Don't Be Afraid to Be Weird: An Interview with Grant Harold

Grant Harold is a wondrously prolific composer residing in our hometown of Portland, Oregon. With a breadth of impressive work under his belt, including scores for Apple, Nike and NBCUniversal, we can’t help but wonder what the secret to his success is. Luckily, Harold teamed up with  filmmaker, Keith Fenter, to share the creative process behind his latest project, Radar Flora. The film uncovers the story behind each song off the EP and observes Harold in his element, drawing inspiration from his surroundings.

We chatted with Harold about the making of the film, writing alone and keeping things weird. Check out the interview and a short film below.

Marmoset: “Radar Flora” is your artist's name, but also the name of the short film about the creative process behind your latest EP. Was this process different than how you normally compose or get inspired for other projects?

Grant Harold: Yeah. So I was given quite a bit of time at the very beginning to come up with 20 or 30 short ideas. It was [Marmoset Original Music Producer] Katy Davidson who kind of spearheaded it. We had coffee and talked about how she appreciated how I use real instruments and stuff, at least trying to get the actual mix to have a little bit of vibe...I'm also very messy with my creativity, so, she was a guiding light for me.  

She would send me a few really obscure reference tracks -- something from the ‘60s, like a YouTube video or something -- and she'd be like, "You don't need to take the melody, or the drums, or the groove, or anything. You just need to take the feeling from it." That speaks my language, completely. So yeah, that was the process. She'd send me a few ideas and then I'd create 20 or 30 ideas off of that. She gave me a chance to wander and wait for my imagination to kick in. I got to go out and spend a little time gardening, things like that, whistle into the iPhone.

How would you go from having 20 or 30 ideas to dwindling it down to one succinct piece of music?

That's the really nice thing about producers like Katy. She totally runs with me on that. Sometimes, I wonder if I'm on the verge of being too spacey. Like not being grounded enough to know what sounds good and what doesn't. Gosh, it was cool because I felt comfortable right away with Katy. She was like, "Feel free to send me the weird stuff! Don't forget about that!"

So eventually she would -- gosh, she probably spent a lot of time now that I think of it -- she would listen to every idea. And then narrow them down for me. And then pick out one that sounded the best.

So even though it was a solo project, you still had someone else to bounce the ideas off of?

Exactly. Yeah, I wish everyone had this chance. It gives me an opportunity to just jump into the unknown  and be like, "Who cares!" I can come back to everyday life at the end of the day, but I'm just going to drift off and make the weirdest stuff I can imagine.

So what inspired you to make the film to go along with this EP?

By the actual guy that filmed me, Keith Fenter. Yeah, he's crazy -- he's really laid back, really personal. You kind of forget that he's there with a camera on. He came out, his idea was to film me making music and talk about my process and stuff. So, he stayed at our house for like a week. And we went hiking together out of Bagby Hot Springs and came back. He watched me make music. It was really natural. He just kind of went from day one he was there all the way to the end.

Did it create a different vibe having somebody else in the room when you were writing? What was that dynamic like?

Oh yeah. I'm starting to develop a negative thought loop about my writing -- I really can't create if I'm not alone. It's really weird. So when Keith was over, I tried to make something in front of him. And it's kind of laughable. It's just like, "Keith, I'm sorry man.." I was like, "I'm hitting on things, you can film me doing that." And all those thing that I hit on I ended up using in my songs anyway which was cool. But the bulk of it is just being alone.

I can share a memory that I have that I always think of. It's the '80s in Portland, I'm just climbing. I think I'm like 5 years or old or something, maybe 6, climbing an evergreen tree. Getting bit by mosquitoes and jumping off the tree and then going down into this little grove and just hanging out. Just listening to the wind and talking to myself. That's like me as a composer. Totally by myself.

What are the challenges or perks that go along with having that solo mindset and always writing alone?

The challenge would definitely be that I don't get to draw on the energy of other people around me when I'm creating. I've had that maybe a couple times, but it's so rare. So I miss that. I wish I could... everyone who’s a creative or freelancer wishes they saw people more, because you kind of get stuck in the studio.

