Cannock-based singer/songwriter J.R. Harbidge is set to release his brand-new album ‘Long Black River’ in April. ‘Wrong Side of the Fight’ is the first single released from the album, and we spoke to J.R. about both the single and the album, as well as getting the background on his musical upbringing. Read his thoughts below, and don’t forget to check out his music at the same time. Now more than ever, independent artists need every bit of support that they can get.
How long have you been performing? And has it always been as a solo artist?
I played my first gig at around 13 years old at a pub in Hednesford called the Dancing Bear and I have been gigging ever since. That gig was with my first band “Crazy Jane” and I formed it at school with some mates. It took me up until I was around 36ish to perform solo. I was pretty nervous about playing solo, I have always relied on a band to perform with, I never felt nervous playing with a band but playing solo is terrifying. Even now I would much prefer to play with a band.
How did you feel performing your first gig? And how was it?!
I was nervous all week waiting to play the first gig, and really nervous when we got to the venue. I don’t believe the “Nerves are good” train of thought. Nerves have always been detrimental to my playing. I remember playing a gig for Warner Records at the Starting Gate in London when I was in my early 20’s and I was nervous from start to finish, the feeling never subsided, I hated every second.
These days if I am playing with a band in any situation I am ok and don’t suffer. We played a lot of festivals in 2019 and shared the bill with some huge names, The Zutons, Keane, Shires, KT Tunstall, and didn’t suffer once with the nerves.
What should people expect when they check out your music? How would you describe yourself?
I would say my music is late 60’s early 70’s Americana, think Jackson Browne, Eagles, CSN, and Ryan Adams.
‘Wrong Side of the Fight’ is the new single, what was it about this one that made you choose it as a single? And what are the lyrical themes behind it? It’s quite a timely song title!
I chose this song to be the first single because it’s an easy song for people to get, musically, and melodically. The subject matter isn’t typical and I bet most people wouldn’t instantly work out what it’s about. It’s about being in an argument and being convinced you are right but eventually it unfolds that you are completely wrong. It’s about being “Man enough” to admit you were wrong and change your position.
The track is lifted from your forthcoming second album ‘Long Black River’, I believe that there is quite a tale with regards to the album’s title track? It’s been around for a while? And who was your first band Crazy Jane named after?!
Ha!! Crazy Jane was just a name that we came up with in class, it was either Crazy Jane or Riff Raff, and CJ won out. No hidden meanings. Although a song in our first set was written about a girl at school. I’m sure she never even knew, so, Alison Lawley, if you are reading this, I wrote a song for you once.
The music for the song Long Black River has been around since I was about 15. I had an old Fostex X28h 4 track recorder and a drum machine and wrote and recorded the music pretty much as it is now but I could never get a melody or lyrics for it. It was only 20 plus years later that I finally got the words, subject matter, and melody for it. One of my oldest and best mates, Andrew Hill, came up with the name Long Black River whilst we were in a band together in 2012 but then it took from then ’til 2018 to get the verses done. Quite unusual for me to have any musical ideas lying around for that long.
Due to a PC mishap, you had to go back and re-record parts of the album, how different are the re-recorded versions? And, how close did your PC come to being launched out of the window?!
Yes, the PC issue… I am the kind of person that doesn’t get angry and worked up about much and although this was a bloody nightmare, “It was what it was” and I just got on with re-recording the album. I guess for 10 minutes I was fuming but what can you do?
How different are the tracks? The newer versions were, I guess, subtly different. I don’t think the average music lover would be able to tell much of a difference in what they would hear but for me, the feel of the overall album was very much improved. I ended up using drum takes I had discarded originally, that lay a different foundation for the feel of the album, I guess a more confident and relaxed feel. I also used different guitars in some tracks which made a big sonic difference, a difference I preferred. I swapped out the expensive guitars for some cheaper ones and I have to say I prefer the results. For example on the current single “Wrong Side Of The Fight” I originally played my Gibson Hummingbird on it, the second time around I swapped it for my Simon and Patrick SP6 and it gave it a less smooth quality to the song, a more low fi sound to the guitars that I think worked. There is some fret buzz in the recording but I’m not going to lose sleep over it.
What goes through your head in the run-up to releasing new music? Are you excited? Nervous? – Both?!
I am usually excited about anything I release. This time around I was very preoccupied with getting my pre-order plan put in place so it kind of snook up on me. I have been doing a lot of work on Facebook ads and decided a long time ago that I would forgo the traditional route and do it all myself. My last record was distributed by Sony/Universal and although I got my record into HMV and on to Amazon. I made no money, it all went in fees, fees for handling, fees for this, and fees for that, not to mention that when HMV went bust I lost over 70 CDs, and was told I would see no money from them. I would like to make music my living but the traditional way of releasing a record does not lend itself to making a living.
