by J. Hubner
Photo by Ian Skeans
Somewhere between Fort Wayne and South Bend on Highway 30 sits a nondescript town called Columbia City. Within Columbia City’s city limits a kid named Robert Harrison spent his formative years writing concertos on the recorder, bringing his acoustic guitar with him wherever he went, and honing his skills as a songwriter. He may not have written any concertos(or anything for that matter) on the recorder, but he did work on songwriting.
Robert Harrison is no longer a kid(barely), and his songwriting has bloomed. If you’ve seen his Cozy Couch Session(check Youtube) or have seen him play a live show you know this to be the case. Harrison plays earnest, heart-on-sleeve folksy tunes that tend to stick in your head long after they’ve ended. He’s part of a blossoming DIY music scene in both Fort Wayne and Ohio that includes folks like Ryan Kerr, Pink Balloon Band, Forget The Tiger, and many more that will play pretty much any show anywhere, as long as they’re ears that want to hear it. Robert is getting ready to promote his newest album, a full-band EP titled Now I Know. He took a few minutes during a tour to answer a few questions.
J. Hubner: Hey Robert. So let’s start at the beginning. Where did you grow up?
Robert Harrison: I spent the first chunk of my life growing up in various towns in northern Ohio, the last one being Parma which is right outside of Cleveland. However, the majority of what I would call growing as a person occurred in Columbia City. It is where I attended middle school and high school.
J. Hubner: Were you very musical growing up?
Robert Harrison: As a kid my musical experiences didn’t really extend beyond that dreadful recorder class that we all had to take so we could learn “Hot Cross Buns”. But my mother and father were always open to letting me enjoy whatever type of music I could get my hands on.
J. Hubner: At what age did you start to have an interest in music?
Robert Harrison: It’s tough to pinpoint when I started getting into music. I have always enjoyed listening to just about every genre through the years, but I have never been able to throw out artists names confidently. I hate to say it now because there is so much good music out there that’s not played on the radio, but there was a time where I would exclusively download radio singles that I heard and just make mixes of those. It wasn’t until I started actually playing music that I began to listen to albums start to finish and break away from mainstream radio. I can even recall borrowing a burnt Brand New – Your Favorite Weapon cd from a friend back in high school and just listening to it constantly without even realizing that “Brand New” didn’t mean my friend just burnt this new CD and that “Your Favorite Weapon” didn’t mean that it was his favorite cd to play. But I guess being ignorant in that way was good for me because I wasn’t listening to a band just because they were popular. I was listening to these bands because I genuinely liked what they were doing.
J. Hubner: Besides Brand New, who were some early musical influences?
Robert Harrison: Because I had an acoustic guitar in the early 2000’s I was pretty much guaranteed to fall in the Jack Johnson-John Mayer musical influence crowd and if you listen to my first release ‘Hope Don’t Float’ you can really tell. After I wrote that album and started playing out the biggest influences for me became the local musicians in the area. Their influences coupled with my personal experiences have been driving my sound lately and I’m getting further and further from the standard acoustic singer/songwriter style with each new album.
J. Hubner: You said you had an acoustic guitar in the early 2000s. When did you start playing? Were you in any high school bands?
Robert Harrison: I was never in any high school bands, but I did participate in choir in middle school. Having never learned how to read sheet music I resorted to the ever useful YouTube to guide my clumsy hands around my guitar in hopes of making a noise that wouldn’t scare people away. Because I was learning primarily off the internet, the only songs I could play were covers. I had dabbled with guitar off and on since the 7th grade when my friend sold me this all black Rogue acoustic guitar for $15. The action was so high on the neck that even now I’m convinced that I wouldn’t have been able to play it properly. I continued to learn and play on that guitar for some time until one christmas I received the guitar I use now, an acoustic Yamaha. So I have this cool new guitar that I can finally strum actual chords on, but I was still learning and playing covers. I got good enough at playing covers that I felt other people might want to listen in. And yes, for a short period of time I became that guy who brings his guitar to parties. I almost cringe at the thought of it now, but regardless of how terrible or unwanted it probably was, it really helped me to gain confidence and develop my guitar playing abilities. This went on for the last two years of high school until my freshman year of college when my dear friend Mike invited me out to a local show at a pizza joint in downtown Fort Wayne. Without name dropping, I’ll just say that I wasn’t old enough to grab a pint at the time, but I did snag a slice 😉 and find a place upstairs to listen in on what these musicians were saying. The raw honesty of the musicians and how they were able to express themselves in their songs just blew me away. And if you would have told me that a year later I would be doing the exact same thing in the exact same place with some of the same musicians I wouldn’t have believed you. Inspired, I went home and started writing that night.
J. Hubner: So you were the guy strumming the acoustic over by the table with the chips and dip on it, then you get inspired by seeing some local guys and gals doing it right. What was the first Robert Harrison-penned song? Is it something you still break out now and then?
Robert Harrison: I was 19 when I wrote my first song ‘Forgetting You’. It’s not a song I play out anymore, but it’s still available on the internet.
