“Glam country” is how Will Fussell describes his sound. A meeting point of cosmic proportions where the Atlanta-born, London-based musician’s sonic persona – Honey Harper – lays his hat. (A jet black Stetson, if you’re asking.)
Defined by its pioneering singing cowboys and musical mountaineers, while country music was honed in the sprawling Midwest plains, Honey Harper is unpicking the location ties that commonly lock the genre to specific coordinates and taking things interstellar.
Recontextualising Gram Parsons’ cosmic credo in tune with his own modus operandi, we’re introduced to a dreamer troubadour floating between constellations: there’s a romance in this narrative that drives the Honey Harper sound; expansive, amorphous and celestial, it’s a trip that shifts between zero atmosphere drifting and warp speed drive.
Having released his debut ep last year – Universal Country – Honey Harper is currently busy putting the final touches on his debut full length record at Dean Street Studios. A Minimoog drone slide here, an orchestral tweak there, its a sound built on subtle drama that elevates songs above and beyond musical horizons, and into a new frontier. After all, country music is a genre formed by an inherent search for new lands – Honey Harper is taking the obvious next step.
For this interview, we meet at Fussell’s East London residence; surrounded by books on UFO conspiracies and retro instruments, Brian Eno spins on the record player.
Alex James Taylor: Talk us through your young years growing up in Atlanta.
Honey Harper: I was born in South Georgia by the Okefenokee Swamp, which is this big Native reservation. Then my family moved to Miami, Florida, and then I moved to Atlanta when I was about nine or ten and lived there until I moved here, to London. Atlanta was pretty great in the sense of being able to be a kid there, it’s kind of a neverland place…
AJT: In what sense?
HH: In that you don’t have to grow up there. There are cities like that all around the world – Berlin and Montreal, for example. You can DJ and pay for your rent that way. It was great and I really enjoyed it, but I felt like I had to keep moving. It’s definitely easy to stay there, it’s land-locked too, so to move from there is a big move. Every road is called Peachtree too [laughs], I think there are like twenty, so you can be heading North on Peachtree and then all of a sudden you’re going East, then South. It’s confusing.
“I was born in South Georgia by the Okefenokee Swamp.”
AJT: Nashville is nearby, did you go there a lot?
HH: Not really actually, I remember going for the first time as a kid, my dad took me to the Country Music Hall of Fame because he’s really big into country music. I remember going there and finding out about Patsy Cline and Eddy Arnold. Athens, Georgia, was a big thing too, it’s a small college city but it has a huge music history. There’s a weird rivalry between Nashville and Athens. But I was in the city mainly and then when my first band started getting the traction we began touring everywhere.
AJT: Was that how you first got into music, through your dad taking you to the Hall of Fame?
HH: No actually, I got a guitar when I was ten. I had a few lessons he taught me how to play Sweet Child O’ Mine.
AJT: That’s quite intricate for a first song.
HH: I requested it [laughs], I wanted to learn that and Smells Like Teen Spirit.
AJT: So when did country music filter into your tastes?
HH: I listened to country music a lot growing up because my parents had it on in the car all the time – I was listening to country radio a lot. My dad was also an Elvis impersonator, so I grew up on Elvis. He still has his jumpsuit. He does a few different Elvis’, he has the gold lame jacket, but he also does the jumpsuit Elvis.
AJT: Did you recognise country music as a genre when you were a kid?
HH: I knew it was important. But it was also just as important to me in the sense of it being my dad’s favourite music. The first CD I ever chose was a disco compilation, I liked that a lot. If I was to go back in time and tell my fifteen-year-old self that I was playing country music, it’d be a pretty big shock [laughs]. I also remember that my parents didn’t want me to have an Outkast CD, so my neighbour threw the CD to me in my yard because he knew I wasn’t allowed it. I’d listen to that each morning. I actually bumped into Andre 3000 in a gas station like ten minutes away from my parents’ house, because he lives really close to them in the Atlanta suburbs. I saw him there like seven or eight years ago on Mother’s Day, and he was asking the guy for Mother’s Day cards and everyone in the gas station was freaking out [laughs]. He’d always come to metal shows in Atlanta because he really likes watching the drummers.
