After failed attempts to have this interview at a number of different bars on Grand Street in Williamsburg, Elizabeth Harper graciously invited us over to her apartment nearby. She'd just returned from a trip to her parents' farm in California and had some homemade applesauce to offer us. Two days later she would leave for a two week tour of the UK to promote her new album on Angular Records.
She served the promised applesauce with cinnamon tea.
EH: Okay let's do this interview. I said some horrible things in interviews that I wish I'd never said.
SI: Like what? Bad stuff about other bands?
EH: I'm never gonna do that again. I didn't say bad stuff about other bands. I just said that I didn't like Morrissey's solo stuff; which isn't true, I love Morrissey's solo stuff. I cried at his last concert, you know.
MK: What was the first thing that compelled you to start writing?
EH: Ah hem. Heartache. Misery. Boredom. No, I was working at this horrible place...
SI: This is when you wrote you first song?
EH: Yeah, I think so. And some guy there said: what do you find yourself doing when you're not even thinking about what you're doing. And I said: well, I ride my bike around New York and I make up these little songs and sing 'em while I'm riding. And he said well, then, you should write songs.
And then I taught myself how to learn guitar so I could write songs.
MK: What were some of the first songs that you recorded?
EH: Charles Bridge is a really early song. It's the oldest one that's on the new record.
MK: Do you write the lyrics first, or the melodies?
EH: With every song it's different. I think the older songs were more like: you're walking around and you hear a lyric in your head, and it kinda goes with a melody inside of itself. Other songs, you take a lyric and fit it in; other songs you hear the music... it's a mixture.
SI: What about the newest song: is that 'Couples'?
EH: Yeah, that actually was one of the first songs I'd ever written where I'd heard the music and then wrote the lyrics.
SI: What are some of the lyrics?
EH: Well, it's about this person who's at a cafe watching this couple. I'll just tell it to you, it goes:
The Couple kissing under the umbrella / should I be uncomfortable? I'm just part of their scenery / their little French movie / but when they go home they probably just ignore each other / couples always do / they all look happy to me and you
And then: (laughter) and then there's a chorus, you know:
Why why why won't it stop raining? / I've got nothing interesting to report just watching this kind of lightening lapse and the thunderstorm begin the count.
And when it's getting closer to the second verse, the couple is kissing under the umbrella:
Should I be uncomfortable? I'm just part of your scenery. Your little French movie. I should have gone home but instead I chose to follow you and have a slow death in the pouring rain.
SI: Who are you saying is the "you"? It's not the couple. Right?
EH: No, it's the guy that's in the couple. The "you" is him; -- the guy with the girl in the couple that I'm watching. (Pause) It's not a really great song, now that I think about it... it does have good music to it; the lyrics are incidental
MK: They're kind of observational
MK: People can relate to it. Everyone feels the hatred and the jealousy towards the happy couple.
EH: Yeah, yeah. That's basically it.
EH: It was the cadence of the rhythm--the way it fits over the song--that I thought was nice.
And then there's another song:
Around and round the clock they go big hand fast and small hand slow what hour did they hand? Just a minute hand in hand.
Just watching--I didn't write that, it's from a children's book.
MK: It's re-appropriated?
EH: Yes. I re-appropriated that. It fits in the song.
You know. Then it's just like a song song.
MK: What are your favorites, of the songs you've written?
EH: 'Trouble in the Palace' is definitely my favorite. Because it turned out so good. But it was written during the worst time of my life. It makes me happy that I got something out of it.
SI: Do you think it was worth it to have that really bad time in your life so you could write that song?
EH: You know that's funny. I had a dream that a former member of my band--'cause the song was written right after he left the band, and I had this long depression that followed-- I had a dream that he came up to me and I saw him and said: you know, thank you so much for doing that and helping me write this new song. You can take that how you please. But that's my favorite song.
SI: Are there any songs that you don't like that you still have to keep playing?
SI: Like what?
EH: Pause. I don't know, the new song that I wrote is called 'Adolescent Heart' ...I take that back. That song has good lyrics. I like the lyrics that are light, you know. The songs has got this nice lyric in it, that's: "First word, two syllables, sounds like you're miserable." I like that one.
Yeah, there's just songs that you like better in the set.
MK: So how is it playing with a band again? How is it different than playing solo or with just Scott (lead guitar)?
EH: Completely different. They were saying why don't you do a solo song, you know? Like in the beginning of the show. And I don't even know if I could do that. There just two different things and I'd feel awkward doing both. It's so much harder. It's so much louder; one of the songs is so loud that it hurts my ears.
MK: Is it harder to sing with the full band?
