February 22, 2013
How do you sing in harmony?
Let’s go to an authority.
Let’s ask the most prominent harmony vocalist of our time, one whose voice has blended elegantly with Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Willie Nelson, Keith Whitley, George Jones,Solomon Burke, Elvis Costello, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Roy Orbison, Mark Knopfler, Gram Parsons, Little Feat, Dan Fogelberg and three out of five ironically mustached East Nashville hipster baristas.
Let’s ask Emmylou Harris.
“I really don’t know,” says the Country Music Hall of Famer, whose latest project comes out on Tuesday: “Old Yellow Moon” is an enchanting, harmony-laden duo album with old friend Rodney Crowell.
Come now, Ms. Harris. That’s like a member of Congress not knowing how to create gridlock, or a Goo Goo Cluster not knowing how to be delicious, or Taylor Swift not knowing how to make the “Oh, my God, I’m totally shocked!” face.
“Really,” Harris swears. “I’ve never studied intervals or parts. Whatever I’ve done came from total ignorance and fearlessness. For me, it’s whatever isn’t the melody.”
Harris has been practicing vocal ignorance and fearlessness with Crowell for nearly four decades. They met in 1974, shortly after Harris heard a Crowell demo tape that included “Bluebird Wine,” which became the lead-off song on Harris’ first major label solo album, “Pieces of the Sky.” Crowell joined Harris’ Hot Band in 1975.
“Even before the Hot Band was formed, Rodney and I would sit on the floor in the house at Lania Lane (location of Coldwater Canyon estate where “Pieces of the Sky,” “Elite Hotel” and other works were produced by Harris’ then-husband, Brian Ahern). We’d sing ‘Sweet Dreams’ and lots of old country songs, and that was a big part of my education.”
Harris and Crowell bonded over The Louvin Brothers, the Everly Brothers, the harmonies ofBuck Owens and Don Rich and other classic pairings. Harris didn’t “study” the parts so much as she internalized them, and she and Crowell quickly ascertained that they created a third voice when singing together that was equally as compelling as their solo voices.
“We found our voice so many years ago,” Crowell says. “There’s a certain tone we can get together. She’s one of music’s great voices, and I’m a pretty good singer, too. You get us together, in the right key with the right melody, and we can make it sizzle. There’s that extra bit of tonality.”
Crowell says that with wonder, not braggadocio. Harmony singing is a mystery dance, and he feels lucky to have partnered with Harris. The sound they make together is unlike the sound any other duo makes.
That’s always the case with harmonies, but the trouble is that sometimes a blend — even a blend of masterful lead singers — isn’t pleasing to the ear. Please refer to Frank Sinatra’s hit-and-miss duets albums for more information. Or don’t, and just know that harmony singing is much more about chemistry than precision.
“Immediately with Rodney, that chemistry and energy was there,” Harris says. “From the beginning, it was obvious that we’d be friends and cohorts and collaborators.”
A bigger blessing
Harris and Crowell’s chemistry class is a joy to attend.
With Ahern helming the production, “Old Yellow Moon” provides resplendent versions of four Crowell songs (including a new take on “Bluebird Wine), three songs from former Hot Band member Hank DeVito and compelling music penned by Roger Miller, Patti Scialfa, Allen Reynoldsand Matraca Berg.
(By the way, dear reader, if you recognized that I have seamlessly integrated the titles of two Elvis Costello songs — “Chemistry Class” and “Mystery Dance” — into this story, you probably need to find a hobby or something.)
Crowell describes the sessions as “an honor and a privilege,” but what about the shadows cast by expectation? Folks have waited decades for a Harris/Crowell duo album.
“I didn’t hear those expectations, or feel them or see them,” Crowell says. “I love Emmy and she loves me, and Brian’s an old friend and a key ingredient to how we got started. In some ways, we were sillier when we were younger, and we took things like this for granted. This process, this day’s work, was a bigger blessing than we understood it to be when we were in our 20s.”
Right, but how’d you do it? How’s it done?
“You open your mouth and trust the song and the singer and go for it,” Harris says. “You don’t think about it.”
Which is, apparently, how you sing in harmony. You lose yourself in a moment.
“Right,” assures Crowell. “If you can get in there and do it unconsciously, chances of achieving something somewhat timeless go up exponentially.”
If all this is true — if fearless, unconscious ignorance is the key to singing in harmony — then some of us may have a new career path. Maybe you figured it was too hard, like finding a needle in a haystack, or a horse that knows arithmetic, or a dog that tells your fortune.
Turns out it’s uncomplicated. Who knew?
“I really don’t know,” says Emmylou Harris. But, really, she does.