From unbridled rockers to wounded laments, the 11 songs that make up Jason Hawk Harris’s debut record contain many demons.
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The suffocating grief that followed his mother’s death, the substances he abused to numb the pain, the doubts that shook his faith… Harris is not afraid to admit that, at times, those demons have kicked his ass.
But when Harris and his band raise the roof, like on the runaway train of ‘I’m Afraid’, it feels like he’s fighting back… and winning.
Yes, there’s tragedy and pain aplenty on Love And The Dark, but Jason Hawk Harris isn’t here to feel sorry for himself. Instead, he takes the pain and grief and mines it for what it can teach him.
The Texan troubadour’s debut solo record hits record stores and streaming services this month and talking to him about it reveals a bright, funny, thoughtful man who doesn’t shy away from dark corners and painful experiences.
Our interview covered everything from falling between two stools as a liberal-minded Christian to the perils of dressing too fancy in a dive bar.
You signed with Bloodshot back in November and your debut, Love And The Dark, is finally coming out this month. Has that felt like a long wait?
Oh yeah, it definitely has. I think the oldest song on the record, I wrote five years ago. About three years ago I decided to make one record and if people liked it then maybe I could make a thing of it. I was committed to finding a label, so that drew things out a little bit.
There’s also the money involved in making an independent record. I wanted it to be a really great sounding record and in order to do that, you need money. When I gave the record to Bloodshot, we were already really proud of the record and it was ready to go, which made it an easy decision for them.
Did you go back and change anything once you signed with Bloodshot?
Not because they asked me to go back, but because I wanted to. There were two songs I wanted to re-record because they weren’t recorded live. They were the only songs that weren’t recorded live and they were lacking in energy. We did them in one day and that was it. Everything else was already done.
The live approach really works, especially on a song like ‘I’m Afraid’ which has so much raw energy.
The crazy thing about that one is that we were in the studio and I had just enough money to get through four days and do five songs. We’d recorded four of them by the fourth day and we were supposed to come in and knock out the fifth song on the last day, which would have been real easy.
My producer was walking home and tripped and dropped the hard drive. It was completely corrupted and we lost everything.
He called us all at midnight and said, “Hey, I just need you guys to be ready for the fact that tomorrow is going to be a little more stressful than you anticipated.” We went in there and knocked out all five songs.
I actually still think that we had a better first take of ‘I’m Afraid’. That was the only one we couldn’t improve on. There’s a phantom recording somewhere out there in the world that existed for three days and then was gone forever.
That punk energy has its roots in your musical development, right?
Yeah, when I was younger all the friends I made just happened to be into punk music. I liked it because I was full of piss and vinegar and I liked rebelling against anything I could rebel against, especially in the bible belt Texas south.
There are some bands I don’t listen to anymore but I still love Dead Kennedys. When I was 16, I started to branch out.
There’s a weird crossover between punk and country, going back as far as Social Distortion. Where do you think that intersection comes from?
It’s so funny, I talk to so many people who bring this up. I have no idea, but there does seem to be a pattern. For me, I grew up in Texas so country music was in my blood. Maybe it was just a matter of time before I came back to it and I just happened to be into punk before then.
I wonder how many punk singers turned country singers grew up in an area where country music was a part of the culture. I consider Woody Guthrie to be one of the first punks. You’ve got a guy who’s speaking out against fascism and speaking up for unions in a pretty outspoken manner for the time he was doing it.
I almost think there’s more of a correlation between punk and American folk music. You’ve got Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger, Johnny Cash, guys who had a real punk sensibility, or what became a punk sensibility.
That’s true. You play any Johnny Cash song fast enough and it starts to sound like punk.
That’s another correlation right there. Both genres are real big on the idea of three chords and the truth.
You mentioned growing up in the bible belt and I know you lost your mother a few years back. Religion plays quite a big role in this record. Is it an influence that’s always been there or something that came back after your mother died?
Religion’s a funny word. I don’t consider myself religious because I’m not hyper vigilant about traditions, services and dogma. I would say that – even in this day and age, with all that Christianity has done to really fuck shit up, especially in this country – I do still consider myself a Christian.
I still try to live like that, but I’m also consistently disgusted by how people have used Jesus’s name to push forward political ideologies that he definitely would not have been down with. I do believe in the resurrection and all that mess but a lot of the time, when I go back home, it’s hard to relate to other folks who call themselves Christians.
They’re putting this guy on a pedestal who’s openly racist, talking about “grabbing girls by the pussy” and all sorts of bullshit. He’s been accused of rape multiple times, he’s separating children from their families at the border. Where did Jesus come down on all this stuff? I’m pretty sure it’s not the side you’re saying he did.
Is it hard to openly talk about religion, Jesus and heaven in your songs? Is there a worry of being lumped in with that sect of Christianity?
I want to correct the notion of what the core tenets of Christianity are. In the States, Christianity has morphed and melded with this far right political ideology that doesn’t make any sense to me.
I want to tell that to other people. I believe in Jesus and a lot of what he said and I even believe the crazy stuff about him rising from the dead, but I do not believe in this shit: immigration, not allowing gay folks to be married. I want to tell people that I believe in Jesus but that it’s not what they think it is.
It’s definitely more uncomfortable to do that here in the U.S. because it essentially makes me this weird kind of pariah. The evangelicals think I’m abandoning my tribe and the liberals are like, “You believe in God?”.
