Dhani Harrison Talks Dystopian Mood, Cultural Premonitions of Debut Solo LP
“If you want to transcend Dhani Harrison then first you have to be Dhani Harrison,” the songwriter/composer tells Rolling Stone. At age 38, after years of purposely flying just below the radar, he’s only now launching a proper solo career with IN///PARALLEL, his cinematic debut LP, out Friday.
It’s been 15 years since Harrison, the son of late former Beatle George, teamed with ELO mastermind Jeff Lynne to complete his father’s posthumous swan song, Brainwashed. But in the interim, he’s worked hard to avoid capitalizing on his lofty lineage, floating around from project to project: alt-rock act thenewno2, rock supergroup Fistful of Mercy (with Ben Harper and Joseph Arthur), and numerous film and TV scoring projects (including Amazon’s 2015 series Good Girls Revolt).
Harrison has felt most natural sidestepping the marquee treatment as a band member, sideman, collaborator – often behind the scenes. But IN///PARALLEL left him no choice but to adjust his methodology: These 10 brooding tracks unfolded patiently over a two-year span, without any deliberate effort – bits of melodies and lyrics emerging in his mental periphery, like “looking at something out the corner of your eye, and you can kind of see it.” He chiseled away at the material during his downtime from scoring work, recruiting other musicians – including violinist Davide Rossi and Jane’s Addiction drummer Stephen Perkins – to help flesh out the dynamic arrangements.
But the process was too personal for the result to be anything but a solo album. He only finished the songs after enduring an existential crisis – one catalyzed by the “anxiety” of disposable, mile-a-minute modern culture. In response, he disconnected from social media and rediscovered his love of meditation.
“I think it’s interesting how the creative process works in this universe, this life, this Earth, this plane,” he says. “If you concentrate your thoughts on one thing, it will eventually come into existence. It’s funny – was I creating [the album], or was it out there somewhere? I’m not entirely sure. But it wasn’t like a normal record that I’ve done where I wrote songs and worked on them and tweaked them. This was more like the tweaking and the work was getting them back to how it sounded in my head. When you feel something and know it’s out there somewhere, it’s quite bizarre – you’re, like, pulling it out of the cloud.”
Harrison spoke to Rolling Stone about that meditative process and detailed the unsettling subject matter – from police brutality to a mysterious missile test over L.A. – that inspired IN///PARALLEL.
This is the first album you’ve released under your real name. Do you feel like you needed to pay your dues in other projects, like film composing? Because of your lineage, people surely had pre-conceived notions about you when you first got into music.
I think with everything I’ve done, there are obviously people who accepted me from the beginning, and others have [pre-conceived] opinions about people who come from musical backgrounds. It’s funny because if you’re in Hollywood and you’re an actor and your father is a famous actor, then everyone seems to be fine with that and support you. You’re Michael Douglas! But in the music industry, it’s kind of different, especially with the association with the Beatles, obviously. A lot of people, especially when I was growing up, wanted to build me up and knock me down, which is kind of the traditional English thing to do [laughs].
But I veered in another direction, being a part of so many different things in technology, music. I think composing is natural for me because it’s very close to design, which is where I came from. I’ve always been a big fan of movies, and I’ve always made very cinematic music, so it was kind of a no-brainer that I should be more of a composer than a traditional touring musician. Composing is a good way to get other projects. I’m not on a major label – I am now, but I license my stuff to distributors, so I own everything. And it’s not like I’m getting a 360 deal and tour support and all that stuff. You have to be clever about it. I do a lot of different things, and I miss making records when I’m composing. You make a record, you don’t get notes.
You compared the songwriting process for IN///PARALLEL to pulling the music from clouds. Were these songs more or less fully fleshed out before you even started to record them?
