November 7, 2007

The Cornell Connection: Jesse Harris '92

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You know, if the Sun has learned anything in its pursuit of finding out the meaning of a Cornell education in the real world, we’ve found that it takes all kinds. By all kinds, we mean all kinds of GPA’s and all kinds of majors don’t count for anything three seconds after graduation. Grammy-winning songwriter and troubadour Jesse Harris ‘92 certainly found that out when he got to Cornell. But he also found out that Ithaca was “gorges.” He may have even been the one that coined the phrase and put it on a bunch of t-shirts. At any rate, Harris hasn’t been flying under the radar since he co-wrote “Don’t Know Why” with No-Jo (Norah Jones,) and he’s put out seven albums of his own, produced records for various other artists, produced a soundtrack for Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut, and started his own record label. All thanks to hit 2.6 (approximately) GPA. Harris talked to the Sun all about his academics and his music. Here is an excerpt of that conversation:

The Sun: What was your favorite aspect of Cornell and what was your least favorite?
Jesse Harris: [Laughs] I have to say when I got to Cornell, I had just started playing the guitar, and I think it put me in a very un-academic state of mind. So I wasn’t really so much into studying when I was at Cornell to be quite honest. So my favorite things about Cornell were the beauty of the campus and Ithaca and stuff like that. I guess my least favorite thing was probably my classes.
Sun: [Laughs]
J.H.: But I did have some great teachers, and I had a good time at Cornell. But it was a hard time for me because I wasn’t really feeling like being there, but at the same time, I wasn’t really ready not to be there either. But it was a significant time for me. I had a great guitar teacher while I was there and that really did influence me a lot. And I managed to get credit for it.
Sun: Had you played other instruments before?
J.H.: Yeah, my first instrument was the piano. I never got that serious on it, but I did take lessons as a kid for four years and played classical stuff. But it’s not like I was headed towards the conservatory or anything like that. And then I quit and a couple years later started playing harmonica and guitar and writing songs.
Sun: Do you think that it was just the type of music that you were playing on the piano that made the difference, or do you think it was something else about the guitar that made it more special than the piano?
J.H.: Yeah, I think that the piano I associated with having to be very formal. I was being taught to read music and play classical, and it didn’t feel very free, whereas as soon as I picked up the guitar, it seemed like I could do whatever I wanted. And furthermore, I liked that I could bring the guitar anywhere, whereas the piano always has to be at home. I really enjoy playing outside and jamming with people, going to the beach or whatever. I just like the mobility of the guitar. But it did lend itself more to songwriting than piano did, for me at least. I don’t know; it just felt free. It never occurred to me that I could have freedom on the piano until later.
Sun: So did you ever go back to the piano and write songs on the piano?
J.H.: You know, I did briefly. In fact, I used to go in and play the piano in the music building at Cornell, and I wrote some songs there. But I did finally make a decision that I wanted to pick one or the other, that if I was going to play both, I would become kinda mediocre on both. Or at least that’s what I thought. So I decided I would just pick one and get good at that, and I picked the guitar.
Sun: Let’s backtrack a little bit. How did you end up at Cornell after high school?
J.H.: I have a twin sister and she had gotten in there, and our father was an alumnus of Cornell so he was sort of pushing us towards it. And like I said, I had just started playing the guitar and I think it created this sort of less organized way of thinking for me. I had been a good student in high school, but then suddenly I just stopped really caring that much about academic things. I didn’t get into that many colleges, but Cornell was one of them, and it just seemed like the best place to go and at that time. I was really interested in being a writer. Not of songs, but of fiction or journalism or what have you, and Cornell has a great English department. So I thought, “Well, I’ll go to Cornell.” But by the time I got there, I was really more interested in music. I didn’t really have enough knowledge to get into the advanced music classes, so I kind of put myself between English and music, wanting to do music more seriously, but not having enough skill to be advanced with it, and then not having enough studiousness to really be in English. I felt like with writing stories and fiction, I was encountering the same kind of strict formality that I had encountered with music, and so I just retreated into songwriting where I thought, “Well, I can just do whatever I want here, so I’ll just write songs.” But ultimately, I have to admit after college I realized that I had to take the guitar as seriously as I would have to take writing fiction or playing piano, and I got very into practicing. I became much more academic after I graduated actually.
Sun: [Laughs] What did your major end up being?
J.H.: I majored in English.
