When an artist produces a debut album that becomes an instant classic, the follow up album can often buckle under the weight of fan expectation. Sometimes, the blame lies at the feet of the artist. Buoyed by critical and commercial success, their ego gets the better of them, or they get lazy, or they are pressured by a commercially driven corporate record label. Whatever the reason, the effect is the same. A disappointing, directionless sophomore effort that quickly fades into obscurity and diminishes the achievements of an otherwise strong debut album.
Other times though, the fault lies with the fans. When you love and listen to an album almost non-stop for any given period of time, it becomes greater than it is. It takes on a heightened level of personal meaning for you. That’s the power of music, it transcends every day life to tap into and stir the deep well of emotions, feelings and experiences that make up our individual inner lives.
Harrison Blythe’s debut album ‘Fatal Highway’ was always going to be a tough act to follow. Thankfully, Harrison seems to be in full control of both his ego and his label, enabling him to produce an album not only on par with ‘Fatal Highway’, but in fact one that builds and extends his lyrical, vocal and musical skills.
The question for me then became a personal one – would I like the new album? ‘Fatal Highway’ was one of my favourite albums to come along in a loooong time – and I listened to it on repeat a lot. A REAL lot. I have developed my own relationship to those songs. How would his new songs be able to stand up against the connection I have with his previous work?
Turns out, I had no reason to worry. ‘San Ramon’ is a cohesive collection of catchy, accessible and moving tracks. Both lyrically and melodically memorable, Harrison is emerging as a master of interweaving personal experiences with universal emotions.
THE VERDICT – From playful tracks, to powerful ballads, to pure pop goodness, if you’re looking for a 2016 life soundtrack, look no further than ‘San Ramon’.
Like other brilliant male artists before him (Frank Ocean, Jamie Woon), I often find that my favourite songs aren’t necessarily the singles. That said, ‘Boarding School’, the lead single off ‘San Ramon’ is one of his strongest tracks yet. What I love about Harrison’s vocal on this track is that it matches the cute, almost innocent lyrics perfectly and elevates the song into one that lingers in your memory long after you hear it.
We could run away
Just for a day
Or we could find forever
And make our life together…
– Boarding School
Now I’m no Rolling Stone music journalist but I would like to share with you just a few of the tracks that are emerging as my early favourites.
In ‘Professional House Husband’, Harrison declares he’s not a one night kinda guy, but more the marrying kid. “I’m not ashamed to be a kept man,” he sings in a seductive voice. The track is a perfect mix of sexy playfulness and unashamed sultriness. When Harrison sings “You make the money, and I’ll be your honey“, it’s an offer that’s too good to refuse.
Set to old school typewriting clicks, ‘Typewriter Love Letter’ sees Harrison writing a note to an old lover (on said typewriter, gifted to him by the about-to-be ex-lover), knowing he won’t have the courage to say it face to face. It’s a moody reflection of someone who knows they need to make a change, no matter how hard it will be.
‘Gun Bang Bang’ would have to be the catchiest song Harrison’s ever written. With it’s repeating lyrical hook, and dark, moody undertone, I can definitely imagine hearing this song on the radio, and appealing to a wide (young) audience.
Self-named track ‘Blythe’ delivers some serious swag. It’s a cheeky, playfully fun highlight.
It’s my Jaguar collection that keeps them staring
‘Cause I look so good no matter what I’m in
I believe that’s what the kids all call a #win
Balancing the swag out is ‘I Need You.’ Gone is the confident, boastful guy, and in his place, is a vulnerability and complexity. Yes, there’s a degree of empowerment and understanding that only you can make yourself happy. But at the same time, there is a longing, and a sense of loss. ‘If you really, really truly loved me, you would have followed me when I went away.’ This is a really mature track and has solid potential to be a crossover, mainstream hit.
‘San Ramon’ is an amazing album. It contemplates themes of love and loss, having to make decisions and sometimes letting go the things and people you love in order to be able to move forward.
