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Thana Harris, the e-interview
By Ben Ohmart
(more articles from this author)
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She has sung with the greats. She was the singer on Frank Zappa's album Sleep Dirt even! And now, with a book out recounting the times with said famed musician and etc., Thana Harris also has a new and diverse CD released. Gentlemen and ladies..... The voice!!

[BO] Thanks for taking the time to e-talk. Your new album, "Thanatopsis." What's it mean? It's not catching, is it?

[TH] Thanks to you also, Ben. "Thanatopsis" was a transforming word when I was fifteen or so, when life made absolutely no sense, and a school counselor told me about this poem called Thanatopsis, written in the 1800's by William Cullen Bryant, and it was all about the part that death plays in giving life. So it gave me my first real interactive piece of literature to apply to my new quest for the meaning of life. I went on to write my own poetry and songs as a means to that end. As we know, there is no end, there's only the process and our conviction to stand up for what we believe.

This CD, "Thanatopsis", is a gathering of many loose ends in my life, some orphan tunes that are all special and some have beautiful history. This is their home. Now I can feel happy about that and move into more exploration of the present.

[BO] You've certainly got some top-notch names helping you out here. Steve Vai, the original Mother himself, Jimmy Carl Black. How did they come to work with you on this?

[TH] I've known Steve Vai since he and my husband, Bob Harris, joined Frank Zappa's band in 1980. Bob and I ended up living at Steve's house in Sylmar for three years. The track "Fingers" was actually recorded in Steve's home studio while we were doing the vocals for Steve's first solo record called "Flex-Able." We kept the track of "Fingers", which Steve helped produce and played guitar on, and wondered if it would ever get released. "Thanatopsis" was the right place. I never met Jimmy Carl Black during the days around Zappa, but I knew about him. It was only a few years ago that a mutual friend, Billy James (aka The Ant Bee) got us in touch with Jimmy. Since he lives in Germany it took some doing to add his part in as if he were here. It was really fun to do.

[BO] Now you must tell us your best or favorite or most disgusting studio story from the making of Thanatopsis. Come on. You're not leaving here until you do.

[TH] I had to produce Thanatopsis by myself, and I've never done that. I knew how I wanted it to sound. I managed with the rhythm tracks but when it came time to do the lead vocal, the engineer had just gotten back from vacation in Las Vegas and kept falling asleep at the board. It was really hard for me to get psyched about the session--- but I must say I didn't feel rushed! The best part was simply getting it done.

[BO] People can read your life's story at your website in the biography section, but tell us a little about what got you into singing.

[TH] My mom sang, and I grew up as a preacher's kid singing in church. I just loved to wail when I was a little kid-- opera and hymns. Then when I became a teenager, playing my guitar and writing songs kept me sane, it got me through some very hard times. People liked to hear me sing, so that's what I did.

[BO] Here's the part you dreaded. The infamous Frank Zappa question section. Without resorting to spilling any juicy secrets revealed in your book about Zappa, can you tell us, what was it like working with someone who was such a cult hit alReady? Feel free to shove in anything you suddenly remembered after the book went to press.

[TH] My book "Under The Same Moon: My Life With Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Bob Harris and a Community of Other Artistic Souls" has a chapter dedicated to my first session at Frank's studio, with the Sleep Dirt tracks. I'd witnessed lots of times before how methodical Frank was in the studio -- I saw Bob do sessions with Ike Willis and Ray White since they were all the vocalists. Frank knew what he wanted, but he also knew the guys were such pros that they would add their own twist to things. Frank knew how to get the best that existed within a musician or vocalist, and that's not easy to do. That's what makes great producers and directors. He did it with me, I did vocals I had no idea I was capable of, and I've carried that lesson with me to this day. Frank also appreciated and wanted friendship. Although he worked a lot, he got eight hours of sleep and he never allowed drugs or drinking. He was straight.

[BO] Was it a bit intimidating being the only lead voice on Sleep Dirt? You realize you're one of the very few female leads in Any of Zappa's stuff, right? Why do you think that is?

[TH] Fortunately, a lot of people really like the vocal version of Sleep Dirt. No one knew what was going to happen to those tracks before they became Sleep Dirt. I knew Frank was very pleased with what I sang. But it was much later, after he died, that it finally got released. It surprised the hell out of me, and I'm glad he felt that good about it, to release it that way. Even though it was a professional decision on Frank's part, for me it was a gift.

As far as being one of the few Zappa female leads, I know Frank tried different people for the Sleep Dirt material, and I happened to have the voice he needed. I have a really versatile voice, I can sing just about anything, so studio people find it very usable. I'm cool with that, it's allowed me to make a living at music most of my adult life.