EH: Well in that little tiny room at practice, when you can't hear yourself, it definitely is. When I do solo shows and duo shows it's so nice, I can just sing and be relaxed. Sometimes I worry that my singing is gonna go to shit playing with the band. Because I'll sing in a different way, to be heard over the music. I think when I sing by myself, the singing is a lot better.
But no, it's so much fun with the band. It's the way you hear it in your head; the way you hear it on the record. And then you hear it in the room. It's so awesome. And the people that we're playing with are so nice.
MK: Where do you see it going forward? Are you going to try to keep both ways of performing?
EH: No, no we definitely want to play with the band, always, always, always. That's what we've always wanted. The only reason that I played as a duo for so long is because I was just recovering from the old band. Getting myself together and learning how to trust again. (laughter).
No seriously, though, that experience really jarred me so intensely. It was like breaking up from a relationship. And it also took a long time to find people that were good. And then this guy kept coming to gigs and he asked if we needed players, and we said, well actually we do.
SI: Is it deliberate that there are four people in the band? Are you playing guitar, too?
EH: No, we asked a friend to play keyboards with us. And he said he wanted to. And we hope that maybe he will.
SI: But he's not going on tour with you?
EH: No, he's never even played with us yet. Just in my mind, he's in the band playing keyboards.
SI: Would you add anything else? If you had unlimited means to do it.
EH: Yeah, of course. But it would also be weird to have it just under my name with a big orchestra.
SI: I don't know, that could be cool, actually.
EH: I mean, obviously I'm into like the idea of the four piece, like The Smiths, like a rock band. but if I could have all other kinds of instruments I definitely would, of course. We have a Wurlitzer now! It's in this new recording of 'No No No', but we're not playing it live yet.
That song 'Let me take you out' we're now playing with the band. you know that little quiet one, it's really loud now. The beginning is quiet, but it's really loud at the end.
SI: Is it faster, too?
EH: Yeah, it's very 'new order-y'
SI: Does Scott do any really heavy guitar solos when he's playing with the band?
EH: There's one on that song. He's such a great guitar player. Honestly, I have to say it; I am so lucky that Scott plays with me. He's such a great guitar player and such a great producer, too. He can play all the instruments. Sometimes he'll come up with something so amazing and I'm like, gasp!, you're like Brian Wilson or Elliot Smith, you know. But then I think that maybe I dote on him. And other times, well, let's not talk about that. (laughs)
SI: Does he sometimes come up with stuff that's bad?
EH: No, never, ever. Honestly he doesn't or I wouldn't be playing with him.
MK: You were saying earlier that in the last song you wrote that music came first. Where do you see the songs progressing?
EH: It's hard to say, you know. It's the weirdest feeling. The other day I felt really sad. I picked up the guitar and I started playing this little thing. And it felt so good and so comforting. So it's always like I'm trying to avoid dark times. Just as a human being, you're always trying not to fall down that ditch, but at the same time, that's usually when you write really good stuff. So, it's hard to say.
Obviously, tragedy is unavoidable. What are you going to do, it's gonna happen to you. When Elliot Smith died I tried to write a song about that and I never could. So sometimes, maybe a really intense tragedy prevents you from writing about it.
SI: It must be just hard to write songs about other songwriters.
EH: I dedicated my record to him, though. I did it because he's the reason that I started playing music. Is that psycho?
MK: It's an homage. Who else would you have dedicated it to?
EH: I was going to dedicate it to Bob Quine. He just died.
Bob really helped me. Bob said to me, "You know, you're gonna be successful, I just know it. It's gonna be five years, though. " That's how he talked.
SI: When did he say that?
EH: A couple years ago (laughs). He was amazing. He gave me the pickup that's in my guitar--it was an old tele pickup from 1955. He was an awesome guy, and I feel really awful about what happened. But what are you going to do? ...I had this really weird dream the other night that he was alive and we were just hanging out, and then I woke up and I thought: oh shit, he's dead. But you're not supposed to talk about your dead friends, right? That's what Vice said: if you go out to a bar, don't talk about your dead friends, because if you do, you should still be at home being sad about it. I guess I am in my own apartment, so I can do what I want.
MK: We should have a good wrap up question...
SI: Let's talk about the jeans.
EH: You know all about the jeans, don't make me talk about them.
SI: Are you gonna wear them on tour every day?
EH: Yep. And I'm gonna wear this new red mini-skirt.
SI: That's what Jim Morrison did. He wore the same pair of pants for 2 years.