As far as my idea of heaven, I live in the midst of this very intense certainty and also a lot of doubt. I believe in heaven and an afterlife with every fiber of my being and it’s ok if other folks don’t. I think they can still get something out of my music without having to agree with me.
My dad died 10 years ago and my idea of an afterlife went through a weird shift after that. It’s not the clouds and old guy with a beard that we taught in school…
I fucking hope not. That sounds awful. For me, it’s this earth, but something’s happened to it. It’s been freed from death, destruction, decay and despair. Take those four things out, what would the earth look like?
If you just let yourself go there, it boggles the mind. Food won’t go bad. Toil won’t be a thing. You’ll see the people you want to see whenever you want to see them. That awful and beautiful feeling when you see a friend you haven’t seen for ten years.
You have dinner and at the end, you know you won’t see them again for another five years. That pain won’t be there in heaven. Time and space will work differently.
The idea of it being this cloudy, floaty, harp-based existence just bums me out. That just sounds like a huge lack of imagination.
Did you have this clarity over your idea of religion and heaven before your mum died?
I thought I did. And then she died. I was so angry. I wasn’t sure at what but it ended up being God. I tell people I went on a trial separation with God. I was just like, “I’m done with this shit for a year.”
There’s a book out of England, The Problem Of Pain by C.S. Lewis. It’s about grief. He talks about this moment when his wife, who he was only married to for two years, dies. He says his faith was a house of cards and it took that moment to make him realize it. I realized that too and I wasn’t sure if I believed any of it. After that kind of intense pain… It’s awful.
Through that year, I was just able to get some clarity. I read a book that really changed my life called My Bright Abyss by a poet named Christian Wiman. He talks about living with certainty and doubt and letting yourself live there.
I love the title, My Bright Abyss, because that’s what it feels like to me at times. I’m in this space that feels infinite and I don’t know what’s at the bottom or what’s above me and I feel like I’m just floating but it’s not dark. It’s bright and I’m not afraid but I recognize that on this plane of existence that certainty and doubt are brothers.
I think when my Dad died, I was rocked to my core, but the way his energy still feels present made me think twice. Like if he was gone, he’d be gone. But he doesn’t feel gone.
I know exactly what you mean. Actually, just go ahead and say that I said that. [Laughs]
You’re very open in songs like ‘Phantom Limb’ and ‘Grandfather’ about how much your mother’s death has affected you. Is that an easy thing for you to write about?
It is because it’s an act of catharsis for me. The afterlife and death, I’ve never been uncomfortable with it. Even as a kid, I wasn’t weirded out by death and I was around it a bit. I don’t struggle thinking about it and when I write, a lot of the time, what comes out are words about grief and loss.
Is it easy to sing these songs on stage night after night?
‘Phantom Limb’ and ‘Grandfather’ are the two songs where I can’t engage too much with what I’m singing. I just have to focus on the way my mouth is moving, making sure I’m making the right word sounds. If I focus too much on the words, it can get pretty emotional, but that’s rare. Most of the time, I can do it.
I think there was so much catharsis in the writing of it. I certainly wept when I wrote these songs and probably for a while after, but I think performing them night after night is a wonderful form of acceptance. It’s a processing, saying these words over and over. The words start to mean new things.
But sometimes it will happen. To do something as beautiful as music in response to that pain and that grief, what are going to do? It’s just going to happen. And then you’re all snotty and your nose is stuffed up and you can’t sing another song properly. That’s no fun.
How is touring for you in general? Do you enjoy getting out on the road?
I get excited to play. I have friends who live for the road. I am not necessarily one of those people. I don’t necessarily live for the traveling of it and being in a different city every night. Don’t get me wrong, I can enjoy it but it’s just not a natural passion for me. But the playing is.
I love playing in a new city in front of new folks and connecting with them. I do like it but I miss having a routine. I’m someone who struggles a bit with mental health issues and routine is important to me.
Do you have any coping mechanisms to deal with it?
[Laughs] I do. They’re all bad. That’s why the routine is so important to me. If I get to the show and we’ve two or three hours before we play, it’s very easy for me to knock more than a few back.
One thing that’s helping me recently, instead of drinking, smoking or any of that stuff that makes me feel like shit the next day, I’ll call a friend and just talk. Not necessarily like, “Help me, I’m having a hard time,” but more like, “Hey, how’s it going? I haven’t talked to you in a while.” The energy from that is great and it helps me stay in touch.
Do you have a touring wardrobe or anything that puts you in ‘game mode’?
I do. When I’m on the road, I have what my wife and I call ‘show shirts’ that I wouldn’t wear all the time every day. I’ve got a stylist who helps me out with that.
What does a show shirt look like?
I’ve got one that’s black velvet with a golden pattern throughout it. It’s pretty loud. I’ve got a lot of flowery stuff. I got some more western-looking stuff.
But if we’re playing in a dive bar, I’ll just dress like the folks that are there. That makes me more comfortable and I think it makes everybody else more comfortable. I think if you go into a dive bar and you’re looking all slick and tailored and you’ve got a black velvet button-up with a golden pattern on it, people are like, “Oh gosh. This is really intense.”
Love And The Dark is out on Bloodshot Records on 23 August
Jason Hawk Harris’s favorite products
I like this stuff a lot. My hair looks like I spend a lot of time doing it but the truth is I hate doing that. I don’t want to spend more than two minutes. It’s a wild beast but it’s a beast that behaves thanks to this stuff.
I’ve got dry skin and this stuff really works.