Sun: Do you find that it has any practical application for you now?
J.H.: Um, well, not *practical* application, but it does apply, and I do write. I still read a lot. I feel that there were things that I learned as a writing student that have influenced my writing now. And I also think that whatever happens, if you end up a certain place, you got there by the road you came on, so even if it didn’t seem right at the time, I still ended up doing what I was supposed to do. And I certainly encountered some great teachers while I was there. I just probably wasn’t the best student [laughs] to be honest. It’s funny, I’ve read more books since I graduated than when I was in college.
Sun: Who were some of the professors that helped you out or guided you, even if you didn’t necessarily give 100% effort in their classes? [Laughs]
J.H.: Allison Lurie was a teacher of mine, and she was actually one of my advisors. I had some classes with her. I can’t say that she guided me or influenced me that much, but I think of her from time to time. [Laughs] I feel bad. I feel like this should be one of those interviews where I wax nostalgic about Cornell or something. I can’t say I had a negative time at Cornell, but it was just hard for me. And I think I was also expecting something different, because Cornell is so big, and there are so many students. It’s kind of difficult at times to get into classes that I wanted to get into, even though I was an Arts [& Sciences] student. I thought, “Why are there people from the Agriculture School in my English class?” That always struck me as strange. But I was drinking too much in college too. My last year, though, I thought, “Okay, I’m gonna really buckle down and study.” And I did it, but in the end I think I just wanted to get out of school and play music. But I did graduate!
Sun: [Laughs] That’s the most important thing.
J.H.: 2.3! 2.3!
Sun: [Laughs]
J.H.: Or was it 2.6? Maybe I got a 2.6. I think it was a 2.6.
Sun: What bands were you most into when you were at Cornell?
J.H.: I was really into discovering older music, a lot of jazz. I discovered Bill Frisell when I was in college. And I was also into songwriters like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, of course, and Randy Newman. I was exploring all that stuff and singing old songs, Neil Young songs and Dylan songs. But bands that were current bands? I remember my friends and I were into Fishbone. They were big when I was in school. I guess the Red Hot Chili Peppers were happening, and Jane’s Addiction. But we dug 24-7 Spyz. That was some of the stuff I was into.
Sun: With some of the jazz artists and some of the older bands, did you ever take any of the history of music classes and learn about them there?
J.H.: Yeah I did. I took the jazz class, and I took an Indian music class, and like I said, I had a guitar teacher. I got credit for taking guitar lessons. He was a jazz guitarist, so I studied a lot of different kinds of music with him: country blues and folk blues, jazz and even counterpoint. The stuff I did with him all had a big influence on me.
Sun: I guess it counted for credit, but was guitar your main focus outside of the classroom, or did you have other activities that you did also?
J.H.: I was still into writing stories back then, short stories, so I would do that as well. But mostly that was it, just playing guitar. I was really into exploring the areas around Ithaca. I had a friend that had a motorcycle and we used to just drive to other towns and take trips, not overnight trips, but just day trips. I thought that Ithaca was so beautiful. I’ve never been anywhere else since that I thought was so beautiful. Especially in the summertime, it’s just like a jungle. [Laughs] But it was not the most organized part of my life, I have to say.
Sun: What are some of those trips that you might recommend to students?
J.H.: I would explore the other Finger Lakes. Go up Cayuga Lake, I would say, because there are so many towns along there. I used to like going to the Rongovian Embassy, and all the parks around Cornell are so beautiful. It’s been a long time, but I just remember going to all the different outdoor spaces. We found some spots that weren’t even parks. We’d go into the woods and find these waterfalls, stuff like that. Honestly, I love the gorges. That’s easy to get to and everyone can find those. But I have to say I have a lot of fond memories of playing at the Chapter House. I did gigs there. I used to play at a place called Oliver’s that’s gone now. There were a lot of fun places that I would do gigs at and I usually would have a really good time. As far as going around, I would recommend just getting lost and exploring.
Sun: If you had to pick your fondest memory of Cornell out of anything that you remember now, what would that be?
J.H.: I don’t know. I have a lot. As far as one other place that I used to really love, Taughannock Falls on a nice summer warm day walking up the stream to the Falls. I used to love doing that. I have more pictures of things and places, not necessarily anything that I did. I did like on Highland Place. I lived in an apartment there my senior year, right in the gorge, with some friends. That was a great year. It was really so beautiful; we had a terrace right in the gorge. Pretty amazing.
