Interview: J.P. Harris says the new album "expands what I'm capable of writing"
Free Dirt Records

J.P. Harris is a country singer who has also worked as a carpenter, farm laborer, and shepherd, among other things. By phone he discussed leaving home at age 14, living as a hobo, and his recently released album Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing.

AXS: I read that you took a Greyhound away from home after the 8th grade. Where did you go, and what compelled you to do it?

J.P. Harris: Both of those are very long stories. The where is shorter than the why. I can sum up the why quickly. There were many factors, and I felt like it was time to go out and see the world of my own accord. My family left Alabama looking for work when I was a kid. We ended up in the high desert in California. Then we ended up staying in Las Vegas for a handful of years. I left there and went to the Bay Area. I had gotten into the punk and DIY music scene. The nearest thing to me as an interesting, active place to go was Oakland, Berkeley, around there. There was a bunch of bands that me and my friends had been listening to forever. That's where I went. I rode for a couple days and got off in Oakland and started my wild adventures.

AXS: What was your parents' reaction to that?

JPH: That's another long story. I didn't see them for a while. That's more like an all-afternoon on a porch sort of story.

AXS: You did some hoboing too.

JPH: When I got to Oakland I started meeting these older traveling punk-rock kids and musicians. Everybody had always known about the lore of hobo culture and been mystified by it. Before I left home, we used to go out to this drainage wash in the desert. A train would go by real slow in the middle of the night. We were doing hooligan-kid s*** like painting under bridges. We'd always see who could keep up with the train or who could jump on a ladder for a minute and jump back off before this bridge. It was totally stupid kid stuff that we should not have been doing. I started meeting people that traveled by freight train. That became the pinnacle of independent free-form travel. It was like, "Man, I can get on one of THOSE things and travel?" I got on my first train when I was 14 or 15. I spent about the next three or four years getting around pretty regularly. It was an interesting way to travel with some hairy moments.

AXS: How do you think your life would be different if you hadn't started traveling?

JPH: I wonder that a lot. It's hard to say. A lot of the kids from the music scene when I was a teenager ended up staying put. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. A lot of them are still back in Las Vegas doing whatever they do. I don't think I would have ended up where I am now if I hadn't done that. I always had this notion that there was a lot for me to learn by going out into the world, and not in a controlled setting. Something about all that traveling in weird ways prepared me for being a touring musician. But also taught me a lot about getting along with people you meet on the road because it was a necessity. Had I not been such a bold and stupid young boy, I don't think I would have ended up where I am these days.

AXS: You took an unusual approach to record this album. Why did you choose to do it the way you did, and how do you think it worked out?

JPH: I had always been incredibly hands-on with the previous recordings I made. From a musical standpoint, I'm completely uneducated. I had a handful of guitar lessons when I was about 12. I figured out the rest of it myself. I can't read sheet music. I can play above the fifth fret on a guitar, but it's by feel not from any technical roadmap. Despite that, I always had a vision for how I wanted all of my recordings to sound. Going into the studio I had heard in my mind every part of every instrument. Not solos or anything. That's technically way beyond my capabilities. By the time I got into the studio, I had very little interest in any flexibility. People came to know for better or worse, that I had these sort of clear ideas of what I want. It made peoples' jobs a lot easier - recording with me. But I think it limited the sonic abilities of what I was doing. I think a lot of things became overly sought out. I'd go back and listen to one of my records, and think, "Man, I nitpicked the s*** out of the bridge on this one." We went back and played that bridge 10 times because it didn't feel right. I felt like it needed to be this way or that way. I had a lot of years between my last recording and this one. A lot of things have changed, and I've grown up a lot. I feel like I needed to sit back and let life take its course. I think I let that bleed into this recording process. I wanted people to come to the table with their own ideas. I didn't want anyone to get their homework done ahead of time and to come to the studio with their own ideas set in stone. That's why I avoided any sort of pre-production or rehearsals with the band. I told everybody don't bother hollerin' at each other. I didn't want people coming in with the songs and notes charted out. I wanted people to come in ready to create on the spot. I think it worked out real well. It resulted in a live-sounding record. A lot of ideas sprung up from the sum of all parts that wouldn't have happened if we planned it out ahead of time. Something about a tiny bit of pressure knowing how many days we have the studio, but at the same time, an overall relaxed approach. Rather than refining it before we laid it all out on tape, it gave everybody more freedom and more room to work creatively in the studio. I was a lot more hands-off on this record than I have been in the past. That was refreshing for me. I'd put down a couple vocal takes, then go to the control room while the band cut the song. That was a real nice way to do it rather than being so wrapped up in the process. There wasn't too much directing to be done on my part.

AXS: How do you think this album compares to previous albums you've done?

JPH: It's better. I'm proud of my previous records. My first record was a real good debut. I was happy with it. The second record had some really great songs on it too and nudged my songwriting bubble a little bigger. This one is a much larger step in terms of expanding what I'm capable of writing and what I feel comfortable recording. I'm writing country songs, but I don't want to put out the same sound that everyone's been doing for 50 years. I want to have a little more freedom and an adventurous spirit in arranging songs and instrumentation. I'm not trying to innovate. I'm trying to write traditionally-influenced music that has my own mark on it. I think I succeeded more on this record than previous records. I think I broke the mold for myself or at least put a few good fractures in it. When I was younger, I would write songs more in a format and with a specific reference in mind. This time I pushed those parameters out a little further, which I think is an important thing to do as an artist. Some people get their thing down and they crank excellent records that stick to their parameters. I feel like if I can't keep expanding the edges, I'm not working hard enough as a musician. In terms of the songwriting and arrangements, I think I pushed those edges out a little further.

AXS: What would you be doing if you weren't making music?

JPH: I would probably be living far from any major city in the woods somewhere, chopping firewood and whittling on sticks. I spent so many years not living near any civilized outpost that I never felt totally housebroken if you will. Living in the city for seven almost eight years now, every day feels like an adjustment. I belong way out in the hills. Eventually, I think I'll end up out there again. For now, I'm making do with my happy middle ground here in the city.