Interview: Kyp Harness, “Kyp Harness”

Kyp Harness

One advantage of being a music blogger is the continuous stream of artist submissions and new releases landing in your email inbox.  Yet with every familiar name that jumps out from the subject lines, there always seem to be many, many more from artists that we have never heard of.  And this is a perfectly acceptable situation, granting us exposure to a wider sample of new artists or those recording under a new project name.  But when the ‘new artist’ turns out to be a singer-songwriter boasting 25+ years of professional musicianship under his belt, and with over a dozen previous albums, we are left scratching our heads wondering how we had missed this particular train until now.  With this comes a sense of elation (in ‘now’ learning of their material), yet simultaneously a sense of sadness (in ‘ only now’ learning of their material); sentiments that prompt us to help spread the word for those of you that may have missed out too.

One such email included a copy of the brand new self-titled album from Toronto’s Kyp Harness; an artist with whom we were unfamiliar, but whom quickly grabbed our attention when sampling the opening track, “Hard Life,” from this release.  With a wonderful up-tempo folk-roots beat, and an instant whirlwind of vocals from Harness, my finger that usually hovers over the ‘skip’ button absolutely refused to budge, allowing me to absorb and fully appreciate my first encounter with Kyp’s music.  With hints of Neil Young and Tom Petty in the sound, and the sharp lyrical creativity of Bob Dylan, I was more than willing to give this album a whirl.  One full spin of all nine tracks later, and Kyp Harness quickly earned himself another new fan courtesy of this chance engagement with his quality music.

With this, his 14th full-length album, Kyp Harness shares a collection of nine timely observations of our fraying society, rendered with all the wit, wisdom and just the right amount of folk-rocking flair that his fans have come to expect.  Blessed with a vocal range that fits naturally within the context of the folk-rock genre, the comparisons to both his peers and contemporaries are hard to dismiss.  The Petty/Young influences jumped out during my first foray into “Angel Mine,” replaced by Dylan and hints of Willie Nelson through “Talking To Myself.”  A list of similarities that expand upon further listening, which I shall refrain from sharing here.

Leonard Cohen!  Ron Sexsmith!  Jason Collett!  Sorry, you caught me thinking out loud again.  I tried to refrain, honest!

Demonstrating his unique craftsmanship for words and a fine tune, Kyp Harness is presenting this album under the banner of his own name, and based upon the nine tracks offered here, it is certainly a name that deserves to be spoken with the same reverence as these other great songwriters.  This is a strongly recommended album from a ‘not-really-new’ artist, and we are grateful that Kyp Harness spent some time with us recently to chat about his new music.

You have just released your new ‘self-titled’ and 14th studio album.  What should listeners expect to find from this new collection of original songs?

These songs show where I’m at right now and they’re played with the spirit I wrote them in, and the players playing them with me are in the same moment giving their all into that spirit. I can’t define that spirit but hopefully the music can tell you all about it.  There’s no snow jobs or bullshit to any of the music, the players are all honest people, giving their all, and that’s what you’re gonna find on this album. I try to get as much poetry as I can into the songs.  I try and get as much music as I can into them too.

You were able to record this entire album in just a single all-day session in Toronto, with a great supporting cast of musicians.  Please tell us a little about what they brought to the studio time, and the challenges you presented to yourselves in laying down the full album in under 24 hours.

I had this day in the studio given to me as a gift, the intention wasn’t necessarily to make a whole album, though I was definitely prepared to do that if all went well. The great jazz pianist Tania Gill has been playing with me for a couple years, so she knows the feel of my stuff.  Sean Lancaric on drums brings a lot of spirit and verve and groove, and Mike Smith on bass is the consummate pro and master, and it so happened that we got a feel going and got all the songs down. There was no pressure or challenge – it just worked out that way. It’s luck, magic, fate, blessedness. Hitchcock said that 99% of making a movie was casting – it’s easy to play with such sympathetic artists as are on this record.  I’ve recorded other ways, but laying it down live seems to work best with my music – that’s the way they did it on most of the recordings I like. You want to make something that’s alive, that will stay alive.  The production found on Howlin’ Wolf’s records seems to me the apex of production.

You have an extensive history of making music in Toronto over the last 25+ years, yet I am not familiar with your music.  Was the decision to make this album self-titled an opportunity to generate awareness outside of your musical circle, or a bolder statement to be a little more prolific and recognized in a larger context?

I guess I have no great premeditation behind the things I do – it’s just instinct.  I always thought I would use my name as a title when I couldn’t think of another title.  Yet here I probably could’ve thought of another title, but it seemed right to use my name because the songs so completely summed up who I was at the time. It seems simple, direct, straight to the point to use my name, and I guess that’s what the songs are like to me too. And I’m as happy with this as I’ve been with anything I’ve ever done, so I’m glad to say ‘Hey- that’s me – this record is me.’

