On 6th March 2020, Honey Harper released his barnstorming celestial-country debut album, Starmaker, which was nothing short of being breathtaking. However, shortly after the release of this glorious triumph, just days before Will and Alana were set to promote the record, the infamous pandemic took a hold of the world and destroyed – a long with many other artists’ new records – Starmaker’s insurmountable potential. Just over eighteen months later, I managed to catch up with Will and Alana over breakfast to discuss their thoughts on Starmaker, the damage Covid-19 had on Honey’s incredible debut record, and what they have in store for Honey Harper in the future.
Will: So, we checked out Sputnikmusic and there’s lots of love, which is really great! I’m humbled.
Oh man, yeah. There’s a lot of people that aren’t really into country music on there – I think the guy that wrote the review [Sowing] for Starmaker, he wasn’t really into country – but Starmaker feels like a really good Gateway album to get you into that sort of thing. It’s super accessible because it does so many other things as well. So, yeah, there’s a lot of people who love it; you’ve got a lot of people that gush over it.
Will: I was kind of blown away. I felt very loved, it was pretty great, yeah.
Alana: I think it’s nice that you guys picked up on that too, because that was definitely intentional. It’s like our little tagline, I guess, that we make country music for people who don’t like it.
Well, it definitely paid off, because it’s easily one of my favourite albums of last year. It’s a really good album.
Alana: Well, that means a lot.
Will, you were in Atlanta-based post-punk band Mood Rings before you ventured into your celestial garb, what made you want to move to London to pursue Honey Harper and country music in particular? To me, I find it interesting, because I associate country music with America, you don’t really associate it with the UK, and so I find it really weird how you approached it almost in a reversed kind of way.
Will: It’s funny, you know. We’ve talked about this maybe once or twice before, but country music is a geographical kind of music, you know? It stems from folk music, which is obviously in every culture and every country, but I feel like we wouldn’t have started making this kind of music if we were living in the South. First of all, I would say I didn’t even know I was going to write this kind of music. I wrote some songs in this lake house in Northern Ontario after we’d already moved to London, where at the time I was making this project called Promise Keeper, which was this art-pop-electro kind of thing I was pouring my efforts into, and essentially, I wrote some songs on an acoustic guitar and Alana heard them and really liked them, and she encouraged me to go into the studio and record them, just to see what would happen. And that’s kind of how the project started, honestly. It wasn’t meant to be anything, it was a little bit of a happy accident in that sense. I didn’t go into the studio that day thinking a whole project would be born from it, but it was, which is quite cool. And then very shortly afterwards, Alana and I started working on all the music together.
The songwriting for Starmaker is exceptional, there are so many complexities and little details to unearth, and I think as a listener, like Alice, you can fall down the rabbit hole trying to pick out all the little layers that are in songs. So, the question is, how did you approach the writing for the album? Did you have it all methodically mapped out, or was it improvised?
Will: I would say it was closer to the latter – for Starmaker for sure.
Alana: Generally what happens in the process is, Will picks up his guitar and starts plucking and writing, and we’ll start seeing some sort of melody. I’ll be sitting in the room and I’ll be like, “yeah that’s good”, “no, that’s bad”, or “oh no, there’s already a The Beatles song that sounds like that”. [laughs] After that process, we drill it down and those songs basically go from there. So, they’re all pretty random, and there are so many songs that get cut from every album. There’s a lot of tracks that we take to the studio and record and keep working on them and getting them cut in the final days of recording. So overall, the process just sort of happens. None of them are planned and none of them are like “I want to sit down and write a song about this”.
Will: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s conceptual in that way. I mean, I think the concept kind of comes to us, or we find a reason halfway through or at the end of the process. As we do with most things in life, I find.
Right. So, you’ll keep altering things literally right up until the mixing and mastering stage before it can be left alone?
Will: I mean, it was two-and-a-half years of work because none of it was live. Everything was pieced together one thing at a time – which was intentional, because country music tends to be created with a live band, you know? It has that live feeling to it, as opposed to this orchestrated, very meticulously pieced together project. And I think in the end, that’s what we created, because it was a long, hard process of changing things, and there were four or five versions of every song, and it was just a very arduous journey.
