Written by: Shawn Brown
Photo Credits: Sherwin Lainez
David Ryan Harris is at the tail end of a two-month-long solo tour across the country.
He’s says he’s a little tired and ready to be home for bit. He’s been doing this whole song and dance for a long, long time.
He’s just played back-to-back shows in Sacramento, San Francisco, Bend, Seattle, Portland, etc. He’s played with seemingly everybody. He’s played on all the big stages. He’s sat at the left hand of the mega stars in the music industry, but he’s neither famous nor unrecognizable. Neither anxious nor relaxed. Happy or melancholy. He’s a guy who knows better than most how the music business turns well-meaning, talented musicians into slurring self-obsessed megalomaniacs. He’s got time for each and every person at the show. He’s got time for seflies, autographs, and time for deep laughs with fans asking him if he “remembers when…”
DRH makes time for a young fan that frantically tells him how big of an influence he is on his playing and that he hoped he might work with DRH someday. DRH listens closely to the young fan and without missing a beat, gives him his contact info. He’s neither vain nor callous.
But even with all the evidence to the contrary, let’s be very very clear here – DRH is a rockstar.
While DRH now calls Los Angles home, he was born in Chicago and raised in Atlanta. He grew up loving Robert Johnson, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Son House and Parliament-Funkadelic . In 1991, David co-founded Follow For Now, a bombastic band that essentially combined Bad Brains with Stevie Wonder. By 1997, DRH had signed with Columbia Records and released a self-titled album. In 2000, he signed to Elektra with his band Brand New Immortals, and released the seminal Tragic Show. When that project (sadly) fell apart he began playing with a young upstart singer and guitar player named John Mayer. Their partnership lasted from 2004 to 2012 and established DRH as one of the most in-demand producer/guitarists/singers in the music business.
Along the way, he’s played with and/or produced artists like Dave Matthews, Santana, Guy Sebastian, Cassandra Wilson, Derek Trucks and Marc Broussard. Recently, he produced and co-wrote six songs on Indie.Arie’s tremendous album Songversation.
DRH’s first album in eight years, Lightyears, was released in late October and features his most balanced solo work to date. He’s a tremendous musician and producer and his records always sound solid and well played. This time around though, he’s tapped into an emotional resonance that, when combined with all of that production and playing, creates…well magic, really. The supporting cast of players on Lightyears is also hard to fathom (John Mayer, Indie.Arie, Doyal Bramhall II, Derek Trucks, among others).
It’s also not shocking, considering DRH’s diverse career and penchant for collaborating.
Plainly, he’s never written better songs than these. Tracks like “Us,” “Shelter,” “Sunshine,” and “So Is Mine” contain touches of DRH’s signature acoustic rock and soul – but somehow even more perfected. The crown jewel of Lightyears is the album closer “Still Be loving You” – a love letter to his mother sung with the emotional precision of something like Adele’s “Someone Like You,” When he plays it live, he talks openly and honestly about the genesis of the song and what it means to him and then unapologetically devastates the room with the vulnerability of his voice matched against his story.
There’s something incredibly rare about a musician and singer of DRH’s ability who is willing to let a song be – he can play or sing anything – but has the sense not to.
We couldn’t have been any happier that DRH was willing to sit down with us at Stereo Embers and talk shop about everything from his new record, his career trajectory, songwriting, and Lars Ulrich.
Stereo Embers: Congratulations on Lightyears–it’s a tremendous LP from front to back! Can you walk us through your decision to make this record and how you decided that this was the perfect time for you to return to recording and touring as a solo artist?
David Ryan Harris: Thanks! I’m always writing, but at some point over the last few years I started to feel like I wanted to say something in a voice that had a sense of hope without sounding preachy or hokey. I wanted to create a body of work that felt like it could be the soundtrack of walking into the light after a long time in the dark.
SE: Lightyears is a remarkable record on multiple levels. Can you talk a little about the overall process of making it?
DRH: It took a while to get it all together in terms of scheduling all of the individual guest artists and in between me working on other people’s projects. I don’t think I’ll ever take that long to make a record again. I really wanted this to be a snapshot in time, but because it took so long it ended up more like a smeared photo instead. The subject moved, but the lens was too slow to keep up.
SE: You co-wrote some songs with some fantastically talented artists – Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, for example. How did writing “Shelter” with them come about?
DRH: I’ve been friends with Derek for over 20 years. Derek and Susan were just starting to write for their first record and invited me down to Jacksonville to write with them. “Shelter” was the song that we wrote. It actually appeared on their debut record Revelator that came out in 2011. I love the sentiment of the song , so I changed a few lyrics and added it to my album
SE: Additionally, the musicians throughout this record read like a varsity roster of the best players in the business. Combined with your own considerable musicianship, the results are spectacular! Can you share with us how you connected with some of these artists? Indie.Arie? Doyle Bramhall II (I mean, come on!)? Sean Hurley? Mike Elizondo?
DRH: India.Arie I’ve known since just after her first record came out. We’ve wanted to find something to work together on ever since. I produced 5 or 6 six songs on her last record and when it came time to add an additional vocal to “Our Day,” I knew she would be perfect. I actually recorded a bunch of basic tracks for my last record, The Bittersweet at Mike’s studio. He played bass on a couple songs on that record too. Sean has played with me off and on since we met at a Fender Anniversary show in Arizona. He probably knows my music better than I do. DB I met when my band Brand New Immortals opened for he and Smokestack back in 2001.
SE: You have knack for writing powerful, multi-dimensional love songs. “So is Mine” and “Us” by our estimation, are two of your very best. What can you tell us about the writing process of those songs?
DRH: You picked the songs that represent the two opposite ends of the relationship spectrum!! I just wanted to paint pictures of what it feels like to be at the beginning of a relationship when you feel like its “us against the world” and the love is fresh and new and overwhelming and conversely what it feels like to lie alone in the dark even though you’re next to someone.
SE: Many people know you from your years working with John Mayer. When look back at all of those years working with him and his various bands – what stands out for you the most about those experiences? Will you and JM work together in the future?
DRH: I learned so many little lessons playing in the various configurations over the years, but the biggest overall take away was learning the value of having many small musical pieces fit together to make an incredibly vivid big picture. Being one of three guitarists, you have to find your space and the zen in staying there or risk everyone stepping all over each other. I’m sure John and I will work together again at some point.
SE: Tragic Show by Brand New Immortals is always on heavy rotation here at Stereo Embers. It’s an exceptional record! What was happening for you and the band during that time? How was working with Elektra Records on that release?
DRH: That was an interesting time for me musically and personally. Musically, I had just begun experimenting with using loops and trying to figure out to incorporate the computer approach into a band setting. Johnny Colt and I starting writing those songs in a bedroom in the shadow of OK Computer which had just come out. I obviously don’t sing like Thom Yorke, but we were both really intrigued with exploring the possibilities of putting a soulful voice in the middle of weird loops and loud guitars. We were actually signed by Lars Uhlrich from Metallica to an imprint of Elektra and they pretty much left us alone. Unfortunately that meant that when Lars went back to playing in Metallica, we were left without a real champion at Elektra, so we went our separate ways.
SE: Your current fall tour is soon coming to a close. How has the new material been received on this trek? What’s next for you?
DRH: The new material has been received so well! It was great getting to see people’s reaction to the new songs. I want to do a full band tour with the new music if I can afford to, but in the meantime, I’m going to be recording an new EP in the next month or so that I hope to have ready for release in the spring/early summer 2016.