Native Harrow returns with their wonderfully stylized fifth album Old Kind Of Magic (out October 28th, 2022 on Loose Music). Americana Highways sat down with Devin Tuel and Stephen Harms for this exclusive interview.
Americana Highways: Old Kind Of Magic is wonderful leap forward in the Native Harrow cannon. It really hits on a few genres while still remaining the Native Harrow that we’ve come to love. What sparked the move to the UK and how has that affected your songwriting and recording ?
DEVIN: I’ve always felt a strong pull to the countryside in England. The fresh air, the rolling green hills, the sheep… It was a daydream of mine that became a reality the more we began touring over here. Every time we said goodbye it was tough! After moving around for the better part of 10 years, we decided to try to get visas to come live and work over here. We have a bucket list of musicians and producers and creatives we’d love to collaborate with while living in the UK and our own team is mostly based in London so it just made sense. I’ve found life to be much more gentle here, I feel a happiness in me I’ve never experienced before. I feel at peace and at “home” now.
With our initial move to Brighton and with the time off the road from touring, we started building a community with local artists. We had time to immerse ourselves in this new and strange place. I took inspiration from the seaside stories we heard whispered around town, evenings out with our new friends, and the landscape from the sea. Once we settled in the Sussex countryside, the woods and hills lent the final inspiration. We built a home here, a real home for the first time, and that inspired so much in the songs and the sounds we were able to experiment with. I was fueled by love, both for my partner and my self. Love for my family and friends old and new, and by truly letting go. Finally, I was fueled by overcoming and learning to walk with grief and loss.
STEPHEN: Ah, thanks for saying that. We’ve always tried to cover a lot of ground on each of our records. We love so much music and don’t feel like we can pick one path or sound and stay put, even if that does seem to be the expectation these days. I wasn’t aware of it while we were making the record, but in beginning to talk about it, I’ve realized that we have a collection of styles and approaches that feel second-nature and a growing set of sounds and forms that we can step in to if the song calls for it. A lot of the process of making a Native Harrow record involves attempting to realize what the song itself wants, or calls for.
AH: I know that this album was recorded during the pandemic. How different was the approach to recording?
DEVIN: We felt like we had all the time in the world in some ways. For the first time in a long time I felt unwatched while I was writing and then when we were recorded we just had fun. We experimented with sounds; percussion, keys… it’s all there in the final piece. We didn’t know where the world was heading and if we’d ever tour again but we had hope and we also realized that even if we don’t ever know what’s around the corner, today we can sit down and make something for the sake of creating. To bring ourselves joy and release.
STEPHEN: We actually tracked another record during the pandemic, before the move. In October of 2020, right after Closeness came out, with no tours for the foreseeable future, we went back to Reliable Recorders in Chicago with Alex Hall and laid down a new set of songs. To me, that felt like our pandemic record. We released two of those songs last year as singles (“Do It Again” and “Turn It Around”), but the rest of that project is sitting in our vault, for now.
For Old Kind of Magic we were forced to take a completely different approach. Because we arrived in the UK just in time for the third lockdown, we didn’t have the opportunity to work in a studio. Because our first gig back, Green Man Festival, wasn’t until the middle of August, we also had more time than we’ve ever had to work on a record. So we played with sounds, we built up huge layers, we tried things and let things simmer and then tried new things. We tracked Happier Now in 3 days and Closeness in 7 days. In contrast, this record took most of a year. One approach isn’t better or worse, but the results are two totally different types of albums. One is focused and direct, the other nuanced and detailed.
AH: The album has such a great live vibe to it. What steps did you take to capture that immediateness while recording separately?
DEVIN: Some of the songs were recorded with Stephen and I sitting in our room facing each other and just doing a take and then building on it from there. The entire time we were recording we were collaborating, trying different things out. The drums, though recorded in Chicago without us, were done by Alex Hall who worked on our two previous albums and knows us so well. I think it sounds like he was right there with us the entire time. That’s his magic.