The title Starmaker, what does it represent? Is it the pursuit of hedonistic desires or is there a more subversive meaning behind it?
Will: I’ve been playing music for a really long time, and there has always been this end goal of “making it”, which many people have. The title for the album wasn’t intentional in the beginning, but as we listened to all the songs and saw where the theme was going, it was obvious that a lot of the time, at least from the songs I had written – because Alana helped ensure the songs didn’t always hit on the same things with every song – I was projecting my own experiences on to it, which was this constant struggle in trying to get people to listen to your music and get it out there, and coming close to getting a record deal, getting a booking agent and a manager, you know, taking the orthodox steps that you normally take to do it. So, turning that gaze inwards into that situation was what it was about. It’s not about glamorizing the whole thing; it was more about how kind of sad the whole process can be.
Alana: There’s also an obvious cosmic-country element to the title as well, where Starmaker was made as an aesthetic choice.
This is going to seem like a random analogy, but have you ever seen the 1999 film The Mummy?
Alana: We have yeah.
So, I’ve got this really random analogy for Starmaker. The Mummy is one of my favourite films and I think there are a number of elements to the film that make it perfect: it’s a quarter horror, a quarter romance, a quarter action, and a quarter comedy, and I think it does those four things really well and ultimately, it creates something unique from its labours. I think Starmaker does the same thing: it blends country, psychedelia, and classic rock with these infectious pop elements, and I think it creates something really different because of that.
Alana: I love that analogy. I’m going to use that.
Will: Yeah, I love Brendan Fraser.
Alana: I’m definitely going to start comparing our albums to The Mummy.
Will: There’s a ton of great Brendan Fraser memes right now that are really good.
Alana: He’s Canadian too, I think? I don’t know. (Born in USA with Canadian parents.)
Will: His story is wild. It’s quite a sad story. He achieved all this fame and then had this swift drop off.
I know that he killed himself making The Mummy films; he had a lot of injuries which certainly contributed to how he is now, but yeah, he’s a wonderful actor.
Will: Yeah, I like Brendan Fraser.
So off of that, what artists developed your tastes growing up and what do you listen to today?
Alana: I think from growing up to now, I’ve listened to a lot of the same stuff. And I think that’s maybe where me pushing Honey Harper came from, because I always listened to The Bad and I always wanted Will to do a project like that, I guess. I still listen to The Bad and Neil Young too, which is another huge influence on a lot of Honey Harper music, because Will can do the falsetto that Neil Young can also do pretty well. [laughs] These days though, I think we’re listening to a lot more pop than I previously did.
Will: Yeah, I mean at this moment in time, it’s very different to what we were listening to when we were writing Starmaker. Starmaker is going to be 2 years old soon, which is crazy. But for me, growing up, my dad was an Elvis impersonator, so I obviously listened to a lot of Elvis Presley and a lot of country growing up, and like… ’80’s hair metal. Yeah, a lot of that. My dad was a big fan of that kind of stuff. But then I kind of got into my own thing; I got into the indie world.
Alana: When Will and I first met, he was super into the indie world: bands like Cocteau Twins and all of these very cool, hip bands that are great and make amazing music, but he would sometimes refuse to listen to some of the things that I wanted him to listen to, like the Grateful Dead and things like this that have now influenced a lot of the project. But yeah, that was a really slow burn getting Will to listen to some of those things. However, the country element is something that Will has always been attached to.
Will: Let me look at what we’re listening to on Spotify these days… I have a bunch of ‘80’s country stuff that I downloaded recently that I like, ‘90’s stuff like Mark Chesnutt’s “Bubba Shot the Jukebox”, and this real, poppy, crazy, ‘80’s kind of stuff. We went to LA recently to finish mixing our new record and that was right at the time Kanye West released Donda, so we listened to a lot of that.
Do you like it?
Will: Yeah, there’s this one song that we’re obsessed with.
Yeah, I think that album’s a bit of a pick ‘n’ mix because of how ridiculously long it is, there’s obviously some quality issues with it.
Will: Some of it is really good. I think that the guy has a lot going on in his head and stuff, but some of it is really good. But yeah, we’ve been listening to that, we’ve been listening to a lot of Kali Uchis, and a lot of hip-hop too, so we’re all over the place, man.
