Q&A with Jess Harlen

To finish off the year, we thought we’d leave you with a Q&A from Blank Tape collaborator, Jess Harlen.

Harlen’s debut album ‘Neon Heartache’ was produced by Plutonic Lab through Plethora Records (Obese Records)  and she has since won Best Female Artist for this release at The Age EG Awards.

Harlen originally from New Zealand is currently based in Boston, USA, about to begin studies at Berklee College of Music in May 2012. But in the meantime, Harlen will be spending the next few months in Australia to promote her second album, ‘Park Yard Slang’ produced by Plutonic Lab out in February 2012.

Jess is currently back in Melbourne playing shows. For more info, visit: www.jessharlen.blogspot.com/ and www.facebook.com/jessharlenmusic.


1. When did you realise music was for you?

I  went backpacking and fruit picking in North Qld and kind of accidentally ended up playing residencies in the local pubs, all 2 of them. I guess it started there… I was 18 and innocent (well, not quite) and excited about the world… you could say I’m a little more jaded now about ‘music being for me’. It has got to be one of the most unpredictable industries to work in.


2. What’s your take on the Melbourne music scene? Particularly in relation to your style of music?

Melbourne music scene is amazing.. after having briefly dipped into other music scenes across the world I realise just how intensely rich, alive and kicking the music scene is in Melbourne. It stands up against places like Berlin, New York, London.. albeit smaller but its dense with good music. I miss it so much. It’s also awesome for my style of music, which is a bit of a mash up.. a lot of other artists cutting their teeth there, making new sounds, experimenting, coming up with dope ideas and mustering up an audience to trial them on. People aren’t afraid to try shit there and folks aren’t afraid to lend their ears over a beer. This is making me home sick ..


3. Tell us a bit about your writing process.

Things fall out, and I kind of catch them on the way and let them down easily as not to make too much of a mess. Sometimes i start with lyrics, just words that ache for a melody. Other times I start with a melody that might pop into my head that I sing in circles for a few days and i clamber about for words to fit, it has to have good phrasing. Hooking into a good melody for me is all about phrasing. The rhythm should pop. And other times I start with some chords that inspire melody, or pluto might give me a beat to write to.. ultimately I feel it, then I work it out. not the other way around.. I like writing on keys too, trying to get away from guitar, I get stuck.


4. What you have learnt from the biz so far?

You have to be in it for the love, because if you’re not, you’re going to loathe it haha. Performing is the smallest amount of time spent, there are countless hours in agony, waiting, driving, writing, touring, flying, waiting, battling self-destructive criticism, letting go of preconceptions about your ability, and style, waiting, figuring out programs, buying expensive equipment, needing more, fighting with computers, waiting, studying, practicing, listening, and there’s a lot of waiting too… shit. It’s hard to keep your head above water sometimes.. like, most of the time. It’s a cliche but you just have to keep believing in yourself and putting in the yards to make it anywhere in this business. I’m only trying!


5. Your last album produced by Plutonic lab, how was it working with him?

We worked together really well on the last album, he’s really good at comping vocals along the way so you dont feel any pressure to throw down in one take, then once you dont feel that pressure you kind of end up performing well and keep the entire take anyway haha, its important to feel comfortable with whoever is recording you.


6. What can we expect from your upcoming album?

It’s a lot less ‘band-sound’ and more beat-based I guess, however we throw in organic elements into every track. Lots of keys, wurly, warm bass lines, not so much guitar on this one. I recorded all of the final vocal takes before I left on tour a few months ago so the magic is in plutonic’s hands at the moment. It’s in the oven.


7. What’s your favourite venue to play in Australia?

Northcote social club has a little place in my heart, it has a thick history of amazing gigs yet it isn’t pretentious in any way. And I like playing to about 350 people because it’s still intimate but it’s big enough to feel like a solid gig. It’s no lounge.


8. What city would you move to if you could just up and leave this place?

Well im kind of living in Boston, Massachusetts right now writing music and planning on studying at Berklee next year but I wish I was 4hrs down the road in New York. Workin on it… boston has NOTHING on melbourne, it’s so.. bored of itself. I said to a friend ‘sometimes I don’t realise how close we are to New York,’ to which she replied ‘the whole of Boston doesn’t realise how close it is to New York.’


9. Top three Melbourne artists?

I just pictured Sydney artists haha. umm…. Kylie Auldist has got that soul, she brightens up the room when she’s got the mic. Jade Macrae is a recent fav and an obvious pro, listening to some of her unreleased tracks lately, I’m interested to hear more from her. And Hailey Cramer is killin it, EP out soon.


10. Last record you bought?

James Blake I think. That was ages ago, I’m slack. I’m going to make it a point to go and buy something today. I’m actually interested to hear Beyonce’s latest album 4. She’s the boss.


11. Favourite drink in your favourite bar?

Well $3 schooners at the peacock with a bunch of friends is always a winner and a good start to a thursday night of trouble. Or a $5 import at bar fred’s on Nicholson St with a $5 pizza. Or a gin and tonic on the river near fed square..