Songwriter Interviews

Dhani Harrison

by Roger Catlin

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On Tom Petty, being an honorary Heartbreaker/Wilbury, and releasing his first solo album at 39.



From seeing it happen way too often, the publicist for Dhani Harrison asks not to start right out with questions about his Beatle dad - and that we shy away from the overused headline "Here Comes the Son."

Harrison the Younger may be able to hold his own on guitar - most vividly amid Tom Petty and Prince on an oft-seen Rock and Roll Hall of Fame video of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." And he might be a spitting image of his dad, who died 16 years ago. But the only son of Harrison, now 39, has also made his name in soundtrack composition for films like Beautiful Creatures and Learning to Drive and for TV series that include Good Girls Revolt, The Divide, Outsiders and White Famous.

An honorary member of the Traveling Wilburys (where his pseudonym was Ayrton Wilbury), he's released three albums as part of the band thenewno2 and joined Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur in the supergroup Fistful of Mercy. But only this fall he released his first solo album, In///Parallel, on BMG. With rock, electronica, Middle Eastern and symphonic Western orchestral influences, and a smokily familiar voice, it has lyrics that seem especially prescient to these dark political times.

Our interview with Harrison was delayed a week in part by further sadness: the death of Tom Petty on October 2, of which he said, "I definitely haven't felt any loss like this since my dad." Connected by phone to a beach in California, he spoke about the right time for a solo release, how people might have been anticipating failure from a Beatle son, the secret to happiness, and Petty.
Roger Catlin (Songfacts): Where do you make your home now?

Dhani Harrison: Los Angeles, on the West Side. I have my studio there. My mother is from LA, so, I still have my grandma here - most of my living family is here. I get back to England as much as I can. It's beautiful out there. I really want to move back there. But, for now, working in the film industry in Hollywood and everything, you've got to be on call.

Songfacts: What made you decide to put out your first solo album now, after doing work with your bands and doing soundtrack work?

Harrison: I feel like no one was expecting it. It was a good, confusing tactic.

I think people had given up on me making a solo record. I wanted to make something that was really true to who I was, and it took a long time to develop that. With a composing career, it gave me so much more - I don't know whether to say it's confidence or skill, but I wasn't able to make the record I wanted to make before.

And after years of doing different, more classically-trained stuff, just being more in the sphere of soundtracks with all of the wonderful instruments that are used on them, I felt like now I've developed myself as an artist. I've got everything I needed to do under my belt, so there's no question.

If I had done this when I was 20 in England, a lot of people would have been dying to see me fail. That's all gone now. I've had my musical career and now I'm doing a solo record. I really did just engineer and record and mix this whole thing myself, so by the end of it, my friends were like, There's no point of this being a newno2 record, you should just go to the next level - do it as a Dhani Harrison record.

Songfacts: I'm surprised to hear you say people were looking for you to fail as a 20-year-old. Did you really feel that way?

Harrison: When you come from a family like mine, maybe not in America, maybe more in England, you don't really get enough chance to develop as an artist. That's why I live out here. That's why I really enjoy being out here. There's a very can-do attitude, and if you come from a family with a musical background, people want to see you succeed.

In England, there's a different attitude, and the press out there are very different. They're brutally mean actually. They've been very nice this time, but I've seen them ruin a lot of people's careers. I wanted a chance to develop as an artist first before being judged by that monster.

Songfacts: Were the songs composed over a longer period of time or are they fairly recent?

Harrison: From about the time when we did the film Learning to Drive [2014] with Ben Kingsley, I was working with some of Ravi Shankar's students and I had done some sketches. I was trying to learn this new software that I was using to compose with and I sat down and the first thing that came out, I thought, Oh, that's good, and that went to the side pile. Every time I did something that was a test for a movie, or something I felt like doing myself, I would put it in this I'm going to save that for later pile.

There were certain things that I'd done in certain movies that didn't get a chance to go as far with that piece of music because it was a short queue. Definitely from the film Seattle Road [2016] as well - that album soundtrack is like the little brother to In///Parallel. They definitely worked as a set together.

Songfacts: So these would be instrumental things, awaiting lyrics?

Harrison: These are all instrumentals. There were maybe two songs on the soundtrack. That's not really what I'm referring to. I'm referring more to the sounds that are on the record, like the tone of the record.

Songfacts: How do you incorporate lyrics to them?

Harrison: I write constantly. Every time anything bothers me or upsets me.

It's funny, I usually try to fit words onto things that I've got. This record I kind of sat down and wrote stuff the opposite way. It's a different process. Everything happens differently, but there's so much.

It was just ramping up. The world in 2015, 2016 and 2017 have been crazy years, as everyone knows. A lot of the stuff was just about to happen. I could see where it was going and I'd try to write it down so we could get a song out, so that it's relevant, so that the art that we're doing is reflecting its time.

Songfacts: Yeah, songs like "#War on False" to "Summertime Police" sound like they're predicting.

Harrison: Definitely. I'd gone to a place where I had just been meditating for like two years and really spending a lot of time in nature by myself. That's why the artwork on the album reflects that.