I was making a soundtrack for a film called Seattle Road, which is one of my favorite bits of composing that I did with Paul Hicks. I was listening to that back, and as I was working on the album, it was quite hypnotic. It’s quite an avant-garde film, so there are a lot of trippy sequences. I kind of started hearing what is now the record. And it didn’t go away. Sometimes you hear something and put it in a scene, and then it’s done. But some of the sounds and effects I was building on really resonated with me, and I could kind of hear it. … I was, like, listening to something that didn’t exist. For about a year, I only listened to those 20 demos in my car. I was creating a feedback loop in my head of this record. Little bits would add every day, and there were very few things changed by the end. It’s like you have this piece of stone, and inside there’s this sculpture – it’s already there, you just haven’t knocked away the other bits yet.
This is your first “solo album,” but there are guests here and there. At what point in the process did the songs leave your head and become more collaborative?
I’m used to writing with people. I did a lot of it really by myself but collaborated with my musical buddies on little bits here and there. … I was so far down the line, and they just wanted to get involved with what was happening. I don’t know that I’ll make another record like it, but it was a very interesting procedure, and it was very appropriate. And I think that’s why I decided to make it a Dhani Harrison record instead of a newno2 record or anything else: After all these years of making records and scoring, this one came to me naturally in my head, almost fully formed. I felt like this is my time for a solo record. It was my friends who told me, “You should put this out under your name.” I’d never done that before. I’ve been composing under my name, so it kind of got me over that whole thing – making music under different names just so I could get the time to develop as an artist and a human.
There’s a dystopian feel to the album, both sonically and lyrically, but the album is basically a reflection of real things happening in the world. Did you have any of those thoughts while you were putting these songs together?
I couldn’t have put it better myself. I’ve never had anything happen to me like this in my life. I wrote these songs, and so many things I wrote in the music have come true since I wrote the songs – things I didn’t even understand when I was writing, like “fake news.” There’s the song “#WaronFalse,” which I wrote like two years ago. It’s more about being really discriminate about your idols and celebrities: What do people stand for? Money, fame? It was the idea of just putting the hashtag #WoF next to anything we thought was bullshit. And then that term became an actual thing. When I saw it, I was almost upset – I thought people were going to think it was something I saw on the news. Things like having a song called “Summertime Police” and watching police become militarized all across America. It’s not as if I see it happening, but the same cloud that the record was pulled from is the cloud of humanity that hadn’t happened yet, I guess. You can tune into stuff. I didn’t need to imagine a movie that wasn’t made to score. I just needed to put the sounds down to what I was experiencing in my own life.
If you’re walking around on this planet, it’s pretty mad. There are so many things we take of granted, just about the nature of night and day, space, the globe, whatever. Nobody has the full picture, and we all need to realize there’s an incredible amount about this world and being a human that no one really understands. It’s a perceptual thing. I just started to enjoy it. I don’t need to make stuff up. There’s enough weird stuff that I see now and think, “Wow, did anyone else see that?” Living in the year 2017 is pretty mental: They make the weather. Everyone’s got Wi-Fi and cell phones. It’s a different world than it was. And people don’t even realize. They’re just kind of happy, walking around, looking at the crazy technocracy we live in. It’s pretty mad. It’s definitely dystopian enough to write a song about.
A lot of this album is centered around themes of modern disconnect. One line that seems to exemplify a lot of these ideas is on “All About Waiting”: “Even though you’re present in the moment, doesn’t mean that you’re not sad and lonely.”
Everyone’s more disconnected than we’ve ever been before. That was another moment where I pulled something out of the cloud before it happened. I called the last newno2 record The Fear of Missing Out, and I didn’t realize how that was going to be [a concept] that controls our lives in the future. It was that whole Instagram oneupmanship. News stories have a life of, what, a day now? The feed is just continuous. People just forget about stuff because the next day there’s something equally bad or terrible or fearful or wonderful that you’re missing out on. It’s just a constant distraction for your mind, and people aren’t being humans because they’re just too deep in the distraction.
Meditation has always been hugely important in your family, most famously for your father. Do you meditate to help you block out some of that noise?
That’s another thing about concentration. When I was a kid, I used to meditate, but I went through a really interesting period in my life. When I started making this record about two-and-a-half years ago, I kept having to put it on hold because I was always doing a score and then coming back to it with a new piece, something I learned from the score. These pieces kept going together, but I didn’t have the tools to make the record. It was like a video game where you had to unlock different levels. To get to the next thing, you had to beat a challenge or something, which is like these things I was doing in my daily life. They felt like little tasks that would unlock things.
