House Full of Children
The track, House Full of Children, is available via:
Folk; Blues; Roots
The album, The Panoramic View, is available via:
7th September, 2018
THIS time around…
I get to step away from Pop and Electronic music and investigate an artist who has been gathering a lot of acclaim. Mark Harrison is gaining huge applause - and has been for a long time - and makes me consider whether more songwriters need to take from his lead. I want to discuss Blues and Folk combinations and why more people need to give it focus; storytelling and those who can take the ordinary and transform it into something amazing; albums that are packed with great tales and huge adventure; festival appearances and getting a lot of respect from big stations; how older, more experienced artists need more respect and investigation – I will end by speaking about Mark Harrison and where he might head. I spend a lot of time looking at Pop and Electronic artists and you get into a sort of rut. I have been listening to very familiar music for a long time now and it can be a bit samey. It has been great studying them and seeing what is on offer but it is nice to step away from that and look at an artist whose sound is completely different. Harrison is one of the most-respected artists in the U.K. and his music has drawn huge plaudits. Whether he is with a band or playing solo; he is seen as one of the best songwriters around. I want to talk about his music and why it shines but I am drawn to the genres of Folk and Blues. I guess Harrison is a Blues artist strictly but there is that Folk element. There are great Blues artists who are electric and can summon some passion but Mark Harrison is mostly acoustic-based. His sounds have a gentleness to them but there is plenty of passion and intrigue. I feel most of us assume Blues and Folk will be quite calm and not really register in the mind. We all get into that mindset and do not really venture too far.
I feel Blues gets that tag more than Folk. Listen back to the classic Blues artists of the 1930s and 1940s and we sort of feel that is what is around today. That is not the case. From Cedric Burnside, who I recently interviewed, who is on the more electric side of the spectrum to artists like Mark Harrison; the genre is flourishing and bright. You have that variation and, at its heart, are fascinating stories and stunning rhythms. I love Blues but feel it does not get the exposure it warrants. There is that dominance of Pop and I wonder whether Blues will ever get the focus it warrants. What is amazing about Harrison is the way he can unite the history and roots of Blues and provide an updated Folk/Blues blend. He reminds one of the classics from decades past but there is a modernity and freshness that brings things right up to date. Maybe it will take a while before Blues music gets into the mainstream but I think we all need to be a bit more open and expressive. If we are too reliant on certain genres and do not expand our horizons then we will miss out on so much. One of the reasons why I think Blues should be given more love is because of the variety available in the genre and the way artists tell stories. I feel Pop is too inward-looking and personal and with Folk/Blues artists like Harrison; you get something amazing and candid. He is a songwriter who can paint pictures and combine vivid imaginations with some incredible sounds. I guess, in a way, we assume Blues might be quite downbeat and too narrow and go elsewhere. Maybe that was the case at one point but the modern breed is unifying all types of emotions and ideas into their music. I shall move on to another theme but would recommend people get involved with the Blues and artists like Mark Harrison.
Harrison is a fresh and respected songwriter who can tell great tales and amazing stories. One of the reasons his music has managed to spread and gather critical lust is the way he can open up the mind and take us somewhere special. I feel one reason why I am becoming a little cold regarding Pop and Indie artists is because of their subject matter. So many are not getting past their own lives and walls and expanding their songwriting. You want the personal touch and something meaningful but that is not all one looks for. The lyrics have to be broader and, if you stick too closely with your own life; that is going to exclude quite a few. I wonder whether a lot of music has become too depressive and anxious. Rather than present something inward and depressed; Mark Harrison is a bright and resolute talent who can give immense detail and tell tales like nobody else. Even if he is addressing something relatively mundane and domestic; he can add a new spin and do something amazing. I feel one of the reasons why music endures and is passed through time is the words and how they impact us. I worry most of what is being put out now will make a connection in years down the line – so much of it is disposable and can be readily forgotten. Blues artists like Harrison need more of a platform because the music being put out is so much more vivid, inspiring and deep. You can listen to one of his songs and all these visions come to life. That is testament to him as a writer but the vocals are incredible too. One gets the complete package and can hear a songwriter at the top of his game. One can class his music as Blues or Folk but you can call it Roots as well.