You have often been associated with many highly regarded musicians across the ON music scene, and even quoted as being Ron Sexsmith’s favorite songwriter.  Bringing both ‘songwriter’ and ‘artist’ together for this new album, what statement best summarizes your new body of work here?

Songwriting, singing, is just another way to express yourself, like painting, sculpting, or dancing.  It’s all art.  I’m glad to be both songwriter and artist.  A big part of the Bible and the Torah are a collection of song lyrics.  I’ve also come out with a new novel at the same time as the album, ‘The Abandoned’, with Nightwood Editions. That’s also the same part of the work I do as a songwriter and singer. It’s all about ideas, emotions, moods, colours,  reaching out to understand and be understood. The songs are little symphonies or movies that can be ingested.

Upon your arrival on the Toronto music scene in the early 1990s, Crash Magazine declared your music as “not a style that everyone likes, but there are those of us who think he’s kind of a genius.”  I am curious to know not only your reaction to this statement at the time, but how you’d likely react now if faced with a similar appraisal from the music press?

I think that quote is great. I’m glad for anyone to engage with the music and have any kind of a reaction. I’ve had bad reviews and good reviews, empty rooms and full ones, hostile audiences and loving audiences, open doors and shut doors. I’m here for it all.  Any act of creation is an act of hope, of faith, and vulnerability. The big thing is not to get caught anywhere and keep it flowing.

Kyp Harness

The album cross references many different influences here.  A little Bob Dylan, some Neil Young, hints of Tom Petty too. And I detect some Willie Nelson too on “Talking To Myself.”  Who would you say are the artists that influenced you the most, both in your formative years as a musician, and now today?

It changes all the time. Right now I like the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Etta Jones, Nina Simone. In my youth I liked Eddie Cantor, and old twenties music and thirties music.  All those titans of songwriting I’ve loved of course, like Cohen/Lennon/Dylan/Joni Mitchell. I like Elizabeth Cotten, Jimmy Rodgers, Cole Porter, Louis Armstrong. I also love Laurel and Hardy and Charlie Chaplin.

“Angel Mine” does have a distinct Ron Sexsmith style, and a little Neil Young sound, commencing with a nice keyboard intro, and maintaining an upbeat vibe for the duration.  Tell us a little about the origins of this song.

The song is one that comes around after you have an argument with someone, feel you can’t get through to them. It’s about reconciliation and maybe starting a new beginning. Started out as a slow song, a melancholy ballad, but then it speeded up, and something different/interesting happened with the music and the chords and it became a different entity, something brash, brassy and hopeful.

One particular favorite of mine here has to be “Crazy Moon.”  I love the subtle jazz sounds in the background, and your vocals/sound here drew instant comparisons to the works of Jason Collett for me.  What can you tell us about this track?

I wrote the song awhile ago but only recently learned to play it the right way, – that sometimes happens with songs. It’s in the swing of it, which came into me from my steady go-to diet of Frank Sinatra’s Capitol records and Louis Armstrong. A song can be as slow as molasses and still swing, and a song can be as fast as anything and not swing at all.  The concerns of the song go straight to the heart of me, so I always knew the song would come out somehow, but I’m glad I absorbed a rhythm into me that made it complete.

You do not shy away from societal issues here?  Talk to us about both “Hard Life” and “The Sea Monster,” and from where you drew these inspirations.

There are certain truths about living in a world that’s jagged and harsh, even though, in order to stay sane and reasonably content, we pretend it’s not that way. Sometimes you have to face it squarely to stay really sane, and not ‘pretend sane’. I draw my inspirations from the experience of trying to stay human in a life where, even if you make some money and take care of your teeth, you die anyway.  And if you die last, you get to see everyone else die first.  I always wanted to reflect all the different experiences of being human in the writing, not to get too caught up with the darkness, nor be nauseatingly hopeful. Trying to keep it real.

In ‘The Sea monster’ I saw a force of darkness coming to centre stage that makes its appearance throughout history, then goes away, but always returns, and humans have to find some kind of way to survive it. We don’t know when it’ll visit or when it’ll leave, and we don’t know how to get out of its cycle.  Maybe future generations will figure it out.

With the album now complete, what’s next?  Any plans to share this music out on the road through the fall and winter months?

I’d love to play anywhere and everywhere.  My new novel is out and I’m doing readings from that too.  I’ll be playing solo and also with my band here, there, and everywhere, I hope.

Visit Kyp Harness’ website.

The British guy that crossed the ocean and crash landed in central Pennsylvania (to quote Greg Keelor, “And I wonder what am I doing here?”). As the youngest of four siblings, exposure to music from a very early age nurtured my passion and appreciation for many musical genres. Continuing to discover some amazingly diverse and talented musicians based in Canada, I gravitate to live music experiences and remain devoted to spreading the word about such a vibrant music scene.

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