INTERVIEW: Musician Alexis Harte On His Work With VR Short Pearl

Alexis Harte talks to us about fatherhood, his time in Brazil, and the fleetingness of life, and how this has influenced his music.

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We recently spoke to musician Alexis Harte about his incredible work in film and television. He had a lot of insight to share on how to get into this business without losing yourself and what his musical journey has meant for him, and how he uses his personal life to influence the work he does in music. Alexis has worked on an Oscar-nominated animation VR short called Pearl, which has been released as part of the Google Spotlight Stories app. It explores a beautiful story between a father and a daughter, and Alexis spoke to us about bringing his own experience as a father into working on Pearl.

Alexis’s most recent work is a song he wrote called “The Night of My Death”, which is a wake-up call to prioritize our daily lives because death can hit us at any moment. He talked to us about how he approaches the topic of death gently and talks about what he would do if he was facing his final hours.

He was such a pleasure to speak with and not only discussed the musical work he’s done but shared his experiences of living in Brazil and how that has influenced the work he does today. Check out our conversation below to learn more about Alexis’ musical journey.

You are a multi-talented musician (composer, songwriter, singer, etc) and have had exposure to all types of music as a result. Has music always been a passion of yours?
Music has always been a passion of mine. I started playing guitar when I was 14. I was a very serious guitar player in high school, it’s pretty much all I did. And then, I went and pursued a whole nother career in environmental science. So I worked in Brazil for a while and came back to San Francisco to work as an urban forester. But all the while I was honing my craft and writing songs, I made my first CD in 2000 and started doing shows.

Slowly but surely, I developed the confidence and skill to try and make a living out of this, which is what I started doing. In 2004, I landed a bunch of TV shows and then I did a commercial which paid a lot of money. I started to realize that I should be clever about this and really focus my efforts which was getting harder because I had a family I was starting and wanted to be around. So I started getting into composing and it’s what I’ve been focusing on for the last fifteen years. I’ve been lucky enough to make a living out of it.

How would you describe the music you like to create and how does that style play into the projects you partake in?
I’m obviously one of those people that fall into the singer/songwriter category and pop world. But the kind of music I grew up listening to and liking was never genre bound. I always liked when artists put a whole bunch of styles and music on one record. My style focuses on the song first and what the message is and then i figure out what type of music needs to be built up around to tell the story – whether that’s rock and roll or folk or even more jazzy or afro-pop, whatever it is going to be. I let the song dictate the style rather than the other way around. I’m a rock musician so everything I do has to be a rock song. I try to see what the song needs and then use the instruments and styles that make the most sense.

You’ve been recognized for your brilliant work including the work you did on the Oscar nominated-animation VR short, Pearl, for Google Spotlight Stories. How did you get involved in this project and what inspired you to take part in it?
It was an amazing project. It was a perfect storm with a director that is really musical. He had worked with Edward Sharpe on his previous project, Feast, which won an Oscar for a short film. We’ve been working on this series of art projects called Google Spotlight Stories. My company has done music and sound for all of them including with folks like Justin Lin from The Fast and the Furious series, and Glen Keane, a Disney animator who worked on The Little Mermaid. We’ve worked with all of these directors on these fantastic projects and it has been a lucky ongoing gig for us.

When Pearl came along, the director wanted it to be an on-the-road musical with a father and daughter living in the car, living out their dreams. We knew he wanted the music to sort of feel like a timeless old folk song. As you saw from watching it, the daughter takes over the mantle as the artist in the family. The song starts with the father singing and eventually transitions into Sarah owning the song and taking over the mantle of the songwriter. It was such a fun project because we got to write 12 verses overall. We knew that not all of them would be used but what was fun was working with the director see what verses would make the most sense given the storyline and who was singing at that time. Some verses were from the father’s point-of-view and some from the daughter’s point-of-view, and some of the more interesting ones, which could be sung by the father or the daughter. But it was one of these projects where we had a lot of time and great musicians to work with. The story was just so incredible and I’m a father of a daughter who is really musical. So for me as a songwriter it was kind of like if I couldn’t write a good song about this then I realized that I need to have another career because it was right up my alley. Luckily, we had a lot of time to work on it. And the director is so musical and spoke our language.