However you see it and whichever genre it fits in; nobody can deny its power and appeal. I have this concern there are genres that will always struggle because of the stubbornness and unyielding rigidity of the mainstream. Consider what is riding high in the charts and on the biggest radio stations and you can see a pattern emerge. The sounds might be quite big and easy to digest but the whole experience can be a little cold and hollow. Are we manufacturing music to appeal to those who want something quick and uncomplicated?! I am seeing artists like Harrison covering genres and making amazing music and they are restricted to relatively narrow artists. He has a big fanbase, for sure, but it one feels that could be even larger were there more tolerance and knowledge of genres like Blues and Roots. It is quite maddening when you contemplate the realities and how the industry is structured. In any instance; listening to a Mark Harrison song is an experience one will not forget. I love how he can weave lines together and the vocabulary employed. There are annunciations and slight accents; words combined one would not think of and a real grasp for story and characterisation. The Panoramic View, his new album, is stuffed full of brilliant tales and seems like a collection of short stories more than anything. The fifteen songs on the record make you smile, think and wonder. There are some great musicians who appear on the album – including Charles Benfield on double bass and Paddy Milner on piano – and one gets this engrossing and arresting creation. The title, I guess, suggests something filmic and story-like but there is that aspect of a wider view – someone not confined and only considering what pains emanate from the heart. One does get some more emotional moments (on the album) but there is a real air of positivity and hopefulness. These commodities are becoming rarer in music and it is nice they are being preserved through the lens of Mark Harrison.
It would be unfair to say Harrison is a master of transforming the ordinary into the spectacular. The stories he tells are, in fact, quite interesting and there are some wonderful characters to be found. I guess there is a sense of the rooted and traditional in the music. You get these studies and people who one might find in their local village, for instance. He is someone who can tackle the smaller world and expand it into the horizons. Rather than plainly and flatly talk about domestic strife and routine interactions with little thought; like songwriters such as Paul Heaton (The Housemartins, The Beautiful South); he adds wit, heart and intelligence into everything. I look around for those songwriters who can inject humour and fascination into music and, by and large, they are of a certain age. This might sound like I am describing a beloved family dog that is getting a bit odorous and needs a final trip to the vets – I do not mean to sound disrespectful or blunt. What I mean is that the established and mature songwriters are the ones who have grown up around more music, different music, and are at that stage in life where they are not talking about cheap love and the anxieties of youth. Okay; maybe that does sound a bit cavalier and cheap but I have the utmost respect for songwriters who wander off the safe and structured grid of convention and treat their songwriting to something a lot more vivacious and fulsome. One gets history, grandeur; intimacy, charm and routine with Harrison. There are myriad emotions, scenes and voices that play out over the course of fifteen tracks. Having that amount of tracks might be a gamble for an artist but, as he proves, Harrison can keep you invested from the first notes of One Small Suitcase (the opening track) until the close of Hooker’s Song (the closing song – I will let you listen so you can hear whether it is a rugby player, ‘lady of the night’ or something else!).
Songs like What Son House Said and Don’t Die Till You’re Dead beckon you in because of the intrigue behind the title. Join the Chinaman is interesting and what, exactly, is that about? It is not a surprise Harrison is respected and has gained respected reviews and play from the likes of BBC Radio 2. He is someone who knows how to get into the heart and make his music strike. I will talk about age, respectfully, in a bit but listen to an album like The Panoramic View and you have these diverse tales that all hang together. The broadness of the scope and geography – he is taking us all around the world and to different lands – is amazing but there is something safe and comforting in every movement. You never feel exposed to the elements of left to face the harsh winds – Harrison takes you everywhere and keeps you warm; he makes sure you are directed but are allowed time to play and explore. That is the mark of a songwriter who prides emotion and resonance over catchiness and commercialism. These qualities should be promoted and augmented so that other songwriters can learn. I am not saying the mainstream needs a complete overhaul but it can benefit from a little refreshment and renovation. Right now, I am seeing too many of the same themes and artists gain gaudy popularity; people flocking to them for no real reason or nothing that suggest real originality and durability. I said how I have struggled to categorise the music of Mark Harrison. Some commentators have called it Folk and others Blues; some say it is Roots music. I feel it is a blend of the three and it would be remiss of me to label it so easily. If you have not investigated all the great songs that are on The Panoramic View than get involved and see what Mark Harrison is all about!