So that's a bummer. But the great thing is that eventually when the idea's crafted, I can absolutely bring other people in. And they have the freedom to go, "Hey, can I try something crazy right here?" And I'll be like, "Sure, let’s record that and see what happens." So yeah, I'd say that those rough draft moments are by myself and then I benefit from others when it becomes a full-fledged melody and stuff.

Do you ever feel like you go through times of writer's block when you’re by yourself?

Yeah. Oh geez, yeah. You know what's cool is going to that forum last night made me remember all the women in my life who have inspired me. One of them, she's like too cool almost, Kelli Schaefer. She's this crazy indie songwriter. I would say way beyond that though, like art rocker almost.

So, I was having writer's block and I met with her a few years ago. And she just said, "You know those 24 hour turn around things?" She's like, "You can't depend on those too much for your everyday stuff. You need to really get down in the dirt and write from your soul. Remember your heart.” She's like, "I don't even really write for stuff like that on purpose." She said, "My soul needs to be filled." So she totally birthed creation in me again. I was super dry and then I met with her and it boosted me.

So I think mentioning that you're struggling, and then just talking to people, sometimes changes that completely.

Yeah, definitely. Going back to places you draw inspiration from -- is it ever hard for you to draw that line between inspiration and replication?

Oh man, definitely tough to draw a line. I was talking to someone recently about that. One of his close friends could have sworn that he had written a specific song, but it just happened that he had heard that song over and over again and just played it from his heart and then recorded it. And then they had to figure out who actually wrote it.

That's so funny.

It's nuts yeah. The brain sometimes has difficulty figuring out what's unique and what's inspired. I've had questions of, "Okay, do I need to stay away from the radio?" Literally no reference tracks, just specific keywords. I feel like maybe it's healthy for artists to go out and just stay away from art for maybe a month or two. Just to find their own voice.

Totally. So, in the film there are a few illustrations that go along with the songs, which I thought was really cool. How did that collaboration process go with the illustrator and director? Did you talk to him and say, "This is what I am seeing for this scene," or were you surprised at what he came up with?

Oh, I was completely surprised. Keith kept asking me, "What do you want the direction of this to be?" I was like, "Ah Keith, I'm not that type of person, man." I'll have my own ideas with my own stuff but I know he's so super creative so I just waited. And when he sent it over I was like, "Ooh this is so cool!" It was like he must have read my mind or something.

Going off that stylistic element of the picture with the music, what was the significance of the radio?

Oh yeah! That was during my formative years. I don't even know what that word means exactly. I think it's just when you're getting your identity, maybe as a musician. When I was in my early 20's, I was shopping at the Goodwill and saw it and I was like, "Why does that look cool? What is that thing? It's a radio, I guess. Why do I need it though?"

So, I bought it and I always keep it with me when I compose and stuff. I'm not even sure why I like it. I use it as a radio too. And I play my guitar through it sometimes to get an interesting tone. So yeah, I think Keith just kind of noticed that right away -- that I always have the radio around. So he's like, "Do you mind, do you trust me with this? Can I take it around town and film it in different locations?" So he did all that. But yeah, that radio's pretty rad. I still use it.

You’ve done a lot of composing for picture -- if you could collaborate or be on a project with any director, living or dead, who would it be and why?

The only thing that pops into my head is obviously Wes Anderson...I'm a huge fan of his. I don't even know what it is about him. There's a nostalgia or something. But the other thing that popped in is... I studied art -- it was like a digital technology and culture degree. And it was crazy the videos we watched. One of them was called La Jetee. I don't speak French, I don't know if I'm pronouncing it right.

I don't know who directed it, but it was a silent film. And it's just still photography and I think there's narration and subtitles. Man, that thing popped into my head right away, too. That would be cool to score. It's like a sci-fi, post apocalyptic thing, which doesn't even fit any love of mine, any inspiration. But the actual video itself has a ton of emotional complexity.

Posted on May 17, 2017 and filed under Music.