I was trying to work out who I was. … Then where does that take you? Just getting really back into doing a lot of mediation every day and spending a lot of time in nature, trying to quiet my mind from all the junk that was in it. And in those quiet moments, you can hear the record. You can hear every record. It’s like going to the gym to get strong. You have to go to the mental gym and spiritual gym to get strong in yourself. Then you can lift more mental and spiritual weight. It’s a workout. And it takes years in practice. You have to practice meditation every day. That was kind of the number one thing I was doing when I was making this record. I was spending a lot of time by myself in contemplation. Usually by the time you get to the end of making a record, you hate it. But I still love this record. And I feel like a lot of the stories in it have yet to play out.
You mentioned that you needed to detox from the clutter of everyday life. What in particular pushed you to that point?
It was the combination of a lot of things. I just ended up spending a lot of time in L.A. by myself. I live on the west side, and there’s not that many people I know on that side of town. Most of my friends live on the other side of town. So I just spent a lot of time with my dogs, my little huskies, watching sci-fi shows and Game of Thrones – living in my head, really. It was just me and these little creatures in my house who didn’t talk to me but they’re so expressive and so close with me mentally. I just took a step back from my life for a while and went back into the chrysalis and came out and felt a lot better.
I had some bad programming in my thought processes, and I think that came a lot from being in the world and social media. … You have to digitally detox and put your phone away. It creates attention deficit and anxiety. I was suffering from anxiety and other digital ailments. And I thought, “This is stupid.” I was like 37 at the time, and I thought, “By the time I’m 40, I’ve got to get back to [having] a spiritually clean mind and healthy physically and mentally.” I think the whole record is about that stuff: self-care and self-compassion. It’s hard to do that stuff – it’s hard because you have to be brutal to yourself to give yourself compassion. You have to make difficult decisions in your life and be kind to yourself continuously. Being a human is a full-time job.
It’s easy to just end up totally dedicated to your phone and Netflix or Apple TV. There’s an endless supply of stuff. I’ve watched nearly the entirety of Netflix [laughs]. And I thought, “You’ve got to spend more time mediating on the very essence of why we’re here, where we’re going, and who are we.”
It doesn’t seem like you have much of a social-media presence at all.
I think I had a newno2 Twitter, but I don’t think I’ve ever once sent a tweet out. My Twitter is connected to my Facebook, so I imagined one of those things merged into one account. I’m not one for Tiwtter. I’ve always felt like Twitter is just your Facebook status, and I got bored with updating my Facebook status like 10 years ago: “I’m moving my right foot, moving my left foot. Still here.” And now that Twitter is becoming the source of all information globally, I don’t think that much power should be given to a line of text.
“Never Know” exemplifies a lot of what you achieved sonically on this album, with that combination of acoustic and synthetic, the electronics mixed with Middle Eastern strings. How did that come about?
I think it was one of the first tracks I had. I was in the studio with a dear, dear friend – Davide Rossi, an Italian string arranger and composer. He’s done a lot of great stuff for Coldplay. He was in the Verve and in Goldfrapp for 10 years. He’s been on hiatus from this band that he has with the other half of the Verve called Black Submarine. I was very into them. He kind of moved to L.A. and was working out of my studio. I said, “I really love the sound of what you’re doing – would you want to just play some stuff with me?” He came, and I had that whole thing fleshed out apart from that heavy distorted violin that starts the record. There’s not any guitar apart form that little acoustic at the end. It’s like grunge and bass – somewhere between grunge and drum ‘n’ bass. We had a great time playing together. We’d done several movies and TV shows doing string arrangements with him as well. I felt like that song was very influenced by Black Submarine, but then it took an Indian-classical turn at the end. I love the feel of that groove at the end. It’s a very dark song. But like a lot of these songs, there are two sides of everything: There’s a lot of hope and beauty in nature and in the self. I was trying to not focus too much on the negative.
