Q&A with Jesse Harris, playing West Mount Vernon Park tonight
You most likely know the music, but not the man.
Singer/songwriter Jesse Harris wrote Norah Jones' smash hit "Don't Know Why," which won him a Grammy. A host of other artists have covered his music and co-written with him.
Harris' new album Feel comes out Tuesday. He also scored the new Ethan Hawke movie The Hottest State, which is scheduled to come out in August. For the movie's soundtrack, a number of other musicians including Feist, Willie Nelson and Cat Power interpret Harris' songs.
Tonight, Harris plays a free show in West Mount Vernon Park. The music starts at 5:30 p.m. We recently spoke with Harris about his songwriting process and the new projects.
Is it a little bittersweet to have other musicians play your songs and have such great success with them?
No, not at all. I love to hear other people do tunes of mine. The only part of it that’s bittersweet is when someone does a tune of mine and I do my own gig and people who are fans of that person and expect me to sound like that.
If I were to go to Baltimore and a lot of Norah fans came thinking I might sound like Norah, that would create an awkward situation. I don’t think my own music when I’m singing sounds like Norah at all. That’s the only time that it creates weirdness.
Otherwise, I get a lot of pleasure from people singing my songs. I’ve been writing songs for a long time with the idea of having other people sing them by writing material that I thought wasn’t too personal or idiosyncratic.
I always wanted to write songs that I felt would be universal. Or at least some of them to be that way. Other times I give myself the license to be abstract or not worry about it and write whatever I want.
Do the musicians who cover your songs come to you, or do you go to them?
It really depends. In some cases, people come to me when they want to co-write. Other times I’ve had people come ask for a song.
It’s very difficult to go to an artist and say, ‘Hey, I have a song. I’d like you to sing it.’ That almost 100 percent of the time doesn’t work out. You can’t every make a singer sing a song. I learned that a long time ago. You can certainly show someone a song. Most cases, I don’t think I’ve had much success pitching a song to someone.
In the case of the new project, The Hottest State — Ethan Hawke’s film — it was a little different. We set out with this project saying to everybody ‘Hey, we’re doing an album of Jesse Harris songs, and we’d like you to do this one. Are you interested?’
It’s sort of a no-commitment situation for an artist. When an artist does a song on their record, they’re kind of taking it on in their lives. They have to then go out and perform it possibly on television, in concerts. Whereas if they do something for a soundtrack like this, they can do it and then they’re free from it. I think that’s part of what excited them about it. They got to do a song but not marry it, so to speak.
Out of that, I think we got such amazing performances. Everybody felt liberated. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t their record, so they could do whatever they wanted to. And they’re all such great artists. So we got such great music. That’s my theory, at least.
Have you had people come to you and say, ‘write a song for me?’
Usually when someone says that, they say, ‘Let's co-write it together.’ People usually want to co-write. Sometimes it works out, and sometimes not.
Usually people don’t come and say, ‘Write me a song.’ I wish they did. But it usually doesn’t go that way.