If you're white, like Dave Matthews or John Mayer, you are considered "eclectic." You tour and build a word-of-mouth fan base with tape trading and an internet presence. When your all-important "buzz" status is established, you take a crack at the big time. Unless you're Ben Harper or Robert Randolph (who have been embraced by the predominantly white jam-band crowd), it's tougher for an "eclectic" black artist. You're called "too black" for rock, "too white" for R&B and hip-hop.
Take singer/songwriter David Ryan Harris, former front man of the Atlanta-based rock group Follow for Now. In the early 90s, the band was touted as being the next Living Colour, as if that guaranteed sales. Follow for Now broke up after releasing one album on Chrysalis in 1991. Harris then produced and played guitar on ex-Arrested Development vocalist Dionne Farris' 1995 debut, Wild Seed - Wild Flower. In 1997, Harris signed to Columbia Records' "57" imprint and released a self-titled solo album that got much critical praise but flopped with consumers. He then joined ex-Black Crowes bassist Johnny Colt and drummer Kenny Cresswell in the Brand New Immortals, which in 2001 released Tragic Show on Elektra Records. Feeling underappreciated by Elektra, the Immortals disbanded, too.
These days, Harris is hitting the road as a solo act, building an audience the best way he knows how. He plans to tour with a full band in the fall. He's also reconnecting with old pals like Mayer, who talks up Harris' music every chance he gets.
If life's really as simple as the adage "Followers follow and leaders lead," then Harris has taken the most important step. Creative Loafing spoke with him as he waited for a redeye to Los Angeles.
Creative Loafing: You're on the road again — what have you decided to do differently from the old days, if anything?
David Ryan Harris: If I learned anything from my Follow for Now days, it was that I have to remember to drink a lot of water in addition to the other adult beverages that I seem to end up drinking.
Any interest in signing with another major, or are you more committed to the touring/internet/tape trading movement?
I'm not opposed to major label-dom as long as I don't have to change what it is I do, musically speaking. I love the word-of-mouth/grassroots thing because it allows me the freedom to make decisions and act on them quickly. The majors are so big that it takes a while for ideas to be implemented and often that makes them (and you) reactionary, instead of being proactive and someone in control.
What's your creative process? Do you write on guitar? Are you one of those people who can compose anywhere?
I usually write on guitar, but I'm also one of those people who hears beats and rhythms and music everywhere, so I always try to have a little recorder with me so I can document ideas that I'll later work out on guitar or piano. Lyrics are the same. Sometimes I get a lyric idea that will give birth to a whole song, so once again I rely on my Dictaphone.
What was the reception like when you toured with John Mayer? He seems to be another skilled guitarist/vocalist/songwriter that no one knew what the hell to do with until his indie-bred fan base became enormous.
Because a lot of John's fans are familiar with the grassroots approach, through message boards and tape/MP3 trading, there was already a little familiarity. His endorsement of me has definitely been a big help as well.
So many people are fans of genres now instead of bands. So how would you describe your music to someone in a couple of words? Or is that impossible for you?
The solo acoustic shows are somewhere between Stevie Wonder and James Taylor with some Jeff Buckley thrown in.
What have you been working on lately?
I've been doing a lot of co-writing and production stuff. I co-wrote two songs with an artist named Marc Broussard that he recorded on his Island/Def Jam debut. That was a lot of fun. I also did some writing with a girl named Toby Lightman that was a lot of fun. I had a blast with John Mayer, and the other guys in his band have become lifelong friends of mine. In fact, when I tour in September, they'll be in my band.
David Ryan Harris performs at the Neighborhood Theatre with Jay Clifford on Friday. Tickets are $10.