Singer Kemp Harris is an artist of remarkable depth and talent. Perhaps you recall seeing him as Ben Fowler in the movie Next Stop Wonderland
(1998), or you may have seen him in the movie Beacon Hill
(2003). As well as doing these movies he has also done voiceover work in a Steven Spielberg production, as well as appearing in numerous television roles and commercials.
If you are a fan of the stage, you may have seen him in a number of different plays including Hair, Tom Foolery and The All Night Strut. As he tells it, "I was a pretty good song and dance man." Included in his resume is work that he did with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater, possibly one of his "most memorable experiences."
He also maintains a songwriting residency at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston, in conjunction with the Berklee College of Music, assisting talented young artists with composition and performance. Added to this he has authored children's books, and he travels as a storyteller
How could he top what he has already done? His second CD, Edenton (Righteous Music, 2006), reaches beyond the clichés of the blues genre, reflecting his willingness to fuse diverse elements in the search for a more modern and timely blues, may be the pinnacle of his artistic career.
With intelligent lyrics that are both socially aware and intensely soulful, Edenton brings an edgier, darker hue to this traditional American genre, with Harris leading us, through lyric and music, to his home town of Edenton, North Carolina.
Combining covers with original material, Kemp is accompanied by the legendary Holmes Brothers on backing vocals. On "Didn't It Rain, an a cappella track featuring his mother and aunt (both in their late-seventies) the trio sings a version they've been performing together since Kemp's childhood.
Cross Harp Chronicle's David King interviewed Kemp on the release of Edenton, a CD which will certainly set him apart from others in his field.
All About Jazz: You are a man of many talents. As well as being a gifted musicianand we will get to this and your new CD in a momentdo you mind if we talk about your work in the movies?
Kemp Harris: Not at all, but it's not that extensive a career.
AAJ: How many and in which movies have you appeared?
KH: Only two. Next Stop Wonderland and Beacon Hill.
AAJ: Which was the first?
KH: Next Stop Wonderland was the first. I had a small part as Ben Fowler. It was cool though because I saw my name roll by in the credits.
AAJ: How did you start your career in the movies?
KH: I had done some commercial work as well as industrial films in Boston. The agency that I worked for got me the audition.
AAJ: You have appeared in a Steven Spielberg movie. What was it like to work with the greatest director of the 20th century?
KH: That is actually not the case. See, I told you it wasn't an extensive career. There was a version of the film made for the blind by WGBH Public Television. The scenes where the Africans spoke in their native tongue were dubbed. So, I was hired to do the voiceovers for those scenes. I never met Steven Spielberg, and I'm sure if you ask him, he won't know me from a hole in the wall. I'd love to work with him though, in case you have an in.
AAJ: I wish I had. As well as working in the movies, you have also done work on stage. In which plays have you appeared?
KH: I've been in Hair, Tom Foolery, The 1940's Radio Hour (which is how I got my Equity card), The All Night Strut, Working and Ain't Misbehavin'. I was a pretty good song and dance man.
AAJ: You have also worked in television. Tell us about this body of work on TV.
KH: I've had some small parts and done some commercial work. Again, it was rather limited. I liked stage work much more.
AAJ: Of movies (or acting) and music, which came first for you?
KH: Music came first. I remember fooling around on piano at an early age. Just plunking away. I always listened to music. My mom singing, radio, records. In a way, it was like taking lessons, listening to great singers, singing along, harmonizing. I began to pick up songs by ear. It just seemed to happen by itself.
AAJ: You have recently released a new CD, Edenton. This CD is almost biographic. What was your inspiration for this CD?
KH: My friends and co-producers Jim Lucchese and Josh Stoltzfus had the idea for me to head in a blues/roots direction for this disc. I wanted to write an album that would raise questions, ask people to think about world condition, issues that I thought were important. I wanted to look back at what shaped me into the person I am, but with older eyes.
AAJ: The first part of this CD is apparently religious, the second part more a tapestry of your different musical influences. Which did you write first?
KH: They all came at different times, no particular order or phases. I wouldn't say that the first part is religious, but more posing questions about the way religion has been used to justify the use of power, politics and influence to promote some pretty unreligious agendas. The piece "Sweet Weepin Jesus" simply asks "Jesus, if you're there, are you seeing this, and if so, what do you think about it? "Day After Day" is a look at the whole Immaculate Conception idea from Joseph's point of view. I wasn't there, but I imagine that was a pretty hard day for Joseph.