“If I was to go back in time and tell my fifteen-year-old self that I was playing country music, it’d be a pretty big shock [laughs].”
AJT: It’s interesting that you’ve ended up coming back to country music.
HH: It is weird, not quite the same country music [laughs], but yeah. Country music is very much a regional thing, it’s often held by geographical boundaries, but what I’m trying to do is make country music for everyone. It’s a genre like any other, so it can be taken out of its location.
AJT: I wonder why country is so tied to its location, perhaps more than other genres. I suppose it’s like folk, telling stories that relate to specific places.
HH: Exactly, but country is also having a huge moment right now as well, especially in fashion and everything. That cowboy, Western thing is everywhere.
AJT: That’s true, I think there’s almost an unconscious thing where people are embracing Americana and the roots of American culture as a kickback at the current political and societal issues – like an act of reclaiming the country.
HH: I definitely think that’s a very accurate statement. It’s weird because it’s almost like an easier thing to do than to actually make a change, you know? Which is interesting, people will always do that. I do it too, I’m a guilty American in that sense.
AJT: So when you first created your Honey Harper persona, what was the initial idea behind it?
HH: I’d written songs for a long time and was always playing them around Alana [Fussell’s partner] but nobody else, and she suggested I record them.
AJT: And you knew that they were separate to the projects you were involved in?
HH: Yeah. A lot of my ideas form as it goes along, you know? I’m probably not someone who would make concept albums in that sense, because I change my mind so much by the time that by the time I’m halfway through something like that I’ll be like, “This is not good anymore.” So I think I sort of stumbled on what it became. Originally I wanted to create country music with lyrics that were just a bit different, but now it’s become more thought-through in the sense that it’s this glam country hybrid. Mixing the fun elements of what Bowie did for pop music into country, it’s an aesthetic thing for sure.
AJT: Those songs you’d written and played to Alanah, did those become the Universal Country EP?
HH: The track Pharaoh, I wrote the lyrics for that when I was about eighteen, then the music five years later, and then I rearranged everything more recently. The other songs were basically all recorded at Alanah’s family lake house in Northern Ontario. There are definitely some Neil Young vibes in there [laughs].
AJT: I heard that Neil Young only records when it’s a full moon [laughs].
HH: [laughs] Amazing, that’s a good rumour.
AJT: Where are you wanting to go with the new record?
HH: I was thinking about the idea of cosmic country and, it’s very much a philosophy, whereas I wanted to shape it into a more holistic concept, with the music, the aesthetic, everything. So making these celestial sounds, using chorus and different effects. Actually, one of the biggest influences to me for this album was Brian Eno’s track Weightless from his record Apollo. That was a huge influence, I wanted to do that sort of sound but with traditional country songs. There’s a lot of new country music challenging the tradition, but I think a lot of it still has the same aesthetic, I’m really wanting to shift that. For me, the closest person who has done that kind of idea is Kacey Musgraves, she had a cool aesthetic and sound. [Fussell puts Brian Eno’s track Weightless on the record player] You hear that amazing pedal steel and DX7? It’s all over my record.
AJT: It’s funny that when people want a futuristic, cosmic sound, they tend to go back to vintage, 60s, 70s equipment, rather than the latest crazy technology. In those eras they had such an optimistic view of space travel.
HH: That’s true, also the analogue sounds are so pure. I didn’t want it to be a throwback record though. I wanted it to sound fresh, so I mixed in new equipment too. As I was listening back to the record and going through all the lyrics again… I find it really hard to write happy music, so I’m always trying to find something to complain about… well it’s more about finding darkness in happiness and vice versa. This record is my biggest opportunity to make music that hopefully a lot of people will hear, so it’s that sense of putting all my time, effort and work into this record and creating this persona that people will resonate with and remember – a star. While also battling with daily life and love, there’s an inner struggle in that story of art versus love. If you can find a balance, that’s amazing, but this record is about the complexities of that struggle. That’s why the record is titled Starmaker.
Honey Harper plays at The Courtyard Theatre, London, on 7th May.
Follow him on Instagram here.