Born c. 1970 in New York, NY. Education: Cornell University, bachelor's degree in English. Addresses: Record company--Verve Music Group, 1755 Broadway, 3rd Fl., New York, NY 10019. Booking--Monterey Peninsula Artists, 509 Hartnell St., Monterey, CA 93940. Management--Bob Andrews, Undertow Music, 4217 W. Grace St., Chicago, IL 60641. Website--Jesse Harris Official Website: http://www.jesseharrismusic.com.
Jesse Harris is a musician and songwriter who fronts Jesse Harris and The Ferdinandos, a group with several CDs to its credit. However, he is best known as the Grammy Award-winning songwriter of "Don't Know Why," recorded by Norah Jones in 2002. From this collaboration, Harris achieved recognition within the industry for his songwriting skills and became eagerly sought after for his songwriting talents.
Harris grew up in New York City, where he studied music from an early age. He studied classical piano, but while in his teens he dropped the instrument in favor of the guitar. Some of his earliest musical influences have included Bob Dylan, The Band, Joni Mitchell, and Van Morrison. After graduating from a private high school, Harris attended Cornell University, majoring in English. He counts Walt Whitman, Henry Miller and The Arabian Nights among his literary favorites, and critics have noted his literary bent. "I always wanted to be a writer," he said during a National Public Radio (NPR) interview, "but I always loved music.... When I started playing guitar, I was able to bring those two things together, which is a love of writing and a love of music."
Well before he was acknowledged for his talents as a songwriter, he performed with various musical groups, in addition to working day jobs such as typing soap opera scripts and teaching private guitar lessons. His first group was Once Blue, a duo that was signed to EMI, releasing its debut recording in 1995. A follow up project was recorded, but remained unreleased. However, nine of the album's tracks surfaced in 2003 on an EMI/Toshiba rerelease of Once Blue.
Harris was playing the East Village club The Living Room one rainy night when a Sony Publishing employee decided to duck into the Lower East Side nightclub, and Harris was subsequently signed to a recording deal. Harris used his advances to make CDs with his next group, The Ferdinandos, with whom he continues to perform and record. The group takes its name from a favorite Italian restaurant. Many of the group's musicians have backgrounds in jazz. "I tend to play with a lot of guys who also play in the downtown instrumental scene," Harris told Music Connection. "Kenny Wollesen, outside of my group, doesn't really do other vocal things. He plays with Bill Frisell and Sex Mob; so does Tony Scherr, our guitarist. For lack of a better word, they play with avant garde instrumentalists." Harris and the group recorded original material for their first three releases and stayed with independent companies for distribution. "What records originally were for was for capturing a moment," he told Paste. "Now it's about assembling a flawless product--like a soda can or something."
When performing, Harris has tried to create as much space in the room as possible. "I like space, particularly when I'm performing and the audience is talking. If I leave a lot of space it makes silence happen and gets their attention," he told Music Connection. "It has the power to draw them in." As for his approach to songwriting, Harris explained to The Philadelphia Inquirer that he doesn't edit a great deal. "I just write a lot, over and over, until I get to the version that seems to say it best."
Harris became acquainted with Norah Jones in 1998, during a cross-country road trip he was taking with a friend. They stopped in Denton, Texas, to visit friends who were in college there. Harris wound up playing with Jones, who was also a student at the school, in an impromptu jam session. After leaving, he and Jones remained in contact, meeting again when she moved to New York and began performing. Harris contributed several songs to her 2002 debut, Come Away With Me, including "Don't Know Why," "Shoot the Moon," "One Flight Down," and "I've Got to See You Again." He also played guitar with her in live performances as well as on the recording.
It was "Don't Know Why" that got the attention from fans and critics, and Harris won a Grammy Award for Song of the Year in 2002. Harris admitted that winning a Grammy against competition from the likes of heavyweights such as Bruce Springsteen was initially daunting. But, as he told Lynn Neary in the NPR interview, he finally figured, "What's one Grammy, more or less, to them?" By mid-2003 the album had sold more than 13 million copies.