J. Hubner: How would you describe your sound to the uninitiated? Who are some artists that inform the songs you write?
Robert Harrison: My sound is tough to narrow down because it is such a hybrid of so many influences, most of them being local artists. I’m also not quite sure I have found my sound yet. If I had to toss out a reputable name to what I’m doing now I’d say that my vocals are hard-hitting like rock master Dave Grohl and my song writing is closer to folk and story telling than anything.
J. Hubner: What’s your songwriting process like? Do you come up with a melody or chord progression first, then add lyrics? Or is it the other way around? Half and half, maybe?
Robert Harrison: It’s a constant back and forth for me. Sometimes I’ll write a catchy tune and want to throw lyrics on it, other times I’ll have lyrics that need some sort of sound to go along with. I didn’t have a working stereo in my car for the longest time so I had plenty of moments to think quietly while driving places. If I thought of a catchy tune or some interesting lyrics I would just sing or hum them into my phone and revisit them later when I had time. That’s how a large portion of this newest album ‘Now I Know’ was written.
J. Hubner: Speaking the new album Now I Know, let’s talk about your albums. You put out your first record Hope Don’t Float in 2012. Last year was Limits, and now Now I Know. Do you enjoy the recording process or do you consider it a necessary evil?
Robert Harrison: The recording process for me has been different with each album. As I got more into the making of music I began to collect more equipment. Hope Dont Float was originally recorded directly into the speakers of my computer. Limits was recorded partially in my basement and partially at DBB studios. My half of the split with Forget The Tiger was done at my sisters house. This newest album ‘Now I Know’ (which is full band) was recorded in an attic in Warsaw. The recording process itself is exciting as it is tedious. Excluding DBB, not having a proper place to record can really gum up the works if your neighbor decides to mow their lawn or there is a friendly dog talking to other friendly dogs in the area OR if the local radio station is somehow playing through your amplifier and you have no idea why. Besides those minor annoyances, the recording process is truly rewarding, you start off with an idea and get to watch it come to life before you. So I wouldn’t say the recording process is something I long for, but it is important to put just as much time and effort into it as anything else so that people know when I’m not playing out live I am still hard at work developing something they can enjoy over and over again.
J. Hubner: How was the experience working with Robert Lugo at DBB Studios? He seems to do good work.
Robert Harrison: Recording with Robert Lugo was and is awesome. His musical background and expertise are some of the things that made Limits such a success. He has a lot of pride in what he does and it really shows not only in the final products, but in the late nights and personal touches he adds. He’s easily the best in the area at what he does and those are a few reasons for that.
J. Hubner: You mentioned the recent split you did with Ohio’s Forget The Tiger. How did that come about? I was at their Cozy Couch Session. I got to play a creeper, along with Pink Balloon Band’s John White, who walks out of the attic door in the background as they’re playing their song. I won a Razzie for that performance.
Robert Harrison: (Laughs)I remember that particular Cozy Couch, an instant classic! Last year in June I went on my first tour with Ryan Kerr, which we so cleverly dubbed the “R&R Tour”. We did a short run of shows in Ohio and in parts of Michigan. He already knew the boys in FTT and I had actually attended a show they played in Warsaw a few months beforehand. They invited Ryan and I to play their local house venue in Bowling Green, OH and that night we discussed the possibility of doing a split. I think splits are great ways to introduce people to different styles of music and merge or overlap fan-bases so we began writing and recording.
J. Hubner: You’re currently on the road. Where are you playing in the near future?
Robert Harrison: Yes, I’m actually laying on a couch in Columbus at a house where I will be playing later tonight while I type this! I haven’t made any plans to play when I get back from tour, but I am always looking to play out. Anyone who is interested in what I am up to can follow or ‘like’ my facebook page at facebook.com/robertharrisonmusic or if interested in booking, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
J. Hubner: So any dates on when the new EP will be available?
Robert Harrison: Currently, I am touring the new full-band EP that I just had mixed/mastered by Robert Lugo at DBB. I didn’t have an official release show for the EP and it isn’t available online, but it will certainly be more accessible in the future. It’s a full-band album so I want it to be played that way for the release.
J. Hubner: What are your plans for the rest of 2015? Anything in the works for 2016?
Robert Harrison: For the rest of 2015 I plan to take it easy. As the holiday months come up and the weather worsens it becomes hard to get out and play shows. However, it does become easier to write and record music so maybe there will be some new jams for 2016!? I start up school again August 2016 so before that I plan on touring and playing as much as possible. Wishful thinking, but let’s hope this winter is light and short. As part of my arsenal of merch I also sell sunglasses with my bandcamp address and logo on them because who doesn’t need a cheap pair of sunglasses to wear when their expensive ones get lost!
J. Hubner: Anything else before I let you get back to napping on the couch?
Robert Harrison: Over the past decade or so Fort Wayne has been making some really great strides towards downtown improvement and community involvement. As the city grows and gains momentum I hope that the local music scene will follow. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, if you’re thinking about starting a band stop thinking and start doing. Find out where the local shows are, talk to people, be respectful and help the Fort Wayne music scene live on. Be proud of your city and be a part of something bigger than yourself.
Keep an eye out for Mr. Harrison, and keep up with live dates, album releases and the like at facebook.com/robertharrisonmusic. You want Robert to play your living room? Then email him at email@example.com.