Black Deer Festival Interview: Native Harrow

Photo - Nick Barber

Devin Tuel and Stephen Harms of Native Harrow talk about festivals, moving to the UK and their classical backgrounds.

Americana UK’s man in the field, Clint West, caught up with Native Harrow in our latest interview from the Black Deer Festival.

How has your festival been?

Devin – It’s been great. We’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. We just did our main set, it was great.

Stephen – Really fun. I guess it was exactly what I was expecting. It was back in 2019 when we said yes to it, and I think everyone is just really excited that it’s finally here.

Devin – We’ve seen lots of friends that we don’t normally see because we’re all on the road. It’s been nice to catch their sets and just kinda bounce around all weekend.

I gathered you’d been here all weekend because I saw you (Stephen) performing at the Ozark Holler Hootenanny on Friday night, that was terrific.

Stephen – Yeah, Harrison our drummer and I played rhythm section for those guys. Devin and I have toured with those guys a lot, for 5 or 6 years back in the States, they are old friends of ours.

You obviously enjoy playing festivals because every time I look at a festival line-up you seem to be on it.

(they both laugh)

Devin – that’s a good thing, I hope.

Stephen – Well what if we didn’t? What if I said “oh they’re rubbish” (laughs). Yes, we just do so many.

Devin – Yes, we do love them. They’re like summer camp for musicians. We see friends and you’re out in the sunshine. You can play your set and then drift off into some field – yeah, we love them.

Stephen – Devin likes the sunshine so she likes playing in the daytime, I think sometimes she doesn’t like waiting all of the way until 10 o’clock at night to play the show.

Devin – (laughs) yes, yes. 4pm set time in the summer is ideal. What more can you ask for?

So, when you play at a festival I guess you don’t get to play as long as you would normally. How do you decide on the set; what to include and what to leave out?

Stephen – I like that question.

Devin – All killer, no filler.

Stephen – I think what you do, and today was a really funny twist on that, because what I think about is I try to put something in that really gets people’s attention early in the set, I make our set lists so that’s why I’m answering, and then I think we do more of our up-tempo things and we cut some of the songs that are really nuanced, really subtle. In a club show or theatre show they come off really nice but in a festival, they might not translate so we cut those. We did the ‘Songwriters Session’ on the Ridge Stage so we got to do a couple of those that we would never normally do at a festival.

Devin‘Turn Turn’ is not a festival song.

Stephen – No, but we played it today.

How did you feel about being described (by William Prince at the Songwriter Session) as “a vocal acrobat and an acoustic shredder”?

Devin – Yeah, that came out of nowhere. I’m thinking “who me?” That was actually really good because I was quite nervous. I haven’t done an ‘in-the-round’ in a really long time. It’s quite unsettling because you’re sitting there waiting, waiting and listening to these incredible people play songs right next to you and when he said that I thought “oh cool – we’re good”.

Had you met him before? Do you know him at all?

Stephen – No, no we’ve not met him before. We know John (Smith) well, we’ve toured with him. William we met for the first time and heard him too. He was amazing

Devin – and really nice too.

I believe that you’re living in Brighton. Is that right?

Devin – Yes

So how did that come about?

Devin – We’ve toured here a lot and met some really great friends while we’ve been over here touring. Our booking agent and Loose, our record company, are based over here. We just spent a lot of time here leading up to the pandemic. Before the pandemic happened, we were going to move to Chicago to be near our drummer Alex Hall who we make our records with. So once that all went upside- down we thought why don’t we just try to move to England because we’d wanted to anyway for a long time. Strangely, everything went very smoothly and we arrived right before the last lockdown. And yeah we’ve been absolutely loving it and gigging a lot which I don’t know would have happened so soon in America. So yes, we’ve loved living here and we’ve just relocated outside of Brighton to the countryside.

So, of all the places in the UK why Brighton?

Devin – Well the first time we went we just thought that it was so creative, the community was really interesting and we made a bunch of friends literally the first time we went, so we thought that would be a good place to start and see how it worked out from there. Now we’re out in the country and it’s even better.

What are the main differences between living in the UK and living in the US?

Devin – That’s a good question and a lot of people ask that question. There are a lot of differences but the best one is that it’s more gentle. The way of life is more gentle here. There’s a little bit more connection to nature and connection to community and the quieter moments of life which I think we thrive in. For us that ability to embrace a quieter moment and go for a walk is more common here. It was a first for us and it’s felt like taking a really big exhale.