Best way. So, you both listen to a little bit of everything then, really, and that contributes to the Honey Harper sound.
The production on Starmaker is damn-near perfect in my opinion. It says in the credit notes that you produced the album; do you have extensive knowledge in producing music?
Will: No. I would say I have more now after the pandemic. I went to school, basically, using online production classes through Berkeley. But beforehand, I’ve always been recording with other people, and it’s the same way that I learned how to play music; I don’t know what I’m doing, I just go off what I think sounds good, and if it sounds good, I start doing it, you know? I worked with a great engineer named Alex Bietzke out of Dean St. Studios and he played a big part in helping us shape all these things – he’s a very experienced engineer and has produced things himself as well.
Alana: Alex recorded Will’s vocals better than anybody else, and I feel like if we’re ever able to again, we’ll go back to London to record your vocals.
Will: I don’t know, it’s just a lot of trial and error until you find the thing that sounds right. It’s been so long since we did Starmaker, I’m trying to think about where my headspace was when we were recording the record. Our good friend Katie O’Neill, she has done a bunch of different things with a load of London acts, and she’s a great friend and she wanted to get into music production too, so we brought her in at the end. I think it was the first thing she’d ever produced, and she made a lot of really cool decisions for the record. For example, “Starmaker”, the title-track, sounded very different. It was like this country song, but what you hear now is drums and pedal steel, and there’s acoustic guitar and all this stuff. And then in the end, all that was left was synthesizers and strings and that was her decision to do that, which I thought was a cool idea.
Alana: When we were banging our heads against the wall trying to finish it, she was the perfect person to come in and make those final decisions.
Will: When you’re doing something for two-and-a-half years, how do you know when it’s finished, you know? The other day, I was listening back to demos that we had recorded a year before the record was even finished, and I was thinking these songs were done a year before we had even finished the album. I mean, in the end they weren’t because they became something totally different; we recorded with Sébastien Tellier in Paris, too, and he did all this wild stuff on Starmaker that never made it onto the record, which is crazy.
Alana: Maybe one day we can release that version, too.
Is the final product exactly what you had envisaged for Starmaker?
Alana: I think overall, yes. Like Will said, I think each song took on its own journey, but I didn’t expect some of them to end up the way they did. But the overall feeling the album creates is what we had in mind. I think there were some songs that were cut that I thought would make it on the album, so in a micro sense, no, but in a macro sense overall, yes.
Will: The point of Starmaker for us was to cement our place inside of the country world. Whereas now, with our new record coming out, it’s more about the songs and less about the aesthetic. The aesthetic of Starmaker was so important because it was there to set us apart from what was happening inside of that world, you know? And I feel it was very intentional. I mean, we had singles but there wasn’t really necessarily a single on the record; it was like this spacey world.
I definitely get that feeling from Starmaker. It feels like it’s something you have to hear in its entirety rather than broken up. I mean, the songs are perfect on their own, but it’s definitely an experience.
The approach is a little cliché these days, because most artists write lyrics cryptically, but I think your lyrics are well-crafted and esoteric in nature. With a song like “Vaguely Satisfied” for instance, there’s optimism there with a thin layer of sadness. When you’re writing those lyrics and singing them, is there an intentional sadness or is it incidental to the genre?
Will: It’s interesting in the sense that for me, it’s obvious where the lyrical differences are in between. When I write something and when Alana writes something, I think that we try very hard to blend our two things together. I’ve always written extremely cryptically, whereas Alana has always written very overtly, I find, and I think Alana has always encouraged me to try and move away from that whole thing. I think that for Starmaker we were a little too deep into it for some of those habits to change.
Alana: On the cryptic thing, I feel like we intentionally leave some things ambiguous; we generally try not to gender songs, so that it’s open to anybody.
Will: We have a friend called Sean who told us about how that can help people relate to your music in an interesting way. And I find that when you’re trying to be very specific about something, it does need to be gendered, if I am talking about you for instance. If you don’t gender it, it opens it up to so many different interpretations too, like “is he talking about an idea or a person?”
