Flesh, Blood, Electrons: Harland Salt Box Lane
On rare occasions, it really is true that hard work and talent actually get someone somewhere. Whether it is in the world of jobs, political office, or (especially) music, it appears that back room deals, status, marketing and publicist-produced notoriety trump things like intelligence, talent and hard work. That is not the case with Harland, a musical talent breaking on through to the other side.
While many singers today follow the traditional path of breaking down the doors of the music world with an American Idol-esque "look at me, I'm a star" approach, Harland has taken an organic, self-directed path through the back doors and windows of the music world. Starting innocently enough with homemade, DIY experimental recordings (punk started this way as simple self expression before it became a career path in the '90's) and collaborations with Australian producer Andrew Wright, she went on to produce her first record, Phoelar.
[Mark Kirby] What are your earliest musical memories?
[Harland] My family loved music and at Christmas time the whole family would get together and everyone would sing. We had an old little mic that we would plug into the stereo and we would sing either Motown, Frank Sinatra, nursery rhymes (for the little ones) or old Cockney London songs. There is a little clip of me on my website when I'm three years old, and I'm making up my own little song about flowers and rain. When I was a bit older I had a little Casio keyboard and would make up songs in my bedroom.
[Mark Kirby] You started making music seriously four years ago. What were your creative pursuits previously to that?
[Harland] I love making clothes. I started when I was about 16 years old and mainly for myself. If I had more time, I would love to make a whole collection for other people to wear.
[Mark Kirby] When did you decide that music would be your main pursuit?
[Harland] I moved to New York in the late 90's. My boyfriend had been signed to an American label. I found myself surrounded by musicians and music and it opened up my eyes and heart. People had told me many times that they thought I had a lovely singing voice but I'd never really thought about it seriously until then. I began writing and composing music and was hooked immediately. I was building whole songs from the ground up - drums, bass, strings, piano - all these sounds flowed from me.
In a few short years she has greatly developed her singing, producing and song writing talents. Her voice has a mix of classic pop power and earthiness and the breathy sensuality of Portishead's Beth Gibbons. In the song "In the Dark," she illustrates what is the strength of the entire CD: a pop song sensibility with the smooth complexity of an old school soul song, the textures of electronica and a mellow hip hop groove.
It starts with a delicate intro of airy keyboard sounds and voice: "Here in the dark I feel electric/ I sense my skin in between the waves/ I am human/ I am criminal/ but I feel life here in my heart again/ standing in the rain/ thinking of a way to keep this feeling inside." The keyboard texture is joined by sparse, percussive sounds. Though similar to the music of Bjork, it is less self consciously over the top. And unlike other singers today, she eschews crass histrionics, i.e., Mariah Carey and company's relentless catawauling. Her vocals express emotions that are more intimate and draw you in like a singer-songwriter.
[Mark Kirby] Describe your songwriting process.
[Harland] I don't really have a set rule for how I write a song. It can be inspired by many things. I could hear a beat and then suddenly a whole melody will pop into my head so I grab my Dictaphone and hum the melody. Then I'll sit down at my keyboard and start playing notes to go with my melody and then from there build a shell of music around my melody and then of course write lyrics. I'll write a whole song and begin to imagine what the melody would be and then create the music for it. Other times I'll be sitting on the subway and daydreaming and I'll start to write lyrics.
The song "Sleeping Under Stars in Bloom" sounds as though it started as a daydream. It is up tempo and breezy, leaning heavily on a simple melody and sparse percussive beats. It's dreamy imagery and sing along melody makes this, ironically, a love song that is real, that listeners can relate to their actual lives. "Wake up I feel butterflies inside/Swimming around in my beautiful mind/Open my window you're calling me/Float through the sky singing colorful dreams/Your kiss fits me/Driving in the rain with music/Your kiss fits me/Sleeping under stars in bloom."
This is the approach to pop that Smokey Robinson and Motown's best writers took, in contrast to the whiny desperation and sex-and-money fantasies that pass for love songs in today's pop and R&B. Such innocence and sincerity from a modern singer is surprising. In contrast to the sparseness and swaying beats of the above-mentioned songs and others on the CD, "Pounding" is more urgent. It starts with wind sounds and an eerie five note phrase on what sounds like a music box. Her voice enters with skittering percussion and heartbeat synth-bass: "Sudden walls come closing around/Now a voice disappears into the ground uneven/This is your life/ This is your moment . . ." At the end strings come in, adding a surprising rich color and dramatics to the end of the piece.
[Mark Kirby] On your CD jacket you list yourself and various others under the umbrella of Producers/ Engineers/Mixers/Musicians. Whom did what and did you use primarily samples or live instruments?
[Harland] I used live instruments for the album. Any Piano and guitar you hear are played by a "real human being." I wish I could have had the resources for a string quartet but this time around we used string samples and the beats were also created electronically. "Skin" and "Salt Box Lane" I wrote just on piano. There have been a few different versions made by different producers (including myself) but these versions have been produced by Pole Folder. I love the energy he created for these songs. He put his heart and soul into it and I think you can feel that.
"Sleeping Under Stars in Bloom," "If You're Feeling Different," "The World" "Treehouse" and "Here for You" were produced by Carmen Rizzo. There are a few of my original samples in there. Jamie Muhoberac played keys and Emerson Swinford played guitar. "Junk Misery" and "Lull" were written by me and Andrew Wright and produced by Andrew Wright. I was completely inspired by him to become a programmer/producer. He also plays piano beautifully. "Another Land" was written by myself and Skoti Alain Elliott. It was produced by Skoti. "Gone" was written entirely by James Wright and produced by Pole Folder and Skoti. James wrote this about my father who passed away a few years ago. I wrote and produced "In the Dark" and "Pounding."
[Mark Kirby] In light the stultified state of the music industry and major record labels (even indie labels) how are you planning to get your music out in the world?
[Harland] I think it's always been very tough for artists in the music industry. If you sign with labels, you basically sign away your life, your rights, your opinions and generally any involvement in your creations. And if you don't sign you have an unbelievably difficult task of getting your music heard, all the while struggling to pay rent. This is the category I'm in right now. Thankfully the internet has changed things for independent artists. We now have the resources to reach out to our own fans and to spread the word. It's much harder and takes longer than it would with a label, but ultimately you can be in control of your music and how it gets out there. I am also involved in a lot of collaborations and this really helps to spread the word!
Harland seems to be all about the work of creativity - song writing, collaborating, and creating templates for DJs and producers like Joshua Ryan and DJ Rap or singing and performing with electronica supergroup Delerium and solo. Independence is her strength. Her multifaceted approach and talent would easily be abused by a big label eager to pigeonhole her music and exploit her babelicious looks in an industry where six pack abs and a booty gets a record deal, and, amazingly sells records. Anyway, Major Label needs her but she don't need them as long as she keeps on keepin' on.