Best known for his work as a songwriter and guitarist with Norah Jones - he penned several songs for her first two albums, including the Grammy-winning "Don't Know Why" - New York-born Jesse Harris has had a long career in his own right, and as a producer and touring sideman for the likes of Sasha Dobson, Jonathan Harris and many others. If that weren't enough to keep him out of mischief, he also wrote the score for Ethan Hawke vehicle The Hottest State.
Harris is currently on tour promoting his upcoming disc, Watching the Sky (Mercer Street). The record is heavily influenced by Brazilian music, an obsession of his for the last few years. Rocks Off caught up with him over the phone during the tour's East Coast leg, when he chatted with us about his new release, the roots of his interest in Brazilian music and of course tonight's upcoming show in Houston - which he hasn't visited since the early days of his career.
Rocks Off: You use alternate tuning for your banjo. How does that work exactly?
Jesse Harris: Well, it's a six-string banjo and you tune it like a guitar, and you just play regular guitar chords on it. The tuning I first used for an album of mine nine years ago - I used someone else's [instrument] then, but I bought mine four years ago. I played then and I still play in a marching band, and I needed a loud instrument for the street, and the acoustic guitar doesn't do it, so I bought a banjo and put a pickup in it and started playing it in peoples' gigs.
Eventually I started playing in other peoples' records, and then eventually started playing it in my own records, and live I just found that I liked playing the banjo better than any guitar, and step by step found my way to this percussion/banjo duo and it really works for me.
RO: How did you reach the concept for this format?
JH: Well, because I made this new record and was about to go on the road, and I was going to go solo, and the record company said that it would be better to have a percussionist, and at first I was doing acoustic guitar and percussion, and would play banjo on a few songs, and every time I played banjo I had a lot of fun, and then every time I picked up the guitar I got bummed out, and eventually I started playing only banjo.
RO: Did you always use the guitar tuning?
JH: Guitar tuning - and also, the pickup that I use, when you plug it in, it doesn't really sound like a banjo, because the banjo is kind of, you know, dry and plucked, and the pickup gives kind of a warm quality.
RO: About the new record, I wouldn't say it's retro, but the music does sound like something that came from the past. Is that something that comes from part of your musical upbringing?
JH: Um, I would say yes, but for sure I think a lot has to do with the production and engineering of Terry Manning - some of his horn arrangements have an old feeling like it's almost like Bacharach or [Abbey Road's] Studio One, and I think that his way of recording sounds like an old record, too. He doesn't over-compress things and knows how to keep the music feeling quite natural all the way through the final process of mastering.
And then, also, it's just the way that we play, maybe - pretty live - but I guess that the quality of the music sounds that way is probably because of the engineering.
RO: Do you record live in the studio or do you go through a more traditional process?
JH: It's a combination of both - we get a good live take were everybody plays and then we overdub on to it.
RO: Norah Jones participated in one of the songs, yes?
JH: She just came in to sing harmony - it was fun, she is such a great harmony singer, she blends so well and she has a great sense of melody, she just dropped by and did it.
RO: Her sister [sitarist Anoushka Shankar] once described Norah as a "serial collaborator."
JH: Yes, and she's on the new Q-Tip record, the new Foo Fighters - she's just one of those great artists and I think everybody loves to collaborate with her.
RO: On the song "Everybody Knows," you have a very interesting arrangement - it's kind of a folk song, but the percussion is a pandeiro (a Brazilian hand drum similar to a tambourine). How was bringing that instrument to a folk song?
JH: For me it's the most natural thing in the world - I don't know if it's because of the fact that for the past five years I've been really obsessed with Brazilian music, and maybe some of those rhythms found a way into my songs. It just feels natural to add that kind of rhythm to them, I just think that Brazilian percussion makes so much sense - it seems so rooted in like, nature, you know?
For example, right now we are doing this duo, and I taught my friend to play the rebolo (pronounced he-BO-lu, a larger lap drum). I didn't even have to teach him, I just said, "Here, here's how you do it - you sit and use your left hand on the drum head and your right hand you play the brush and you hit the side of the brush to give like a backbeat," and he just started to play it's like a full drum kit with this one drum. For me it's just very natural, and I'm glad you noticed that.
RO: This obsession with Brazilian music - how did you discover it?
JH: Well, I've been listening to Brazilian music since I was a kid. My dad introduced me to the album that Stan Getz did with [Antonio Carlos] Jobim and Joao Gilberto [1963's iconic Getz/Gilberto] and the records that Herbie Mann did - my dad was attracted to Brazilian jazz-fusion. Later on, I discovered Gilberto Gil from friends when I was pretty young, and here and there I would listen to things but it was really when I went to Brazil in 2002/2003 that I bought a bunch of records and really got into it.
Later I discovered early Jorge Ben and Gilberto Gil records, and Gal Costa and everything like that and it really became an addition - every chance I got I'd buy Brazilian records.
RO: Have you worked with any other Brazilian musicians in addition to [percussionist] Mauro Refosco, who plays on your new disc?
JH: Well, I sing on his group's [New York's Forro In The Dark] new album - I wrote a song with them, and I sing it on their upcoming release. [Singer-songwriter] Bebel Gilberto and I hung out, and we talked about collaborating, but we haven't done it yet. A long time ago, a hundred years ago I played with [New York-based percussionist] Cyro Baptista - that was really fun, but he probably doesn't even remember it. But otherwise, that's it.
RO: How was the experience of bringing your music to a Brazilian realm?
JH: It was very easy - I've made four records with Mauro now. The first time we collaborated I brought him in to play percussion on a singer's record - Sasha Dobson - I produced her record and I had him play on that, and I loved it so much that I had him play on my last record, Feel, and then I had him come and play with Japanese artist Yuichi Ohata, and then on this new record of mine.
On my last record, I had Mauro play with a drummer, but this time I had no drummer, I just let him do the whole thing. For me, playing with Mauro is just the most natural thing in the world. He's just a phenomenal musician. And I don't think of it as Brazilian or American, you know? It's just feels like music to me.
RO: You also had [guitarist] Tony Scherr on the sessions.
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JH: He was on my group The Ferdinandos - we've now made seven or eight records together. He also played on Sasha Dobson's record, and he did some of The Hottest State soundtrack, he made five Ferdinandos records.
RO: You haven't played in Houston for a while --- when was the last time you performed here?
JH: It could have been ten years ago - I don't think I've played there since the '90s. I can't wait to play there.
With Joshua Radin and Meiko, 7 p.m. tonight at Warehouse Live, 813 St. Emanuel, 713-225-5483 or www.warehouselive.com.