"It's a big red sun, itching to explode, to take us all in a fiery fold, to take us all back home," Alexis Harte crows on "Mayflies," the opening track of Big Red Sun, his new album for 2009. This vision of an imperiled world--played out in images of environmental and urban decay--is a backdrop for the album's exploration of relationships as fragile but ultimately powerful sources of solace. Written during the waning months of the Bush era, Big Red Sun is a canvas for the darker colors of Harte's palette.
But with musical roots extending into acoustic folk, bluesy Americana, and even electrified Afro-pop, Harte's songwriting has never been monochromatic. His songs are powered by an examination of everyday moments, in which his sharply drawn details loom larger than life. It's a cinematic effect that recently landed Harte a co-publishing deal with Lionsgate Entertainment. "Something pretty was all I hoped to find in these darkening days, in a drop of water, a spider's eyes, the frame of your brown hair, They lock it way in galleries, but I see it everywhere" Harte sings on "Pot of Rainbow," a song he wrote for his wife. Listeners itching for substance in today's crowded field of singer-songwriters will find in Big Red Sun not just pretty songs, but a home for some of our most pressing questions on how to live soulfully in the 21st century, and how life's transience makes it matter that much more.
Big Red Sun is the fourth full-length release in Harte's discography, which has consistently won critical acclaim as well as a loyal following in and beyond Harte's native Bay Area. Performing Songwriter magazine shortlisted his 2001 debut album, Junebug, among the top 12 independent releases in its June issue that year, and Acoustic Guitar magazine named Sunlight Loping (2003) an Editors' Top Choice. Harte's 2006 release, Tumbling, became a mainstay on the acoustic program of San Francisco's KFOG radio. Consistent with the credentials of these earlier works, Big Red Sun brings together a bright constellation of local and international talent. Harte created the album's rich arrangements with the help of 16 other musicians, including his longtime drummer Aaron Brinkerhoff and bassist Randy Weaver, and top-shelf session players like Jon Evans (Tori Amos), Dawn Richardson (4 non-blondes), Julie Wolf (Ani DiFranco, Bruce Cockburn), and Tom Ayres (Persephone's Bees).
Harte chose Evans, who contributed some of Tumbling's most ambitious arrangements (and whose production resume includes jazz artists like Mimi Fox and Grammy nominee Will Bernard), to co-produce Big Red Sun at his Berkeley studio, San Pablo Recorders. "Jon's a master of building up a rhythm section," Harte says, pointing to the counter-rhythms of "My Way Out" and the haunted soundscape of "Crows." Co-producer JJ Wiesler (of San Francisco's Decibelle Recording) brought a lush pop sensibility to tracks like "Mayflies," which promises to expand Harte's radio and television audience (his work has appeared on NPR, PBS, ABC, and WB to name just a few). Unlike much of what passes for fresh on today's airwaves, "Mayflies"--which balances Wiesler's harmonies and ear-candy horn swells with Harte's vivid carpe diem lyrics--reminds us that pop songs can claim universal appeal not just through their sheen, but also their depth.
In Big Red Sun, Harte digs deeper than ever with his signature insights. While guitar enthusiasts will find plenty to admire in his acrobatic fretboard work, he is careful to keep storytelling at center stage. With the same dynamic energy that he brings to his live performances, Harte channels Big Red Sun's characters--a mother and father trying to keep their shouting down for the sake of a sleeping child ("Windy Girl"); a man grateful to his longtime lover ("For Tuesday"); or an office drone whose family life keeps him just this side of sane ("T-I-M-E"). "Each song is a little movie," says Harte. In finding his singing voice, he continues, "you have to figure out who the leading man is for that movie." He avoids typecasting himself in one role, pointing to singers like John Lennon, Peter Gabriel, Mick Jagger, and Cat Stevens as his models for taking on different personas within an album.
Yet what gives weight to each persona is Harte's soulful consciousness. It's this spiritual center that allows him to transcend mimicry in his delivery, and it makes his rich musical allusions more than just colorful set pieces. "Our job as songwriters is to respond to that which we feel most strongly," Harte says. "We send it through our crazy prisms, and it's reflected back in an interesting, signature way." Whereas many singer-songwriters focus almost exclusively on romantic love, for Harte, parenthood is an equally deep creative wellspring. "Being a parent is a constant source of bewilderment and joy," he says, and his four-year-old is a constant muse.
Music can't cure all that ails the world--Harte makes that clear in "Crows," an especially dark song about how these generalist, scavenging birds are crowding out songbird populations. "It's a brutal symphony when all your notes are crows," and when only the fittest (not the kindest) survive. But by consistently returning to core relationships, Harte looks for and sometimes finds the "pot of rainbow at the end of all this gold." It's a simple lyrical reversal that reminds us of how a worldly pursuit of happiness can circle back to ourselves and those closest to us. The big red sun does indeed take us home, where a family's earthly fold offers something resembling hope.
Since 2001, Alexis Harte's 3 studio releases have received critical acclaim both in the US and abroad. In addition to touring nationally and internationally (sharing bills with Taj Mahal, Ritchie Havens, Dar Wiliams and more), he has had over 60 tracks placed in national television shows (ABC, PBS, WB, FOX, UPN) and several film projects, including Colin Hanks's latest, entitled "Careless." He recently signed a multi-year music administration and co-publishing deal with Lionsgate Entertainment.
In a parallel and oft-intertwined career, Alexis has led diverse environmental efforts over the last 10 years: from urban/community forestry to Amazonian conservation to climate change education.