Sun: What did you do right after you graduated?
J.H.: I came back to New York and I spent the summer waiting tables and doing gigs. And then I went to Europe and just traveled alone for a couple of months. I went all over Europe. Then I came back and went back to work waiting tables. Then eventually I got involved with this singer. We started a group called Once Blue, and we got signed to EMI Records. We made a record for them and started touring, and you know, on from there. But that first year after I graduated was mostly just waiting tables and doing gigs, or traveling.
Sun: EMI is a British label, right?
J.H.: Originally, EMI was a British label, yes. But now EMI is all over the world.
Sun: So you got signed when you were here?
J.H.: Yeah, and actually EMI Records in the U.S. doesn’t exist anymore, but EMI is still a parent company that owns Blue Notes Records and Capitol Records and stuff like that.
Sun: So you just produced the soundtrack for The Hottest State [Ethan Hawke’s film]?
J.H.: Yeah.
Sun: What is it like to work on a soundtrack versus a regular album of yours?
J.H.: Oh, it was really different, particularly this project because we had all these artists doing songs of mine. So I wasn’t involved in every recording. I produced some of them — I produced Willie Nelson, Cat Power and Norah Jones and my tracks and Rocha and others. But, for example, Feist, I just showed her the song and then she recorded it — same thing with Bright Eyes. Other people, we just gave them the song, and then they sent us back the recording. And then there were instrumental pieces: working on the soundtrack album is just one piece of it, because there was all this score music that I did for the film. So it was an all-encompassing project, whereas with making my own album, it’s usually like — for example I have this new record out called Feel. I recorded it in like three or four days, and mixed it over four days, and that was it. It was done. So it wasn’t as involved as the soundtrack. The soundtrack took a long time. And that was my first time doing something like that.
Sun: Were you approached to do it?
J.H.: Ethan Hawke approached me to do it. I actually met him right after I graduated from Cornell down in New York. We’d known each other since then, but we’d never worked on anything together. He told me he needed songs for his film because the lead actress plays a singer. So we started by trying to figure out what songs she would sing, and got to be talking about doing a soundtrack of all new original recordings. Then we talked about the score. But originally, Ethan approached me about it.
Sun: Whose idea was it for most of the songs to be covers of your songs?
J.H.: That was something that we discussed because originally he wanted to have Willie Nelson singing “Blues Eyes Crying in the Rain” at the opening of the film, but then he thought, “Why don’t we ask Willie to do a new song?” In talking about that, we thought, “Why not just get all these artists we love to do songs of mine?” Ethan felt that having one writer would give continuity to it so that there’d be some cohesion. So that he could put The Black Keys and Norah Jones on the same record and have it make sense. The idea grew from there. Each time we asked people to do it, they said yes, and it kinda snowballed.
Sun: What’s it like for you to hear other people’s interpretations of your music?
J.H.: I love it. It feels like, I don’t know, the song feels somehow validated if someone else can sing it and make it sound good. To me it means that the song works, so I always love to share with other people through music. It’s exciting, especially if it’s a great singer. And if Willie Nelson sings your song, it’s the highest honor in a way. So I love it. I think maybe some writers have an ownership over their material and they just want to do it, but I don’t feel that way.
Sun: You just started your own record company, right?
J.H.: Yeah.
Sun: Why did you want to do that?
J.H.: I wanted to do that because I wanted to have the freedom to make records and to not have to solicit labels for it. Also, it’s such a strange time in the music business right now that you can sell just as many records on your own as you can with a label. So I’ve done two records on my own label. I did my last one, not my new one, by Mineral, and I did one with an artist named Sasha Dobson, who did a record called Modern Romance. She’s a great singer.
But I have to say that its so expensive to put out records and to run a label, so I’ve kind of taken a step back and made it more about production. I use the label more to make records and then find larger companies to release them, so that I still own the record, but I find someone else to put it out. But the music industry’s in a very strange time right now, as I’m sure you know. So I don’t know. I’m not so sure about how far I want to pursue being a label president, because it does take time away from creative things. Because before you know it you’re thinking like a businessman, and I didn’t go into music to be a businessman. So I’m not sure if I’m going to turn it into a full-fledged label or just keep it for small projects.
Sun: Is there anything that you’ve done in any of your ventures, maybe a reference in a song somewhere to some aspect of Cornell?