The Secret Sun, the Ferdinandos' major label debut, was released in the wake of Harris's Grammy Award win, and the two personalities of Harris and Jones were inextricably entwined in the minds of music critics. Few critics outside of the New York scene were familiar with Harris apart from his work with Jones, but they gave Jesse Harris and The Ferdinandos a fair shake--even if Jones's name appeared in every review. "What do Harris's songs sound like without the sultry voice of Norah Jones? Some would say they sound better," remarked Reid Davis in Paste. "While in Jones' hands the songs are sleek, high-priced thoroughbreds, in Harris's hands the songs become favorite old mares--with less pedigree, perhaps, but eminently more approachable."
Critics praised the strength of the songwriting on The Secret Sun. "The success of these songs is their universal appeal," wrote Harry Rubenstein in the Jerusalem Post. "Most of these carefully constructed ballads would blend into a smoky East Village nightclub, and just as easily into a Nashville dive.... His songs are sketches of life, and paint a cerebral picture of young love, nostalgia and Brooklyn beaches." Other reviewers remarked that although the work is strong, it is clearly the work of an artist with a lot of potential yet to be realized. "Harris stands ready to stake his claim as a singer-songwriter with The Secret Sun," noted a reviewer on the PopMatters Music website. "The attentive listener will be rewarded by the work of a simple storyteller who uses both music and words to create songs that feel like independent film shorts. ... The roots-rock flavor of The Secret Sun is pleasantly competent and assured, but these songs never blossom beyond coffeehouse sketches of life. There are no memorable melodies or lines and with 12 tracks running at less than 42 minutes, Harris doesn't give himself time to build a good thematic head of steam." The reviewer added that the album is a "work of promise that needs a quicker, stronger follow-up."
Harris's artistry has already earned him some $2.6 million from songwriting and publishing royalties, plus additional earnings from radio airplay on the Jones album. Philadelphia Daily News reviewer Jonathan Takiff declared that Harris "could be the next David Gray or John Mayer, both like-minded romantic spirits. But then again, he may be the next Jimmy Webb--revered for his songs though not his performances."
by Linda Dailey Paulson
Jesse Harris's Career
Co-founded Once Blue, 1995; debut released, 1995; group dissolved, c. 1997; formed Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos, c. 2000; contributed songs to Norah Jones's Come Away With Me, 2002; won Grammy Award for "Don't Know Why," 2002; released The Secret Sun, 2003.
Jesse Harris's Awards
Grammy Award, Song of The Year for "Don't Know Why," 2002.
- Selected discography
- With Once Blue
- Once Blue EMI, 1995; rereleased 2003.
- With Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos
- Jesse Harris and the Ferdinandos Undertow, 1999.
- Crooked Lines 2001.
- Jesse's Box Sony/Columbia, 2002.
- Without You Bean/Undertow, 2002.
- The Secret Sun Blue Thumb, 2003.
- Daily News (New York, NY), June 20, 2003.
- Dirty Linen, October-November 2003.
- Down Beat, August 2003.
- Jerusalem Post, October 21, 2003.
- Miami Herald, May 16, 2003.
- Music Connection, June 23, 2003.
- New York Post, May 27, 2003.
- New Yorker, February 3, 2003.
- Paste, Autumn 2003.
- Philadelphia Daily News, June 23, 2003.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, May 18, 2003.
- Rolling Stone, March 6, 2003.
- "Jesse Harris & The Ferdinandos: The Secret Sun," Pop Matters Music, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/h/harrisjesse-secret.shtml (January 28, 2004).
- Jesse Harris Official Website, http://www.jesseharrismusic.com/ (April 14, 2004).
- Additional information was taken from a National Public Radio interview on Morning Edition, May 12, 2003.