©2011 Master Seven. All rights reserved.
Interview with Alexis Harte
Master Seven Interview by Tom Beninate
Copy Editor: Susan Castellano
How has your Big Red Sun CD progressed since being released at San Francisco’s Café Du Nord?

I actually did a number of CD release parties - that was the first. (I did) … one at the Freight and Salvage (Coffeehouse) in Berkeley, which is a venerable institution…. A lot of singer/songwriters come through there. It’s one of these records that is slowly making its way out there. I hired a radio promo company out of Monterey, CA called Artists Airplay Advisors. (It was) the first time that I had done that with one of my CDs. It was a real revelation. It was (two) … hard working guys, David Bean and J.P. Mosoff. They were great. (They) actually got the record onto … 26 or 27 stations around the country. I even got a number one spot one week up in Washington. The program director sent me the chart and there I was right above Nora Jones. She was number two and I was number one. I was thrilled.

Which song was that?

That was “Mayflies.” You know, it wasn’t like it was a huge market but for some reason that week it was played a lot. Anyway, it … put some wind in my sails. I went out to New York and did some shows out there (and also) went up north and did a little tour. In my own way I got out and promoted it. You know, what has happened with me … is online sales have started to surpass physical sales by something like 3 to 1, which is nice. It means I get to focus on making music….
March 1, 2011

Alexis Harte's
website:
alexisharte.com

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Would that be coming from places like iTunes?

Yeah.... (It gets there) through Pandora Radio … (which of course) … bases the number of times you get played on what response people have to your music. The more thumbs up you get, the more you come up in the rotation.... Some of my songs get pretty good rotation…. People hear them and from there it’s a direct buy from Amazon or iTunes.

So the majority of your downloads are coming from iTunes and Amazon?

Yeah, exactly.

What audience do you target when you are writing songs?

A lot of times I get an idea for a song about a particular person or a particular event. I really try and hone in on something that’s tangible. I’ve had a harder time writing songs about big area ideas like peace, justice and love. I like that through exploring details in a song you get to that. But really when I’m writing a song 9 times out of 10 there’s a particular conversation that I had or a particular person that I’m writing about or a particular event or some occurrence that happened that was remarkable to me in some way that was worth writing about.

Does your background in biology and environmentalism inspire you to write music?

Yeah. It’s more of a lens through which I see things. I try not to be preachy about ecological politics … but it is part of my toolkit. I did study and spend a lot of time thinking about ecological systems and how people exist in the world and nature. But I don’t … sit down and say I’m going to write a song about say biodiversity. One of my most popular songs that is downloaded is “Parrots.” It’s a song basically about a group of parrots that were in captivity here in San Francisco and at some point they got free and started their own colony. There was actually a movie made about them a couple of years back called “The Parrots of Telegraph Hill.” They are … San Francisco phenomena. You can be walking along and you hear this incredible shrieking sound. You look up and there’s a flock of wild parrots flying over your head. It’s a wonderful thing. So I wrote this song about the idea that these parrots are not native, but they’re here and they’ve got each other.…

You have songs on TV and radio. Do you write differently for those markets?

No. All of those placements were songs that were written to be on a record. Some TV producer got a hold of it and thought that it would work. More recently … I make my living by writing stuff that is directly for film. But that is pretty far removed from the songs that I write that become records. When you write a song that has some universal element in it and there is enough detail (and) … imagery … it sort of naturally can find its way into a complementing scene on a show.
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What suggestions do you have for songwriters that are looking to begin writing for film or TV?