I just started like, stream-of-consciousness writing and a lot of stuff that I wrote then came to pass. It's weird, you can tune yourself in like a radio. I don't pretend to understand how I did it, but even now, the other day I was doing an interview and someone said that song is this that happened. And I went, "Wow, I never even saw that." I'm still learning the coincidences on this record that are still happening.

Songfacts: It sounds like a lot of lyrics could have been written this week or last week.

Harrison: Yeah, exactly. But you know how long it takes to make a record, right? So this stuff was written two years, or a a year and a half ago, and refined, but there were no last-minute changes that I put into the record. There was definitely nothing last week. But it seems like all of these things are now happening.

Songfacts: There's a darkness and warning to some of the things. Is there a message you are trying to impart?

Harrison: Yeah, I think so. It's like: Who's programming your brain? Either you are programming it, or everyone else is programming it. Human beings are really magical things, so make sure you're in charge of you. And you have to start by learning who you are, where do you come from, where are you going, and then, very much thinking about self-healing and self-compassion.

To be in this world right now is a very hard place, and it's hard in different ways for everyone. Just the sheer amount of information is enough to drive you mad.

So just to have a time in the day, say, in the morning, where you meditate before you look at your Instagram and your newsfeed and all of that shit, is important. Just try to program your brain in the right way so you can set your day off on the frequency that you want to be on.

And then that resonates outward, and it helps other people love themselves and heal. You can have a really big effect on people just by taking care of your own self. It sounds selfish, but actually, you can't help anyone until you help yourself.

It's like that thing they say on airplanes: "In the event of an emergency, fit your own oxygen mask before assisting others." We've gotten to that point in this society now where we have to be careful what we're doing - what we're putting into our bodies, what we're letting into our consciousness.

Songfacts: Are you going to be touring with this album?

Harrison: Yeah, we're touring the East Coast, we're touring the West Coast, we're going to go to Europe. We're looking at another tour for June and July next year, which may be happening, a full two-month American festival.

We played Panorama Festival, out on Randall's Island, which was great, because it was like the East Coast Coachella. That went real well. The shows have been going really well. We did Jimmy Kimmel two nights ago, so it's all kicking off.

We've got a great tour with Mereki and Summer Moon. We all sort of do double duty in each other's bands, so it's like a big family. People from all of those bands were on the record, apart from Nikolai [Fraiture, of Summer Moon and The Strokes]. He wasn't on the record.

We all hang out, we all produce stuff for each other. I was playing in Big Black Delta as the guitar player. I was playing with Mereki as guitar player. My keyboard player Josh [Giroux], he was playing with Gary Numan and he was playing with Mereki. Noah [Harmon of Airborne Toxic Event], my guitar player, was playing in Mereki's band and now he's in Summer Moon. Cami [Camila Grey of Uh Huh Her] in Big Black Delta was also playing in Summer Moon, but instead of being a singer, she's a keyboard player. Stephen Perkins from Jane's Addiction was my drummer for thenewno2 and now he's the new drummer for Summer Moon. Blas Perez and Chris Hornbook [of Senses Fail] from Big Black Delta are now my drums and bass in Dahni Harrison Band. And Mereki and Cami are both on my record, so they come and sing with me.

So yeah, the only person we're missing on this tour is Jonathan Bates from Big Black Delta, which is a shame, because he's in the middle of doing another record. But he's all over the record. I have him to thank for a lot of it, because I kind of stole his band.

Songfacts: So you're calling it the Dhani Harrison Band?

Harrison: No, it's just at the moment, the act is Dhani Harrison. The band has got a few names, but they're kind of like joke working names. We haven't quite worked out the name of the band yet. I guess it's thenewno2, but I didn't want to make it thenewno2 again.

Songfacts: Because you wanted to set this apart a bit?

Harrison: Yeah. It's weird. You're flying into customs and they go, what band are you in? And you say Dhani Harrison, and it just doesn't sound as cool as thenewno2. We just say we're in, I don't know, just make up something...

Songfacts: When you go out on tour, do you have to put the soundtrack work on hold?

Harrison: You can never really do that. I just finished a TV show called White Famous that's out on Showtime. It's the new Californication and getting a lot of press at the moment. It's hysterical. A kind of shock comedy show set in the same universe with some of the same characters. So we just wrapped that, and we wrapped the Shepard Fairey documentary, which we did in two weeks. A lot of times you get a project very late in the day and you just block through it in a week.

I'm sure there'll be another season of White Famous, but I'm not sure what else is coming. I want to do a sci-fi film this year - that's something I've really been trying to get to do, so I've been building a lot of stuff toward that. And I know [composing partner] Paul Hicks really wanted to do a thriller film, and whenever we can fit that in we will. It's good to be busy. I'm not complaining. It's very good to have work and to be busy.

That's another reason why I do my records as well: generating awareness for our music. Because if you're just a composer stuck in a room, you're only as good as someone who's out there telling people about you, as opposed to going out and actually showing people yourself, which a lot of composers can't do because they're stuck in a room composing.

