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Durham’s Brett Harris plays Krankies to celebrate new record

by John Adamian

If things had played out differently for Brett Harris, the singer and songwriter might have ended up in a sort of Christian boy band, a faith-based acapella group. Harris has been living in Durham for the past 11 years, and he’s played on the rebooted reunion tours of the dBs, which led to his ongoing involvement in a touring group that pays tribute to Big Star’s “Third.” He’s about to release his second full-length solo record, “Up In The Air,” March 8. Harris plays Krankies in Winston-Salem on March 5. (Harris will return to Winston-Salem to play Phuzz Phest in April.)

But back when Harris was 19 he had been doing music in his church and in youth camps, and he got recruited by a Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) label to audition in Nashville. Harris didn’t end up participating in that project. But it gave him insights into the business, and how commerce is central. The experience turned him away from the idea of selling music explicitly about God. Looked at another way though, there’s a humility and searching quality to Harris’s songs that seems to mesh with a religious worldview, where meaning, deep connections, morality, life’s journey and peace are pondered.

“In some ways I see more of the divine in popular music than in some of what’s considered CCM,” says Harris. “It’s hard because it’s still a commercial enterprise at the end of the day.”

Since at least as far back as Dante, some believers have insisted that the thoughtful pursuit of earthly pleasures can lead to an understanding of the divine. The three-minute pop song might be a perfect vehicle to explore our longings and our responses to having them satisfied. Does it point us heavenward? Depends who you ask. Whether Harris uses pop music to probe spiritual concerns is a question listeners can answer for themselves. In any case, Harris has gained a first-rate education in pop, in songcraft and in musical fundamentals through his work with the dBs and the Big Star project. And when he’s not touring or performing with those groups or with his solo material, Harris has a pop-centric part-time job working with a “rock school” teaching voice and guitar lessons to young people, many of whom go on to start their own bands.

The work keeps Harris attuned to the changing currents of taste in contemporary music. The ephemeral nature of pop music can yield its own insights.

“Pop music was always by design a disposable art,” says Harris. “I think by definition it is.”

Learning about something that’s here for a minute — or three — and then gone, could be said to have applications to other aspects of life. A song’s pleasure might be fleeting, but that doesn’t mean that thinking about “Love Me Do” or “Hotline Bling” can’t spur deeper revelations about our humble spot in the cosmos and what it is that powers us.

“The thing that’s important to remember is that the music is there to capture the moment,” says Harris.

For Harris, 33, songwriting remains a mysterious act of self-exploration, even if he’s not writing explicitly autobiographical songs, the source of a song isn’t so easy to pinpoint.

“The stuff doesn’t just come out of thin air,” says Harris. “There’s always a part of yourself in a song.”

Thinking about an emotion or a situation or even a hook from a different angle is likely to add something to one’s experience. That’s part of Harris’s songwriting approach.

“The way I look at songwriting is the way maybe a director of a film might look at it, where you want to pull back and get a different perspective of the same scene,” he says.

The diligence and focus comes through on the record, which has a classic sound, like someone steeped in the Beatles, Harry Nilsson and T. Rex, and early E.L.O. and even 10cc, or, more recently, Teenage Fanclub, Aimee Mann and Nada Surf.

Harris grew up in Northern Virginia where his father was a coach, and the radio was always tuned to ballgames and sports instead of music, so he had to actively seek out music in a region where college radio wasn’t easy to find.

Harris’s record evokes the gentle, thoughtful, and vaguely tormented songs of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” with chords that skew toward darkness at times, subtle string arrangements and lyrics that suggest a yearning to find calm amid uncertainty. The rhythm section gives the music a buoyant backbone, with particularly McCartney-esque bass lines in places. It’s an achievement on Harris’s part that the music has a studied polish while the lyrics retain a simple honesty, never tipping into brainiac archness that sometimes characterizes the work of those who immerse themselves in songcraft.

Harris has said that while writing many of the songs that ended up on the record he was watching some of his musician friends verge off onto new career paths, in some cases taking on more traditional and stable occupations. It was something he pondered as well.

“You start to look around and wonder if maybe you should do the same thing,” he says.

Adding to the record’s cloud-tinged and soul-searching atmosphere, Harris says he and his wife have also dealt with loved ones facing long-term untreatable illnesses.

“Stuff was shifting and changing,” says Harris. “I don’t know if it’s melancholy or introspection.” !

JOHN ADAMIAN lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.

WANNA go?

Brett Harris plays Krankies (211 E. 3rd St.) in Winston-Salem on March 5. Tickets are $8 and the doors open at 8:30 p.m. with the show at 9. Visit krankiescoffee.com for more information.

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