INTERVIEW: Leah Harris

Hi Leah, welcome back to VENTS! How have you been?

Hi! I’ve been great, thanks. A lot has happened since we last spoke! I moved to New York in October and have been building my new life here. There’s so much inspiration in this city, but it’s also quite crazy. Overall, I am so happy to be here, and I’ve found my favorite coffee, ice cream, sushi, and R&B spots – so life is good!

Can you talk to us more about your latest single “Treat Me Good”?

“Treat Me Good” is the title track off my new EP, of the same name, and the first song to be released from the new collection. Fiona Apple is one of my favorite songwriters, and I think it comes through a bit in the sense of humor. The piano is jazzy, and the vocals include soulful riffs that build up to the little tag line “treat me good.” Andrae Murchison, one of my favorite trombonists, arranged the horn parts and my good friend Adam Rhodes produced the track. It was exciting to hear a song that I’ve performed solo in a live setting for so many years really come to life with the full instrumentation.

Did any event, in particular, inspire you to write this song?

I was waiting at home for some guy to call, someone whose name I no longer remember! I was aware in the moment that this would be the case, but I kept checking my phone and no matter what I did, logic would not help me. The song is about how peculiar it is to both have that awareness and to be driven crazy by it anyways. This was also the first of a series of songs I wrote about my Scandinavian dating frustrations (haha). They got progressively more intense.

Any plans to release a video for the single?

I have quite a few live recordings of this song, so I will share one of those. After spending the last two years touring, I seem to have endless amounts of live footage and very few fully produced projects! I’m hoping to find a videographer in NYC to collaborate with on some bigger projects, so you will definitely be seeing some form of the video soon.

Why name the record after this song in particular?

This song has been the most memorable one to listeners at my live shows, especially that “treat me good” line. There’s something funny about the soulful buildup leading up to that phrase, and the audience usually laughs after I sing that line. I also like to watch people struggle to understand why I chose to use the wrong grammar in the title.

Was that always the case or did you toy with other titles throughout the process?

I more or less knew this would be the one. It just had the right energy, sense of humor, and it seems to describe the whole EP. The runner-up was “Into the Dark,” one of the other songs on the EP, which is about falling in love with a psycho. I figured since my last EP was called “I Don’t Believe in Love” I kind of owed my listeners something a little lighter and more uplifting. I think “Treat Me Good” has a nice ring to it, and it was nice to be smiling on the cover photo for once!

How were the recording and writing processes?

I have a history of recording in professional studios in a hurry. When I was little, my dad made a deal with me that whenever I recorded 3 songs, we would go and get them recorded. I started writing when I was 9, so we would book the studio for just 15 minutes at a time. Long story short, this is how I continued to view studio sessions all the way into adulthood.

We booked Systems Two Studios for two full days with a plan to record eight songs. Adam and I agreed the tracks should have a live feel, so we planned to record the piano, drums, bass, and vocals all at once. We had an email thread going before the session, and Adam received a message from the band members concerned that we wouldn’t have enough time, followed by an email from me concerned we had booked the studio for too long. We ended up recording all the songs in one day, and I used the next half day to play around with backing vocals!

I’m a believer, for both recording and songwriting, that it’s about documenting a specific, unique moment in time. If I don’t write the whole song in the first session, I never go back. Recording is a little different of course since so many layers are involved, but I still try to stay as close to the initial moment and feeling as possible. I’m not a big perfectionist since I come from such a live performance background, so I guess that makes the process a bit easier and more relaxed.

What role did Brooklyn play in this record? Did the setting and environment get to influence the music on this album?

The tracks were recorded at Systems Two Studios in Brooklyn. Sadly, this studio is now closed, but I am so honored to have been one of the last musicians to squeeze in a session there. The piano I played was once on the stage of Carnegie Hall, a gorgeous Steinway that basically played itself. The studio was visually stunning, and the equipment was amazing. The owners, Joe and Nancy, were so nice as well.

