Port Harbour is an energetic six-piece indie rock band from Harrisonburg, VA, whose passion for music shines through innovative musical blends and thoughtful, honest lyrics. Whether you want to do some soul-searching or you just want to just jam out, this band is worth a listen. Their songs are guaranteed to make you cry or laugh, if you’re into that sort of thing.
We recently had the chance to talk to the founding members of Port Harbour, who offered some really cool perspectives on music and life.
Ethan Weitz: Brandon, how did you guys get started?
Brandon O’Neill: We all met at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia. We initially started with just three of us—Taylor, Jake, and I—and we had a different name and a different style. We fumbled around for a few months and decided that in order to give the band more structure we needed more members. So we added Hunter on drums, Justin on bass and trumpet, and Valerie—Taylor’s then-girlfriend, now-fiancé, and soon-to-be wife—on synths and vocals. We’ve been together for almost three years.
Ethan: Who or what are your biggest inspirations?
Brandon: We’re very different people when it comes to art and inspiration. Ironically, the one musical area most of us tend to agree on is heavy music. We’re all big fans of Underoath, August Burns Red, and Beartooth, and I think part of us wishes we were a heavy band sometimes.
A lot of us really love being outside. Harrisonburg has a lot of hiking trails and camping areas, and as predictable as that might sound I think it’s a big inspiration for a lot of what we create. Personally, I get fired up seeing art at museums, and I recently saw the exhibit for Auguste Rodin—the guy who made “The Thinker” sculpture as seen in Night at the Museum—at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and that was super inspiring.
Emily Cardé: Tell us about your creative process. Is there a specific way that most of your songs come about?
Brandon: We’ve had to figure this out somewhat painfully. We all remember our first writing session when we were just starting out, which was a complete disaster. Our first record “Wake” was a lot of songs that had been previously written that we adapted for the band.
By the time we started writing “Take, Keep,” we had established a system that worked well. One person writes the full song and brings it to the band, and then we add parts and make tweaks to the structure. We’ve actually started writing some new stuff, and that has been a totally new process, which is exciting. We’ve tried writing completely from scratch with all of us in the room, and what we’ve come up with so far is pretty cool.
Ethan: What is the hardest part about making music? Are there particular creative challenges you face as a six-piece band?
Brandon: The hardest part, which is probably similar in other bands, is reconciling the creative differences between six very different people. It’s like a marriage . . . we start out thinking we’re so similar and we’re on the same page, and in a lot of ways we are. But the more time you spend with each other the more you start to notice the differences. That’s a huge challenge. You have to figure out how to navigate that area tactfully, because there’s a lot of passion and a lot of emotion. You can’t go stomping all over people’s emotions because that’s not good for the band and definitely not good for the friendships. But at the same time you need to figure out how to communicate your own point of view and not avoid creative conflict simply because it’s uncomfortable. You’ve got to speak up, because not speaking up creates resentment. It’s really hard, but we’re able to fall back on the friendships we have with each other, which are real and deep and true. I’m really grateful for that, and I don’t think we’d still be a band if we weren’t such good friends.
Ethan: You guys don’t label yourselves as a Christian band, but the Christian themes running throughout your songs give them an extra depth of meaning. How do you approach the challenge incorporating your faith into your music?
Brandon: Yeah, it’s really not progressive anymore to be a “we’re-Christians-but-not-a-Christian-band” band, and I’m definitely aware of that. There still is a Christian music industry, so I guess what we’re saying by not including any of the Christian labeling is that we’re not trying to go in that direction. Nothing against that industry, but it’s got a certain musical and lyrical style that isn’t for us.
As for the challenge of incorporating faith, we believe the questions we’re asking and the things we’re exploring in our lyrics, while definitely informed by our faith, are interesting and worthwhile topics for anyone to engage in. And anything that any of us writes is going to be informed by who we are, so for that reason I’m not super apologetic when faith manifests itself in our art. My personal thought is that if God is actually real in the universe, then the things of God should be relatable to anyone who lives in it.
Ethan: Taylor, your song “Lost Child” deals with the struggle of finding your place in the world. How did this song come about, and what are you trying to communicate through it?
Taylor Bess: I wrote Lost Child actually when I was on vacation with my family. It was written out of a place of frustration with trying to find peace. I realized that for months I had been trying just about everything I could think of to make myself happy. I was searching for comfort and a place to rest my head, but couldn’t find one. It reminded me of returning to the nursery I played in as a little kid (the name of the original demo was actually “The Nursery”). It’s still the same place with all of the same toys, yet I can’t feel the magic that I once did when I was young. It doesn’t feel the same.
I wrote this song to be a place where the listeners and I can connect and know that it’s okay not to pretend that everything is okay anymore. It’s okay to hurt, and we can share in that together. My desire is for “Lost Child” to help guide us to the present instead of focusing on trying to find happiness in the past. We’re going to get lost. But let’s help each other find our way.