Pearl is a story about a girl and her dad as they crisscross the country chasing their dreams. It’s a story about the gifts we hand down and their power to carry love. And finding grace in the unlikeliest of places. How did you incorporate that plot and message into the music you created which sounds like a mix of upbeat country? And what are some of the things you have to pay attention to when you create music for something like this to inspire you?
When I’m songwriting, I start in a way that’s very specific and use that to encompass the general. It’s the way the small details can shine light on larger themes. I try and write with a bit of peripheral vision as opposed to directly looking at the story and plot. I try to tell the story in a more oblique way and more universal way than what you see on screen.

Who are your musical influences and which of their styles have you brought into your work on TV and film/personal music?
Growing up, my mom was sort of into that California folk rock scene like Carole King and Bob Dylan – the 60’s and 70’s rockers. And then I discovered on my own bands like Zeppelin and harder stuff. My older brother had a diverse, eclectic taste, he would listen to a lot of late 70’s/early 80’s funk and soul which sort of worked its way into my life. Around college, I got into a guitarist named Mississippi John hurt, who was sort of the father of country blues.

When I lived in Brazil, I got really into Brazilian music, which is impossible not to when you’re down there. I also got into a lot of west African pop music. That music to me was on another level and out of body, I got fascinated with it and immersed myself in it and that style for a while. I wouldn’t say I successfully learned it but it worked its way into my music. I also love flamenco guitars. I think it’s one of the highest art forms of solo guitar.

You mentioned earlier that you’re a father to a daughter so when you’re working on something like Pearl it hits close to home and you can relate to the story as a father. Do you find when you’re creating music that being a father is something you find inspiration from a lot (apart from Pearl which is very specific)?
Yes, I do. It’s an old adage but its true, “write what you know”. I probably would not write a very good cowboy song, because I’ve never been a cowboy. But I’ve been a dad and I’ve been in the front seat of that car, and I’ve been in the backseat of that car. I’ve been a dad and a kid. One of my other songs, which I think speaks to this, I wrote for my daughter called “Temporary Tattoo and a Candy Cigarette”. It was inspired by when she came back from preschool on her first day and she had a tattoo on her arm. And I was like “oh, nice tattoo Mia,” and she said “dad, it’s just temporary”.

I thought it was such a poignant thing, your kids grow up and it happens so fast, and before you know it they are showing signs of being young adults, wanting their own life, wanting to make their own decisions about their bodies and mind, and we have to let them. So the song “Temporary Tattoo and a Candy Cigarette” is an example of a small detail to tell a bigger story. My best songs come from everyday moments because it’s what people can relate to.

Do you find yourself collaborating with others when you’re working on projects? And if so, what is that process like given everyone has a unique approach to doing things?
In terms of my own stuff, the music that I put on my CDs and release, I kind of drive that whole process. But I do work with a producer named John Evans, who’s just an amazing rhythm section arranger. So I let him handle most of the stuff below 100hz. He works with the drummer and he’s a fantastic bass player. We do a lot of back and forth stuff where I’ll send him rough sketches and he’ll come back with rhythm ideas and I’ll build on that. And eventually we’ll put together a session with the drummer and he’ll play and send it back to me and I’ll put the layered stuff on top. That’s the collaboration style we’ve honed over the last few records and it seems to work really well.

In terms of the stuff that I do with my day job, which is TV and film, those collaborations work in all sorts of different ways. I have a core group of guys that I do a lot of network with in my company Pollen Music Group. We have a network of freelance composers and instrumentalists from all over the world. Sometimes the world of my personal music and Pollen Music group kind of overlap but usually they’re pretty distinct in terms of how I approach it. But when I’m making music for film and TV, I sort of try and take more of a support role as a musician, and see what the story needs and what the picture needs and let that guide the music – as opposed to my own stuff, which is music first. And then if I happen to make a video then it’s based on the music, it’s really song focused.