I recorded my first EP there in 2014, and I always regretted not taking more photos of such a cool space. So this time around, I had a videographer and makeup artist and everybody come to the session! I didn’t want to risk losing out on the moment again, and I’m so glad I did that since the studio ended up closing. In between songs, I was changing outfits, touching up my makeup, and getting B-roll for the videographer. It was a really exciting experience overall – a day I will always remember. Adam, Bruno (drums), Alex (bass), and Rich (sound engineer) are amazing people, and the combination of their attitudes with the energy in the space made it such a positive experience.

How did you go on balancing the Soul with the Jazz?

Honestly, I don’t even realize what I’m doing genre-wise most of the time. I studied Jazz Piano Performance at Berklee for one year, before realizing I wasn’t really a full-on jazz lover. I love to listen, but I don’t have a large repertoire of standards I can pull out for jams or jazz gigs. With that said, I’m so grateful for the training, because it allows me to include jazz colors in my original songs, which can definitely be heard in “Treat Me Good.”

My voice is mainly inspired by Motown and 90’s R&B, whatever that means! I love singing soulful ballads, and when I’m doing more upbeat songs it comes out as something between old-school R&B hooks and traditional jazz. I usually describe myself as being inspired by Ray Charles on piano, Whitney Houston on voice, and Fiona Apple for songwriting.

I actually haven’t been faced with too many situations where I had to carefully define my genre. Since I’m doing things my own way as an unsigned artist and building things up with approaches I’ve taken from other industries (mainly the tech startup world), I’ve found my personal brand ends up being centered around other aspects of my music. I guess that’s one of the biggest ways in which social media has changed the world: people now end up supporting the whole story, person or brand rather than the talent or product alone.

Where did you find the inspiration for the songs and lyrics?

The inspiration came from being frustrated with dating, which means that not much has changed since my first EP. Whenever I write a song, it seems to just pour out all at once. I don’t think too much about where the lyrics are coming from. This was one of those pieces that seemed to just write itself, all at once, with the lyrics, melody, and chords coming together at the same time.

When I write, I try to take a relatable topic and zoom in on a very specific feeling within it. With this song, rather than writing about dating in general, I described the exact situation of trying to distract myself with trivial things around me in place of the much bigger set of emotions that come along with anything romantic.

Any plans to hit the road again?

Good question! Before moving to New York in October, I toured continuously for two years. I didn’t stay longer than 3 weeks in one city for that whole time. It was an indie tour that I booked myself, so I decided to make it last as long as I could. I’m so grateful for the experience to have toured Europe and China and to have done it independently in a way that allowed me to really enjoy the experience.

With that said, I definitely tired myself out. If I don’t get on a plane for a while, I won’t mind! I’ve always been a traveler by nature, so it takes a lot to get me to this point. Right now, I’m just excited to focus on building my new life in New York and prioritizing some of the things that weren’t possible on tour, like family, friendships, health and relaxation. I love this city and it took me a long time to get here, so I’m more than happy to stick around for a while.

What else is happening next in Leah Harris’s world?

Haha, this is always a dangerous question to ask an entrepreneur, since there are usually a million things going on. I’m involved in four businesses at the moment, where I do a mix of digital marketing, content strategy, and – most recently – corporate communications. I’m trying to get more into songwriting again since the performance side has been taking up most of the space in my life. I’m still trying to learn how to properly use my Instagram account, and how to balance its business potential with just wanting to have fun with my audience.

For a performer, I am surprisingly introverted and I need to spend a lot of time reflecting to make sure I can handle the entertainer lifestyle. It’s always a funny predicament, and I know many musicians and artists find themselves here, to be in the spotlight with your personal life publicly branded, but to have more of a quiet or unusual personality. I am spending my time around some very inspiring people I’ve met in the city, hoping to gain a better understanding of what comes next and how to make the most out of it.

On a lighter note, I am still trying to learn how to cook without setting off the smoke detector, and I randomly won a LaughPass to StandupNY for the year! If anyone wants to join me for some free comedy (and dinner – not cooked by me), let me know!

Listen here

About RJ Frometa

Head Honcho, Editor in Chief and writer here on VENTS. I don't like walking on the beach, but I love playing the guitar and geeking out about music. I am also a movie maniac and 6 hours sleeper.

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