Hey, I'm just asking questions. "Didn't It Rain" was a song that I had heard my mom sing since I was a kid. I thought it would be full circle to have my mom [Mable Marshall] and aunt [Eleanor Mapp] sing the background for me. My mom pulled the "mom card" and sang the lead. Her version was much better, so she's on the disc singing lead, and I'm doing back up vocals. You are always you mother's child.
AAJ: Yes, I have been told that since I was old enough to remember. On this CD, you play the piano. What other instruments do you play?
KH: I play a mean tambourine. I know three songs on guitar and I once filled in as a drummer for a session, but piano and vocals are my main expressions.
AAJ: Edenton is not your first CD. Tell us about your first release.
KH: It's called Sometimes In Bad Weather (Almost Famous, 2002). It was a collection of songs that had many different origins. It's a very different album, but I like it a lot. It doesn't have a "concept" to it as Edenton does, but the music is as much me as this new album is. I got to work with some great musicians/friends.
AAJ: Over the years you have performed with a number of musicians of note, both in blues and jazz. Who have they been?
KH: I got to sing with Koko Taylor once in Boston. I also opened for Taj Mahal and Gil Scott-Heron.
AAJ: You have also worked with the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. Tell us about this experience.
KH: I have two friends, Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson, who were in that company. Dwight gave me some of his prose to write from. The piece "If Loneliness Was Black" was part of a ballet called Frames. Desmond danced the role. I saw it at City Center in New York. I got to go on stage with the company. It was one of the most memorable experiences I've ever had. They now have a new company called Complexions. Amazing.
AAJ: On this newest CD, you worked with the Holmes Brothers. What was the experience like?
KH: It was great working with them. I knew that they would bring a sound that was authentic and seasoned to the pieces. It was like hanging out with your coolest uncles in the world. They were easy going and made me feel that way too. I have great respect for them and was honored that they agreed to perform on the disc.
AAJ: Of the musicians with whom you have worked, who has been your favorite?
KH: I must say, all of the people I've worked with on these projects, I got to give them a shout out. Hey Jim, Josh, Adam, Brian, Scotty, Lydia, Theo, Adrian....the family.
AAJ: How has Edenton been received?
KH: It's getting really good reviews in music magazines, radio, blogs. I'm really glad that people are getting to hear it and appreciate the effort. The whole Internet thing is pretty crazy and I'm being heard a lot
AAJ: Today you maintain a songwriting residency at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts in Boston in conjunction with the Berklee College of Music, assisting talented young artists with composition and performance. How did this start for you?
KH: I'm a teacher at heart, and I was offered the chance to work with high school students in a song writing course at the Wang. We partnered with Berklee to record the original songs and present each writer with a copy. We also had a culminating performance at the end of each of the sessions. It was inspiring to hear what these young people had inside. I was glad to be a part of it.
AAJ: As well as working in this capacity with young people, you have authored children's books. How many such books have you written?
KH: I wrote a children's book called Snow (Big Song Books, 1993). It was a picture book with an accompanying song. I travel as a storyteller and have written many other stories for children and parents alike. I still do this, and it's a nice balance for me. It's cool to have a room full of kids hanging on your every word. It's an art that should be maintained and explored. It keeps you spontaneous, on your feet in front of the audience.
AAJ: What projects are you presently working on?
KH: I've begun writing again. I don't know where it will all end up, but I like what I'm doing. I plan to be in New York working on a new piece with the dance company Complexions in the fall. I wrote the closing credit music for the documentary on Ralph Nader An Unreasonable Man (2006), which is now in theaters. There is a lot to do around the promotion of the Edenton disc, so I've been busy. Also, teaching Kindergarten takes a lot of energy. Got to keep up with the kids.
Kemp Harris, Edenton (Righteous Music, 2006)
Melvin Couch & Company, I Made a Step (Nu Sounds, 2004)
Kemp Harris, Sometimes In Bad Weather (Almost Famous, 2002)
Top Photo: Courtesy of Kemp Harris
Bottom Photo: Courtesy of Sonic Bids