Well that’s a great question. Let’s take it one at a time. (For) the TV market, (you) want to reach out to … (the) music supervisors for shows that have a music budget. (The) music supervisor goes around and collects all of the songs and … works directly with the director. The director usually has the final say about what song is going to be used where. Sometimes it’s the producer. (If) the music supervisor … falls in love with your music … (he/she) can champion you and get you in front of the director - that’s the best way to do it. Now how do you meet those people? For me it was through diligence and doing my homework. I would watch independent movies that I liked and sometimes I would start to see the same names come up. I would figure out how to reach them somehow. With Google you can usually do that stuff…. Send them a real nice kind of humble email and say, “Hey, I liked your work on the show. I’ve contacted you because I do similar stuff and I‘d love to send you some songs.” I did a bunch of that with a lot of “no response.” Occasionally someone would just perk up. There’s a benefit to being independent and not being signed with a record label. When the supervisor gets contacted directly by the musician …it’s charming in a way because it’s not like the musician is way up on their high horse like when they get contacted by some record executive or lawyer. But also they know that … it’s going to be a lot easier to license and clear through the whole process…. Usually it’s me saying, “Great! Go ahead and use it.” The budget will be smaller and they’ll be fewer headaches….
So they would get more flexibility and a quicker turnaround time.

You’re exactly right. But the problem is these days and in the last five years the record labels … are watching their stream of income from ticket and CD sales dry up. Now the big labels are … (trying to) get their artists on Gray’s Anatomy as a stepping stone.… Now, people like me are competing with Arcade Fire. Everybody’s trying to get whatever revenue they can and whatever exposure they can…. That’s why personal relationships are great. If you can call up the supervisor or meet with them, you have a leg up … even if the band is more well-known or cooler. The music supervisors are just … creative people who want to be able to talk to musicians.

So you suggest that songwriters should build relationships, become their own advocates, and search out new markets?

Exactly.

What is your approach for getting radio airplay?

Radio is a big feather in the cap. It feels great. I don’t know that it really translates into sales…. If I go up to Washington where I had that number one spot for that week and do a show, people will show up…. That is really the important thing about radio…. You have to have this sort of long-term view. Doing a one-off radio campaign or popping up on the radio for a week at a time (is not enough). You really need to do more saturation than that. Some of the best radio that I’ve had is locally here in the San Francisco Bay area. (It took) time…. I met the programmers and did live performances on the radio shows. When I make a new record now I know that there are four or five deejays who will want to get it, play it, and have me on the show.

Do you do an acoustic set, an interview or a combination?

Yeah, it will be a combination. I’ve done stuff on the KFOG morning show. Usually you do it when you have a show coming up that you want to announce. They (KFOG radio) like to be involved in local events. You can come on and they play a song on the radio from your CD. You talk about the show, give (them) your website, maybe give away a couple of tickets, and (then) make yourself scarce. It’s usually a 15 or 20 minute thing.

You are the executive producer for Big Red Sun and you additionally added Jon Evans and J.J. Wiesler as co-producers. What were you trying to achieve here?

That’s a good question. I have myself down as executive producer and Jon and J.J. as producers of individual tracks…. You give the co-producer a demo of the basic chords and the lyrics and after hearing it we sit down and talk about my vision for the song. Together we figure out what the arrangement is going to be (and) what kind of drum beat it might have; whether it’s going to be a quiet finger-picking song or whether we are going to try and build it out into a larger thing. A producer is someone you work with as a songwriter to make the song come to life on tape. So in that case, Jon Evans is a wonderful producer, a guy that I work with a lot and J.J. Wiesler as well. I gave them batches of songs that I thought were playing to their strong suits as producers. The stuff that is a little bit more “poppy” I gave to J.J. because he is just a genius at … distilling the song down to its essence. (He can) give it a real sheen. He produced “Mayflies” on that record…. It was a radio song and … he did a great job with that. Whereas Jon Evans, as you know,… is Tori Amos’s bass player and has an incredible orchestral sense on how to build up a rhythm section around a melody. I wasn’t necessarily looking for the songs to be … radio hits, but I wanted them to have real musical depth. So why am I executive producer? Well, (I’m) the person making all the decisions about how this record is going to come out, what the artwork is going to be, what songs are going to be included and what songs aren’t…. The classic producer’s role was to hire the musicians, hire the studio and pick the songs. So in a way that’s what I was doing. I was the one who said, “Hey, an album has to happen and these are the songs, these are the personnel who are going to get used, this is the studio.” The guy who actually got the CD going from songs to finished artwork to mastering was all me. I hired Jon and J.J. to produce
individual songs.
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How many songs did you consider as possibilities for this album?

