My main music listening years (i.e. teen and young adulthood) were between 1992-2000. My idea of a female ‘pop singer’ was Natalie Merchant, Tori Amos, Sarah McLachlan or Jewel. When the conversation devolved into ‘Britney vs Christina’, I knew it was time for me to exit gracefully via stage left.
So when I recently came across a new artist by the name of Harrison Blythe, and I was immediately struck by his music, I was kind of surprised. It’s the first time in a loooong time, that I’ve liked music that could be labelled pop (in the sense that it has the very real potential to be highly popular given how good it is).
Harrison Blythe is in his 20s. He comes from a wealthy family and instead of going to college, decided to travel up and down the West coast, writing songs and playing and producing music. Oh and he’s gay.
He’s classically trained on the violin his whole life and is a self-taught pianist from the age of twelve. Harrison discovered Tori Amos at age twelve, which shifted his focus from his classical training on the violin and self-taught piano skills in a more unique direction. His other musical influences include Bjork, Imogen Heap, Royksopp, The Knife and Lana Del Ray.
When I first heard him, he reminded me a bit (vocally at least) of Darren Hayes, who was the lead singer of the Australian band, Savage Garden. I was a teenager when Savage Garden hit it big in the US, so I have always had an affinity for them. That might explain why I’ve been listening to Harrison’s album, ‘Fatal Highway’ pretty much non stop for the past few weeks.
I was fortunate enough to recently speak with Harrison.
Little Gay Blog – Thanks for taking the time to speak with me Harrison. Congratulations on your album. I really love it. What does it feel like for you, given how personal some of the songs and lyrics are, now that the album has been released into the world?
Harrison – It’s a little surreal, now that it’s finally been released. I gave myself a one year deadline to create it while going to school, so it was definitely stressful. I thought I would be a lot more nervous about the content of some of the songs after the album’s release, but I’ve felt remarkably at ease with it. I’ve been writing music a long time, and have always been very careful with content, trying not to push the envelope or write about something that might offend someone else. The irony of that is that my youth is like a movie, plagued with nothing but offensive and reckless content.
So one day, after numerous failed attempts at getting people interested in my tame music, I decided to start over; I changed my name, which I think provided me with some psychological distance from the music, allowing me to sing or write about whatever I wanted. I could write about drug addiction, alcoholism, use satire where I probably shouldn’t and blame the media for fueling in the increase in school shootings and violence. I don’t feel afraid of being judged that I wrote a love song about another man. I just feel at peace with the album, no matter how personal the content might be.
LGB – How do you get inspired and go from an idea in your head to a finished song? What’s the process like?
Sometimes it’s easy. You should know that, even though I’ve been writing music for a long time, this album was my first experience with music production, like beats, synths, putting everything together, so I was learning as I went along.
The song, “Quiet,” practically wrote, produced and recorded itself in the span of about four days. It started with an interest in bioluminescence. Then I just started improvising lyrics in the digital audio workstation until it turned into a song. I was in a deep flow state so it was easy. “Quiet” was rather autobiographical. Most of my songs on this album are character pieces, where I get to pretend I’m someone else.
I’ve had a lot of experience with drug addiction so when a best friend confided in me that her then-boyfriend was a heroin addict, I started thinking about all sorts of addictions, whether it be heroin, music or gummy bears. For that song, all I needed was some heavy bass and it got me going. I got to pretend to be a heroin addict in denial of my problem, foolishly thinking I had everything under control.
I try to keep the content of at least a few songs on an album socially relevant, which is why I wrote “Getaway.” It’s about the saturation of technology and social media and the need to escape it. The entire album is comprised of organic samples of sounds that I captured and manipulated, and I recycle them throughout the songs to give the record a cohesive feel. “Getaway” used more organic samples than any other song on the album; spoons, metronomes, pens, banging on the piano, you name it. The entire beat is made up of organically captured sounds, which I did on purpose since the song is all about technology. This song used the least technology than any other song on the record. I even used a hand-made kalimba my husband, brother, dad and I made together. With this song, it was the beat that got me started on writing the lyrics, and eventually led to a finished product. And yes, I still am married to my BlackBerry.
I find the character pieces are easier to write because I get to pretend to be someone else. Whether I am a heroin addict or the child of a powerful drug lord, or maybe just a sad nobody who has lost his lover, it all comes easy.
I think, “I Just Screamed In My Mouth” gets overlooked a lot on the album, and it’s an important one. It’s a true story told from point of view of one of my oldest and dearest friends. She gave me permission to use her story. She was forced to drop out of school and was locked away in a psych ward because of a supposed eating disorder that later turned out to be a rare digestive disorder that went undiagnosed. It messed her up. I don’t know how she ever learned to forgive her parents for that one. So I took care to do her justice through the lyrics. The credit for the brilliant title is hers. But again, it’s a character piece, so if I can get a good beat or instrumental riff going, I can write some lyrics to go along with it.
