Underneath This had the enjoyable experience of interviewing talented musician Michael Harren. To learn more about Michael and his music, please check out michaelharren.com before proceeding to the following interview.
Please describe your trajectory to becoming a musician.
I always loved music when I was a kid and sang in various choirs. I had a kid’s electric organ back then too, I loved to play mini-concerts for my family, mainly just short songs I had figured out by ear. One Christmas when I was around 13 years old, my mom bought the family a piano and I took to it immediately. I taught myself to read music, and then I started taking lessons. My teacher and I didn’t get along so well, so I stopped taking lessons after a couple of years, but I continued playing. I played for the choir at my High School in Tyler, TX, and in a band I had formed with some friends.
After I graduated from High School I had a really hard time deciding to study music. I had gotten the message pretty distinctly that there was little chance of making a living as a musician, so I chose to study Radio Television Production instead. Of course, I wasn’t all that interested in it and wound up flunking out of college during my first year, mostly due to my preferred career as an alcoholic and a drug addict.
I played in a few bands during that time, but it wasn’t till I sobered up in 1994 that I started to take piano seriously. I went back to college and studied piano performance and music composition. First at Houston Community College, then at University of Houston. I pretty quickly became connected with some theaters in Houston and started musical directing, and got some pretty steady gigs as a pianist.
How does being based in Brooklyn influence the music that you make?
I have become involved in some really interesting work here and gotten connected with great people just because of physical proximity. Neighborhoods in Brooklyn have a surprising “small town” feel, which has really served to push me out of the somewhat introverted way I live my life. For example, I met performer and intuitive Victoria Libertore at a coffee shop one block from my apartment, and seeds of Tentative Armor was written in her Archetypal Performance class. She’s also become a spiritual mentor, much of that practice (meditation, channeling etc…) informs my music and inspires new ideas I would not have had.
I’ve found that other musicians here have a spirit of openness and camaraderie I did not expect. People are always sending each other work, and sharing knowledge with one another, where I was expecting the music world to be a bit more competitive. I’ve learned so much from others who are just interested in sharing and being excited about creating new work in new ways.
In what ways do your social and personal identities affect your art?
I want to say that being queer, sober and vegan are the most prominent identities, though I can’t really think of how they affect my art. I have gone through a bit of a journey with how I relate with mainstream gay culture. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gone from immersing myself in gay culture, then rejecting it completely, to where I am now — I feel more relaxed about needing to identify with any specific group. Truth be told, I think that process has really affected and shaped me as an artist where I feel safe to create what I am creating without TOO much concern with where this work lands. I’d be lying if I said I don’t care if this work resonates with anyone else, but I feel in a good enough place as a human to know that it isn’t necessarily my business whether other people like what I’m doing.
You skillfully synthesize aspects of classic musical with more electronic sounds. What inspired that combination?
The music I first fell in love with was what I was listening to as a teenager in the 80’s, I was really fascinated with synthesizers so I would consider that the root of my interest in composing electronic music. My first thought about my inspiration for combining electronics and acoustic instruments was Talk Talk’s 1984 album “It’s My Life.” I distinctly remember the first time I noticed that what I first thought of as a synth based album actually had some sprinklings of acoustic guitar and trumpet and various other instruments. I think it adds an interesting depth and character to the way things sound to combine the precision of electronics with the fallibility and imperfection of acoustic instruments.
One of your most recent singles, “Go” sounds like it could be in a musical. What is the story behind that song?
I was getting ready for my first reading of Tentative Armor at Judson Church. At the time, the show ended with a piece called “Five Tasks of Grief” which is the story of caring for my mom while she was dying of cancer. I wanted the show to end on a more uplifting note, so I wrote this song as an ending. It turned out to be a really heartbreaking song, inspired by a moment I had with my mom where I knew she was really suffering and I wanted to find a way to help her let go. I hope the song has an uplifting quality too in the way that it affirms that we really all are on this earth temporarily and embracing grief is an important part of embracing being alive.
I love the title, “Tentative Armor.” What does it mean?
To me, “Tentative Armor” talks about the idea of wanting to keep my distance others while still craving some kind of intimacy. Some of the stories in the show talk about just that. It could be not waking someone up on the subway who fell asleep on my shoulder, or having an anonymous sexual encounter in order to experience some level of intimacy while still protecting myself.
What was it like performing that show and making the related album?
Performing this material, especially the first time, was terrifying. I had written and composed all of the music in the safety of my apartment, and only a small handful of people had heard any of it. I had limited experience as a solo performer, having spent most of my time behind the piano playing for other people. Accomplishing that though, was really inspiring and motivation, especially considering that it was well received. Each performance of it since then has been a step toward taking bigger risks as a performer.