[BO] Are you a Zappa fan yourself? Did the 'IPO' track from your cd have anything to do with the Central Screwtinizer from Joe's Garage?

[TH] Bob thought up the IPO track based on the Central Screwtinizer. We "wrote" it on a four track and then transferred it to a TripleDat at the main studio. We wanted to at least attempt something for Zappa fans, although we couldn't come near what Frank could do, but it was just for fun, totally inventing as we went.

[BO] Jimmy Carl Black guested on 'Bart & Claire' but where the Hell did that track come from?

[TH] I had to have some justification for putting the Cactus Song on my album. At the same time, I had recently met Jimmy Carl Black. So, I put the two together and created a silly reason to have the Cactus Song, in it's blatant difference from all the other songs, make a sudden appearance on the record. It was also the perfect spot to feature Jimmy. I had to include the Cactus Song in a non-serious way.

[BO] 'Fingers' is my favorite song from your cd. For me, it really stands out. Is that crazy? Is there something special associated with that particular track, or am I trying too hard?

[TH] At first I thought I was crazy to put Fingers on "Thanatopsis", that people wouldn't really go for it. But that track is living proof that energy does go from the people and the studio and what's happening -- it all goes onto the tape, good or bad. The recording of that song was historically perfect, better than good, a bunch of us in love with life, in love with music with the precious bits and pieces of equipment that we had. Steve had a good little studio, with a Fostex 8 track -- the one he used to record "Flex-Able" and "Flex-Able Leftovers" -- and we loved what we had to work with. It made us rely heavily on ourselves. Steve stayed up that night after I did the lead vocal on Fingers and he laid down beautiful guitar tracks with parts that matched some vocal things I did. Stu Hamm, the infamous bass player, did two tracks of incredible bass. This song can't be duplicated, everything about it is one of a kind. That's what makes it so cool.

[BO] Is it difficult being married to someone in the same business? Tell me about hubby Robert who wrote all these songs of yours.

[TH] We both do music, but not together all the time. We have a deep understanding about what it's like for each other. Making a living playing music is a heavy responsibility and can be a struggle when it comes to making sure there's work. Things change; the public's tastes, needs, judgements, and what we want out of it, too... it is very demanding to do it full time. So it requires understanding and support. Some musicians work day jobs and then do music too. If it doesn't ruin their family life and the family's supportive, then I admire that kind of hard work.

Bob's a great songwriter. He appreciates other songwriters as well. He's just got a knack for melodies and lyrics.

[BO] Do you have any particular influences Right Now, musically speaking? What do you listen to for pleasure?

[TH] I listen to many styles, including classical which untangles my thinking when I need it. I adore Annie Lennox. I'm nuts about Bruce Hornsby. I still love Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and the Rolling Stones. And then I'm a song person, too--- there are certain songs I really like by lots of different artists, from Kiss to Frank Sinatra.

[BO] Your book seems to be doing well also. Have you had many comments about it? What's the oddest?

[TH] The oddest comment was a direct rewording of the back cover --! Oh well,... I've had many good reviews and emails about this book. I recommend it not only to people who like Frank Zappa and Steve Vai, but people who are aspiring artists, struggling artists, or people who are simply walking the road less traveled. The book is about that, too.

[BO] Your Mastahna Records and yourself are located in Colorado. Do you find it difficult making a living in this biz being far away from the coasts? Or do you paint cars on the side?

[TH] I never thought of painting cars... that's an idea!! The Internet,, and fast modes of travel make it possible for me to do what I do from here. I freelance write from my home office and we have a home studio. Besides working on my own books and magazine articles, I'm making time available to write biographies for other artists and bands.

[BO] Where can we see you touring, performing, painting cars?

[TH] No touring yet. I know people say you have to tour, but I'm not there yet. Well see...

[BO] There must be tons more you want to say. Please do. Now.

[TH] Gee, now that you ask, I'm lost for words....!

[BO] What's in the future for Mrs. Harris?

[TH] A cheese sandwich and the movie "High Noon" starring Gary Cooper!

[BO] Thanks for the chat!

[TH] Thank you, too!

Thana's Official Web Site:
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Related MusicDish e-Journal Articles:
» Under the Same Moon - My Life With Frank Zappa, Steve Vai, Bob Harris, and a Community of Other Artistic Souls - Suzannah (Thana) Harris / Mastahna Publishing (2001-01-06)
» Thana Harris - Thanatopsis - Mastahna Records (2001-01-06)

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