STEPHEN: That’s really nice to hear. Because it was recorded in isolation, getting the live in the room feel of the last two records was a particular challenge. On Happier Now and Closeness, we tracked as a live trio with Alex (Devin on lead vocal & acoustic or electric guitar, me on bass, and Alex on drums), then added the overdubs from there. For Old Kind of Magic, we tried several different approaches, depending on the nature of the song. About half of the songs, including “I Was Told” and “I Remember” worked best when we tracked them live as a duo (Devin on lead vocal & guitar, myself on bass). We were confident that if we really locked in as an ensemble, Alex could add drums later without too much trouble. We knew from the beginning that some of these songs wouldn’t have drums. Other songs, including “Old Kind of Magic” and “Heart of Love”, seemed better suited to a percussion track first. I set up my touring drum kit in the bedroom of our flat and tracked a scratch drum part to Devin’s vocal & guitar, then built the rest of the tracks around that. Surprisingly, Devin cut her lead vocal and electric guitar for “As It Goes” by herself, to a metronome, then we built up the layers, including the organ, bass, more guitar, and tambourines from there. Joe Harvey-Whyte added pedal steel to compliment my lap steel on “Heart of Love” and a great pad part on “I Remember.” Georgina Leach crafted a beautiful string quartet arrangement on “Long Long Road” and a nine-part string ensemble for “As It Goes.”
AH: What are your plans for the rest of 2022 moving into 2023?
DEVIN: We have an extensive UK Record Store Tour starting in London on release day (28 October), and then we’re out on the road here, Europe, and US next year! We’ll be busy, which we love. And I am sure somewhere in there we will make time to put some more songs together. We love recording so for me, I think we are always trying to get back to the studio as soon as possible.
STEPHEN: After the record store tour and a few one-off shows to close out this year, we’ll start 2023 with the AMA UK Festival in London and then we have our UK and Europe Old Kind Of Magic tours. Always more touring, more festivals.
AH: What quote or piece of advice have you gotten from someone on the road that has really stuck with you?
DEVIN: Several of our good friends that we’ve toured with and met on the road have told us to remain a duo for as long as we can. We love a full band sound and I’ve always dreamed of someday being able to our own version of a rock n’ roll circus, but in the touring climate and post pandemic world that advice has served us well. And it’s a good way of appreciating the roots of what we have together.
STEPHEN: Not so much advice, but in terms of best practices… In 2018 and 2019 we did two long tours supporting Great Lake Swimmers in the States. They carry a record player and speakers with them and have a listening party most nights after the show to share the LPs they’ve each picked up. Rather than feeling unnecessary or unwieldy to drag around the country, every green room and hotel became a familiar living room, a communal space, and the dynamic of the tours benefitted greatly from its presence.
AH: Old Kind Of Magic has a wonderfully vintage feel. What classic artists inspired your approach to this album ? What contemporary artists are you listening to right now?
DEVIN: So many! I always make playlists to inspire us when we are recording and I think they are a real rainbow tapestry of sounds and styles. A few of note for this record:
Fleetwood Mac, The Beatles, Bill Withers, Donovan, Nick Drake & Nina Simone
STEPHEN: In addition to Devin’s playlist, there’s always the old favorites. Beatles and Solo Beatles. 70s George Harrison was especially influential for me on Closeness, this time it was maybe a little Ringo and a little John. I thought a bit about what Lyndsey Buckingham might play on a couple of the guitar overdubs and was listening to and re-engaging with the bass playing of Wilton Felder, a personal hero of mine. I often find myself referencing David Gilmour, especially for slide guitar parts, and I was digging in to some Billy Preston ideas, bringing keyboards more to the foreground for this album.
DEVIN & STEPHEN: Contemporary artists we’re listening to now:
Check out the official video for “Heart Of Love” by Native Harrow: