Jesse Harris Scratches the Itch

If Mineral [Secret Sun] is your first taste of Jesse Harris’ work, you’ll be intrigued. He has a knack for evoking atmosphere and emotion without revealing too much, and letting your imagination fill in the blanks. These qualities have drawn other singers—including Lizz Wright and Norah Jones (whose 2002 mega-hit “Don’t Know Why” was penned by Harris)—to record his songs.

If you’re already a Harris fan, you’ll find Mineral all the more compelling, because sonically, it’s a departure from his past efforts. His lucid voice and sophisticated fingerpicking are still front and center, and he’s joined again by longtime bandmate Kenny Wollesen on drums. But the X factor here is Larry Goldings (John Scofield, James Taylor), who plays Hammond organ throughout—providing bass lines, harmonic colors, and countermelodies. Giving his voice and lyric imagery more breathing room, this guitar/organ/drums format is an ideal setting for Harris.

How did this trio come together?

Larry and I lived on the same street in Brooklyn for years. We’d see each other all the time, but never played together. In 2004, I was asked to perform at a benefit concert. Kenny was available, but my bassist wasn’t. I thought it would be fun to try it with Larry. The music sounded so good that night, I was determined to record the group.

Singer-songwriters rarely explore the guitar/organ/drums format. Maybe you’ll start a trend.

First we’ve got to get people to hear this sound. Then we can start a trend. [Laughs.]

Is there one particular guitar you use for writing?

My main guitar for everything—writing, recording, and performing—is a 1956 Gibson LG-1.

That’s the guitar heard throughout Mineral?

I mainly used that, and a friend’s LG-2. My LG-1 is punchy and midrange oriented, with not too much bottom or top. That LG-2 has a darker, more robust sound. I used the LG-2 on “Corrina Corrina” and my LG-1 on “Holding Your Hand.” Listening to the songs, you can hear the sonic difference between these guitars.

How do you amplify the LG-1 live?

It has an L.R. Baggs ribbon transducer under the saddle. For louder gigs, I put a Feedback Buster in the soundhole. For solo gigs, I leave it out.

After playing with Kenny Wollesen for so long, do you find yourself writing to his musical strengths as well as your own?

I used to a few years ago, when Kenny and I had our band, the Ferdinandos. But these days, I write letting the song be what it is. This feels more natural, and I end up with songs I’m closer to.

So you write to your own strengths?

I write things that feel good to sing and to play. I used to write a lot of songs I liked for their own sake, but I couldn’t sing them. I had to find someone else to sing them. Now I write songs someone else could sing, but that would be good for me first.

Are all your songs on Mineral new, or did you have some unused songs from past recording projects?

They’re all new. One of my motivations for recording has always been, “I’ve got a batch of new tunes. Let’s record!” I’m almost always itching to record, because I’m always writing.