Music Interviews

Interview: Nick Harper

It is, it would seem, the time for folksy legends’ offspring to come into their own.

We’ve had the Wainwrights, the MacColls, a Carthy and at least one Thompson. Into this generational zeitgeist add Nick Harper, son of the legendary UK singer-songwriter Roy Harper, whose latest solo record Treasure Island marks a decade in the business for its writer.

Nick Harper’s choice of venue for our interview is the tiny 12 Bar Club on Denmark Street, where 10 years ago his career as a solo performer began…

Tonight our chat must contend with the sound-check of a group of young hopefuls who are performing later. Harper mutters reminiscences under his breath as he paces a floor that has no doubt seen many bodily fluids in its time.

It is a happy symptom of his lack of mainstream exposure that, in that time, the size of the typical Harper gig has barely increased.

“I prefer smaller venues where you can see the whites of the audience’s eyes and communicate on an easy level,” he says, “rather than being a huge distance away from minds that you want to connect with. I’m about little venues with a couple of hundred people and an electric vibe.”

Harper has a sense of humour where he will say and do things he knows aren’t funny, but will anyway for precisely that reason and assume it will be found endearing. He’s right. For example, when he says the interview is to be filmed for a DVD he is making, I ask if it’s ok to hold my notes in-shot. He bets he can hold his for longer and maintains his note in a crisp tenor for at least 30 seconds.

“As a kid I would thrash away on guitars that I didn’t know how to tune.”
– Nick Harper on halcyon days…

Son of legendary folk loon Roy Harper, 40-year-old Nick grew up amongst seventies rock glitterati. He is now one of Britain’s most unique songwriters and performers. He sits with short messy brown hair, jeans and a shirt and a goblin-like look of mischief in his father’s eyes.

Released last month, his seventh album Treasure Island is another collection of impeccably crafted songs about his young family and their rural Wiltshire life – not to mention a good deal of political exhorting.

But it is his live show that has seen his popularity spread. Harper merges a frenetic guitar style with dramatic vocals that rival his hero Jeff Buckley. Indeed, hyperbolic descriptions of him have included the ‘English Jeff Buckley’ and the ‘acoustic Hendrix‘.

“I’m self-taught,” he says. “As a kid I would thrash away on guitars that I didn’t know how to tune. I’d bar the frets and just hammer away. But I wanted to be a drummer. My heroes were John Bonham, Keith Moon (a Harper family acquaintance) and Animal from The Muppets. That’s probably where I got the percussive guitar style from.”

String breaks, faulty equipment, croaky vocals and spilt beer on stage are all part of the Harper experience. Despite such a ramshackle style, the rewards of such an intense and “human” show, as he puts it, are remarkable.

“The greatest gig I ever did was Glastonbury in 1999” he says. “It was an incredible vibe. I was playing in a tent that began half full and gradually filled up, which had a big effect on the atmosphere. I had rushes from the tips of my toes right up my body and out the top of my head. They took about ten seconds. It took me out of the music and I was almost looking down on myself. There were people in tears around the stage.”

Then there are his politics. Throughout his career his socialist leanings have been to the fore lyrically – following in the footsteps of his father. But since the war in Iraq Harper’s anger has risen to the point where up to five minutes are taken up on stage with spoken polemics against Messrs Bush and Blair.

In new song Knuckledraggers he sings at them “how can I be happy with you in my song?” The line suggests that the singer-songwriter in today’s world has no choice but to address such issues whether they want to or not. An echo of sentiments expressed recently by another with a famous dad, Rufus Wainwright.

“Of course I don’t want to write songs about bombing children,” he says. “I want to write about making them. But that’s what I’m confronted with. That’s not what I voted for, we were railroaded into it and a million of us marched against it. How can I sit by and not say something if I’ve got a platform, however small it is?”

“Of course I don’t want to write songs about bombing children.”
– Nick Harper on political songwriting…

He is at pains to point out he is not a protest singer. A listen to his back catalogue will uncover as diverse themes as family, friendship, sex and fantasy. “I express all parts of what is to be me” he says. “I ‘m not a campaigning person, I just write songs about how I feel.”

While Harper cites as influences the likes of Buckley, Woody Guthrie and his father, he identifies one Stephen Stills song as the foundation for his career.

“Black Queen off his first album,” he says. “That has been in my heart for 30 years, and a lot of my style comes from that one song. I love his guitar playing – it’s really simple but in a great way.”

Frank Zappa, Gang Of Four and The Dead Kennedys also get a mention, as do Brahms and Wagner.

The word in the urinals after a recent gig at The Borderline in London was along the lines of ‘why doesn’t the whole world know about Nick Harper?’ While he has a large and passionate following through word of mouth and inheriting his father’s fans, he remains relatively untouched by mainstream radio and the press.

“I’m free and express myself however I want to, and that doesn’t translate to the mass audience,” he says. “The people that tune in to it love it, but it’s not Radio One. It’s not something I lie awake worrying about. I am a rich man – I’m able to earn a living playing guitar and writing songs. That is extreme riches.”

“I am a rich man – I’m able to earn a living playing guitar and writing songs.”
– Nick Harper sits back and sighs…

Despite those riches Harper reels off a stream of unfulfilled ambitions. Composing choral music, writing poetry, painting, touring overseas and playing with his dad again are amongst his aspirations for the coming years. “What I really want is to get my fucking head together and learn how to be good at just one of these things,” he says. “But I’m a guitar player, I write pop songs, that’s what I do.”

After a small tour of Britain in February, Harper will take a break from performing. The rest of 2006 will be taken up with putting together his DVD, writing some new songs and bringing up his two children, aged nine and two. Does he want them to continue the remarkable Harper musical dynasty? “Of course” he says, “it’s just magical to be able to make something out of nothing. Every house should have music.”

buy Nick Harper MP3s or CDs
Spotify Nick Harper on Spotify

More on Nick Harper
Nick Harper @ Borderline, London
Interview: Nick Harper
Nick Harper – Treasure Island
Nick Harper @ Borderline, London