NASHVILLE is something of a Mecca to aspiring singer songwriters, with its hallowed bars, venues and studios being graced by some of the all time great musicians that the world has ever produced. Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Johnny Cash have all cut their teeth and trod the boards on stages around the city to name but a few; so, for a young songwriter from Devon to travel all the way across the pond to record his debut album with an all star team of musicians that included members of Ryan Adams’ old band The Cardinals, this must have been something of a dream come true. London Confidential caught up with Harry Mundy for a coffee and a cigarette and chatted about the incredible journey that led him to ‘music city’.
Starting at the beginning, when did your musical career begin?
Well, I’ve been playing for about thirteen years, which is over half my life… basically as soon as I picked up an instrument I wanted to perform. However, I didn’t have much interest in learning other people’s songs; I’d always try and write songs myself and try to figure out what artists were doing in their songs and emulate them in my own. I studied music at Exeter College from sixteen to eighteen, which was great, but I was always kind of stubborn and refused to believe that you can write songs in a classroom, so instead of going further with musical education, I started gigging and playing in bands.
And how was it playing in bands as opposed to being a solo artist?
It was really good fun, you get a good camaraderie, but I went through so many different sounds before I figured out what I do best, which is me picking out my songs on an acoustic guitar… it’s like when you’re sixteen and you first discover punk, you just want to be in a punk band and write punk songs.
So you learn those three chords?
Yeah exactly. Sometimes wonder if I should have gone the other way and expanded my repertoire of covers of other people’s songs, which stops you repeating yourself and getting caught in your own traps… hopefully this is something I’ll avoid.
So, from gigging around the Devon area to recording an album in Nashville…how the hell did that happen?
Well it came to the point when I was about to record an album in Devon and I was putting a band together and I really wanted to get a Southern feel for it, so I was going through all of my favourite albums and listening for ways to achieve this and one day I just thought fuck it, why am I trying to replicate that Southern sound, why not just try and get the people who I actually want to play with? So I got in touch with Brad Pemberton – the prolific session drummer and the man who bangs the drums in The Cardinals – and we spent a few months emailing each other, with me sending him my demos and eventually he said that it would make a lot more sense for me to come out to Nashville and simply do the record there, which was amazing. So I flew out there to meet the band that Brad and I had put together and start working on the record.
Let’s have dramatis personae of everyone involved…
Ok, so first up we had Brad Pemberton who has played drums for so many fantastic alt country and blues musicians, from Ryan Adams through to Willie Nelson; Brad helped me out so much and ended up being one of the nicest, kindest people I’ve ever met. Not only did he play his socks off on the record, but he helped me to figure out where I was staying, we went out for meals together, he’d get me to the studio… Basically he just went the extra mile with the whole thing, which he didn’t need to do, but it’s something I’ll never forget.
As I really wanted pedal steel on the record, Brad got in touch with John Graboff, also of The Cardinals fame. Billy Mercer joined us on bass; then we had Michael Webb on keys. Molly Thomas also played fiddle on Familiar Strangers; she’s a fantastic singer songwriter and she picked up the hooks so quickly, she was mapping the other guys’ instruments within seconds.
Matt Andrews worked as our engineer and he had worked on one of my favourite records Soul Journey by Gillian Welch; I remember thinking that the drummer sounded as if he was right next to me playing when I heard that album and that’s what I wanted to emulate, that closeness and live feel.
You got a taste of that famous southern hospitality then…
They were all absolutely lovely; I really couldn’t have been made more welcome. Actually, a good example of this hospitality is how I got Catherine Popper to sing on the record. I had a day off from the studio and I thought that, instead of sitting in my hotel for three hours, I’d go and visit The Ryman, one of the world’s finest venues and known locally as the ‘Mother Church of Country Music’, and the tour guide mentioned that Grace Potter and the Nocturnals were playing. So I went down and checked them out and then got in touch and asked her if she would like to be involved with the record and after a lovely half hour chat, she said that she could come down to the studio the next day.
Tell us about the actual recording of the album.
Well, I wanted ‘Colour Myself Back In’ to sound like a captured moment from start to finish, a little bit like a live set, which is why we would only play each song through a few times and keep overdubs to a minimum. A lot of new bands use Pro Tools and Auto-Tune to master their music to the Nth degree and this is something that I really wanted to avoid; while I can see how these methods were a huge development in technology, I just feel that too much compression squashes the music, in every sense.
Music is meant to get faster, slower, louder and quieter and if it’s all set to the same level and a producer is constantly tweaking things and aligning bars to grids then you definitely lose the honesty and feeling of the music. I mean, the studio is called ‘Welcome To 1979’, mainly because most of the equipment there is from or before the year 1979.
So 'digital' is a dirty word around those parts?
Well, all the equipment is analog; I’m sure that (engineers) Chris Mara and Greg Thompson would work in a digital format if someone really wanted him to, but it would be pretty silly to rack up a Pro Tools rig and AutoTune the hell out everything in a retro country and rock studio.
Your music definitely has roots in Americana; as you grew up in Devon, how do you feel that this has affected your writing?
In Britain the folk scene is thriving at the moment, whereas country music is still hot in Nashville; while I like folk music, I feel like I’m still stuck in the past, as I like the old records like Tom Petty, Warren Zevon, Bruce Springsteen and that’s what really influences my song writing. This is why it was so great to work with members of The Cardinals, as they were the last band to come along that I listened to and was blown away. I find it hard to listen to what’s coming out at the moment and when that band came out it was great to have a new act to get into.
‘Colour Myself Back In’ will be released in 2012; in the meantime listen to Harry’s music on his Facebook page.
Photos by Glen Rose
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