Get To Know Harrison Lipton [Interview]

Olive Soki

If there is one undeniable fact about any creative endeavor it is that the final product is never devoid of inspiration. And in the context of music, reference points merely enrich what might already feel like a perfect experience. At least that's how I felt after interviewing Harrison Lipton back in December. Early on in the conversation, he mentioned the important role listening plays in his creative process, as well as in every other facet of life.

He explained, ”I think being a listener, not just in music, but in life is always a good thing. Like, if you're dating someone, gotta be a listener. If you're in a conversation with someone, you gotta be a listener. Being a listener is the most important thing.” For Harrison, the act of listening to his peers and idols informs his creative output. In my case, conversing with him and listening to this interview allowed me to unveil a tight and intricately woven web of references to further understand his creative process; in turn, perpetuating the ever enriching experience found in his music.

Just to start out with something simple, how did you get into music and how did you know that you wanted to do it full time?

That’s a great question. Music has kind of been something that I’ve always gravitated towards. Like, I grew up in New York, downtown in the West Village, and I remember my mom tells this story of me being like two years old climbing to the top of the jungle gym, at Bleecker Street Park, and belting out “O Sole Mio” in made up Italian. My first love was actually opera, like as a baby I loved opera. And the first popular music I heard in my life was like James Brown and Stevie Wonder.

That’s a solid introduction to music.

My child mind was just like “Wow.” I grew up on all that stuff, my dad was a hippie, so you know, he had great music taste. I grew up on a lot of 60s and 70s R&B and psychedelic shit. It was a cool way to grow up. I love like early Sade albums, like my first crush in my entire life was Sade.

Then I started to sing gospel music when I was nine, even though I’m Jewish and I’m not religious. You know, it was a really crazy experience getting thrown into this, not only like this musical environment, but this cultural environment. And understanding, you know, like the pain of people like Mahalia Jackson. Fom a very young age I was pretty bullied. So, I think I could channel my struggling into that music, so it came from somewhere real. I think that’s really what gospel music is all about. It’s not about singing well or hitting great notes. People think it’s about the chops, but really it's just about the soul. I did that from when I was nine to 18.

What’s interesting about gospel is that yes it’s about soul but also community. Like you’re never singing alone, half the time everybody is coming in. It warms you up in a different way.

The separation between stage and audience is always so blurred when it comes to gospel. It’s like this other worldly [thing]. Like I'm not  religious, I’m not even a spiritual person, but there’s this other worldly thing that happens. It’s like all of these people in a room [are] channeling this energy. It becomes something greater. [It] was pretty cool to be exposed to that from a young age. I was a soloist, so I'd sing in front of like a thousand people like every Sunday and I’d have people come up to me crying and being like “oh my god, you’re the voice of Jesus."

That’s funny, I love that. This blurring of the actual performer and community makes me think of Donny Hathaway's 1972 live album. On the record he has a version of “You’ve Got A Friend,” and every time I listen to it I can’t tell if it’s somebody in the crowd, like screaming with him, or somebody that he’s meant to be doing harmonies with.

I’ve had the exact same thought. I think it’s the crowd. It almost sounds like there’s a gospel choir behind him at certain points. That’s the fucking crowd! I would give my left arm to be in that room.

I know it would be insane!

Oh yeah! And his voice, it’s insane what he does. He sounds unbelievable and like I don’t know, [it] just gives me chills. It became kind of a benchmark of like, “this is the paramount of performing”. It doesn’t get better than that. I’m glad you brought that up, that album is just ridiculous.

Absolutely! On the topic of R&B, I’m curious to know what attracted you to the genre. I know you started in that gospel community but I’d like to know how it affected you as a musician or influenced your music?

I mean, it’s a really interesting thing, right? Because R&B, it’s melodic popular music that has been created by, and shaped by, black culture. And it’s just the best music. Like I love all types of music but it’s the best singers in the world, the best performance, the best writing. It just feels like that is what music is. I also love rock music, I love all sorts of stuff. But then it’s more about the sound, you know. It’s about the tone you get on your guitar. I’m like no, listen to the pain in this persons voice, listen to Keyshia Cole sing “Love.” Listen to that.

Oh God, yes!

It’s like the whole genre. Even going back to What’s Going On era Marvin Gaye, where he’s singing about what is literally happening in society. There is not an album that sounds newer. Like, listen to what he does with instruments and vocals and the conga sound on “Mercy Mercy Me,” like he’s doing shit that no one had ever heard before [back then]. I also think there’s like a direct correlation between what Kendrick does and what Marvin Gaye does.

I think for me, I just want to make music that I like to hear and I think other people might like to hear. You've got to make it for yourself, first and foremost. It’s just where my brain goes [ R&B elements], I’m just hardwired that way.

