Nick Edward Harris’s music is a breath of mystery in a genre that can at times become crowded with the plain and indistinguishable. With tact and skill, this London-based singer-songwriter is pushing the boundaries of traditional acoustic music.
I discovered Nick’s music one late winter evening and was entranced by his distinctive accent and mad guitar skills. There is something almost mystical about Nick’s inventive and impressive use of the guitar. The occasional addition of violin and wind instruments add to his darkly enchanting sound. Unlike many folk artists, Nick does not use music merely as vehicle for words; instead, his sound takes on a life of its own, accentuating the themes introduced in his lyrics.
As with a good chocolate or a fine wine, you don’t want to recklessly ingest Nick’s music. Listen attentively and slowly, seeking to understand the complexities in both sound and lyric.
Emily Cardé: Nick, how did you first get started writing music?
Nick Edward Harris: I’ve wanted to play music for as long as I can remember, and I used to make up songs as a child. But I suppose it became more structured when I began learning guitar at 16. As soon as I learned the basic major chords, I began to play around with them and started writing some pretty terrible teenage pop songs. I would half-learn something I was listening to and then mix the chords around and pretend it was my own song. Things went from there, really.
Emily: Some artists use music as merely a vehicle for their lyrics. But for you, the music itself seems to play a very important role—it’s more than just a backdrop for your lyrics. Why is that?
Nick: Most of the time I find the feeling of the music comes first naturally. I usually have an idea for an atmosphere, and I find it quite easy to go into a kind of trance where I can experiment with chord progressions, open tunings, soundscapes, or the feeling of certain harmonies. The songs usually come from that place, which feels kind of primal and is often difficult to translate into words.
At some point I kind of have to force myself to wake up and try to explain more specifically what I am trying to write about. Sometimes it works and I get a fairly cohesive song, but other times I can’t match words or a melody to the sensation, and the idea stays as an instrumental, or an idea on my computer, or a series of odd noises which are probably better left alone.
Emily: What is your favorite part of creating and performing music?
Nick: I can’t say. I love every step in its own way. I write music compulsively, cathartically, because it makes me feel like I have a purpose. So I guess that’s the most important bit—without that purpose I think I’d be lost.
At first it was hard to marry the introspective nature of writing music at home with the extrovert part of performing it in front of strangers. Somehow I’ve learned to love the feeling of playing live, perhaps because it has helped me silence some my doubts about my abilities as a musician.
I’m also working on accepting compliments from people afterwards, although I still find that weirdly difficult and I’m not sure why.
Emily: A few years ago, you left your job and went to New Zealand to focus entirely on your music. Can you tell us a bit more about that experience and how that time helped you grow as a musician?
Nick: Yes, that was an important move for me. For years I had been wanting to focus more on music, but I was constantly getting distracted with other things that I felt needed to be done. Eventually I just accepted that I wanted to be a musician, and realized that if was going to do it, I would have to give it everything. It felt quite logical to quit my job and move to New Zealand for a while. It’s as far away from London as you can go, and it’s a place of real peace and space. The country is beautiful too—it has genuinely inspiring landscapes.
It was good for me, because I just woke up every day and began studying, practicing, busking, and writing. It was a productive time. After several months I began to feel the need to see people though; I guess I started wanting an audience. That or a British roast dinner. Probably both.
Emily: That wasn’t the only time you’ve removed yourself from modern society for an extended period of time. What drew you to this lifestyle?
Nick: I think I just like the extremes. I love London, the intense pace and bustle, the competitiveness and the madness; but I also like being able to focus on something intently for a long time without distractions, which is nearly impossible in the city. There’s something wonderful about going from one extreme to the other. You get to see everything with new eyes.
Emily: You decided to record the album “The Tall Trees” entirely at night. What prompted that decision? What was the recording process like?
Nick: It just sort of happened that way. I was working with Nick Trepka, who’s produced a huge amount of great music, and who is a night person too. Some days we would start the session at a reasonable time but after a certain number of hours in the studio we would both get into ‘the zone’ and would just have to keep going.
That stage was a bit like being a child deeply immersed in an imaginative game of pretend. There’s a lot less thinking or rationalizing and more experimenting and more-or-less ‘playing.’ It only seems to happen at night, and being tired can really help. I think when we’re exhausted we’re forced to make more instinctual decisions, because the thinking part of our brains is dead. That can be a really good thing.
Emily: Your song “Angra Mainyu” is named and themed after the destructive spirit of Zoroastrianism. Not too many artists write songs about Zoroastrianism. What is the story behind “Angra Mainyu”? Is there a specific reason you latched on to this mythology?
Nick: I’ve always been interested in the darker side of religious belief. I’m an atheist, but I get fascinated by the idea that there could be evil or destruction in human form. Quite a few of the ideas for the lyrics came from the book The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov, where the devil’s creations have this fascinating playfulness and dry sense of humor. I was reading about Zoroastrianism at the time and I remember liking the sound of the name Angra Mainyu. It just seemed to fit. It’s a powerful sounding phrase.
Emily: How much does mythology and paganism influence your lyrical and musical choices?
Nick: Quite a lot I suppose. I often get ideas for lyrics from books, and I don’t know why but I’m drawn to stories with disturbing themes and recurring myths. I think some of the best books I’ve read are modern takes on old beliefs—like Steinbeck’s East of Eden taking on themes from Cain and Abel, and Dostoevsky constantly nodding to how ancient myths shape our more modern ways of thinking.
Emily: Which of the songs you have written are the most meaningful to you, and why?
Nick: Most recently, “Evening” has held a lot of meaning for me. It was one of those songs that came out whole without too much effort or shaping, and because of this it felt very honest. Some songs seem to need a lot of encouragement to take shape—you have to assemble them and glue them together. But other songs, like this one, just fall out intact. That always makes the communication of an idea feel more direct and sincere.
I wrote “Evening” about learning to embrace change, which is something I’ve found incredibly difficult to do. I find that I naturally want to cling onto things and experiences and people. But if I can get myself to let go and let things move on, there’s something wonderful there. There’s something inspiring about not being able to control things.
Emily: Do you have any new music in the works?
Nick: Yes, always, but these new songs feel like they are never going to be ready. They’re too difficult to play. I need to stop being such a technique guitar geek and write some songs with C, F, and G.
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