In what ways have you grown as an artist between recording your debut album ‘First Ray of Light’, and now ‘Long Black River’?
A tough question. I see myself on a perpetual treadmill of writing and recording and I often don’t have time to stop and reflect. Musically, I think this album is a little more complex but the arrangements are simpler. I have moved away from certain structures when songwriting. I tend not to worry about things like “there’s no bridge”, “the middle 8 should have lyrics” and just write what I like. So I guess you can say I am less self-conscious about things, I guess you could apply that to all aspects of my life, I think the passage of time makes you give fewer shits.
As a producer, I think this record is the best sounding record I have ever produced. I am almost 100% happy with how it sounds. If the record does well then I may use the money to pay a producer to record and mix the next album. That will free up an awful lot of time and relieve some stress.
What do you hope people take from listening to your music?
I hope it speaks to them, I hope it touches them, I hope it comforts them.
In terms of a similar audience: who would be the ideal act for J.R Harbidge to open for?
Controversially or not I would say I would be an ideal fit for a Ryan Adams tour. Failing that I would be happy with a Neil Young or Bob Dylan support 😉
What are your first musical memories? And what was the lightbulb moment that made you go “I want to do that”?
I remember singing along to Beatles records in my dad’s car on what felt like endless drives, that would be my earliest memory of the spark being ignited. The band that really lit the fuse was Iron Maiden. I remember being ill in bed when I was about 8 or 9 years old and seeing the video for “Can I Play With Madness” on Top Of The Pops. In those three short minutes, I decided I wanted to play guitar, write songs and I have been doing that every day ever since.
Personally, who has been the biggest influence on you becoming a musician? Would it be a music teacher? Family member? Another artist?
I would say my dad introduced me to music so he is to blame initially but Iron Maiden made me play guitar and Ryan Adams has been a big songwriting influence, musically and from a songwriter’s perspective he’s a tour de force.
What was the last gig that you attended as a fan?
I went to see Rival Sons at Nottingham Rock City around November 2019. It was inspiring. I’ve seen them many times and they are AWESOME. I would love to work with their producer Dave Cobb.
What album do you have in your collection/Spotify playlist that would surprise most people?
Phil Collins “No Jacket Required” It’s a fantastic album from start to finish. His drum playing is phenomenal and his melodies are up there with the best. I recently read his book which sent me back to that album, it gives a whole new perspective to that album, knowing what he was going through when he was writing it.
Although 2020 was a year to forget, there was some great music released; what would be your album of 2020?
I have to say when I am writing/recording/mixing there isn’t much time to listen to new music. An album I have discovered recently, although I don’t know if it was released this year, is The Soft Cavalry by The Soft Cavalry. It’s not in any way Americana or Alt-Country. It’s more shoegazer but it seems to have seeped into my soul. Definitely an album for chilling out to. The other album I have been listening to is the new Ryan Adams record, Wednesdays, I have to say I didn’t like it much to start with but I found myself driving around a deserted London a few weeks ago and decided to give it another go and it worked!! It just clicked and now I love it. Again, it’s a chilled kind of album but I get it now.
Who would you class as an underrated songwriter? Also, in your opinion what is the ultimate lyric ever written? Can “When I was just a baby, my mama told me “Son, always be a good boy, don’t ever play with guns”/ But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die/ When I hear that whistle blowin’, I hang my head and cry…” be beaten?
Man, This question is unfair. I hate thinking at the best of times. I would say Ben Folds, even though he’s well known I think he should be a household name. I also love Toby Jepson, he was the frontman in the 90s band Little Angels, they had a number one album in the UK then split up. I love his songwriting. He is now in Wayward Sons, some great rock if that’s your tipple. I believe he writes with Katie Melua.
As for the greatest song lyrics, that’s just impossible, I just can’t think of anything right now. Whatever I say now will be superseded by whatever pops into my head tomorrow. so I will just say “Only the good die young, all the evil seem to live forever” by Iron Maiden
What are your plans for 2021 should COVID ever disappear?!
Big question. It depends on the lingering restrictions that will blight our lives. If there are no restrictions on living a normal life I will be at Download Festival in June, it’s only a couple of miles from my house. I also have tickets for Pearl Jam. Other than that a few pints are in order and a family holiday.
How active are you on social media and where can people connect with you?
I am very active on IG and FB and I am an occasional Twit(erer)