Years before developing his own brand of confessional, cathartic country music — a sound he describes as "meta-apocalyptic country/Americana grief-grass" — Jason Hawk Harris chased a different muse as a classically-trained composer.
He was rooted in the orchestral influence of modern classical music from the 20th and 21st centuries. He loved the theory, the disjunct forms and the rawest of emotional palettes. It all started with a fondness for Queen, whose albums accounted for some of the most frequently-heard records in Harris' Houston household. The band sounded progressive, mixing the punch of rock & roll with the complexity of symphonic music. From there, Harris discovered Debussy and Mozart, then Stravinsky and George Crumb. He eventually enrolled in music school and graduated with a degree in composition, which he immediately began putting to use.
After writing thousands of measures of classical music, though, Harris found himself drawn back to the country, folk, and rock music that had soundtracked his early childhood. He'd grown up listening to classic crooners like Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Jim Croce, Patsy Cline, and Elvis. That music had laid a sort of musical bedrock that couldn't be ignored. Later, after hearing bluegrass musician Michael Daves playing a stirring guitar solo, Harris knew he needed to somehow incorporate his country-loving childhood into his songs.
"Hearing Michael Daves tackle that solo really woke me up," he remembers. "There was something wild about the way he played. He played with abandon. Something sparked in me again — the same spark I'd heard when I first discovered Brian May's guitar solo on 'It's Late' — and everything changed."
Harris began cutting his non-classical teeth with the Show Ponies, an Americana group based in L.A. He played guitar for the band and produced most of their albums, racking up several million Spotify streams along the way. Meanwhile, problems arose in his personal life — including a family history of addiction, which ultimately resulted in the early death of his mother — and began fueling Harris' need to write his own music.
Released in November 2017, the five-song Formaldehyde, Tobacco and Tulips marks Harris' debut as a solo artist. It's an emotional EP about joy, pain, sorrow, and grief, tied together with autobiographical lyrics and sharp, detail-rich songwriting. The record also paves the way for Harris' full-length album, which draws a distinct bridge between his country and classical roots.
"I love country music because it's built upon a collision of the sad and specific," says the songwriter, whose music evokes comparisons to imaginative Americana frontmen like Daniel Romano and Robert Ellis. "It is equal parts devastation and catharsis."
Although performed with traditional country instrumentation — including acoustic and electric guitar, pedal steel, bass, strings, piano, and the occasional harmonium — Harris' LP reaches far beyond the genre's rootsy influence. There are complex harmonic structures, acrobatic arrangements, and unexpected intervals. There are cathartic songs about love and addiction. A classically-trained composer turned country singer, Jason Hawk Harris proudly operates within his own lane, proving that there's something stirring and compelling about musical culture clash.
Written by Andrew Leahey