MK: Tell me about the lyrics in 'Trouble in the Palace'. How you've taken phrases and resculpted it in different places or as a sentiment. There's a few of them in your songs. Like the phrase, 'trouble in the palace'
EH: Yeah it is, totally, yeah. A colloquialism.
SI: What does 'trouble in the palace' actually mean?
EH: It's a tongue-in-cheek way of making fun of the privileged world. It's like you live a perfect life and you live in a palace, but there's trouble in the palace.
MK: You see something that's perfect and enviable, and whenever there something that's gone awry...
EH: Trouble is very wry.
SI: somehow, whenever you say trouble in the palace I think thieves in the temple.
(Laughter) It's kinda the same line you know.
MK: Would you ever collaborate with Prince?
EH: Yeah! No doubt about it.
Well, Trouble in the Palace is just a joke, you know. Paris Hilton. She's got a lot of trouble in the palace. No, more like the other one. Nicole Ritchie...
Anyway, yeah. 'Trouble in the Palace', a colloquialism, taken and stolen and put into song. Don Juan. Low Tide. 'Dancing at low tide, waiting for the ships to arrive...'
EH: Can I tell you anything that'll make me seem more like a real person though?
MK: Who are you, Elizabeth Harper?
SI: The applesauce story I think is cute.
EH: The one that reveals that I'm really, secretly a farmer.
SI: Yeah. Is that cool?
EH: I don't know. I can never figure that out. I really just always want to be on tour and a play music; then there's this other part of me that gets so stressed out I just want to grow vegetables. But I don't think I could ever do one without the other. I know that I could never be just one of those guys that coked and drugged every day nonstop. I would loose my mind. I know because I've done it before and that's what happened. So, I just have to go and revive in the woods and seek nature. But then I could never just sit there and grow vegetables my whole life, and not do anything. That'd be horrific. I'd go crazy doing that...
So I just watch little house on the prairie. I'm already on season 4.
MK: Why are you into 'Little House on the Prairie?'
EH: Oh my god because Michael Landon is like...
MK: An angel?
EH: Yes! I also brought back some canned tomatoes and some zucchini bread.
MK: Thanks! So, back to interview: how important to you is it that the audience understands exactly what you're getting at? I think there's occasions where the humor goes over some heads.
EH: You know, obviously you want people to get and understand it and like it and love it. Because the reason that you make music, for me, is because I want to give, I want to do what I freaked out over. When I heard Elliot Smith it made me feel something. So the reason I started writing music was because I felt like I could do that; what they did for me; what was meaningful to me. If people get it, it would mean a lot. But I can't force them to.
SI: What if they don't get it?
EH: Then this interview will probably linger in obscurity for the rest of eternity. Music makes people feel different in different ways. It's hard to explain...
All I want to do is make a living.
SI: What level of success are you aiming for? How much would be enough?
EH: Well, who doesn't want to be successful in life, you know? Whatever it is that they do, whether it's making a web site, or making a movie or whatever. Everyone wants to have their own little little place on the California coast.
SI: Would you want to be successful enough to have a stalker? Or do you think that would be too successful?
EH: If that would be the price I would have to pay for my Malibu flophouse, then yeah. It would be a nightmare, but yeah.
SI: It would be worth it.
EH: Everyone thinks it would be worth it. No I don't want a stalker. Are you kidding me? But I really would like to be that successful, I mean why not? I could have a stalker and not be successful. Stalkers are just random people.
MK: Getting back to Michael Landon...
EH: I love him. And further along in the season they make him into more of a sex symbol. The first two seasons he's fine. Then the third season, suddenly his shirt's really tight and kinda like open. Then the first episode of this last season, he had his shirt _off_. And it was an episode he directed, too.
SI: What was his shirt off for?
EH: Just to show how hard he was working.
SI: Was he chopping wood, what was he doing?
EH: Yeah, he was working out in the barn. Some of the episodes are really stupid, I'll be honest, and I'm like oh this is so dumb. But some of them, they just make you feel so warm and fuzzy inside. I went home and I lived a little house life. I collected the apples - in a basket. Because I wanted to be like little house. I could have used a bucket, or a Tupperware bowl, but I wanted to use a basket. But it wasn't big enough so I ended up using a bucket.
MK: Faded dreams.
EH: But I tried, you know.
SI: Is there livestock, too?
EH: No, unless you count the live raccoons. There's livestock in the neighborhood, though. There's cows up the street. When I grew up we had horses, we had chickens at one point. Always cats, once a dog. And when you're a kid you always had little rodents of some sort. Shit that's alive for a couple of months and then it dies.
SI: Vermin. They die. Or they just sort of disappear. They crawl into little corners somewhere.