*And while he is inspired by soul and R&B, Harrison wouldn’t go as far as to say that “Sagittarius,” his latest single, is necessarily a R&B track, but rather that it contains some elements from the genre. This speaks to his music in general, which he categorizes as a “mix of stuff.”

Around the time that Loveliness came out you mentioned that being a listener was a source of inspiration in that whole process. Did this ritual also come into play when you were working on “Sagittarius?”

Oh, yeah. I think being a listener, not just in music, but in life is always a good thing. Like, if you're dating someone, gotta be a listener. if you're in a conversation with someone, you gotta to be a listener, like being a listener is the most important thing. And I find that with music, you know, there's only 12 notes. Everyone's come up with pretty much every idea that there ever will be or has been done. You know what I mean? It's like, it's very hard to make something. So you got to listen, you got to know like, what you're drawn to and what inspires you.

[During] “Sagittarius,” I was listening to just a ton of different things. It’s not a conscious decision. You just listen to good music and you write about your life. Writing lyrics, to me, it's so therapeutic because I don't even know how I feel about a certain situation until I sit down and write a song about it. You know, we're all talking, no one can hear us. So, you gotta listen, you gotta listen to what your friends are making, listen to what people are listening to, listen to popular music, go crate digging, find old records, you know. Being a listener that's like the studying part of music, you know?


Yeah, I feel like it, like gives you more points of reference, and just adds more layers to it. 

Yeah. I mean, I consider myself a student of music. You never stop learning. You never stop growing. You can't be complacent. You know, it's all about challenging yourself. With “Sagittarius,” I was listening to a lot of what my friends were making, which was like more rock based [music]. I wanted to write a rock song, but I also can’t really write a rock song, so it always has to have some level of Harrison-ness, which is the R&B side of things.

And that guitar solo. How did that come about? Did you go in knowing you wanted it there? Or was it something you  thought of later on? 

That's a great question. I was working on a track with my roommate who's in this band called MICHELLE, I don't know if you're familiar with them. We had written this thing together that had like a break. I was like, I need a bridge in the song. And I wasn't thinking of any lyrics. I didn't want to say anything else. And I was like, what should do the talking? This guitar should do the talking. And so you know, I just like plugged in a Telecaster. I wanted it to feel like the guitar was on fire. You know, like, I wanted it to  just bring that inferno.

You also talked about wanting to bring a live element to the song. Why is it important to you to bring that live energy to a track?

It's just about the drums. A lot of the shit that I write is usually around like a drum loop or like I'm programming drums, and I wanted these drums to feel alive. I wanted to have some of that live energy because drums are hard. Drums are a really hard part of making music. You gotta have your drums right, you know, it's like, like figuring out like, you know, what is the snare sound and I programed all of them so that it can sound as live as possible. 

Do you think you’d ever release a live album?

[For] my first ever song, “Pool,” we thought about doing a live version in the studio because the way we play it live is very different from the record. I think it’d be really fun to do one of those Spotify sessions. So, hopefully one day my career gets there, where Spotify taps me on the shoulder.

Well those Live at Electric Lady sessions always feature one or two covers. If you were to do one, which songs would you cover?

Oh, I know the one that I would do, “Baby” by Johnny and Joe Emerson. Are you familiar with this track?

I don’t think so.

It’s these two brothers in the 60s or something. Their father bought them instruments from a pond shop. And they listened to Smokey Robinson on the radio, taught themselves how to play instruments, and made this outsider art album. This song, “Baby,” is one of the best R&B soul songs, like ever. And its just a beautiful song.

I’m gonna have to listen to it after this. Did they ever make more music after that, or was it more of a one album wonder?

It’s a one off, that had no successful commercial anything until a few years ago. It was just like an old crate find. I love this song, I’ve been listening to it for a decade. That’s what I would do.

If you could collaborate with anybody, who would it be? 

I mean, I would love to collaborate with Chiiild, Frank Ocean. I’d love to write a song for Justin Bieber. I’d love to work with djo, you know Joe Keery from Stranger Things.

Oh yeah! His debut was amazing.

I’d love to work with Omar Apollo, and Jadu Heart. I’d love to work with anyone. 

That would be a nice super-group. Final question, what are you looking forward to in the new year?

Warm weather, I hate winter. I want to focus on my health, partnership, and [I] hope it brings me more success with music. 2022 was a growing year for me. I started at nothing and I worked towards something. And now, 2023 I want [it] to be a year that brings success in my life. I want to continue to be a great friend and a great listener. Continue to hold the people that are close to me and do my best for myself and the people around me.

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