I am still in the process of finishing the album, and it is another set of firsts for me. The pieces on the album are like old friends by now, but I am mixing the album myself which presents its own sets of challenges. I’m happy with how it is all going, but it’s sloooooow!
How did the related book come about?
My long time friend luke kurtis had the idea for the book. He and I met on a Yoko Ono fan site in the late 90s and have been friends ever since. He came to the performances of the show and told me over coffee one afternoon about his idea to create the book and incorporate some of his photos into the book. I was really thrilled, because I felt it would be the perfect thing to pair with an album. Standing outside of the show, I was afraid the music and spoken word pieces wouldn’t work as audio recordings. The book is really going to pull things together and luke’s design is just beautiful.
What have been some highlights from performing live?
The first reading of the show was so outstanding for me. So many more people came to that performance than I expected and I really had no idea how people would react. I was really thrilled to have such a great response, especially from people who I didn’t know. There was a woman who came up and spoke to me after the show about “Five Tasks of Grief.” She told me that she was caring for her terminally ill Grandfather. She hadn’t had anyone to talk about what she was going through, so she hearing me tell the story about caring for my mom helped her feel like she wasn’t so alone. That was the first moment that I realized that there was some value to others in doing this type of work. I think speaking with that woman was the highlight of the whole process so far.
How has it been working and touring with Sandra Bernhard?
All in all it has been really fun. I was quite intimidated for the first few shows because I had been a fan of hers since probably the late 80’s when I saw Without You I’m Nothing on the big screen. One of the things that surprised me the most was how gracious she is toward me as a fellow artist. Seeing how hard she works is really eye-opening, and lit a fire under my ass. It’s really challenging showing up at different venues not knowing what to expect from the sound, the space, the piano and often not exactly sure what music she is going to want to do. That part of it especially has made me grow quickly as a musician. I feel like I am much more willing to experiment and go with the flow than I was before I started working with her. Knowing how hard she works in every part of her life, I am much less likely to allow myself to be lazy as far as what I need to do in order to get my solo career where I want it.
I love your song, “Invocation.” It seems to combine elements of spoken word. How did you put together that song?
Oh wow, this song has had a long journey. It was rhythmically inspired by a Steve Jansen song called “Captured Through A Quiet Window.” I loved the way that song has a rhythmic spaciousness. I figured out the time signature was something like 11/8 and I set to programming a drum pattern that had the same kind of feel, that’s basically how it sounds now, those big clunky drums. Once I started writing out the string parts I realized that I had made a mistake and actually written the piece in alternating measures of 10/8 and 12/8. Which gave it an even “floatier” feel to me.
A melody emerged out of that and then the different layers of synths. The first time I performed it, it didn’t have any vocals at all, they showed up for the second reading of the show, That middle part with the improvisational singing really feels like channeling to me, when I get out-of-the-way of it anyway. It’s a voice that emerges at the end of the show after all of the various challenges and realizations. the text in the beginning came to me in this moment of auto-writing, and it really is the message of the show to me. Kind of like: “you are here, perfectly ready to move on to the next thing. Let’s go!”
You have performed at Judson Memorial Church, which is known for its social justice work. Have you been involved with activist or other social justice efforts, and if so, which?
I am a pretty outspoken vegan and animal rights advocate, well aware of the fact that I need to put more action into my activism. I like to have vegan food and animal rights info at my shows, and I recently organized a fundraiser for For The Animals Sanctuary. Before I left Texas I covered some issues about the death penalty on my podcast at mikeypod.com. I covered the events leading up the heartbreaking execution of Frances Newton in 2005. I spent some time as an intern at Koinonia Partners in Americus, GA, which was the birthplace of Habitat For Humanity. I have to admit that this question has me feeling uncomfortably aware of how that work is comparatively absent in my life now. I need to open more space in my life for this again.
Did or do you have any other career aspirations outside of music?
I have been teaching music for many years now, but that’s the only other thing outside of music, and I actually teach music. Haha, I guess the answer to that is “no.” 🙂
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
Just keep making and performing and doing what you want to do no matter what!
What is next for you creatively?
I am not quite sure. I have a couple of new spoken word pieces that I will be performing at my album release show here in NYC. Those may shape up into another show. I am really interested in gathering my more musical (aka less theatrical) pieces of work and start doing more straight up concert gigs. I’ll be experimenting with what that feels like at the album release show on October 14th as well.
Thanks for the interview!
You’re welcome and thank you for having me!