To describe a sound and a project being reminiscent of the likes of Crosby, Stills & Nash, Fleetwood Mac, The Band and Jackson Browne is a bold statement. However, the new album “Long Black River” from J R Harbidge really manages to capture that whole aesthetic and then puts his own slant on it to deliver a delightful sound that is both contemporary and classic Americana. We recently spoke to JR (or James to his friends) to get the lowdown on how this project was influenced and also creating it under the strange circumstances we find ourselves under.
When you listen to “Long Black River” the things that strike you initially are how it is a very nice record to listen to that is authentically created but more significantly is how the album and his sound is a very strongly reminiscent of the seventies which is such a fascinating era of music. “It was fantastic! For me, it’s my favourite era of music and particularly the American stuff. All of those kinds of things are what I listen to, I absolutely love Jackson Browne. At the start of lockdown in March last year, I did the vinyl thing. I got the record player and day after day vinyl would turn up. Luckily his stuff wasn’t too expensive so I manged to get most of his records and that is the kind of sound that I love. Also, and this is really weird for me because I don’t like synthesised music at all, I have got into synth wave, like the stuff off “Stranger Things” and I love that soundtrack, where I’m thinking I shouldn’t like this but at the moment I’m addicted to that. It’s bizarre because I’ve always said that if it hasn’t got a guitar in it, I’m not interested.” Although this seventies feel is very evident, it is also very contemporary at the same time and allows the drawing of a lot of elements that shape modern day Americana as a genre. “I do feel like an outsider most of the time, when I listen to what’s going on in the genre as a whole, I know it’s definitely not in the mainstream part of it. I would love to find bands influenced by the seventies and I’ve found a couple recently but I really struggle finding it as much as I sometimes feel a bit of an outsider in that genre, I don’t feel I fit anywhere else with it being all encompassing but you can hang that label on lots of things, I guess. I’m happily sitting in that label as when people listen to me, they have to reference it to somewhere as long as they play the music and like it.”
We talked about the recording of “Long Black River” where he said that the drums were recorded in November 2019, but was finding it hard to get time to record everything else until lockdown happened in March when he finally got it finished until a slight hitch came about last May: “I keep forgetting to talk about this with people but I lost everything apart from the drums. The album was pretty much recorded and completely finished, then I was just tweaking the mixes. I know what it and when I turned my computer off, before the light went off, I pulled the plug out and the next time I turned the computer on it, wouldn’t let me get into any of those things at all and all I could salvage was the drums. The feeling of dread and horror subsided really quick after one big sigh, though I’ll just record it again because if I sit and dwell it will just drive me mad so I just grabbed the guitar and started putting the tracks together. To be honest, I’m glad it happened because it has turned out better. It was a very shiny album before where I had used all of most expensive guitars and most expensive amps. I liked what I was hearing but when I re-recorded it, I went for different drum takes, different mikes and used my oldest guitar which was probably the cheapest on a lot of the tracks and it has ended up being sonically a lot different. I think the first album was almost ahead of the beat when you play it where this is a more laid-back sound.” With his first album being released in October 2018, it has been around a two and a half year wait for album number two, so has “Long Black River” been a continual work in progress since then? “The songs had been written for ages, it was just picking a time. I didn’t want to be away for too long but didn’t want to rush it either but to be honest I probably took a bit too long because the songs were written and now I’ve got seven songs ready and demoed up for the next album so I’m only looking for about three more but that might take me six months. I’ve only written one song where I’ve been trying to do promo and I find I only really write when I need to write for an album which is why things take so long.”
Given the current climate and outlook of the world, was there consideration to look at the record being reflective and inclusive of the current times or was there a danger to overthink the songs that were ready for the album compared to new creations during this time? “Luckily or unluckily, I like a good conspiracy theory so a lot of my songs are inadvertently about that kind of thing, the what if? It’s not in your face either but they are all subtle things that anyone can interpret as anything. “Wrong Side of the Fight” for example, I’ve been telling everyone that it’s about being able to change a point of view in an argument, which it is but I’m not telling you what argument started that song going. The conspiracy is about the world being shit and the world is shit right now so that kind of stuff I was writing back then still fits the world as it is today so from that point of view no. However, you always think your new songs are better than your old songs. I love this album where there is one co-write on there but I’m so looking forward to getting the next lot done because as soon as it is out, you want to get on creatively and do the next thing and it’s hard to stop yourself from doing it because you know you have put a lot of time into this album.”
With releasing songs without the opportunity to extensively play them live prior to being shared, does this create difficulty in gauging how fans are likely to react to songs? “When I wrote every song on this first album, they were all my favourites at some point but now looking back I can see which songs I will probably play live and which ones I won’t where as if I was gigging before the album came out, I would probably play them all live. You end up with more perspective when you have stepped away from it, where as instead of being in love with everything and the nice shiny new song you move towards what will work. Saying that, a lot of the songs which I think would just be album songs, when we do play them live, the crowd reacts really good to them compared to some of the songs I think are some of my favourites. For example, my favourite song on this record is track three “We Don’t Talk About It” and the middle eight makes it. I’ve never written a song with so many chords in with the ups and downs so I love that song but in 2019 we played about twenty festivals. We did some local festivals and big festivals with Keane, The Zutons, KT Tunstall and people like that but I remember when we played Cornbury. My guitarist couldn’t make it so we had a dep in, he plays on the record actually and guests on one of the songs. I introduced the next song as one of my favourites which is off my new album and there was a woman at the front that had been bopping away and loving every minute but I lip read when she turned to her husband and said I was really enjoying this but this song is really bad. The whole of that song, I was thinking this is terrible and she stopped bopping around for that song but that’s my favourite song! Directly or indirectly playing the songs live does give you the feel of what will work.” Then finally looking I went back to talking of the aesthetic of the record and we talked about whether it naturally was planned to be so cohesive given the different sounds being incorporated? “I loved those songs and I just wanted them out there for people to hear and I do understand the cohesiveness of an album like that and I was hoping it would. As I recorded and mixed it all, to me it would sound like it fits together where it starts a little bit more bluesy and little bit more rock so I’m happy that it works and is what people are feeling too.”
One of the particular reasons we connected during our chat was how we had both developed the highly rewarding (and highly expensive) addiction to vinyl during lockdown and how it is so refreshing to just sit back to do nothing else and digest an album all the way through. On listening to the album digitally or on cd you really get the feel how this is a record that would sound good on a vinyl and luckily James managed to get a really good press of the record which I would definitely recommend getting your hands on for a great way to spend a summer evening. He said, “For me, it just melts the sound together and tightens the bottom end up on that album.” Which I fully agree takes the project to a different level.
When we spoke, he had a couple of festivals in the book for this summer but no more solid plans beyond that but one he had anticipated as a solo acoustic show and the other with a band, which will be slightly different to how his full band shows had been previously as will now be playing as a four piece which he expects to sound more raw rather than like on the record, so the change from acoustic to electric sounds could be really exciting to hear. Looking to the future plans are already on the way for the follow up to “Long Black River” with a number of songs already written that could take it down an even more folk led Americana sound. The new album “Long Black River” from J R Harbidge is out now which you can stream HERE. You can find details of his future tour plans along with where to find the physical release on his Website and keep up to date with him socially on TwitterFacebook & Instagram.
True country music is honesty, sincerity, and real life to the hilt. Garth Brooks