HIS year has already been busy and eventful…
so it was good to sit down with Harlequiin and discuss his new music. He (Rory Simmons) chats about the song, Young One, and what new/recent stuff is coming up. Simmons tells me about his tastes and upbringing; what gigs there are cemented; which three albums mean the most to him – what it was like playing alongside Blur!
Simmons also tells me how he spends his time away from music; which new artists we need to investigate; why he decided to go into music; whether he has developed as an artist - completing the interview with a good song decision.
Hi, Rory. How are you? How has your week been?
Good, thanks; pretty jet-lagged. I came back from Singapore yesterday - playing a gig over there for the Singapore Jazz Festival.
For those new to your music; can you introduce yourself, please?
I’m a multi-instrumentalist and producer called Rory Simmons but I’m now releasing new music under the moniker ‘Harlequiin’ - this music is influenced by Four Tet/LCD Soundsystem/Little Dragon/Sampha etc. I play almost all the instruments on it but I have featured vocalists on different tracks - though, singer Elliot Cole features predominantly on the music.
I’ve been a session musician for years touring with different people, but I have released my own music before. But, this has been more within the Jazz and Ambient music world. This is quite a big change in direction for me.
Young One is the new single. What can you reveal about its inception?
Young One is a collaboration with vocalist Amelka May and it started off as a kind of Industrial-House type vibe. I then moved into more the Zola Jesus/Björk-type territory as the lyrical ideas unfolded. We actually started working on it two years ago - but it sat on my hard-drive for a good while until we decided to resurrect it.
I believe there is a new Harlequiin coming up. Can you tell me what themes influenced it? Is there a song that, to you, stand out from the pack?
The newest track, Your Hearts Afloat, is about watching somebody pretend they are in love with someone they are not - until they even convince themselves they are, and kind of musing on whether that is really what love is; pretending until you believe yourself. (I don’t really believe this - it’s just an interesting idea on how we consolidate and develop emotional ideas). The main sample of the song is from a 1930s Blues track.
The track features amazing musicians and producers Dave De Rose and Pete Ibbetson on bass and drums; plus, the brilliant Elliot Cole on vocals.
Do you remember when music came into your life? Which artists inspired you growing up?
I was very young when Dangerous (Michael Jackson) came out - but that was a huge influence on me. I feel in love with the album and everything Michael Jackson did. Soon after that, I discovered Grunge with Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins; Pearl Jam etc., plus some more of the British Rock scene from the mid-'90s.
Then, as a teenager, my tastes took a big shift into Jazz and improvised music, with Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett; Clifford Brown, Lou Donaldson and other great artists from the '50s and '60s.
You have worked alongside the likes of Blur! Did those big experiences teach you a lot about music?!
Working with big bands like that as a session musician is definitely an amazing experience, musically; to perform in massive venues and see a touring entourage and how slick it is at that level. But, also, on a personal level, it’s really insightful seeing from the inside how bands or solo artists who’ve had huge success move forward together and grow, musically and creatively - and the investment of time and energy into new album cycles and projects.
What compelled the decision to step alone and start writing? Did you feel the need to prove yourself on your own terms?
I’ve actually written and released quite a lot of music on my own or as collaboration with others in the past (Fringe Magnetic, Monocled Man; Eyes of a Blue Dog and Embla) but I suppose this is the first thing I’ve done in much more of an Alternative Pop/Electronic music genre.
I don’t really feel the need to prove myself - but I am striving to keep developing my sound and get better at what I do.
In your mind; do you think you have moved on as a songwriter? What have you learnt since your earliest days?
I think I started off thinking about sound and timbre and that was the genesis of new music and new songs, specifically. More recently, I’ve been trying to use lyric and narrative as the thing that inspires new songs; to try and create something that has a tangible meaning (even if it has abstract elements) to be the basis of a song. I’ve been loving the Jamie Lidell podcast Hanging Out with Audiophiles, and that’s been really informing my songwriting and production approach.
If you had to select the three albums that mean the most to you; which would they be and why?
Björk – Homogenic
This had a huge influence on me in my twenties: the production/the songwriting and the sentiment. I’ve always loved Björk but probably ‘overdosed’ on her a bit in those days. But, it’s still a huge part of my musical identity.
Mule Variations - Tom Waits
It was also a really important album for me, the depth of songwriting; Tom’s voice and, also, all the instrumental performances on the album (the guitarist, Marc Ribot, particularly).
Finally: Nirvana – Nevermind
It will always have a huge connection for me. As a teenager, that album was everything to me and, weirdly, I see so many parallels in fairly avant-garde contemporary Jazz from the early-2000s. The same trashy approach to harmony and the ‘Grungey’ sound is something that I hear massively in N.Y.C-based improvised music, as much as I hear in Kurt Cobain’s music of the early-'90s.
But, most importantly, Nirvana were a significant part of my growing up. The music and culture of West Coast Grunge was so exciting for me - and still influences me now.
Do you have any gigs lined up? Where are you heading?
We’re playing Paris Disquaire Day on 18th April; Eldorado Festival in July…and more to be announced soon!
What do you hope to achieve in 2018?
I’m planning to record an album with Harlequiin later this year: after three E.P.s, I feel something longer-form is what I need to do next. But, before that, I’m going to be a dad again!
So; probably some sleep deprivation will feature too…
Have you got a favourite memory from your time in music – the one that sticks in the mind?
Playing Parklike with Blur at Madison Square Garden in 2015 was pretty damn fun. I loved that music as a kid - so to the opportunity to tour with them was pretty special.
What advice would you give to new artists coming through?
Listen to everyone's advice: then forget it all and make up your own mind. Be hungry for new music and new skills.
IN THIS PHOTO: Ivan Dorn
Do you get much time to chill away from music? How do you unwind?
I maintain an unhealthy balance of drinking craft beer, writing letters of complaint and eating over-priced pulled pork burgers in my spare time.
In that exact order...
Finally, and for being a good sport; you can choose a song and I’ll play it here (not any of your music - I will do that).
Town & Country by Bibio…glorious English-ness for a spring day. Bibio is still one of my favourites