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Joy Eden Harrison

A Conversation with Joy Eden Harrison

Puremusic: I love the new record.

Joy Eden Harrison: Great.

PM: Yeah, I mean, that was no surprise to me. I'm a big fan of your work. And pardon me if I take this opportunity to find out more about you, something I've always wanted to do. You're kind of a woman of mystery, the details are not exactly what you'd call forthcoming.


JEH: Okay.

PM: So if I may, let's begin with your very interesting beginnings, coming up on the Lower East Side, in what sounds like a very Bohemian style.

JEH: Yeah. Well, my parents are both artists. At that time, it was my father. And they were involved in a very artistic and political community in New York City. And I have three older brothers, so it was a little bit chaotic in the early years, but pretty exciting. I know all my life we've sort of had a train of interesting visitors coming through the household. That was true in New York City, especially with musicians. I wish I had a memory that was clear enough at such a young age to remember the details of the music that I heard. But I do remember the inspiration to play, that it started that.

PM: Yeah. And in the bio it said people as illustrious as Don Cherry, Archie Shepp, and, on the other hand, Sonny Terry, all came to your loft for peace rallies, and so forth.

JEH: Yeah, yeah. They were very connected in that time. A lot of artists were connected to the political movement, and anti-war, other issues, which is good. Artists had a voice. And I think that's true today, but not in as unified a manner as it was in the '60s.

PM: Yeah. There seem to be some attempts by artists to be politically active and aware, but as you say, it's not near the coalition that it was in those days.

JEH: Yeah.

PM: So is one to assume that in those days your parents were into progressive jazz on the one hand, and country blues on the other, or that--

JEH: Oh, oh, absolutely. My parents were open to everything. In fact, my mother was a guitar player, a folk guitar player. And she loved not only the country blues, but also Irish folk music and music of the British Isles, Scottish music, et cetera, and a big fan of--let me see if I can get this right--Tommy Makem--

PM: Oh, Tommy Makem, sure.

JEH: --the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem.

PM: Yeah, growing up in Yonkers in an Irish-American household, those are certainly familiar names to me.

JEH: Yeah.


JEH: So I learned to sing a lot of political songs, too, when I was quite young, due to my mom's influence.

PM: Are you folks still around?

JEH: Yeah, they are. They are, and living in California, where I spent most of my growing up. And they're still very active artists.

PM: Wow. Are they in the San Diego area, or--

JEH: No. They've recently moved up to the Bay Area. They're in Santa Cruz.

PM: Santa Cruz, beautiful. I've done a lot of years up there in Marin and Sonoma Counties.

JEH: Ooh, nice.

PM: Totally nice. So your parents are still together, as well?

JEH: Yes, one of the few.

PM: Yeah, right. What about your brothers, all older, as you say?

JEH: Yeah.

PM: Are they all still around, and what are they up to?

JEH: Well, my oldest brother is a doctor, and my next oldest brother is a filmmaker, and my next oldest brother is an architect.

PM: Well, that's quite a reputable bunch.

JEH: Well, they went into creative fields, I guess. That was kind of part of our family tradition.

PM: Wow. So what was it like growing up the only girl and the youngest child, to boot, especially in what seems to amount to a big one-room loft?

JEH: Ah, well, that was pretty crowded. But we left that by the time I was five.

PM: Oh, okay.

JEH: Yeah. We did a small stint in New Mexico, and then moved to California.

PM: I see. Interesting. What were you like in your early years, and then in your high school years? What kind of a person were you in the early part of your life?

JEH: That is such an interesting question. Let me think back. I was pretty solitary. I always had a few close friends, but I liked to spend a lot of time alone, thinking. And I always played music. From the time I was five, I was in guitar lessons. I got the first, I think, when I was three, but I would just bang around, playing with my mom. But by five I got my first guitar. So I would spend a lot of time solo on it.

PM: Wow.

JEH: And then I started to write--nothing interesting, but writing just really appealed to me. By high school I was writing very corny love songs, young love.

PM: And did the other kids know that you played? Like would you play in talent shows or so forth?

JEH: A little bit, but not really. I wasn't as public with it then as I got after high school. I played with friends. Or I wrote songs for friends--maybe they were going away, for a year or something, and I'd write them a song as a goodbye present, things like that.

PM: Wow. But you didn't get into bands or anything in your school years?

JEH: No, I wasn't really into bands at that time.

PM: And did you come through a folk and country blues period?

JEH: Well, yeah, I did. I was a huge fan of Mississippi John Hurt, and Gary Davis.

PM: I think John Hurt taught us all to play the guitar.

JEH: Yeah. [laughs] Elizabeth Cotton, too. One of the first songs I ever learned was "Freight Train."

PM: And who knew that she played it left-handed upside down.

JEH: Exactly.

PM: Yeah, nobody. It's a lot harder like that, I should think.

JEH: But the first time I remember hearing jazz that really impacted me as a person, I think I was eight years old. But when it made me know that jazz was part of my bones was at a party with my parents. And there was a stand-up bass player, and a woman singing. She just seemed--at once it seemed so wild and out of control, and at the other times it seemed so intricate and engaged in the harmonies, that it sort of had this balance of groundedness and flight. And I really loved it. So at that point I knew that jazz was going to be part of my language, I just wasn't sure how.

PM: It's so interesting that an experience like that can trigger a lifetime of dedication. And yet, frequently those experiences, one looks back and says, "Well, I don't know even who that woman was."

JEH: Exactly. [laughs]

PM: And is that true for you? You don't know who she was?

JEH: No.

PM: Wow.

JEH: But I owe her a debt of gratitude.

PM: Just nobody knew at the time. It's amazing.   continue

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