Things are definitely getting better and bigger and, with every release, Harrison is gaining more ground. I said how I’d allude to the subject of age and why that is important. It seems, when you get to a certain age, only particular radio stations will play your stuff. I have raised this a few times before but you can definitely sense a certain cut-off-point where musicians are only destined for BBC Radio 1 if they are in their teens or twenties; BBC Radio 2 if they are over forty, let’s say, and maybe there will be some leeway here and there. Because of that, there is this division and compartmentalisation that is threatening music. I feel Harrison should be played on as many stations as possible and his music heard by younger audiences. I know he has younger fans but there is nothing in his music that is age-specific and restrictive. Legendary artists such as Kylie Minogue and Madonna have come out and attacked those who are ageist and feel like they should not be played if they are getting older. The sheer experience, wisdom and intelligence one gets from an artist like Mark Harrison means people NEED to hear what he is saying. He has that life experience and, with the touring he has done, the skills and chops to be able to make his music as sharp and tight as possible. Image and ‘coolness’ seem to be more important yardsticks than quality and songwriting ability and nuance. Look at Harrison and you know the man has travelled a lot and gone through some fascinating times. He has met countless people and can translate all of this into music that is startling and bold. Maybe we judge before listening or assume artists are only relevant if they are under-forty (or younger). I gravitate towards those with a few more years on the clock because they have been in the industry a long time and know what people want.
They can write in a more interesting way and their motives are different. New artists coming through are looking at streaming figures and reaching certain targets. They might be pitching to radio stations and they have numbers/markets on their mind. Harrison, one feels, is a traditional songwriter who want has a solid fanbase and knows he has a great body of work. He still has to think about streaming sites but wants people to take away his album and listen to it in full. Rather than look at the Spotify figures and worry about that; he is concerned with the quality of his material and how it makes people feel. Because of this, the reviews that have come his way – not just for The Panoramic View but his previous work – are amazing. He is seen as one of the biggest and best songwriters in the country and has a great reputation. The festivals he has appeared at – including Bearded Theory and Lakefest – means he has had the opportunity to hone his material and get that direct feedback. Harrison is all about people and tales and is not someone you will hear writing in a formulaic or commercial way. This means his audience will be narrower and less than a big Popstar but the respect he warrants means more. It is all well looking to these big artists who court millions of views on YouTube but how much of the popularity and appeal is down to the quality of the music?! That, when all is said and done, is the thing that matters and is the foundation of the artist. Celebrity, cool and image are nothing to do with that is being put out there and what music is about. I mentioned Madonna earlier and could dismiss her legacy if all people cared about was what she looked like. She courted scandal and tabloids all her career (and still does) but she could back up this obsession with her wardrobe and sex life with fantastic and legendary tracks. Now, you feel there is that compensation. Maybe we all see a genre and assume it will not be for us but we never really go further than that. Listen to these esteemed and established artists like Mark Harrison and you will be surprised and convinced without much cajoling.
When the opening notes come springing from the speakers like a gleeful train departing the station; you are instantly involved and hooked in the song. That rush and sense of curiosity matches the song’s title and you can physically detect and imagine the children running around. Maybe one should not take it literally but there is that sense something energetic and chaotic is about to come in. Brassy, swaggering and elephantic horns mix with riparian, delicate strings to create this sense of rambunctiousness and rush. The hero comes to the microphone and, unexplained at this point, has a house full of children. They are running around everywhere and, whilst the music seems to score the sounds and visions around him; the central performance is fairly ordered and he is making sense of it all. There are, as it is said, some grown-up children who think the hero is a fool; smaller ones who do not share that opinion – it seems like there are all ages in this house, mingling and conspiring. Great songs should bring you in and involve you with the story but not necessarily dictate what you imagine. The Blues man cannot sing the Blues because of this house full of children (if we are going with genre-based puns then his ‘Roots’ have been laid because of these sweet ‘Folk’ – or I’ll stop there…) and the joy being provided. That sense of pride and content might seem corny to some but it is a brash antidote to the miasma and unhappiness one can hear in many songs. The composition blends those spirited and rushing acoustic strings with punctuation marks of horns. His second wife is better than his first one – the first one has a long face and is out of the way – and you get that smile as the songwriter brushes aside a rather moody and dour former wife. Things might have been a bit tense and unhappy once before but now they are more settled and positive.