Alana: Yeah, so I’m fine with leaving things like that ambiguous, but I think otherwise, I’ve always subscribed to the George Orwell school of thought for writing, and I’m using the fewest possible words to describe a situation, whereas Will’s approached is very flowered and poet. But yeah, to give you the short answer: yes, we intentionally write sad songs.
Will: Sad songs are the easiest songs to write. Think about it like this: when you try to express yourself when you’re happy, it’s not cringy but you always just feel kind of silly. When you’re sad or you’re angry, your expression is always somehow so clear, so writing a sad song versus writing a happy song is very much the same way. Sadness just feels very easy for a writer to talk about, but the best writers should write about love, which is interesting.
Alana: I remember one of Will’s previous managers being upset – once Will and I had met, I guess we were both really happy and in love (and we still are) – and she pulled me aside one night while we were out drinking, and she said “Will’s not writing any more good music because he’s too happy with you”, and I’m like, “I’m not sure that’s my fault”. [laughs]
You went Yoko on him. [laughs]
Alana: So, she was like “I don’t know, maybe you need to do something to make him sad and to write a good song”.
In essence, you combine optimism and sadness together collectively.
Will: Yeah, for sure. Singing about sad things sometimes helps and leaves room for you to enjoy the happy things in life.
Alana: We also believe that contradictions are beautiful – for a song like “Something Relative” that’s a really sad song but you have the most beautiful strings playing in the backgroun. I think contrasting those elements is great because it creates something special. So I feel like it’s very important.
When you’re writing lyrics for an album, is there an underlining concept or are they just self-contained songs with different subjects?
Will: With Starmaker I think the main thing was trying to drill in the cosmic idea, you know? There was a lot of spacey play on words, like with “Something Relative”, like you said Alana, but I don’t know if there’s anything else really connecting it lyrically. Everything was pretty disjointed because it took so long to make. Where your head is at in 2018 is very different after a couple of years. I think Starmaker was connected sonically more than it was lyrically. The debut was so much about the sound initially, and then when Alana got more involved in the project, which was probably three or four months into the actual recording of the record, the plan changed a bit. Initially, I wanted it to sound like Brian Eno had made a country record (which he has), but again, I wanted it to sound like a more unintentional country record and that was the main idea – like that was what I wanted for it. So, I wasn’t thinking about the lyrics really, but then Alana came in and said, “maybe you should think a little bit about the lyrics”. [laughs]
I keep answering your questions with feigned answers, it’s been a while since we’ve done an interview, to be fair.
No, they’re good answers! What you just said there actually segues nicely into my next question, because the whole Covid-19 thing kicked off right after Starmaker came out. This obviously had a massive impact on the record, so what were your plans for it initially, and how did it change your plans going forward?
Will: I don’t think a record could have come out at a single worst time.
Yeah, I mean, it was literally in the same month Starmaker was released!
Will: It was. I mean, our record came out March 6th and we had a party that night and we were all hanging out, and I remember getting an email that South by Southwest had been cancelled that night and being like, “oh, that’s weird”. But the timing of it was so crazy in the sense that if we had released it a month later, in April, there was already new ways to promote your record coming out. So, we would have postponed it had we known, but we put it out there in March and there was nothing we could do about it. You know, the world shut down and it completely destroyed any chance we had of promoting the record, and we had all of these tours planned.
Alana: Yeah, we were supposed to do South by Southwest and then come back and do a big European headline tour – and we had all this awesome support lined up for it too, which was a bummer that we couldn’t play with those guys – and then we were going to play with TOPS from Montreal and open for them all throughout North America, as well as playing Green Man, but everything got shut down.
Will: So I mean honestly, everything was destroyed. I spent a good three or four months drinking a lot of whisky in our little studio room in Toronto. We were living in London, and we came to Toronto on March 14th thinking that we were going to be here until May at the latest, but by June or July or something, we realised we were going to be here a lot longer, so we moved all our stuff and put it in a shipping container and decided to stay in Toronto. I never thought on that day, leaving London, that I’d never see our flat again. We had this amazing spot there, and it was so cool.
Would you ever consider going back to London or are you guys set in Toronto?
Will: We talk about it a lot.