LGB – I’m guessing you don’t have a favourite song, but is there a song on the album that has a particularly strong meaning or connection for you?
“Quiet” will always be special to me because it was the first song I completed for the album and I had so much fun producing it. And it’s also inspired by the life I share with my husband.
“The Chateau Gray” is important to me because I wrote it for my husband. I think I wrote, produced and recorded it in the span of an afternoon when I got snowed in during the winter. Though my husband and I were legally married a year ago, we plan to have a wedding ceremony next year, and “The Chateau Gray” is going to play at the end of the ceremony.
I think it’s the autobiographical pieces that I show emotional favoritism to. “The Road I’m On” is actually from an album I started at seventeen and finished at age twenty-one called Polaroid Kid. It’s acoustically based, singer-songwriter stuff, and I didn’t know if it would ever see the light of day, so I borrowed that song from the collection to use on Fatal Highway. I was in a relationship with a guy who was in all ways abusive. He messed me up so badly. To be abused in every way you can think of… Well, it takes time to heal from that. I started writing “The Road I’m On,” which is more about the dangers of falling in love, rather than love itself. Halfway through writing it the ex-boyfriend died. I didn’t know if it was in bad taste to finish the song or not, but I figured he owed me that much, so I did it anyway.
I think it’s the character pieces that I’m most proud of in terms of production. I focused on a lot on the production side of the songs, most likely because I wasn’t distracted by the emotional side of the process. “American Hero” is one of my favorites because of the beat, as well as the slightly irreverent lyrics.
I guess it’s just a really long way to say I don’t know if I could pick a favorite. If you held a gun to my head, I would say my top three picks are “Quiet,” “Getaway,” and “American Hero.” If you threatened to fire the gun I might throw in “Addiction.”
LGB – What’s your take on the current state of the music industry, given the way that streaming services and downloads continue to impact and disrupt the old way of doing things?
Well, the radio is dead. I hate American top 40, everything sounds the same and everyone is so computer generated that I can’t tell anyone apart. I just had to get that out there.
In terms of how the music industry operates, I’m a little torn. The digital age has given freedom to people like me who probably wouldn’t get signed to a major record label the opportunity to share their music with the world. On the other hand, the internet is so saturated with crap that it’s hard to get people to listen to your music. They can’t find it through all that crap.
Streaming is a cool idea, but unfortunately it gives virtually nothing to the artist. And I mean nothing. You make no money from someone streaming your music. Personally, I tend not to stream at all. If I like a song, I buy it. And for the artists that I’m obsessed with, I still go to the store, wait in line for it to open, and grab my copy on CD. I love CDs because they’re tangible. You can listen to the album while looking through the booklet on the floor of your bedroom or living room. I just miss the old way of doing it.
LGB – You’re an out artist, and have been married to your husband for 8 years. (Congratulations on that, by the way!) Why did you decide to be out from the start of your career, and do you think that in 2015, being gay is no longer the career-killer that it has previously been perceived to be?
Well we’ve been together for eight years but have officially been married for one year and domestically partnered for six (oh the legal system). And thank you!
I decided there was no harm in being “out” from the beginning because I honestly wasn’t counting on anyone buying the album in the first place. I’ve never had much luck getting music to sell in the past so I figured, “What could it hurt?” Plus I’m pretty sure the sound of my voice gives it away pretty quickly. I recognise that my voice is somewhat of an acquired taste.
And no, I think being gay is definitely still a career killer in the industry. Being gay might be more socially accepted now, and it might even be a little trendy or cool in some places. But in the industry, record executives want to make money by catering to the masses, which means using sexuality to manipulate sales to heterosexual people. If Lana Del Rey weren’t as stunningly beautiful as she is and she were a lesbian, do you really think she would have ended up as the most streamed female artist last year?
Naturally this rule doesn’t hold true for everyone. But I’m sorry, Adam Lambert doesn’t count because he was on Idol, he’s adorable and he has a set of vocal chords I would commit murder to have. But generally speaking, being out won’t help you in the industry. At least, that’s what I think. I don’t believe we’re as evolved as society likes to think we are.
LGB – And lastly, any plans to tour Down Under?
I actually don’t have any plans to tour or do any shows. For me, it’s about the creation process, not necessarily performing. I used to do local shows a few years ago but that was me on the piano and singing. You know, more acoustic stuff that’s conducive to live performance – all old material that unfortunately didn’t ever get recorded.
Plus I’m a full-time college student and I don’t exactly have the opportunities or time to tour or do shows. I’m definitely intrigued by the idea of touring and live performance, as much as performing live terrifies me, but so far don’t have any plans. I’d love to have the opportunity to visit Australia one day, though.