Barry Harris – Piano Prodigy

alysiaAt the Jammin’ The Harbor concert I got the esteem privilege of meeting Barry Harris, a 17-year-old pianist from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  I was anxious to see his performance because I had heard so much about him and his success thus far; quite frankly nothing excites me more than to see a young artist blossom in their respected media.  What I saw was nothing less than amazing; Harris’ crystal clear voice and witty stage persona made him a true candidate for an exclusive interview with us.  His story and maturity will amaze you as you read his responses to our questions.  Look for Harris in the near future, as he is going to be huge.

How long have you been playing the piano? Did you take lessons or did it come naturally?
I’ve been playing the piano for fourteen years and that all started when I asked my parents for lessons. My dad showed me the notes and a couple songs. When I walked up to a Radio Shack keyboard display and gave an impromptu performance, my parents knew it was time for lessons.

Why the piano?  Was there a special connection or did you admire a certain pianist?

I grew up seeing Barry Manilow behind the piano everytime I saw him at a concert or on television. The fact that my dad also played piano was a significant influence. While professional musicianship runs in families, it really didn’t in my family; he just played for fun.

How has the piano impacted your every day life, even when your not playing?

Well, it gives me a whole different dynamic of expression compared with six strings on a guitar. It has been a defining element to my sound as an artist and to my performance on the stage. Except for rock gods like Eddie Van Halen or Slash, it’s hard to create a unique element for a guitar-playing artist.

barryandbarryWhat positives can you contribute to someone taking up an instrument?

Are you familiar with the “my parents make me sit inside on a hot summer day to practice the violin for three hours” allegory, as on the TV show King of the Hill? Well, I see taking up an instrument as just the opposite of that. It should feel like a liberation of expression rather than a prison sentence. There are many children (or parents for that matter) that do it for all the wrong reasons. As for a great positive, I can say that the skills I developed learning an instrument have wired me to be successful in a classroom setting, especially in math and reading.

Who is your biggest inspiration in music, past or present? Name a few if you need to, and why.

I’ll give you a couple of quick takes since there’s too many (about 18,000 songs on the iPod). Brian Wilson – He’s taught me everything I’ve ever known about harmony just through his records. Bob Dylan – There are songs, and then there are Bob Dylan songs. I realized music was much more than verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge. I learned from Bob Dylan that there always should be substance. Even if it feels ambiguous, I now feel inspired to create deeper meaning in everything. Barry Manilow – Any good musician appreciates his body of work. Anybody beginning to play pop is told to never start with Manilow because of his chord changes and modulations. Since he was the first artist whose work I really studied as a pop musician, my standard of music was at a much higher level earlier on.

pita_lrgYour talent surpasses your age of just seventeen, but what’s amazing are your accomplishments thus far. Please tell me about a few of your most notable accomplishments such as TV appearances, concerts, awards, etc..

I tell anybody looking to start in the music industry that it is a crap shoot. For every major credit on my resume, there are at least a hundred of dismal failures. I showed up at every audition I could find in the trade paper or online. I made the audition reel on American Idol Juniors back in 2003, which gave me a fifteen minute national spotlight. I made it on Entertainment Tonight and MTV based on that moment alone. I also made it on to America’s Most Talented Kids after months of going city-to-city to audition. Ironically, they discovered me through a video tape submission. During my season, Jordin Sparks was on the show, and she’s gone on to many big things. After that success, I took on the initiative to create a website for when people started Googling my name. After five years online, is now the fourth thing you see on Google for me.

Lately, my attention has been focused on my MySpace page. I jumped on the bandwagon and really discovered the potential of the Internet. I have 16,000 friends now and 200,000 views. From there, I’ve been able to use that as a platform for my most recent endeavor.

Do you write your own pieces, and if you do, where do you get your inspiration?