Also, in that song as well, I was playing a lot with John Bates from Big Black Delta. He’s a real genius. All of these guys ended up working out of my studio. I had Camila Grey, who was living down the street from me. Everyone was kind of around in the studio. John Bates, Davide Rossi, Stephen Perkins – these are people I was playing with in different bands all over the place. All of the bands crossed over into this wonderful thing. I missed singing with people, too. John Bates and I had done a show in New York where we did some Everly Brothers covers. We had these great two-part harmonies we were working on together. I just wanted to take all the good bits of all the things my friends had influenced me with and get it onto one record. I already had this record. After I’d spend a year on my lonely space mission by myself, I got back to Earth with all these great people.
“Poseidon (Keep Me Safe)” is another highlight – the lyrics seem to be alluding to some very menacing events.
There was a strange missile test over L.A. one night, and everyone came in the next day going, “Did you see that? There was this UFO or something.” They shut down LAX for a couple hours, and there was footage all over the Internet of this big, blue comet missile. Nobody was really admitting what it was, and then they finally admitted, “Oh yeah, we did close down LAX and were doing tests, and we’ll be doing them every Saturday afternoon and evening for the next month.” So for the next month, they did these missile tests right over the ocean and LAX, and I could see the trails. I sent a lot of the pictures to my friends in England and said, “Do you know what this is? This isn’t a UFO – is it some kind of weather device?” It’s funny because I was trying to use the word “Poseidon” and “trident,” but I couldn’t get them into a song. It was like, “Well, Poseidon/The trident.” I was looking at Poseidon the god, and he’s also the god of earthquakes: the earthshaker. Then my friend brought up a bunch of pictures. The fact that I was trying to get the word “trident” in a song, then my friend called and said, “Oh, that’s a trident.” I thought, “Wow, that’s weird.” There were a lot of a coincidences and weird stuff on this record.
So I thought that was quite appropriate being in L.A. and seeing all these missile tests. So the next day, I wrote some lyrics and went into the studio, and that whole thing was this little instrumental bit I’d had for ages. But until that missile went up in the air, I didn’t know what the song was. Everyone was pretty scared. There were all these weird weather patterns happening in L.A., and it was during the drought, which was weird. I guess that’s why it sounds so spooky – it’s just reflecting [the environment]. It was very weird – there were people who looked like they were acting, like a Blair Witch thing. The next day, there were people walking through the parking lot freaking out over this missile. “Oh, my god, it’s a UFO!” It was so fake, but it was real what was happening, though it also looked so staged. It was so confusing, like, “What’s actually going on here?” Everyone can see this – it’s not as if millions of people can’t see what’s going on. Turned out to be some military testing or something, but that was a weird week.
You also wrote a song called “Admiral of Upside Down” before Stranger Things ingrained “the Upside Down” into the pop-culture landscape.
That was another one of the weird ones where I saw the trailer and thought, “Oh, wow, everything’s upside down.” And then I wrote “All About Waiting,” and I saw the trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Rey says, “I know all about waiting.” I was like, “That’s weird.” I had a lot of those things happen with this record, and that’s great because it manes those references become a part of anything. It’s just funny when you write it before it happens. I must have just been in the right place in synchronizing with whatever’s going on. I guess I got a good story out of it. And I think that’s an important thing for a record – you want to have a story arc. … You’re only as good as your stories.
“Admiral of Upside Down” is about an about experience I had where no one was around, like 28 Days Later or something. Like, “What’s going on?” I was thinking kind of like Time Bandits, where everything’s upside down and they all fall into the sky, and everything turns over, goes inverted, upside down, and they’re all wearing black suits, and then they fall out of the sky in white suits and they’re in the Titanic. The bizarro world.
It’s funny, by disconnecting and unplugging yourself from other elements of culture, you sort of tapped into –
The next two years of culture! [Laughs] It’s funny, isn’t it? I think it was the meditation. There was a period where I was really meditating a lot, and there were a lot of ideas coming into my head. Then you see it somewhere else and go, “Wow, that’s weird.” What’s the expression? “Knock on the sky and listen to the sound.”
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