If you can go out and play something cinematic and impressive, it's a better way of showing people what you can do.

Songfacts: Does that stuff come easily to you?

Harrison: Honestly, the more you think about it, the harder it is. You have to just watch something and feel it.

I'm a really big film nerd, so I guess I've got a lot of stuff to draw from in my memory. When I grew up, my dad did all those soundtracks. It's kind of a funny thing to say, but he did. He actually did a bunch of songs for Everest, which is the first IMAX film. He did the soundtracks for Time Bandits; he worked with Michael Kamen on Lethal Weapon II. And Michael Kamen was like my godfather, so I grew up around him, watching him do everything from Brazil to Robin Hood, the Lethal Weapons, Die Hard, everything. So I always loved film composing. That's something we play every day when we're rehearsing. I'll always end up going back to the Eric Clapton Lethal Weapon soundtrack.

George Harrison became the first Beatle to release a solo album when he did the soundtrack for the 1968 film Wonderwall. Eric Clapton got into the game in 1985 when he and Michael Kamen teamed up for the soundtrack of the English TV series Edge of Darkness, leading to their work on the Lethal Weapon movies. Clapton's song "Tears In Heaven" first appeared in the 1991 movie Rush, another soundtrack he worked on.
Songfacts: What did you learn from helping put out your dad's Brainwashed album posthumously with Jeff Lynne?

Harrison: It was a very emotional process to go so soon after he passed and I feel that the energy was really with us. Jeff is so gracious and such a lovely guy. He has such an insane way of working, which is so regimented, and yet he's so relaxed.

His engineer at the time, Ryan Ulyate, he does all the Heartbreakers stuff now. He showed me ProTools. I already knew sound edit software and linear editing, but he really showed me how to get into ProTools, and then later on I really got into Logic and was able to learn the stuff. He would let me go for a day, and be like, "No, you do this one. I don't know what's going on in this track. You do this track." I'd do a track, and he'd come back and say, "Oh, this is good."

We had this thing where it's either really good or it's shit and it's not going in. We had to be very sure of what we wanted because the artist wasn't there to make the decision. If there is ever a question as to whether it should go in or not, the answer usually is no. Whenever we got something that hit, it was like, "Wow, that's definitely going in." Just from the conversations I had with my dad and the music we were making toward the end, it was really great of Jeff to let me in on that, and it gave me so much confidence.

We won a Grammy for it, and that doesn't hurt. It gave me a lot of confidence and I often wanted to work with Jeff on something that's us. It doesn't have to be so intense. I'd like to go back and do a record with Jeff.

I'm really sad I didn't get to do a record with Tom. I always wanted him to produce stuff with me and that's just a terrible, terrible loss.

Songfacts: You worked with Tom a little bit, didn't you?

Harrison: Tom and I played together hundreds of times. He let me be an honorary member of Heartbreakers, along with the Bangles, who are honorary members of the Heartbreakers, and Stevie Nicks. When Jeff would join the Heartbreakers, it was more like the Wilbury/Heartbreakers.

I'd worked on that Wilbury stuff with Jeff and played on both Wilbury records. I was there with Jeff for the making of all the Wilbury stuff, so it was quite natural for me and Jeff to augment the Heartbreakers with acoustic guitars and more harmonies. Not that they needed augmenting!

Dhani played "I Won't Back Down" with Petty and Jeff Lynne at the MusiCares gala celebrating Petty. Held on February 10, 2017, they had no trouble finding luminaries to salute Petty: Performers included Stevie Nicks, Randy Newman, Foo Fighters, Don Henley and George Strait.
Songfacts: His death was quite a shock.

Harrison: I just think back to MusiCares earlier in the year, when I got to play with him and we had such a great time. We were sharing a microphone, singing "I Won't Back Down." It doesn't get any cooler than that, to sing in the same microphone with Tom Petty while playing his song. He wasn't even singing lead on his song - Jeff was singing the song. So he was having a really good time enjoying it and playing this shit-hog guitar. Yeah, no big deal. That was a real moment.

With Tom as with Jeff, they were always so generous with how much encouragement they gave me as a musician and as a person. I can't find the words.

December 4, 2017.
Get more at dhaniharrison.com.
Further reading:
Interview with Mike Campbell
George Harrison Fact or Fiction
Photos (1,3): Josh Giroux

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Comments: 4

  • Barbara from ItalyGreat interview! Dhani is such a sweet, sensitive and talented person, really unique! We hope to see him in Europe soon
  • Dorothy Addison from Vancouver, B.c.Enjoy hearing stories about the mix of younger and 'older' musicians. Obviously they had a mentoring affect on Dhani and indeed he is very appreciative to have the opportunity to work with them.
  • Michele from Portland Oregon UsaGreat interview. Thank you
  • Fritz S. from MarylandInteresting interview, Dhani’s doing a nice job of making a music career on his own. He’s not his dad but you can sense the influence his dad had on him. For me his dad got me more interested in playing, Buddy Holly was my first influence but his dad and mates kicked it in full gear. Good health to him and his family.
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