pull in a more meager, but sustainable living as just a musician, but my view on why I play country music is its all I can do.

Its funny because when I was younger I was in punk bands and metals bands and I had friends making their own unique styles of music, genre defying. I always had this feeling until I started writing country music like “fuck, I just want to make some original music, but I don’t have this original idea”. Then I realized country music comes totally naturally to me. So I feel like having this thing that keeps me honest and real. This living, much more of a like a “day to day” level. Its working man shit, carving out a living with my hands, since I was 17 years old. Its great, and its fucking hard sometimes, but theres never been a moment when I wished I had gone and gotten a diploma and gone to college or like pursued music school and become some virtuoso on an instrument. Really I think that continuing to interact with people on a base level. There is like a different cloud as an artist that floats above or something. It can make artists out of touch with the people they are trying to reach. For me continuing to be a carpenter, its great. In Nashville the plumber, or the tile guy or others are all players, or have been in bands. Maybe they just play at home. But its really nice, its honest and its keeps you at the ground level with the people you want to reach. Country music is working people’s music. Its not rich people’s music, its poor people’s music. Interacting with people who actually have to keep their shit together and plow forward to make a living. It keeps me in perspective, because I am doing that as well, and I feel like that bleeds out in my music. That is probably one of the reasons people like it. If I had just lived somewhere really cheap and just wrote songs and said I am not going to pick up a hammer anymore, I think everything I tried to write would be half hollow bullshit. I would be trying to channel this thing that was slowly becoming a ghost of my past. So, I’ll never give that shit up. I love building stuff. It makes me feel useful in the world.

RLR: So to close it out who are you listening to right now that folks should be tuned into?

JP: My favorite rock n’roll band these days, hands down, is Heartless Bastards. Really cool to see them over the last two years and see them get somewhere. Super quality people, they fall into that category of honest, family people. Just amazing rock n’ roll band. I am a huge fan of what Margo has been doing. The scene of female Americana/Country ladies in Nashville right now is mind boggling. Then other stuff, McCauley keeps putting out great records. I have been doing work on their house the past two years or so and I’ll see a record on his counter or something and ask “oh, when did that come out” and he says “oh you know a couple years back”. Its always just amazing. For any genre of musician, he can be really inspiring, just does great work. 

Artist J.P. Harris