Yeah, I write much of my own material, but you won’t hear them in most of my shows. I had to face it, people just really didn’t care for the songs they didn’t know. I like to stick to most of my interpretations of other songs for the most part. However, I don’t stop writing. I have long periods where I don’t finish much of what I write or don’t record much, but I never stop. To be a writer, you have to be more perceptive than the average person. I’ve stopped in mid-conversation a few times to run for a piece of paper when I’ve inadvertently been inspired to write something. There’s really no source in particular.

l_78f87f2db2eaef82122b62c677cdeb21I know you have a CD- tell me a little bit about it. What are some of your favorite songs, and why.

I should say that that particular CD keeps evolving. I replace older tracks with newer ones as I create them. It creates a great gift for family and friends when I need to get rid of my old CDs {laughs}. Two favorites are “Handle with Care,” which was originally done by the Traveling Wilburys. I knew I had become a genuine vocalist when I was able to completely nail Roy Orbison’s solo part in that song. It is such a great song to open with. Also, I like “I Can Hear Music.” That juxtaposes elements of the Ronettes’ and The Beach Boys’ versions; the harmonies are spot-on.

Where can people purchase your CD?

At this point, the CD I sell at my shows is a compilation of tracks that I recorded for my MySpace page. But little by little, I’ve been previewing work-in-progress mixes for an actual album I have in the pipeline. It’s all original, and I plan to vary the styles from song to song. There’s a few songs partially recorded and some that I need to finish writing, but I got the main idea fleshed-out. I recorded an original song called “Can We Get It Back” at Capitol Studios last summer. To prove that stuff is coming, I put a video of the recording sessions as edited by my friend on my YouTube page. That’ll be more on a grand scale; I get it up on iTunes and everything.

Let’s get to know Barry Harris a bit better.  If you could play anywhere in front of any crowd, where and why.

Well, I’d have to say the Hollywood Bowl. It’s one of those places that have that special vibe. Funny story though, I actually have been on the stage at the Hollywood Bowl several times. Of course, it was in front of an empty sea of seats, but I know that is not far from reality.

What is your favorite type of music, and has it had any impact on your music?

I’m a big fan of classic rock. There was a time from the 1950s-1970s where everything was about pushing the boundaries of music. I’m talking about Chuck Berry, Jimi Hendrix, and others in that vein. Every artist that I listen to has a tremendous impact. My latest additions to my iPod have been the catalog of Neil Young, David Bowie, John Mellencamp, and the Grateful Dead. The next batch of songs I write will probably show a big influence from those artists. My most recent batch of songs to date reflects an influence from Bruce Springsteen, the Beach Boys, and George Michael in my opinion.

Do you do the typical teenager stuff like date, go to dances, play video games?  What’s your favorite activity?

Actually, I really don’t. I had a period when I decided that I was wasting my childhood away. I took a little break with my writing. But after time away, I realized that I missed the music. I missed recording, and I missed writing. My time is spent organizing my iTunes library and keeping up on current events. I am a big news junkie.

Where do you plan to go to college after high school?  What do you want to major in?

Well, I opted to put a big amount of effort into my school work because I felt that it would be my ticket to a good college with a good music program. In the process, I have become involved in activities; I anchor our school’s morning news program. It makes it so much more fun if you’re involved.

That said, I was admitted to the University of Southern California for the fall 2009 semester. I’ll be majoring in Popular Music Performance, which is designed to explore the fundamentals of pop music. It’s the first of its kind in the nation. This really appears to be a revolution in music education, and I’m proud to be a part of it.

What do you hope your music does for your fans, and what do you want them to get out of it?

I hope that they keep coming back because they enjoy what they hear. A big part of being an artist is building a brand with which people can identify. Certainly, if there were other people out there who are exactly who I am as an artist, they wouldn’t keep coming back for more.

What does legacy mean to you?  What do you want your legacy to be?
I know that artists come and go, but I hope to prove that I am here to stay. I want to go out and define my idea of success and make it happen on my own terms. I want people to always remember that I never compromise and I do what I love to do everyday.

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