JP Harris and the Tough Choices‘ Home Is Where the Hurt Is fortifies sharp storytelling (“Give a Little Lovin’”) with a classic country backdrop (the title track). CMT Edge spoke with the Nashville resident about the new album, his songwriting process and his favorite country music.
“I think why I even started writing country music in the first place is that I realized the songs all have identifiable topics for me,” Harris says. “That’s why I listen to country music and why I like it so much. I’m a huge fan of the Mercury Records George Jones stuff from 1960-1965 era.”
CMT Edge: Describe how the new record took shape.
JP Harris: We’ve actually had two or three failed attempts to get this record out, and then we ended up going to this studio on short notice. I called my buddy who said, “Yeah, the week’s wide open at Ronnie’s place,” a studio Ronnie Milsap bought from Roy Orbison back in the late ’70s, I think. It was the spot for all the country guys in Nashville to record for years and years, and it has a lot of analog equipment and the vibe is exactly how it was in 1970. It has Ronnie’s grand piano permanently built into the piano booth.
Does a studio vibe impact your creativity?
Oh, definitely. The vibe at the studio is really the most important thing. The first record [2012’s I’ll Keep Calling] we made at my buddy Joel Savoy’s studio in Eunice, Louisiana, down by Lafayette. His dad Marc Savoy’s this legendary accordion builder, and their family’s been there eight generations. His studio’s built in an old cypress, Cajun cook shack. It’s just cool because he’s an eighth generation Cajun musician from that exact piece of land. I think it really affects how everyone settles into a studio.
Explain the new album’s title.
Yeah. (laughs) That title came about from a buddy of mine from Texas who used to tour playing bass with us. He and I were always coming up with joke band names while we were on tour, and we would volley around hooks for songs. I think that one came to be because we drove by this really destitute trailer park, and he goes, “Oh, man, home is where the hurt is.” I was like, “That’s a hook, man! I’m gonna use it.” I’d say the bulk of the songs I write are bummers. I mean, it’s country music!
Describe the common lyrical theme in these songs.
I think it’s mixed. I did a lot of traveling on my own when I was young and have had a really interesting life that’s also involved a lot of really shitty lows. I think the idea of why people want to listen to sad songs is that, in a strange way, they make you feel better. It takes away the sense of aloneness when you hear someone singing about you and your life and your situation.
As far as the lyrical content, it spans the gamut. There are a couple of really angry, heartbroken songs, a couple that are sad heartbroken ones, and the first one’s a gag song about guys going out to dance at the honky-tonk and never getting laid.
Explain how that one [“Give a Little Lovin’”] took shape.
I got that hook in my head because I’d been out a couple of nights on a bender some years ago, and I had been joking with an old girlfriend of mine when we were out dancing about how the vertical two-step always led to the horizontal mambo or something. She was like, “Nah, buddy. Good luck with that. See you around.”
I just wanted to make a joke about that because a lot of places we play are dance halls, and there’s something hysterical to me about a guy running in circles like a billy goat smashing his head against the wall. He spends all night rubbing up against pretty girls, and then it’s like, “All right, man. See you later.” I just wanted to mock that male situation and make light of it.
Do you see guys acknowledging that’s what they’re doing when you play it live?
Oh, yeah. People across the board, ladies and guys, I’ve gotten some hysterical responses. It’s a funny song. I wanted to have at least one song on the album that’s lighthearted. It falls in the same vein as “Love Bug” by George Jones. He’s losing his mind because he’s in love with this woman and his eyes are bugging out of his head. I wanted to have my own version and lighten the mood.
So you lighten the mood with the opening track, and then it’s all downhill.
Yeah, and then it gets real dark! (laughs) I’m happy with the arc of the album, though, the sequencing and everything. This album compared to the last one elbows the bubble of country music a little wider for us. Everything on there is still a country song hands-down — none of it falls under “alt” or “rock” — but on the last record, we thought they had to be in a certain influence range. A lot of the reviews we got were really great, and it did really well, but there was always a comparison, like, “Well, this song could’ve been a Dave Dudley hit, and this other could’ve been a top Buck Owens single.”
Describe your songwriting process.
I don’t really draw out the process of songwriting too much. One thing that I’ve learned is that stream-of-consciousness writing forces me to be a little more objective. The couple of times I’ve tried for months and months going, “I swear to God, I can make this chorus into a whole song,” I realize that the longer you drag it out, you lose sight of whether it was good right out of the starting gate or not. I think there are plenty of songwriters who will spend a year or two working on a song, and it’ll be amazing, but for me in the vein of writing country music, it’s supposed to be simple and concise and identifiable.
Do you ever keep old song scraps?
Yeah, I wrote the chorus for the opening track three years ago and just forgot about it. When we were putting together what material we were going to take into the studio, I found that chorus in an old songbook of mine and went, “Oh. Yeah, I probably should write that song.” So, I sat down, and in like 20 minutes I wrote the song. “Cool. Done. All right. Awesome.” That said, I’m not as prolific as a lot of songwriters I know. I know so many people who are cranking out 20, 30 songs a year. For me, topping out at a dozen is good.