Nick Harper - Harperspace
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Nick Harper - Harperspace
Nick Harper - Harperspace

GUITAR SPACE:

Taken from Guitarist Magazine - January 1997

Here Comes The Son

Armed with a supernaturally-acquired Lowden, a voice in a million and a bevy of luscious, pouting songs, Nick 'son of Roy' Harper is suddenly hot poop. 'I'm a guitar slut,' he beams. 'I never learned the theory. Formulas are crap! Just play it – and if it sounds good, it is good ...'

'It's great to be associated with my father – but it’s a burden as well. It's always "oh, he sounds like his dad," or "he's better than his dad." The comparisons are irrelevant – we're two different people! Of course I've learned from him ... he's a very astute character and he's always ready with a word of advice if I ask for it.

'I think I've got a healthy cynicism about the music business. My dad's been lauded to the stars, showered with money ... and he's been slagged off and had the rug pulled from under him more times than you could count. Through him I've learned that record companies are full of non-people. They love you when you're happening, but if you're not, they'll drop you - just like that. They're only interested in instant returns. Why break your back trying to please these people? Surely its better to do things under your own terms, in your own time, on a realistic scale, with people who understand what you're trying to do.'

As Jeff Buckley, Dweezil Zappa and various Lennons will all attest, no-one will ever let you forget your old pa. Nick Harper is a fine singer, a passionate songwriter and a fiery acoustic guitarist with a rapidly growing live reputation. He's also the son of Roy Harper, the folk/blues singer/guitarist who emerged 30 years ago from the London folk club circuit. And although his dad left the family home when Nick was six, he nevertheless grew up in musical circumstances. He once sat on Pete Townsend's lap and steered Keith Moon's Rolls-Royce. Dave Gilmour showed him how to play a C chord. Ry Cooder introduced him to open G tuning. Maybe there's something to be said for having a famous pa after all.

Up a flight of concrete steps at the end of a car-jammed mews in South East London you'll find a small recording studio that forms one of Britain's lesser-known rock landmarks. Inside an air of cheerful clutter prevails. The hallway is stacked with amps, boxes and assorted technical flotsam; an entire wall is given over to shelves containing an impressive collection of vinyl; an extremely compact kitchenette contains a small forest of tea mugs and a mic'd up Boogie. In the control room at the mixing desk sits the studio's owner, a strangely-familiar looking chap with tousled hair, wearing – for no apparent reason – an exotic Turkish outfit, complete with gold lamι slippers.

The exotically-togged gentleman is Glenn Tilbrook, Squeeze songsmith and lauded son of Deptford. Today he's wearing his record producer slippers and is busily engaged in fondling the faders at Squeeze's 45RPM studio in the service of Nick Harper's second album. The Tilbrook/Harper relationship is a strong one; 'This is the first time I've given up control,' points out Nick. 'I'm well prepared to go along with whatever Glenn wants. It's an honour, really. I don't know how it'll end up: maybe it'll bomb hopelessly and everyone'll desert me ...'

Musical background or not, Harper's musical path hasn't been an entirely smooth one. Having played in various bands in his native Wiltshire, he moved to London and got waylaid for two years in the wine trade. 'I'd come home knackered and look at my guitar sitting there,' he laughs. 'I nearly gave up loads of times. But one day I thought, "Right you – pull your fucking socks up and get out there and do something."

The first step on the road to rehabilitation was a little busking – 'Erm, an enlightening experience' – followed by some tentative solo spots at open mic nights. 'Lack of confidence was a problem', he admits. 'I started out playing this little club in Wandsworth and my heart would be going, my hands were clammy, visits to the toilet, the whole bit ...

'After a few dozen times, though, you start to develop your own way of dealing with it. You just have to force yourself. A bit part of my problem was this fear that people were thinking I was thinking I was really great. Which I don't

'About the same time I was starting to play out on my own, my dad invited me to join him for one song at the Half Moon in Putney, which I did, and things grew from there. I ended up doing two or three tours with him, first accompanying him, then supporting him as well, which was great – his songs aren't overly complicated but they're very melodic and musical, so I learned a lot about improvising accompaniments. Then I did a residency in the 12 Bar Club in Denmark Street every Thursday for a couple of months, which was fantastically friendly and packed and steamy and inspirational - I ended up playing three, four and five hour sets, getting to know everyone, having a great time. It wasn't an egotistical thing - everybody was in it together egging everybody on. Whatever happens to me in the future, I never want to stop doing gigs like that.'

Since the 12 Bar Club experience Nick has completed his own 30-date tour, supported Glenn Tilbrook's solo tour and even been to America with Squeeze. What has he learned about crafting an effective set?

'That's a tricky one. I could say 'start with a fast one, do a couple of others then end with a bang," and to an extent you have got to think like that, and you do learn about keeping people on their toes with a bit of rhythm here and a bit of humour there. But it's not a cerebral thing, its organic. You don't think, "Hmm ... I need to follow that fast one with a funny one," because you haven't got time. Someone says "Right, you're on, half an hour," so you pick your best six and off you go.

'But I think the real thing is to think about the song, to think about what you're playing, what you're singing. It's important not to imprison yourself - you've got to be free to expand and play new things live - but if you can remember why you wrote those lyrics and try to communicate that to the people listening, I think you'll be getting somewhere. Communication of ideas is why people listen to my stuff - at least, I hope so. The lyrics are just as important as the guitar. Mind you, I do get a few guitar buffs sneaking up to ask me about tunings ...'

From the outset Nick was determined to bypass the traditional 'get signed, get shafted, get dropped' routine. Instead he decided to save every penny from his gigs, to self-finance his last album Seed and to concentrate on gigs and building up a mailing list.

'Playing live is realistic,' he argues. 'If people like it then they'll come back and they'll tell their friends. It's not a fast route to anywhere, but all the time you're doing it you know you're getting through to people who want to listen.

'We don't really need the whole record company structure. Rock bands sending demos out to record companies - it’s a shot in a million. And all the bullshit that goes with it ... I've got really talented friends who've tried that route and none of them have got anywhere. But you're guaranteed to get somewhere, even if its not far, by simply playing your songs to people.

'One big problem is the way we constantly compare ourselves to other people. I've got a friend in Ireland who spends all his time sitting at home listening to CDs, going "oh, no, I could never be as good as this ..." And this guy is a seriously good songwriter! If only we all could forget about how we think we're supposed to sound and just go out and play, and see if its any good, and sod the consequences. There's much less to worry about than most people imagine. Audiences are sympathetic. They're on your side. Sure, you might do a duff gig ... everybody does, but nobody will boo or throw stuff, you'll just get a lukewarm response instead of a great one. Its no big deal; you just bounce back next time. If just one person out there says "Right – if he can get out there and do it, I can too," that would really be something.'

Rick Batey

Nick Harper - Harperspace