Leigh Harrison started writing songs and producing other artists in the 1970s.
Two decades later Leigh released “Inappropriate Touching” and “Lean On The Angels”. A number of projects with other musicians followed before the retrospective “Three Deck Wreck” in 2007.
Leigh continues to write and record, and can be spotted performing live in and around Wanganui, New Zealand.
In this interview spotlight, we speak with Leigh about her influences, changes in the music industry over the years, her new project and much more.
Full Q&A along with links and a stream of Happy Now? are below.
Where are you from and what style of music do you create? (In your own words, not necessarily in marketing terms or by popular genre classifications.)
I’m from the South Island of New Zealand. I was brought up in an evangelical home by musical parents: my mother played the piano and my father was a nationally-known tenor whose specialty was oratorio. I studied piano and flute, and started writing songs before I was in my teens. I dropped my university music studies to play as a professional rock musician, and later worked as an audio engineer and a producer. Along the way I turned down an Australasian recording contract as a solo artist. Since then, music has never been the only thread in my life: it has helped me make a living along the way, but I’ve also had careers as a broadcaster, a pastor and a software developer.
Your question hits on the biggest problem I personally encounter with my music. My work isn’t restricted to any particular style (unless we allow “vocally challenged” as a valid category). It’s often the case that listeners will be hugely enthusiastic about one song on an album but unable to relate to the rest of it.
The reason this happens is that I write in my head, rather than at an instrument. I often end up with music I can initially neither sing nor play. The challenge then is to work up my skills so I can create a recording that conveys what I’m hearing in my head.
For next year’s album I’m considering picking up a guitar as soon as I have an idea for a song, rather than avoiding any instrument until the song’s fully formed. I haven’t written with an instrument for a long time now, and I want to find out whether it will result in a set of songs that’s more stylistically consistent.
When I perform live it’s usually just me and an acoustic guitar; the unplugged live renditions can be quite different to the studio versions. In live mode Alt-Folk is a pretty accurate description, so I’ve taken to branding that on my recordings as well.
Having been involved in the business for many years, what are 1 or 2 of the biggest changes you’ve watched or had to adapt to?
Once of the biggest changes I’ve seen is the democratisation of music production as a result of technology. This started back in the seventies with Tascam and Fostex multi-track recorders, but has accelerated over the last twenty years with the swing to digital, and the advent of internet distribution which has no (record company) gatekeepers. I see two outcomes from this: there’s a wealth of amazing music accessible to everyone; but there’s not much revenue for the musicians involved.
The other change is one we recognise in news media but don’t often apply to music. We’ve lost most broad-spectrum outlets, expect perhaps the BBC’s “Top of the Pops”. Growing up as a teenager in New Zealand, the local music station would play everything from Tom Jones to Genesis, so I was exposed to genres I wouldn’t naturally have sought out for myself. That’s gone now, and today’s teenagers often eat from a smaller menu of choices: a hip-hop fan isn’t likely to get a meaningful exposure to experimental jazz, for example.
How is your new release, Happy Now?, different than previous ones? Did you set out to accomplish anything specific?
It’s smaller. OK, I was part of an EP collaboration a few years back, but usually I’ve focused on albums as my medium of choice.
It’s more honest. Happy Now? was recorded on synchronised BOSS BR1600 digital recorders. Even though they’re out of production they’re fantastic tools. For me they’ve reversed the 80/20 rule: where I previously spent 80% of my studio time wrangling the computer hardware and DAW software, I’m now spending 80% of my studio time making music. But the setup doesn’t accommodate VST plugins or offer pitch shifting, so some of the crutches I’ve relied on previously are no longer available. On the plus side, Happy Now? is warmer and more transparent, as the BR1600s have helped me avoided the temptation to over-produce the sound.
Interestingly I didn’t set out with the aim of releasing any music. I began the year with one BOSS BR1600, tentatively exploring whether it would help unblock the creative process. The answer turned out to be a resounding yes, but it wasn’t until October that I realised I was on a course to a formal release.
If I set out to accomplish anything specific this year, it was to recover my own confidence as a writer and a musician. I’ve achieved that; Happy Now? is, in a sense, a by-product.
How did throat surgery affect your career and what led to the resurgence of writing, recording and releasing more music?
Losing the bulk of my voice was devastating.
In the previous eighteen months I’d invested a lot of effort in learning how to sing properly, something I’d avoided all my life. When I say “sing properly” I mean breathing, posture, learning to place notes accurately in each register and conserve my voice so it would last the night rather than graveling out on the third song. The only fruits I have of that effort are some “live in studio” recordings of cover songs – and I Love You Live 2005 from the retrospective Three Dec Rec.
In July 2005 I had surgery on my throat. A week later when I first tried to run up a scale and found I no longer had an upper register at all I was both scared and depressed. The rest of my range had become very rough too. A few recording attempts such as Mr Ryan (also on Three Dec Rec) resulted in more frustration than satisfaction. I tried hard to stop depression and frustration turning into bitterness, but I lost much of my motivation to write and record. I kept practicing and did a few live performances, but my confidence was severely diminished.
In 2015 I realised that if I allowed the situation to continue my music would atrophy completely and I’d lose what has always been an important part of who I am. I decided to try a new approach to recording and, after a lot of research, bought a BOSS BR1600. I found not just easy to use, but easy to achieve a high quality result with. A few months later I bought a second unit and slaved them together, which gives me more than enough tracks for even the most self-indulgent layering.
An important point about my voice is that I’d be quite happy not to sing, but I’ve not yet found a musical partner whose interpretation meshes with my conception. I have some recording sessions with other local artists in December/January with other artists which I’m hoping might throw up options.
Do you face any challenges as an indie musician in a digital age? On the flip side, how has technology helped you (if it has)?
The dream of being picked up by a major label and set on a trajectory to a potentially lucrative career has gone for almost all of us. Thankfully I’d decided years ago that I didn’t want that anyway. But because my music brings in very little income, it’s a continuing effort to ensure it gets enough space to prosper.
The plethora of distribution and marketing channels is a challenge. There are so many platforms, networks and sites that a rising musician probably should be hooked into, that it would be a full time job to keep on top of them all. There are some tools available to help with this, and I think there’s potential for the development of a “create/write once, listen/read anywhere” service that will handle the dissemination of music and news across the widest possible range of outlets.
The positives of the digital age are many, though. Musicians can be closer to their audience, have complete control over their careers, produce high quality music without the overhead costs that were taken for granted forty years ago. I’ve worked as a studio engineer and a producer, and in many ways my home studio is far more powerful than the professional studio I was managing in the analog era.
Where can we follow you online and hear more music?
I post work in progress on Soundcloud, and finished work on Bandcamp. There’s also music on my own website and I have a Twitter account. Happy Now? can be streamed or bought on most of the online music platforms, and older material on Bandcamp.
Anything else before we sign off?
I’d like to say I’ve been enjoying reading the excerpts from your book as they’ve arrived, Joshua, and I’m looking forward to reading from virtual cover to virtual cover.
Thanks for interviewing me!