Alana: Yeah, I think we’re going to be in Toronto for a little bit, it’s a nice place to be right now. I think the proximity to the US is probably important for the next leg of things. So, we’ll stay for a little bit, and then I’m sure at some point we will [move back]. I mean, I’ve never lived anywhere longer than five years; I feel like at five years I generally reach my max tipping point and I want to move again. Coincidentally with London, we we’re at our five-year mark and were talking about moving to somewhere like Edinburgh or Milan. I’m sure we’ll probably get bored and want to go somewhere else again, and that it’ll probably be London, because it’s pretty high on the list. The only problem with it is it’s so expensive.
As far as how our plans have changed, I think we’ve actually been toying with what we’re going to do, because we have this new album that’s probably going to be released before we tour again, and now we don’t know what we’re going to do touring wise: do we play Starmaker songs, or do we just play new stuff? Because we never got to tour Starmaker and we never really got to play most of those songs.
Will: Yeah, we played some songs beforehand, but we never got to tour it. I feel like maybe we’ll have to do two nights: one night for Starmaker and the other for our new stuff.
When it came to lockdown then, when it dawned on you that Starmaker had promotionally fallen in the toilet, did you decide “right, I’m going to start writing a new album”. How did that come about?
Will: Well for me, like I was saying, I spent a lot of it drinking and being sad, and then around June Alana and I snapped out of it and we got really productive. We went into the studio and finished the new record in November, and we ended up recording about 25 or 26 songs and it was totally different to Starmaker. The new record is going to be very different, which I’m quite excited about.
Are you able to elaborate on in what ways it’ll be different, or are you unable to talk about it too much at this stage?
Will: We can talk a little bit about it. I don’t want to give away too much yet; we can have another chat about it when it comes up. But, whereas Starmaker took two years to record, I would say the new record took two weeks to record, and that was very intentional because we wrote everything out beforehand and then we got a live band and recorded it in two straight weeks in L.A. It sounds so good and I’m so excited about it. The songs are, I find personally, and maybe Alana agrees with me, some of the best we’ve ever written. So I’m quite excited about it. I don’t think we’re going to lose the fans that we have from Starmaker, but it’s different.
Does it maintain its proclivity for the celestial, or does it veer away from that?
Alana: It’s less celestial I think; there’s still a lot of synth, it’s still covered in synth, but it does veer away from that.
Will: I mean, there were two keyboardists there throughout the entire record.
Alana: I would say that generally it’s more accessible.
I remember you saying earlier on that you are listening to a lot of pop music, so did that have a pretty big influence on the new record?
Will: I think so; especially in the later stages of recording, when we were producing and selecting songs, because again, we probably cut out songs that sounded a lot like Starmaker. There were a couple of really strong songs that we cut which we thought should have been on Starmaker, but they weren’t suitable for the new record since we were trying to create a new world. And that’s something as well, I don’t know if Alana agrees with me on this all the time, but I have this Bowie-esque mentality – and I’m not saying I’m like him at all [laugh] – where I always want to change what the next album is going to be. Bowie is a big influence on me, and I’m constantly trying to change and creating a new sound that I think is exciting and fresh.
We’ve already answered my question on new music, you’ve obviously got new music lined up, so is there anything you want to add? Is there anything fans can look forward to shortly?
Alana: We’re working on some fun music video ideas right now, so hopefully those will come out earlier next year.
Will: Yeah, we’re hoping to start releasing new music early next year.
Do you think the new record will be out early next year?
Will: It’s coming out next year, but we don’t know when yet. We are still figuring that out.
Alana: I guess we need to decide if it relies on the pandemic and touring or not, because there are so many uncertainties and you don’t know if the world’s going to shut down again, so we have to look and see if we’re in a position where we can release without touring. But hopefully next year, and hopefully we can get on the road. We want to get on the road and tour as much as possible.
Will: I can’t wait to start touring again, it’s something that I love to do so much. I like performing. But yeah, the hope is that next year we’ll be out there doing it again.
That’s brilliant. Well, thanks a lot guys, it’s been lovely talking to you.
Will: Thanks for watching us eat. [laugh]
Honey Harper’s debut album, Starmaker, is available to purchase physically and digitally everywhere. Check out Honey Harper’s official website for the latest news, music and music videos, and follow him on Facebook and Instagram.