Is there anything that’s surprised you?

Stephen – I think we’d toured over here enough. In the fall of 2019 we did a nine-week tour of the UK and then we came back in January/February of 2020 right before all of the lockdowns. So we’d been over so much that I don’t think much surprised us.

Devin – I think Brits always describe themselves as not being very friendly or at least a bit reserved, but to us they feel very friendly and very welcoming. None of that was surprising but it was a really nice confirmation that we’d made the right choice.

Stephen – If you’re trying to be cold and stand-offish, then you’re doing a poor job!

Turning things round, what do you miss most about living in the States?

Stephen – Mexican food. Really good authentic Mexican food.

Devin – Well I miss my friends and family obviously. We have been thinking recently that its getting round to that time when we need to do a really long US tour where you go out for six weeks and you don’t come back. Then you come back a different person because its been a really long time and a lot of miles. You see the deserts and the tumbleweeds, the mountains and rivers. I think we miss those big tours in America more than anything.

Stephen – Before we lived here, we would do three or four months on the road, just a huge loop of the entire US. There is something about doing it that slow and that methodically, spending two or three weeks in California alone, is such an amazing way to see such a giant country. There are so many little spots, and you don’t necessarily need to live there, but you do want to see it once or twice a year.

Is your residence in the UK open-ended? Or do you have a finite point at which you wish to return?

Devin – We have a five-year visa. Then after that I think the UK is very friendly so if you want to stay you just apply to stay because you’ve been working here and living here. At that point I think you’re fairly established. Right now we’d answer that by saying we’d love to stay forever or as long as you’ll have us.

If I can just turn to your music. You’ve had two lovely albums released in the UK, but you did two before that too. Are they still available?

Stephen – They’re not available here. Every time we go to the States we bring copies of ‘Ghost’ and ‘Sorores’ back and they sell out early in the tour – and then we pretend that they’re not available rather than disappoint people at the merch table. But each time we go back we bring more copies, so they are still available when we have them.

And when will we see the next one?

Devin – Soon, very soon. imminently, that’s all we can say at the moment.

Can you tell us anything about it? When and where it was recorded maybe?

Devin – Yes, it was recorded in Brighton when we were living in our flat. We had all these new songs and we thought we can’t really go out and go to a studio, everything was still closed. We just thought well we know what we are doing so we’ll try and do it ourselves. So we recorded most of the record completely on our own, playing everything and then we sent the tracks to Alex in Chicago and he played the drums and piano on some things. Then there are some strings and nice surprises but we did most of it ourselves.

You’ve pre-empted my next question really which was are we going to hear something slightly different?

Devin – Yes, I would say it’s definitely our biggest record to date. It spans many, many different kinds of sounds that we love. It’s big, the sound is big.

Stephen – I think If you kind of think of where ‘Happier Now’ was, it was very Laurel Canyon, very folk-rock, a little bit of soul and a little bit of some other things, then ‘Closeness’ went several directions away from that, this goes even farther.

So it’s like a continuing progression?

Stephen – Yes, not intentionally, but that is how its working out.

You are a married couple.  Was it music that brought you together?

Devin – I was playing just by myself as a singer-songwriter in New York. Stephen was playing bass with a mutual friend who happened to ask me to go on tour with him, so I said “sure” and we met the day the band took off from Brooklyn and the rest is history, and here we are today in England.

You are both classically trained is that correct?

Stephen – yes we are.

And I believe that you (Stephen) have even conducted orchestras.

Stephen – Oh yeah, that’s true. I don’t know where you got that but yes, double bass and a lot of conducting was what I did at university and then I went on to do music theory and musicology. I’ve conducted a lot and I actually got to conduct the premiere of my own opera as well as a lot of orchestra music and some chamber ensemble things.

What took you from that in the direction of folk, soul and roots music?

Stephen – I always wanted to just do everything. I wanted to be a session musician. I wanted to play like those classic guys in the sixties that just played on a million records in million different styles. I always made sure that I was doing different stuff. When I was in orchestras, I was also doing bar gigs, country tours and anything else that I could. Lots of jazz, lots of everything. But the music that we do is probably one of the handful of things that I really truly love. We actually do so many things that in some ways when we make our records its kind of like the session work because we’re trying to do a sixties pop thing playing organ, playing Farfisa, and the drums are very certain way and then the next track we’re going for a totally different Stax or Memphis soul kind of thing. I get to do totally different things. I don’t think we do one kind of music, I’m just kind of still doing session music.

