Everybody’s Talking About Harry Nilsson

Written by February 12th, 2013 at 3:38 pm
Annie Nilsson

(Harry Nilsson’s daughter Annie Nilsson)

Harry Nilsson rode to the top of the charts in the early 1970s, thanks to an elastic voice, an enthusiastic endorsement from the Beatles, and a songwriting style that veered between baroque pop, psychedelic rock, and Tin Pan Alley standards. Nearly two decades after his death, the cult figure gets a 21st century reboot with Harry Nilsson Remembered, a tribute album produced by Kenny Siegal and performed by artists like Tracy Bonham, Rasputina, and Langhorne Slim. Totaling 28 songs, Harry Nilsson Remembered will be split into two volumes, with the first installment due out sometime this spring. We talked with producer Siegal, who runs Old Soul Studios and performs with the rootsy pop/rock band Johnny Society, about the project.

When did you first start listening to Harry Nilsson?

Twenty years ago. Brian Geltner, the drummer in my band Johnny Society, is a bit of a musicologist (among many other -ologists). Back when I was an impressionable young man, Brian sat me down and convinced me that a glass of seltzer water with ice in it was a delicious drink. Moments later, he played me a bunch of Harry Nilsson’s music, but this time he didn’t have to convince me of anything. Harry did the convincing. Next thing you know, it’s 20 years later and here I am in American Songwriter Magazine, winning the lotto.

Were you always a big fan?

From day one, I felt that Harry was a master of his craft. He was an undeniable talent. I am still blown away by Harry’s vocal range, committed vocal performances, the risks he took as a singer, and his ability to write great, original, timeless tunes. Doesn’t matter what year it is — greatness is always in style — and Harry Nilsson was great.

What are his strengths as a songwriter?

Harry had a knack for for writing catchy, well crafted, uniquely original tunes with memorable melodies, lyrical depth, and a vast emotional arc. His lyrical concepts and overall approach to being a singer/songwriter were singular to Harry Nilsson. Listening to Harry’s music, you could hear that he was just doing what comes natural to him, just being completely himself. He was a serious talent, and judging from his recordings, I think he fully realized his gifts through his work. That’s inspiring.

What did you think of the movie that came out a few years ago?

I appreciated it. It seemed like a down to earth, levelheaded take on Harry’s life and career as told by those who loved and respected him…. It’s great to see a film like that getting out there to shine a light on him. With this tribute record, you could say that we are coming from the opposite direction that the film did. I think the film was more about Harry’s life and Harry as a person. This tribute record is more about Harry’s work, as well as the work of all of the artists involved in the record.

What inspired the tribute idea?

I’ve always been inspired to sing a version of the song “Maybe.” It’s one of my favorites of his. So, recently, I did [record the song] and sent an early version of it to Annie Nilsson as an “offering” of sorts. It was like, “Annie, here’s how much I love your dad’s music …hope you enjoy it.” To my surprise, she responded favorably. Then I sent it to my favorite living singer on the planet: Robin Zander from Cheap Trick. Robin also responded favorably, and off-the-cuff he mentioned that he might be inspired to do one of his favorite Nilsson tunes as well. These two “nods” really lit a fire under the project for me. Then I thought, “I bet it’d be easy to put together a record of a bunch of young artists that I’ve worked with before, [with everyone] doing their favorite Harry Nilsson tunes.” I sent a note to about 25 artists that I have a good working relationship with, and to my amazement — within three hours — 20 artists, including Langhorne Slim, Rasputina, Railbird, Yellowbirds, Josh Kaufman and Sticklips (to name a few), had responded with “Count me in.”

So here we are, shining a light on Harry, yet again, only this time it’s a bit more in the abstract. ‘Abstract’ because none of us knew Harry, but we all love and feel close to his work. Collectively, we are breathing new life into the tunes he wrote. It’s a younger generation, different voices, different sounds, different production style, yet everyone is expressing themselves and being themselves fully (as did Harry). It feels like Harry’s spirit is right there with us. Whenever the artist shines on these recordings, Harry is also shining. There are many layers to it. It’s a beautiful thing.

What kind of work has gone into the project?

I own a recording studio in Catskill, NY, called Old Soul. When I began to move forward and start producing this thing for real, I allotted one day of studio time per tune, per artist. So we have all been getting together at Old Soul at noon, and by 10 p.m. we have a great new version of one Harry’s tunes, basically ready to be mixed. I have been sitting in the producer/ engineer seat, but have been inviting all the artists to co-produce their tracks with me to their heart’s content. Creatively speaking, it’s a very collaborative project. That’s where the fun is….