… There were probably 20 to 25 song ideas that were floating around … competing for the right to be (on the album). There were a lot of riffs and ideas that were pretty good, but (did not) connect with the rest of these ideas. It’s not that I was trying to make a concept album where everything had its place. There are songs that are clearly outliers like “Send A Robot,” which is just a fun song. I wanted it on there.

Did Jon or J.J. influence the final pick?

I think I made the decision there. At some point maybe a couple of the songs got to the point where I brought them in to Jon. We had my band record them and we’d look at each other at some point and say, “You know, this isn’t really happening.” So they wound up on the cutting room floor. Mostly they would not even get that far because studios are expensive. If a songwriter is hiring a studio, an engineer, and a producer, you want to have a sense (of what works) before you start winding up the clock.
You have 11 songs listed on both the CD jacket and the press sheet, but there are obviously 12 songs on the CD. The twelfth song, “How Can I Find You,” is mentioned on your website. What was your thinking on that and what were you looking to achieve by presenting it this way?

I always like the idea of a hidden track for somebody who is paying attention or not paying attention and they just let the record end with a pause and then this song comes on. That was the song that was recorded live at a rehearsal. Sonically, it wasn’t really part of the set. I thought it was funny to have a song named “How Can I Find You” as the hidden track. It’s a little joke. It’s a wink. I like the song, but it was one that for one reason or another we didn’t record in that studio session…. I actually do that on all of my records.

Have you heard from fans who played the record dozens of times say they discovered at a later point that there was an additional song there?

Yeah. When Pandora got my record they put it in their system and for some reason it showed up…. They don’t treat it as a hidden track. That song gets listened to a lot. People like it…. iTunes did the same thing. The … digital information on the record has it listed as a song with the correct title. You try and hide something and then … technology … reveals it anyway. So it’s only hidden for people who have the physical CD.

You hired Alicia Buelow for your album art and design. Many people know of her work on Adobe software boxes, CD covers, and other things. What do you consider when selecting an artist for your record?

… She was high on my list of people to talk to. I gave her a rough cut of the songs. She listened to them. When she was in her studio, I came in … and she said, “You know that song ‘Crows’? I actually have a series that I did on birds.” They are not necessarily crows but they are a range of different birds. She showed them to me and the cover shot was perfect. I could not imagine a better cover for it.

Did you give her any guidance for the cover or did she come up with that on her own based on listening to the music?

She came up with that on her own just by hearing the music…. I said, “This is great!” The rest just fell into place. I gave her a few things to add. The song “Crows” was actually inspired by an article I read about bird populations…. I clipped out this article … and I gave it to her and she … put it in (the artwork). If you open up the CD you’ll see … the actual article…. She’s a local here in San Francisco. A lot of my friends work with her. She likes music. She likes musicians.

Alexis, how involved were you in either the engineering or mixing of this record?

Pretty involved. What I do is record the basics – drums, bass, and session guitars in a professional studio where … all of the mics, preamps, and gear are that I don’t have…. I take the rough arrangement back to my studio at home where I’m not on the clock and I’m not paying an hourly rate. I can work on it in the middle of the night or … whenever I want. That’s when I add all of the guitars that I play and vocals. I can do a lot of overdubs here in my studio and it sounds fine. I have some good equipment - I just don’t have a lot of it. I can do one or two things at a time. I can put down a guitar track or a vocal track. For me it’s a great way to work. I would recommend it to anybody that’s making a record…. The hardest things to record and sound professional are drums. You need to have a good sounding room. You need to have the right mics. Most people like me don’t want to put their time and money into learning how to do that. But it’s easy enough to get one or two very good mics and a couple of good preamps and a basic recording system now. So it allows a singer/songwriter to save some money in the long run because you can take your time and get things exactly right. If I had to go into the studio where I’m paying $50 or $60 an hour to do all my vocals there would be this pressure. I’d say, “I’ve got to get this right and that tape wasn’t great but ‘hey,’ it was $60 an hour so I have to move on.” Whereas for me, I’ve made an initial investment in some good equipment so I can do all of that stuff at home. I can sing along to the basic tracks that I recorded in a big studio and eventually when I’m happy with everything I take it all back to either Jon or J.J. They mix it. I’m usually in the room with them. I would say, “This is the vocal I did. How does it sound?” They would say, “Hey it sounds great,” or “I’m not sure about this one part. Why don’t you work on that some more?” Usually at this point I … know what I want. I bring it all back and they mix it. So you get the best of both worlds.

