Standing in the main room at Beaner’s Central Coffeehouse in Duluth, I watch the soundman help local band Karmafist set up for their first gig. It was going to be either a really good crowd, as in all their friends turn out to see the debut, or a really bad crowd, as in no one knows these guys and there must be better things to do in Duluth. As I ponder the possibilities of the evening, music fans start to fill the room. Josh Harty strolls in pulling a roller-tote of gear and clutching a worn guitar case duct-taped at the seams like so much silver piping on a black Western shirt.
The plan was to meet before the gig. Since both had solo acoustic shows booked for the same night at the same place, I suggested we find some time to talk about his latest recording project. For what has been way too long I have been asking Mr. Harty “How’s the record coming along?” And for just as long he’s given me either optimistic or exasperated looks in return, depending on the month. This time the news is good. After a year and a half, the recordings are done and the final mixes are being processed.
Sitting at a table in the back of Beaner’s, we chatted. He’s traveled 22,000 miles by mid-summer, dropped two transmissions, weathered changes in his personal and professional lives and come through it all with a humble appreciation not only for life on the road and the business side of music, but for his relationships with people miles away and at home in Madison, a place he described as “for right now, a great place to be.”
Harty moved to Madison from Fargo, North Dakota in March of 2004. Shortly after that we met at a Mekos Spind open-mic upstairs at Genna’s Lounge. Listening to his set at the time, it was obvious that he was not just another open-mic wannabe. A sweet, smooth tenor voice and finger-style chops on a vintage Gibson acoustic were my first clues. After a few informal songwriter-group gatherings with friends in the following months, I asked him if he played much lead guitar. He did. For the next year, aside from his many solo shows, he sat in with Jim James & the Damn Shames flinging riffs off a Strat, and (more than once) chugging a PBR longneck and using the bottle as a slide. Apparently, in a fit of excitement at a Fargo gig with his old band, he had once thrown his brass slide into the crowd for some lucky fan. He didn’t get it back and thus has had to improvise.
By the time I finished my set at Beaner’s, the room was full and the people were listening and appreciative. They didn’t turn away for Josh Harty. More talkative than I had heard him be in the past, he connected with the crowd through song introductions that hinted at content without giving away the prize: the songs and the stories they contain. Every tune spoke of some loss or sadness, as well as redemption and hope.
* * *
Weeks later we were sitting on the porch of Harty’s new pad on Madison’s near-east side. I wanted to find out more about his process in making the follow-up to Three Day Notice, his well-received 2003 release. He summarizes it early on by saying, “Trying to produce a record, finish a record, and finish a good record, has got to be a real pain in the ass and take a lot of skill.”
The long journey for this current project started officially on December 2nd, 2004 with a two-day session in a Minneapolis studio. “I had this idea that I wanted to be as far away from being a folk musician as I possibly could,” he explains. He thought he wanted a full-band pop sound. “When I heard [the rough mixes], and it was exactly what I had told [the producer] to do, I was like, ‘Hmmm. No.’” So much for session one.
Session two, also in Minneapolis, took place in a large studio room that Leo Kottke once used regularly, a room sure to contain good vibes within its walls, or so Harty thought. “We got in there and Satan had decided to inhabit the studio that night. It didn’t work.” Apparently an errant noise of some type showed up on the studio playback and the production team could not figure out how to eliminate it. Adios, numero dos.
The next time Harty returned to the studio was in the spring of 2005, back in Madison at 23 Productions. For the first time in the project, he was paying for studio hours.
“I spent the entire time looking at my watch. Every time something didn’t go right I was like, ‘Shit, we can’t afford to do this another time, another time, another time.’” Marathon sessions on a tight budget while watching the clock is never a recipe for success.
This time, however, there was a difference. Nick Eberhardt of West Palm Beach , Florida, was asked to sit in as producer. Eberhardt and Harty had played together for years around the Fargo area. Harty trusted Eberhardt and his instincts. They got really close to getting it right… and ran out of time.
“It just didn’t feel right,” Harty says of the ultimate result. “When you’re done recording a record, you have to feel good about it. You can’t be stressed about it.” When the four-day 23 Productions session wrapped, he recalls being pretty uptight.
Four days later he boarded a plane to Florida. Eberhardt had a friend there with a studio and they had six days for the session.
Harty finally laid down the tracks in the manner in which he is most comfortable: live in the studio. Vocals and guitar were recorded simultaneously instead of tracking them one by one. While it forgoes individual track clarity, this method has the potential for greater cohesion of sound and spirit, such as one gets in a live performance. After the basic tracks were recorded, Eberhardt and Harty sat down with the studio proprietor and sound engineer, John Stepp. Everyone seemed to be on the same page this time.
“Maybe I had this illusion that I wanted this big band and all this stuff,” Harty reflects, regarding the earlier sessions. “When I heard it, it was just so not me. It wasn’t me.”
Rather than having a bunch of players barrel through songs in one vague direction, it was just the artist, the producer, and the engineer sitting down, passing the guitar and following their collective intuition. They added, among other things, some splashes of Hammond organ – Harty worked the Leslie speaker swells as Stepp controlled the keys – and some beats from a “terribly, terribly awful drum-kit” that was borrowed from a local church and played by Eberhardt. According to Harty, these simple accents worked because they were stripped down and fit the mood and timbre of the eight songs on which they’d been working.
For all the good takes and skilled craftsmanship of the Minneapolis and Madison sessions, it didn’t click with the one person to whom it mattered most: the guy with his name on the cover.
“Playing things at a show is one thing because it’s a limited group of people,” he continues. “Actually putting things down on a recording opens it up for the world to hear it. I don’t think that I was ready to put myself out there like that.”
Reflecting on the whole timeline Harty admits it is quite possible that “every previous recording was probably just fine.” In fact, one or two may end up on the final project after all.
In Florida, something changed. Maybe it was the recording process itself, or perhaps the artist was finally ready to move forward and introduce the public to the songs he’d been singing, a collection somewhat disquietingly titled A Long List of Lies.
* * *
“My grandpa always told me not to work hard but to work smart,” Harty responds to a question about the future. “You can only put yourself out there so much before you just can’t do it anymore and it becomes an emotional burden,” he says of less desirable gigs. So he is stepping back and assessing ways to work smarter, in a more businesslike fashion. A recent opening spot for Iris DeMent at Madison’s Barrymore Theatre suggests he’s making headway.
He confesses that after he first arrived in Madison, he had expectations of progress that were unrealistic, even a little ridiculous. “You can’t do everything on your own; it’s arrogant, it’s stupid. You just can’t do it,” he states. “Coming [to Madison] became the most humbling experience of my life. It made me re-evaluate a lot of things.” These things seem to have slowed Josh Harty down a bit. Not in a way that curbs his ambition, but after running both in circles and into walls, he’s learned from his mistakes. From now on he’ll be working smarter, not harder.
Story by James Travis Spartz, is a graduate student of journalism and a musician and songwriter, both with Jim James and the Damn Shames and as a solo performer.
Photos by Amandagaze
Photo of Josh Harty onstage at the Slipper Club by Rick Tvedt