What’s been one of the highlights of working on it?

Because I am not only a fan of Harry’s but a fan of all the artists involved, to me each session has been a highlight. To name a few: Nina Violet and her invisible orchestra on “I’ll Never Leave You” blew me away, as did Willy Mason’s band and Brian Dewan’s Dewanatron (the Dual Primate Console) on “Think About Your Troubles”; Blueberry’s incredible vocal work and attention to detail on “Polli High”; Low Cut Connie’s blistering punk energy on “Jump Into The Fire.” Also, Brian Dewan’s freaked-out electronica version of “Coconut” was incredibly entertaining to work on, and I had the honor of recording Annie and Zak Nilsson doing a version of their dad’s tune “Gotta Get Up.” That was a real amazing moment. I traveled out to LA to work with them at my old friend Charlton Pettus’s studio in Sherman Oaks. They are very humble, down-to-earth folks and they don’t consider themselves professional musicians, but they have music and talent in their blood and I really enjoyed working with them. It was also a truly moving experience to be able to sit in the studio and play all of the artists’ renditions of their dad’s tunes for them in person. A lot of love went into this …all around… and I think they could feel it. To top it off, Annie’s going to be doing all of the artwork for the record. The whole thing just rules.

Did anyone surprise you in the studio?

Everyone did to some degree. I really appreciate being able to work with everyone and witnessing all of their different creative processes. Listening to Brian Dewan sing “Coconut” was a blast. It was sung in a character I’ve never heard from him before. Tracy Bonham’s vocal performances were killer. She just did one great take after another. Listening to Mamie Minch get deeper and deeper into the process of her bluesy/slide/dobro rendition of “Don’t Forget Me” was awesome. Marco Benevento was fantastic to work with. We broke some ground in the studio. Marco’s an incredibly talented keyboard player who has never sung on tape before. That is, [he never sung on tape] before we worked together on his version of “Are You Sleeping.” I was listening to him play the tune when the band was working out their arrangement in the studio, and he was sorta showing them the tune and singing along and I was like, “You mean you sing that good and you never sang on tape before???” I was honored that Marco chose to go for it and sing for this project, and to top it off, the guy’s got an impressive voice with like a 4-5 octave range. We layered a bunch of vocals, from the deep bass range to the mid-range to the high falsetto stuff, to create the sound we got on his rendition of “Are You Sleeping.” It’s an approach to recording vocals that I’ve used with singers such as the late Chris Whitley, Chris Rael, and Mike Farcas from The Wiyos in the past. Really, the idea is just to use all aspects of the voice you got… Why not? The voice is the best instrument (something Harry knew well).

Are the arrangements pretty faithful to the originals?

I recommended to everyone to use Harry’s original recordings as a map, but I insisted that we should not be chasing the original versions at all. I felt strongly that if we did a copycat of Harry’s recordings, then creatively we’d be falling flat on our faces. I felt that if we tried to compete with Harry’s versions we’d lose. I also felt strongly that all the artists should make the tunes their own and take some creative risks. I advised them all to do whatever it takes to find their way into the songs, so that they would be able to perform them from the inside… I believe it’s hard to do good work if you’re on the outside of something, and that you gotta be on the inside to do something worth listening to. A few hours into each session everyone was on the inside, and that’s what we got down on tape … That’s really what we got to show for this record….

What’s the key to creating a good tribute album?

In my opinion, the key is to focus on the best transcendent material that the artist created, as well as some off-the-beaten-path tunes, and to make sure that you’re not competing with the original work, more that you’re honoring and riffing off of it, while at the same time breathing new life into the material. I think while working on it, it’s good to treat it as if what you’re doing is the only version that will ever exist…This helps to to get everyone into the here and now. It requires some character acting, role playing, shape shifting, shape playing, and character shifting. The main challenge with doing a tribute to someone else’s work is that the material you are working on is not your original stuff, but if you can think of the task at hand in a wide open creative way, it’s really a great mental exercise that, at times, could be even more freeing than working on your own original work.

What would you like to work on next?

A children’s record of all original material with Johnny Society and, hopefully, a lot of the same artists who contributed to this tribute record. This project is all about Harry. For doing that much inspiring work in his life he deserves it … The next record will be for my daughter, Phoebe. She deserves it, too.

(Left to right: Jared Fowler, Kenny Siegal, Annie Nilsson, Charlton Pettus, Michael Barron, Zak Nilsson)

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