The thing I love about Harrison’s style of music is that it’s a complete work. I really appreciate an artist who doesn’t just pump out catchy singles, but creates a greater body of work, that while can be listened to intermittently, is best heard in full.
I was fortunate to be able to check in with Harrison recently. We talked about the fabled sophomore album blues, how he feels about the new album, where he draws his inspiration from and his hopes for the future.
Little Gay Blog – Sophomore albums are notoriously tricky, especially when they follow such an exceptional debut album. Did you feel any pressure in following up ‘Fatal Highway’ and what was the process of writing and recording ‘San Ramon’ like for you?
Harrison – I felt pressure from myself, mostly. I know I have a very small crowd of listeners, and of course I didn’t want to disappoint them either, but I mostly didn’t want to disappoint myself. On the other hand, when I started making it, there were so many changes and challenges I was facing in my personal life, so I almost started out a little reckless. I almost didn’t care anymore what people would think of a sophomore record, I just felt very disconnected from the world when I began the project. When I finished the album, stepped back to examine it, I see more anger and sadness mixed together, as opposed to fun, tongue-in-cheek tracks that take jabs at the world around me, like with the first album.
The writing process was a little tricky sometimes because this album is much more autobiographical in nature. ‘Fatal Highway’ was plagued with character pieces, ideas I got to dream up and play with. ‘San Ramon’ was like looking into a mirror.
Sometimes it was fun, like writing ‘Gun Bang Bang’, which is a tribute to all my Asian girlfriends, and it brought up a lot of fond memories. Sometimes it was therapeutic, like writing ‘You Found Me’, which is another tribute piece to my husband.
Then there are tracks like ‘Love & War’, which was written about my abusive ex-boyfriend who died. While the creation process of the song was sort of thrilling, the content was hard to stomach. I was forced to remember things that I often try to avoid thinking about.
‘I Need You’ is about my first love, and how we just seemed to miss each other, every opportunity to get back together wasted, simply because neither of us were willing to make the necessary sacrifices to be together, and a questioning of whether he ever even loved me to begin with. That was a particularly dark period of my life, and it lasted to many years.
So even though I still actually prefer ‘Fatal Highway’ over this new record, I think it says something that ‘San Ramon’ came from a more honest, personal place.
How would you describe ‘San Ramon’ and what are your hopes for the record?
‘San Ramon’ feels a little more fluid in terms of production. While ‘Fatal Highway’ utilised a wide range of organic samples I captured to use in the songs, I instead captured new samples, but far fewer, for ‘San Ramon.’ I hoped that it would give the record a very fluid, cohesive feel.
Emotionally, the album is obviously more personal than the last one. I would describe it more as a journey through the years of growing out of the teenage years and finding myself as an adult. Though the tracks aren’t placed in order, like a timeline of my life through these years, it definitely hits on some issues and memories that are either very important to me, or very difficult to move past.
Naturally, ‘Blythe’ is the exception. I wrote that one just for fun.
I’m not exactly sure what I hope will happen with this record. Since it’s so personal, and I think musically it’s different from ‘Fatal Highway,’ I suppose I’m just anxious for people not to hate it. Because I honestly still don’t know how I feel about the album, myself.
I know you must hate this question, but I have to ask, what’s your favourite song on ‘San Ramon’ – or let’s put it another way, if you could only listen to one song off the album every day for the rest of the year, what song would that be and why? (It’s so hard to pick but my early favourites are emerging as ‘Boarding School’, ‘Gun Bang Bang’, ‘I Need You’ and ‘Typewriter Love Letter’).
Oh goodness, you’re totally right, I have such a hard time with this question! So I guess I will have to narrow it down. I have a strong connection with ‘My Daughter & Me’, as well as ‘England’. But my two favourites are most likely ‘You Found Me’ or ‘Love & War’. I just love the sounds in ‘Love & War’, and when I was done it affirmed my liberation from that abusive ex, knowing that he’s gone. I know that sounds terrible, but his death was what finally made me feel safe.