Fantastic. I think that’s probably something that happens less in the UK where there’s a certain amount of elitism around classical music.

Stephen – I wonder. I know that the [British] string player on our record, Georgina Leach, an amazing violinist and violist, has a classical background. Maybe she’s a good example of that. I have a lot of friends who do orchestras and that’s all they do, so that elitism happens in the States too. I think maybe it’s because I was a bass player, I always had more opportunities maybe, it might be that.

And you (Devin) have a choral background, is that right?

Devin – Yes, I started off in classical ballet. I did ballet for 17 years and from there I started doing choir and I did musical theatre and classical voice singing and then moved to New York City doing vocal performances. I had learned to play the guitar as a teenager and I had always played it since. Then I started writing poems and then putting them together with the guitar into songs. I then abandoned the whole classical side of myself because I was just tired of the classes and always working. I just wanted to have fun; you know rock ‘n’ roll a little bit! So I said right no more of that, I’m going to do my own thing now. But it’s ended up all coming full circle and it’s been beneficial.

Did both your musical backgrounds come from your parents or was that something you developed yourselves?

Devin – Yeah, yeah, my family is very musical. My dad is a guitar player and singer. My siblings are both very musical, they don’t work as musicians but they are very talented singers. My younger sister plays piano . We all love music so much, very passionately. I grew up listening to all my dad’s records, yeah we’re all big music dorks.

Stephen – I think for me my mum’s side, she was one of four siblings, she was a writer and one of her sisters was a professional artist, her older brother was an architect and her youngest brother was just a fanatic for music with walls of records, an LPs kind of a guy.  I guess there was an idea from my brother and I, that we needed to pick one of those things. You had to be some kind of artist I think. I don’t think she said that but we just picked up on it.

So what were you listening to when you were teenagers?

Devin – Rock ‘n’ roll, The Beatles, Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, anything from the sixties and seventies that my dad could get us to listen to and then from there I kind of veered off on my own path and ended up discovering Joni Mitchell as a teenager and that opened up the whole Woodstock, Laurel Canyon sound for me and I’ve never left.

Stephen– My answer is pretty much the same. I don’t know what I would change. I listened to a lot of Beatles and a lot of solo Beatles, a lot of CSN and anybody that lived in Laurel Canyon for that window. Then all the British bands: Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Sabbath.

One thing we do at AUK is to always ask people that we interview to give us a musical recommendation. It might be a friend or somebody you’ve worked with that you think yes, you need to hear these guys.

Stephen – Have you come across The Cactus Blossoms? Anyone who hasn’t really needs to. The Cactus Blossoms are part of this whole crew of people that all record with the same drummer that we do in Chicago, Alex Hall. He has a website but anyone that he’s recorded, if you like one of those things you’re going to like all of them. He has a vibe. He works with J.D. McPherson, he works with Pokey LaFarge and Robbie Fulks.

So anything he touches really.

Devin – Yes, he’s a legend.

Stephen – I would say that a guy that you might not know because he doesn’t leave Chicago that often is a guitar player named Joel Paterson. Is that a new name to you? If you go to Chicago you’ll find he’s playing most nights of the week. Alex usually plays drums with him, he’s an incredible guitarist and pedal steel player. He plays on the Cactus Blossoms records and quite a few others. He makes his own records and has lots of projects but the best one for me is called ‘The Modern Sounds’ and it’s just amazing.

About Clint West 327 Articles
From buying my first record aged 10 and attending my first gig at 14, music has been a lifelong obsession. A proud native of Suffolk, I have lived in and around Manchester for the best part of 30 years. My idea of a perfect day would be a new record arriving in the post in the morning, watching Ipswich Town win in the afternoon followed by a gig and a pint with my mates at night,
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Gretchen Ölaf

I don’t get people being into this band. Are they? I’ve seen them live twice now to try and fairly judge their performances. I’ve listened to a few of their albums. For me the singer sounds like someone trying to imitate other people. Every album is so similar to the point of boredom as a listener. I will say that in their live gigs the bloke, Stephen, really does have the chops. He’s clearly the talent in this duo. I also find it strange how the singer is at pains to mention being a ballerina in every interview they give. Very odd. Overall the lyrics are trite, the vocals are basic, but I will say the arrangements have some potential. Just.