So you mentioned you lived in Brazil for some time! Do you bring any Brazilian influences into your work now?
This was after grad school and I was working on different ecology projects and environmental education projects. I did that on and off for 2-3 years in my 20’s. But yes, I think I do bring some influences in. I wasn’t focused on music when I was there but i always had a guitar and I was writing songs. I learned a bunch of sort of common bossa nova and samba chord progressions that when you occasionally slip into an American folk song, it is really effective if you don’t overdo it.

I was listening to a song you did for Hart of Dixie called “Please Come Out”, and it was my first time hearing it – I loved it! Between television shows and movies, which do you enjoy more and what is more challenging for you to do?
For things like that what happens is I’ve written a song and recorded it and then I have an licensing agent that finds a place for it, which is what happened with Hart of Dixie, which is different than Pearl where I wrote the songs specifically for the film. I think both are great ways to work.

I love when I get a phone call and someone has heard my music and they want me to do music from that song, it’s like a gift falling from the sky because I’ve done all the work already. But I also like the challenge of working with a director to write a song specifically for a scene or write a piece of music. They’re both wonderful but it’s two very different processes. Songs are easy because they’re short and easy but what’s harder is doing score, which is often the unsung hero of TV and film music. It may be in the background, but there is a lot of thought that goes into it, making sure it stays out of the way but keeps the action moving along but supports the narrative. Whereas, songs get to sort of take center stage in a film and TV show unless it’s coming out of the radio.

Your recent song, “The Night of My Death” talks about death and how we choose to prioritize our lives. What influenced you to write this song?
It actually was sort of based on a true story, but obviously I’m not dead. I was walking home one late afternoon, probably on my phone and this guy in a truck did not see me and I stepped out of the way at the last minute. In that moment I stopped and made myself slow down and say if that had happened, what would I do if I knew I had a couple of hours to put everything to a close.

I sort of started thinking about all the strings in our lives and how we don’t prepare for that moment. And this song is a version of what I would do if I could – like tell my parents I love them and my kids and tell them things are going to work out. If you were to be swept away today, thinking about things like wills, mine is outdated, by the way. It’s meant to take stock and inventory of one’s life until this point and how to find closure given a limited amount of time to do that. I wanted to gently broach the topic of death without being too direct or violent.

What opinions/advice do you have for anyone looking to do what you do and what your thoughts are about getting into this industry?
My main advice for composers and songwriters is really try and have a voice that’s your own. Not to be a generalist, there are a lot of people that come out of tough schools like Berkeley School of Music where they train you in a lot of different style and people come out of there with incredible confidence, which works really well in some areas of music – especially applied musicians. But when it comes to music for film and TV, it’s such a crowded area.

For the people who do well, they have established themselves as really good at a few things and not pretty good a lot of things. Find a niche, find your voice, and don’t try to be everything. Having said that, when you’re breaking in, you will have to take a lot of gigs. Even for me I get out of my comfort zone sometimes. Recently I had work with EDM, and it’s not a style I know at all, but I researched it. You have to start somewhere and exploring new styles is helpful because it prevents you from ossifying and getting old and stale.

What’s coming up?
We are about to start scoring a kid’s animated show, which I can’t talk much about due to the non-disclosure agreement. But it’s going to be really awesome and a super fun show. We are going to do 30 episodes of that, plus the theme song, and it will probably air in the middle of 2019. With my own stuff, I’m sending out the video for “The Night of My Death” to a bunch of film festivals so I’m hoping I can make that leap from what is a music video to a film based on a song so we’re shopping it to some select festivals.

Check out Pearl for yourself here, or check out Alexis’s other work on his site.

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