The simplicity of the song hides the nuances of the composition and the visions one detects. You hear about a man in a house surrounded by children, of various ages, and how his life has taken a turn. I wonder whether there is that desire to go somewhere a little quieter. He is happy the children are around but it seems like the hero wants to get away with his wife and go somewhere a little more reflective. He is telling us about his life at the moment and what he has achieved. It has been an eventful and contrasting life but one he would not trade for anything. The players back Harrison with this composition that seems to summon all the emotions and sounds one would associate with the house. The passion and sway of the guitars mix with the energy and vibrations of the horns; there are little notes and details that summon pattering feet, moody sulks and gleeful abandon. This sort of rich cuisine could only come from a songwriter who has that experience, intuitive ear and confidence. As the song winds down, you can still feel that brightness and contemplation. The songwriter would not change a anything but one feels, as time goes on, he would like to have a bit of a quieter house! I love the little dashes of humour – bigger kids not giving him respect and the miserable ex-wife – and how that balances against pure content and thanks. It is hard to compare Mark Harrison to any other songwriter. There are few who have the same skillset and can write a song that makes the same impression. Whilst it seems rather simple a song; House Full of Children has so much energy, (many) layers and a playfulness that some might overlook. The lyrics are hugely effecting and tell the story brilliantly; the composition adds new layers and visions whilst the vocal takes you in all sort of direction. By the end, I was keen to have another spin and see what new ideas came to mind. The Panoramic View is a busy and eclectic album and you need to listen to all of the songs. I chose House Full of Children because it is a perfect taste and introduction of a songwriter who is able to involve the listener in a song and make them feel better about themselves. That is not a quality to be balked at and, as such, we should all spend some time around Mark Harrison and the fantastic music he is putting out. I hope many will reassess their views regarding genres like Blues, Folk and Roots and become broader consumers.
I have talked about Mark Harrison and his various aspects and I haven’t had time to review the whole album. There is a general theme to The Panoramic View – in so much as it is a view of the world as a whole – but there are so many different stories and figures that are represented through fifteen tracks! Songs like High John and Mess Everywhere make you smile and think but, to be fair, all of the songs make an impact and do something! I chose House Full of Children because it got into my head quickest and is one of those songs where you keep playing out visions and notes long after it has finished. Keep abreast of Harrison’s social media channels for tour dates and news and do not miss out. He is a musician who keeps his fans informed and is always keen to bring his music to new faces. I hope, in time, we start to break walls down in music and give overlooked genres like Blues, Folk and Roots a proper airing. Same goes for Jazz, too, and I worry we exclude certain styles of music because we have these wrong and ignorant impressions. It is fair enough if you do not like a genre after giving it a good going-over but how many of us do that?! I can write off Thrash-Metal because I have heard a lot of it and have done so for years. I do not listen to one song from one band and turn my nose up like a posh dowager who has been offered a biscuit from Tesco – insolently throwing it across the room with an imperious scowl because it is cheap and nasty! If you appreciate true songwriting, deep thoughts and fun then you need to get behind Mark Harrison. There is that wit and humour that reminds me of songwriters like Paul Heaton and Paddy McAloon (Prefab Sprout). Ensure you listen to the whole of The Panoramic View and go through it song-by-song. It is an album that rewards patience and that complete experience. You will find yourself closing your eyes and drifting into the world Harrison has crafted and painted. The warmth and gravitas of his voice couples with lyrics that are as evocative as they are charming; music that is rich and sumptuous and songs that, once you hear them, will stay in the head for ages. The author has taken a wide and open-minded view of the world. If only the music world in which he reliant on…
CAN take the same approach!
Follow Mark Harrison