But if I had to listen to one song only, it would probably be ‘You Found Me’. A valentine for my husband, I wanted to let him know how much he means to me when I was writing it. I know he literally saved my life, which is saying something considering my biggest pet peeve is when people use the word “literally” all the time. But he did, and I will always be grateful for that.
I’m actually a little shocked that you enjoyed ‘Typewriter Love Letter’, and when I shared it with my family, it became a favourite for them too. I had issues with it and almost pulled it from the album. But at the last minute I decided to let it stay on the record, since it was so unique, even if I’m not entirely pleased with the way some elements turned out with it.
When we spoke last year, you mentioned you liked to write character songs, where you take the experiences of people around you and incorporate them into your music. On ‘San Ramon’ I noticed (and I could be wrong about this) more of a personal style of songwriting coming through. Would that be correct and how did that feel for you to write music drawing more from your own life and experiences?
Oh, definitely. This new album is so much more personal. Even songs that I meant to be character pieces morphed into autobiographical ones rather quickly. Even ‘Professional House Husband’, which is sort of a dig at society and the way we treat stay at home parents, it was also a reality for me.
I am a professional house husband, and I do it well. Society tends to look down on those who don’t work outside the home, discounting them as people. This is something women have had to face, and now we’re seeing more stay-at-home fathers. And since it’s a man’s world still, what can society say about that? What will we see in the future? Will men’s worth as people be seen as “less-than” like the challenges women have had to face? I know I’ve run into this already.
This album is filled with personal details that I didn’t intend on sharing when I set out to make it. But the project took on a life of its own, and I suppose with all the chaos, changes and sadness I was dealing with at the time, I needed an outlet. And this was it. I worked on it obsessively and was able to complete the album, start to finish in just six months.
This is something I’ve always wanted to ask a musical artist. How does a song come to you? There are so many different elements to a song – the melody, beat, lyrics – and you’re so involved across all of those areas, I’m wondering if you could describe the creative process – from initial inspiration to final recording – of a song you’ve done?
Honestly, sometimes a song just writes itself. I get into a flow state and BOOM, it’s done. But typically I need to start with something, with an idea. That doesn’t necessarily mean lyrics or a theme. Sometimes I’ll just sit in front of the audio workstation and plug in sounds and beats until I get something I like. It then turns into a sort of domino situation; once I get a beat I like, I cycle through synths and musical instruments that fit the beat well.
And then it comes time to roll around on the floor for a while. That’s honestly how I come up with lyrics. I roll around on the floor until I come up with a lyric strand that I like. And this process can be reversed, too. Sometimes it’s a synth or instrument that sets the song off, a chord progression that I like. Then lyrics might come and I’ll construct a beat simultaneously. There’s no particular order or recipe for writing a song for me. Sometimes they take a few days to complete, sometimes they take six months to perfect.
I work in a very isolated environment, and don’t have any friends that work in audio production, so I can’t attest to how songwriter is “supposed” to go, but this is how it works for me.
Where would you like to see yourself as a recording artist in say, five years from now?
I’m not exactly sure. I’ve made the decision that I would actually like to start writing songs to sell off to other artists. Sort of a Sia situation, I guess. It’s hard to let go of songs once they’re done. I considered selling off Boarding School, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It belonged to me. I consider my songs to be sort of friends that I hang out with. But I would definitely like to start writing for other people. I think it would be sort of thrilling to hear something I created being sung by someone else.
However, I do tend to write songs that aren’t mainstream, and are rather unconventional. And as I continue to write those sorts of songs, those I will keep for myself. Make no mistake, even if I start writing for other artists or selling off my friends, I will still be creating music for myself, and most likely releasing albums until I die.
So who knows what the future holds. In five years, things could drastically change. But hopefully I will have at least one more album for people to listen to, if not two.
I just want to keep making music until I die.
‘San Ramon’ is released internationally in June 2016 and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
The easiest way to find out more and stay up to date with Harrison, is to follow him on his official Facebook page.
He’s a genuinely lovely and hugely talented guy.
I can’t wait to see how successful ‘San Ramon’ will be for him!