J.H.: Yeah, actually, there is. I wrote a song called “Trumansburg” that ended up on my record Once Blue, that first record with that first band that I was in when I left college. I think I just wanted to write a song with the word Trumansburg in it, so it’s not so much about anything literal. If you listen to it, you wouldn’t think, “Oh wow! He’s singing about the Rongo!” It’s not like that. But I think that’s as close as I came. The Arts Quad or the Slope didn’t make it in anywhere.
Sun: When you were at Cornell, were you in bands or were you mostly playing on your own?
J.H.: I did both. I did gigs on my own, and then I did acoustic gigs with guitar players and percussionists and stuff. And then I also had a band; we would play fraternity parties and do cover songs. It was more of a party band.
Sun: What do you enjoy about each one the most?
J.H.: Well, the party band is certainly not the direction I was gonna be going in. I was way more into my original songs. But the party band thing, I have to say, has sort of stayed with me because to this day, I still love to play in a loud band in a party in a situation where you’re surrounded by people on three sides of the stage and you feel kinda right in the middle of the action. There’s still something so fun about that that’s almost more fun than any other kind of live musical experience because the energy is so great. I did a gig like that just a few weeks ago off in Texas, because there was a premiere of the film [The Hottest State] down there. So I went down with my band and my guitar player from my old group The Ferdinandos, Tony Scherr, and we played this party. It was really fun and it reminded me of certain parties I played in college. You get an energy from that you don’t get when you walk onstage with your acoustic guitar and sing, but I love both.
Sun: I’m sure every day is a new and different challenge being a musician, but what is a day in the life of Jesse Harris?
J.H.: I have to say that there is no normal day. There is no day that’s like any other day. Some days I’m running around so busy doing a lot of different things, organizing stuff. The days that you kind of don’t want to have early on when you’re younger are the days you long for when you’re older, and those are the days when you have nothing to do and nothing going on. You go sit in the café and read or play guitar for two hours or call up a friend and hang out. That’s valuable time too and a lot of creative stuff can come out of it. In the past few years, I’ve been producing a lot of records and working on different things so I end up traveling a lot and having to spend days on the phone and doing tons of emails. That can be fun too because you feel like you’re being active. Other times I’m on tour, and a day in the life on the road is completely different. In the end I think that people should know there’s a value to idle time.
Sun: Before you found any success, what did your parents think of both your career choice and your Cornell performance? [Laughs]
J.H.: [Laughs] My Cornell performance did not inspire a lot of approval. My dad was not happy with how I did at Cornell, especially after my first semester. In fact, he said to me, [imitates angry dad voice] “I know what you’re doing up there! You’re playing that damn guitar!” But later he was a very, very strong supporter of my doing music, as well as my mother. My mom’s in the arts. My parents have always and did always support me, but there were hard times when I didn’t have any money and that could create tension. In the end, I think they were great.
Sun: Do you meet a lot of Cornellians in the music business, or not really?
J.H.: Very rarely as a matter of fact. Very rarely. Almost never I have to say. There are a few from Cornell who are down here playing music in New York, but I don’t see them that often. There are a few musicians I’ve played with who do music now. I hear about them, but we don’t cross paths that much.
Sun: What is one of the craziest or funniest experiences you’ve had being a working musician?
J.H.: Oh man. The range is quite large. They can be from playing a strange gig in a small club somewhere for nobody, weird things like that, all the way to the top, playing in the Grammy’s. It’s a quite wide range of experiences, but it could change from day to day. One day you could be doing something, and everyone’s looking at you, and you feel like the whole world knows who you are. The next day you could be playing a gig in someplace in the middle of nowhere in some disgusting dressing room with mosquitoes eating you. It’s not that consistent. I’d have to say it’s been an interesting time.
Sun: What’s one of the most fun things you’ve been able to do as a musician?
J.H.: All of it is not anything I ever thought I would do. I never really dreamed of being a musician when I was a kid. All of it to me is fun. I played in a marching band. I played banjo, so some of the most fun experiences that I’ve had have been playing parades in New York City on the street, walking down Fifth Avenue with thousands of people or up Sixth Avenue with thousands of people on the street, cheering and screaming, playing music. That to me is as exciting as anything. I certainly never thought I would do that.

Jesse Harris will be playing at the Manhattan Room in Philadelphia tomorrow, November 8. His latest record, Feel, can be purchased on iTunes, Amazon, Borders, and many other music outlets.