“Anything that any of us writes is going to be informed by who we are, so for that reason I’m not super apologetic when faith manifests itself in our art.” — Brandon O’Neill
Emily: From your new album, “The House You Keep” is a fascinating song. Jake, can you tell us a little bit more about the meaning behind the lyrics?
Jake Sawyer: When I sat down to write this song, I was trying to write a song about God (in the sense that I was frustrated and tired of him). I was coming up short with my efforts to channel those feelings into a song, so as I sat by the piano trying to create something, I thought about what a song might sound like if God had written one about me. I tried to imagine what God might think of the things I do and the choices I make. And when I started thinking about that, “The House You Keep” pretty much came right out.
I realized that in a lot of ways, I was more frustrating than I could have ever imagined. It was a painful song to write, mainly because the change of perspective in the song uprooted a lot of things in my life that I had not really seen before because I never bothered to look for them. After writing the song and looking back at it, I realized that there were plenty of unhealthy things I was holding onto, none of which I saw from my own perspective. So, a lot of the lyrics in the song are written not about somebody else, but written about me (which is weird because it is also written by me). “The House You Keep” is really just the scary parts of me coming to the surface.
Ethan: What has been your favorite song to write or perform?
Brandon: As far as performing, my personal favorite has got to be “Avalanche” from our first album. I don’t think it’s our best song, and it’s not even my favorite song objectively out of all the ones we’ve written (and I actually wrote the lyrics to that one). But I think the energy of that song, when we play it live, is unmatched by anything else in our repertoire. Everyone lets loose on that song, and it’s always fun.
As far as my favorite song more objectively, I love “Stories” from the new album. I think it’s got all the elements that I love about Port Harbour: great duet vocals from Tay and Val, a cool electronic element, groovy verses with a big catchy chorus, and then trumpets and half time at the end. It’s got it all.
“I tried to imagine what God might think of the things I do and the choices I make. And when I started thinking about that, ‘The House You Keep’ pretty much came right out.” — Jake Sawyer
Emily: You’ve said that “Take, Keep” has the ability to change people’s lives. Could you elaborate on the concepts behind the album and the impact you hope it will have?
Brandon: Thanks for asking this. I feel like that’s a random sentence in our bio that carries a lot of weight for us, but I’m not sure that people catch it. “Take, Keep” is a journey. It was written as a concept album in four movements.
The overarching theme is owning the heavy stuff in life and in your own soul, facing it head on, being real with yourself, and expecting and accepting the fact that the process of doing that is painful as hell. “Catacombs” is the opening invitation to this process, with the idea that running out of ignorance and into the fray of your own self is ultimately better than staying in the shadows, even if it’s painful. “Stories” is a continuation of the invitation, and then “The Rain” is where things start to take the turn towards pain. “Enough” and “Sink” are the desperate low points, where there’s not a lot of hope and a lot of sadness and loneliness. “The House You Keep” is still in the depths but it’s starting to look up. “It All Comes Down” is the climax, the resolution, the hope of the album, and it’s got a lot of Christian imagery of God loving us like a husband loves his wife. Then “Wash” is the epic response to the journey, celebrating the freshness of running out of ignorance and into glory.
We think that anyone who comes on this journey with us can be totally different at the end of it. The specifics will look different person to person, but the general concepts are intrinsically the same. We really think the album can enable that journey, and that the outcome can be a better, fuller, more invigorated life.
Ethan: “Take, Keep” was the first album where you worked with a producer. How did that affect your creative process and the final sound of the album?
Brandon: It really changed everything, and I think we’d say it changed it for the better. Chris is awesome, and he committed to this record in ways we couldn’t have dreamed of. His skill and the quality of his studio got us better sounds than we ever got close to capturing on our own with “Wake,” and it freed us up to make more artistic decisions and less technical ones.
He got with us on a creative level too. One of my favorite stories about that is from when we tracked “Sink.” It was maybe the second day in the studio, so we were definitely still getting to know each other. Things had been fun and light up to that point, and “Sink” is not really a fun and light song. I told Chris the idea behind the song and then went into the live room to talk to Taylor before he recorded the take. When I came back into the control room, Chris had already dimmed the lights, and he was totally locked in on the idea of the song. That’s what he did for us the whole time; he wasn’t just an engineer, he was a fellow artist and a partner.
Emily: What do you guys hope to accomplish with Port Harbour in the future? Do you have any tours planned for 2016?
Brandon: That’s the million dollar question. We love making music, and we really believe it’s worth doing. We’re in a funny stage of life coming out of college into the real world with real jobs, and we’re trying to figure out how Port Harbour factors into all that.
It’s always been our goal to get our music into as many ears as possible, because we really believe in it. That’s still our goal, and we’re open to doing that as widely and creatively as possible. We’re playing shows all around Virginia for now—in Richmond, Harrisonburg, and the D.C. area—and we’d love to get on the road and take our music to other states if they’ll have us.
Thanks for reading! If you dig our website, do us a favor and like The Cellary on Facebook.