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What digital software do you use for recording?

I use ProTools.

After the final mix you sent the project to Michael Romanowski for mastering. Were you present in the mastering studio?

Yeah. I always like to be in the mastering room because it’s really the last stage and they are making some pretty big decisions about the way things are going to sound. I try not to get in their way - I don’t micromanage it - but I want to hear what’s coming out of the speakers and what adjustment they are making. In some cases you really have to be there because they are setting up the final master. How many seconds do you want between each song? What order do you want the songs in? Do you want this to fade in or fade out? With that hidden track – how many seconds do you want to go by before it reveals itself? There are decisions that you have to make. You don’t have to be at the mastering session if you specify all that up front. But for me, these guys are local. At this point they are also friends.
It seems like you know how to combine and balance the various elements and talents required in order to put together a professional CD. You can hear that quality when listening to the record.

Thank you. You’ve summarized it well. It’s knowing where you can do the work yourself and be your own judge and … (when) to get someone else’s feel. It’s something you learn with time. My first CD was a different ball of wax. It was very simple. That’s when I started to realize that I can do this at home and I can take the time to learn this stuff…. I brought it to the mix engineer and the mastering engineer at the final stage. That opened my eyes…. If I had not spent the money and put this out the door myself, it would have suffered. At some point you have to remove yourself from it and get objective ears on it. If your room isn’t telling you the truth or if there is a certain frequency that’s coming through too strong, then your guitars are going to sound crappy. So … the key in the whole DIY world is knowing where it’s best to spend some money and get other people involved.

What are you currently working on?

Well, I‘ve got another batch of 14 songs that are pretty much done. I have a little bit more mixing to do. I haven’t even thought about artwork or anything like that. In the last year I’ve written about 20 songs. That (CD) should be coming out early summer. There’ll be a small amount of touring and I’ll probably hire the same video guy again. I’ll see if I can get some more radio play, get it to Pandora, and get it to iTunes.

Is there anything else that you would like to add?

Songwriters need to consider the range of ways that will get their music heard. Internet radio is one of them. Sending it to blogs that you respect (is another). Don’t forget about the potential for placements in TV shows and even better, if there is a documentary film that’s being made that happens to be on the topic of one of your songs. There are all these opportunities for cross-pollination. Whereas a TV show just might need a pop song, (a documentary is good) if you … have a message in one of your songs about something … specific…. For example, with my song “Parrots,” I would have loved to have had that song in that movie “The Parrots of Telegraph Hill,” but the timing didn’t work out. They were pretty much done with the movie by the time I had finished that song. But songwriters should look at what other artists are doing - (look at) what other filmmakers are doing and try and combine the message.

Alexis I appreciate your time and wisdom today.

Thanks for interviewing me.



You can purchase Alexis Harte's Big Red Sun at:
CD Baby - http://www.cdbaby.com/Artist/AlexisHarte 
iTunes - http://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/alexis-harte/id5008383


Click here for our April 27, 2012 update to Alexis's interview

Since 2001, Alexis Harte's four studio releases including his latest effort Big Red Sun, have received critical acclaim both in the US and abroad. He has toured nationally and internationally (sharing bills with Taj Mahal, Ritchie Havens, Dar Wiliams, and more) and has had over 60 tracks placed in national television shows and films. Alexis recently signed a multiyear music administration and co-publishing deal with Lionsgate Entertainment.
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